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Study Identifies 8 Components of Family Estrangements

A new study identifies why and how adult children break off from their parents.

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Family is forever, the saying goes. Sadly, this isn’t true for everyone. Family estrangements are on the rise — according to one study, they may be as common as divorce. It’s painful and alienating for those involved, and the holiday season can be a particularly difficult time for those who are not in contact with family members.

What do family estrangements entail? A recent study by Kristina Scharp of Utah State University sought to better understand how these breakdowns happen. Family estrangements occur when at least one family member begins distancing themselves from another because of longstanding negativity in the relationship. This involves reducing social interactions and interdependence.

Though it is putatively understood that parents love their children unconditionally, anecdotal and empirical evidence has found that this isn’t always the case, thus explaining why adult children may opt to decrease or cease contact with one or both parents. Studies reveal that the main reasons adult children seek an estrangement from a parent are abuse, bad parenting, betrayal, mental illness, unsupportive behavior, toxicity, and drug and alcohol abuse. And while the experiences that drive these individuals to distance themselves are painful, the estrangement process in and of itself is also traumatic.

Parent-child estrangements are markedly different than other relationship dissolutions, Scharp contends. While both involve the desire of one person to distance themselves from the other, family relationships are thought of as nonvoluntary. It’s assumed that, be it good or bad, the bond between parents and children can't be broken, in contrast to friends and romantic partners. Thus, when a parent or child begins to break away from the other, it can leave both parties feeling unprepared. This breakdown also lacks structure, unlike a divorce, which has a clearer legal recourse. Moreover, and in contrast to other relationships that follow a more predictable course toward a breakup or a divorce, parent-child estrangements often happen in fits and starts over stretches of time. And for those involved, their grief often goes unrecognized.

Adult children usually find little if any support from others in their social network, which includes immediate and extended family as well as friends. Instead, they often come up against those who fail to understand their predicament or refuse to consider their perspective. Others may even take it upon themselves to try to get the parties to reconcile, without regard to why the breakdown happened in the first place. Unsurprisingly, studies show that estrangements are associated with later physical and emotional problems.

In light of these factors, Scharp argues that clarifying the estrangement process can help clinicians diagnose estrangement and identify where support may be needed, help individuals who are undertaking such a distance recognize and give voice to their experience, and educate individuals who are in a position to offer support to those in the estrangement process.

To sharpen our understanding of the estrangement process from the perspective of adult children, Scharp recruited participants who were estranged from one or both parents, or who had distanced themselves because of ongoing negativity in the relationship. They were then asked to "think of themselves as an author of a novel and share their estrangement story." They were also instructed: "As you tell your story, please stop at the beginning of each chapter and let’s come up with a word or phrase to represent that chapter. Then you can write your words and phrases — or anything else — on this piece of paper so we can chart your journey." They could also elect to draw a storyboard of their experience of breaking away from their parent(s).

Scharp then examined and coded participants' narratives. From their stories, she identified eight components of family estrangements:

1. Communication Quality. This refers to the reduction of meaningful contact. It includes limiting the breadth and depth of information discussed, and "de-identifying" with a parent. As one participant reflected, “When I talked to them, it was only about certain topics.”

2. Communication Quantity. This entails reducing the amount of contact between members. To achieve this, many adult children simply declared the relationship over with no recourse to strike a compromise or discuss the matter further. Some participants were less extreme, opting to communicate their dissatisfaction with the relationship or tapering communication with their parents.

One participant recalled, “I really didn’t answer phone calls for a long while. I would get regular, almost daily or weekly phone calls from my mom. I didn’t answer them, because I knew — I had caller ID before I had a cell phone — and I’d just be like, 'OK, it’s my mom, don’t need to answer it; don’t need to.'”

3. Physical Distance. To create greater physical distance, family members must both move away (e.g., move out of shared home, move to a different region, etc.) and stay away (e.g., forgo holiday visits and events involving the family member, etc.). For some adult children, this resulted in living with the other parent, in cases of divorce.

In many senses, however, leaving the area was far easier than staying away. Typically, adult children found themselves creating and enforcing boundaries, like making it hard for their parents to track them down or not visiting at holiday time. As a participant explained, “When we want to get together for holidays, I’ll just come up with, Oh sorry, I’ve already gotten this planned, or whatever.”

4. Presence/Absence of Emotion. This refers to the “quantity of emotion” adult children had for their parents. Adult children reported that as time passed, their feelings for their parents steadily diminished. This was often the result of not experiencing or perceiving love from one’s parent. As one participant put it, “I don’t have any feelings, really one way or the other, for my father. So there were no feelings there to deal with. So the emotions were less.”

5. Positive/Negative Affect. Adult children also had to manage the valence of their emotion — that is, whether the feelings they had for their parent were good or bad. The majority of participants did not feel positively about their parent. But sometimes the emotional void was replaced with a negative emotion. As one person said, “In some cases that absence can be replaced by negative feeling, negative sentiment. Sometimes hatred. Definitely.” Adult children felt that inflating their negative feelings was necessary because it helped them to achieve and maintain distance from their parent.

6. Reconciliation and the Desire to Be a Family. Participants differed as to whether they wanted to let their parents be a part of their families. While some participants wanted to reconnect, others resolutely didn’t want their parent to be regarded as family. This meant finding ways to sidestep interactions with their parent, and even bluntly refusing overtures to reconnect, regardless of what others thought of their decision.

In response to a less than sensitive reaction to their situations, one participant stated, "When I get that reaction, that sort of surprise or judgmental reaction, like, 'You can’t say that about your mom,' I say, 'Let me tell you what I went through so you can understand why this person is not my mom, and I don’t have to respect her and love her like that.'”

7. Role Reciprocity. This has to do with whether or not adult children felt that they and their parents adhered to expected child/parent roles, like providing social and financial support. Adult children relayed that they didn’t assume the role of child, and that their parents failed to fulfill their roles and associated duties. As one participant recalled, “I would never ever ask him for advice, I would never ever ever ask him for anything. He doesn’t have anything for me.”

8. Taking Legal Action. Adult children sometimes had to resort to the legal system to negate, neutralize, or dissolve their relationship with one or both parents. In so doing, they were able to reduce interdependence through a range of legal means. While some changed their durable power of attorney, others opted for legal emancipation. One participant recounted, “When I turned 18, maybe a week after that, Mom knew I wanted to change my name, and she gave me $114, took me to the courthouse, and I changed my name, and I took her last name. And that was awesome.”


“You’re Not Welcome Here”: A Grounded Theory of Family Distancing. June 2017. Communication Research. DOI