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Family Dynamics

Mothers of Estranged Siblings May Suffer on Mother’s Day

Mothers often ache when estranged siblings won't celebrate together.

Key points

  • Holidays present challenges for parents of estranged siblings, as they often offend one child or another by choosing where to spend the day.
  • Parents who favored one child or who didn't model communication skills may have contributed to their children's estrangement.
  • It's difficult for parents to avoid taking sides. As a consequence, estrangements often spread to other family members.

When adult children have nothing to do with each other, mothers (and fathers) don’t have the opportunity to gather with the entire family on holidays like Mother's Day. Instead, they have to choose whose house they will visit, and that often insults one child or another.

For the decades my brother and I were estranged, my mother carried a chronic sense of sadness. Here’s how she described her experience:

It was always in the back of my mind—I have a son and daughter who have nothing to do with each other. I was always thinking, "What can I do? How can we get together? How can I get my family back?" I felt hurt and embarrassed that my children didn’t have anything to do with each other. I never talked to anyone about it. I felt ashamed, so I carried the pain alone.

At times, I was furious about the situation: I would get invited to a family party that excluded one of my children. I never knew what to do. Should I attend or not? Should I insist that I will only go to an event if both my children are invited? Whatever choice I made, I was going to hurt one of my children.

One mother whose son and daughter became estranged as young adults shared similar feelings:

For me, it's like walking on broken glass—not eggshells, but on tiny chips of glass hidden in carpet fibers. They are civil to one another when the rare occasion presents itself; however, it's a bit of a relief when everyone returns home. I am disappointed that they are not the close siblings they were the first 20 years of their lives because the time will come when all they'll have of family is each other.

Source: e-katerina-bolovtsova/Pexels

Is Estrangement the Parents’ Fault?

When children become estranged, parents often feel they are responsible—that they’ve failed in some fundamental way as a parent. But that’s not necessarily the case. “We’re all human, and we have distinct personalities, and sometimes we clash,” says psychotherapist Ali-John Chaudhary. “You don’t get along with every single person in the world; it’s just unfortunate when it happens in the family unit.”

In some situations, however, parents do play some part in an estrangement. Distance between siblings may worsen into estrangement when parents don’t model effective communication skills, or if they favor one child over another. The “golden child” may become egotistical, placing his or her needs above others’ needs. “That’s where a sense of entitlement grows,” explains Chaudhary, “and favored children become hostile toward those who have different needs than their own. Parents need to teach that child that the family comes first, and individual needs come second.”

Sadly, once children become estranged, there’s not much parents can do. They may be able to insist that everyone is invited to all major family events. But, beyond that, parents are somewhat powerless, and they may find that meddling too much endangers their own relationships with their children. Things may become so polarized as to incite a familial civil war.

Estrangement often causes collateral damage by placing other family members in the impossible position of having to choose sides. Sometimes the estranged—clinging tightly to non-estranged relationships for fear of also losing them—aggressively recruit and lobby non-estranged family members to take sides by bullying, accusing, and attacking. In their desperation, the estranged may demand loyalty or threaten to end relationships with family members who refuse to take their side.

A 64-year-old woman from Manchester, England, says that family members took sides when she became estranged from her bullying brother and sister‐in‐law five years ago. Now, she says, she has become isolated from all 20 of her relatives. When she turned 60, not one of them acknowledged her birthday with a card, message, or email.

Trying to Stop Estrangement From Metastasizing to Other Family Members

Some families attempt to neutralize the situation and protect others from additional fallout by taking the opposite approach: avoiding all discussion of the cutoff, shrouding the subject in secrecy. Knowing nothing about the issues, others in the family have no idea what’s going on or why there is so much tension.

This policy may backfire, spreading the harm and causing the estranged to feel even more isolated as family members refuse to “get involved.” When the estranged do not feel seen, heard, or validated, the destruction often extends to other family members. One woman who is estranged from one of her five sisters deeply resents her father for tolerating the longstanding cutoff:

My dad texts me today to share good news about the sister I’m estranged from. My response: “Good for her, and thanks, but I’d rather not receive any info about her in the future.” Then he said, “Forget about it and be happy.”

It’s easy for my family to say, “accept it.” They aren’t the ones cut out. How can they believe I would do something to warrant this kind of treatment? How do I have a relationship with the rest of my family without feeling guilty, responsible, and like I’m a bad person? How do I get over the pain and betrayal I feel from no one defending me or seeing my side?

Ignoring the problem can destroy the equilibrium of a nuclear family. One woman who has struggled with mental illness says that her sister wants nothing to do with her and her problems. “My mother refused to take sides or discuss the situation with any of us,” she explains, “and established distinct, separate relationships with each of us. There have been no family gatherings at all for many years.”

And that, most mothers would agree, must be the very worst way to “celebrate” Mother’s Day.

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