What Is Family Estrangement?

Pensive man looking out window

Wavebreakmedia / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is Family Estrangement?

Family estrangement happens when contact is cut off between family members. It can last for long periods of time or go through cycles where there is intermittent communication and reconciliation. Often, apathy or antagonism are the driving factors for the distance. Family estrangement can occur between parents and their children, siblings, or other relatives.

Signs of Estrangement

There are several factors that create estrangement between family members. A 2017 study of 52 adult children who were separating from their parents noted eight main factors in their estrangement.

Communication Quantity and Quality

Two signs of estrangement involve communication quantity and quality. A lack of communication could look like a complete lack of communication, frequently but not always ignoring a family member's attempts to reach you, or solely communicating through a third party. If and when you do touch base with your estranged family member, you avoid discussing topics that are significant to your life.

Physical Distance

Estrangement can also be facilitated by intentionally putting physical distance between yourself and a family member. Maybe one of you moved out of a previously shared home, or you decided to move to another place on the map entirely. You may no longer share holidays or major events.

Presence/Absence of Emotion

There is a wide range of emotions involved in estrangement. Stand Alone, a United Kingdom-based charity supporting people who are estranged, notes that one day you may feel lonely and another relieved to have cut contact. At the same time, you might start to lack a feeling of any connection at all to the person from whom you are estranged.

Positive/Negative Affect

For some adult children estranged from their parents, there is not only an absence of positive sentiment but also extreme negative feelings of dislike.

Reconciliation and the Desire to Be a Family

A willingness or refusal to reconcile is a polarizing part of estrangement. Some families have a desire to reconnect. Others have accepted their separation as permanent.

Role Reciprocity

When a parent-child relationship differs from what you traditionally expect, it can leave you feeling like your needs are not being met and lead to distance.

Taking Legal Action

Estrangement is also present in certain legal proceedings, such as the emancipation of a child or a transfer of the power of attorney.

Causes

Why do relationships between adult children and their parents break down? It depends on which group you ask.

In 2015, more than 800 people contributed to a report titled "Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood," a joint product of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge (U.K.) and Stand Alone.

The group participating was about half British, with the remainder coming from the United States and other countries. It was diversified in indicators such as age, marital status, religious affiliation, and level of education. The respondents were, however, 89% female and 88% white.

The survey found that adult children estranged from their parents reported four issues that affected their relationships.

  • Clashes based on personalities or value systems
  • Differing expectations about family roles
  • Emotional abuse
  • Neglect

Parents estranged from their children cited three causes that were common to both sons and daughters: differing expectations about family roles, divorce-related issues, and a traumatic event.

Impact of Estrangement

Family members who are estranged have varying experiences. Some may feel free or at peace, while others may feel isolated and aggravated. These emotions can be fleeting or persistent. Therapy could be a beneficial route for those who are struggling with an estrangement.

Holidays can be particularly challenging if you no longer have a place to celebrate them or are experiencing the absence of a family member. Estrangement can affect your social life. For example, you may be uncomfortable talking about your family life with friends or coworkers. Their mention of children or grandchildren could stir up memories or difficult feelings.

Statistics

The more than 800-person, 2015 "Hidden Voices" study provided various statistics to paint an overall view of family estrangement. It cited 455 participants as estranged from a mother and 350 as estranged from a father. Participants who were estranged from both totaled 277.

Additionally, "Hidden Voices" noted 152 people were estranged from a daughter and 138 were estranged from one or more sons. There were 361 participants estranged from one or more sisters and 362 people estranged from one or more brothers.

Another 2015 study, "Family Estrangement: Establishing a Prevalence Rate," noted that out of its 154 participants, 43.5% experienced estrangement. Of the people involved, the study cited 14.8% as estranged from their grandfather 14.8% and 3.7% as estranged from their grandmother.

Gender Differences

In "Hidden Voices," more respondents reported being estranged from mothers than from fathers or from both parents. More parents reported being estranged from daughters than from sons. Interestingly, however, estrangement from male family members tended to be longer lasting than estrangement from females.

People estranged from their mothers also cited mental health problems, while those estranged from fathers cited a traumatic family event.

Parents estranged from daughters also reported mental health problems and emotional abuse, whereas those estranged from sons reported issues relating to marriage and in-laws.

Among the 800-plus participants in the "Hidden Voices" report, estrangement from fathers averaged 7.9 years, whereas estrangement from mothers averaged 5.5 years. Parents reported estrangements from sons lasting an average of 5.2 years, versus 3.8 years for daughters.

Relationship breakdowns were more likely to be intermittent with female relatives than with male relatives. When participants were asked about relationships in which they cycled in and out of estrangement, only 29% of those reporting on relationships with mothers said there had been no cycles, meaning an unbroken history of estrangement, while 21% reported five or more cycles.

For those reporting on relationships with fathers, 36% reported no cycles, and only 16% said there had been five or more cycles. A similar pattern was observed with daughters and sons.

Among those reporting estrangement from daughters, 37% reported no cycling in and out of the relationship. On the other extreme, 20% reported five or more cycles. Among those reporting estrangement from sons, 41% reported no cycles, and only 11% reported five or more cycles.

Why Are There Gender Differences?

The "Hidden Voices" findings are consistent with research about woman-to-woman conflict. Of course, there are individual differences that are involved with estrangement. But the possibility of gender variations may be related to conflict-resolution styles.

In a conflict, males tend to employ a "fight or flight" strategy, and family conflict often results in the "flight" option, meaning that males often withdraw from the conflict. Because men may refuse to engage, the estrangement tends to be long-lasting and intractable.

Women under pressure, on the other hand, may more often have a "tend and befriend" pattern. They may deal with stress by seeking closeness with others. So if they forsake a relationship with a relative, they may feel a lot of pressure to re-establish the relationship.

Differences Between Generations

Adult children are more likely to initiate a break of contact with their parents and be less open to reconciliation. "Hidden Voices" shared that 50% of children estranged from a parent say that they cut off contact. Only 5–6% of those estranged from a son or daughter say that they made the move.

Views of Parents Versus Children

"Family Estrangement" studied the different reasons why parents may cut off from their children and vice versa. It reported that parents stopped communicating with their children because of relationships outside of the family as well as situational or family stressors. For children, a parent's lack of support, toxic behavior, or inability to accept them were the main reasons for estrangement.

When discussing generational differences in reasons for estrangement, it's also worth exploring the concept of family circles.

Parents' bonds with their children are commonly the strongest they will ever experience, and many times parental bonds prove to be stronger than attachments to partners or spouses.

Children, on the other hand, while likely to have strong bonds with their parents, may themselves become parents, and their bonds with their children may supplant those with their parents.

For many parents, their children are in their primary circle. But when adult children have children of their own, their parents may be relegated to a secondary circle.

In a sense, the parent's loss is objectively greater. Estrangement from adult children usually means a loss of contact with grandchildren, too. Alienation from grandchildren brings its own emotional toll.

What You Can Do

According to the research, adult children may often find it more difficult or impossible to reconcile with their parents, but they are still usually willing to give their parents another chance. It's up to estranged parents, who are more open to reconciliation, to make those chances count.

When questioned about what they wanted from their parents in "Hidden Voices," adult children said they wanted relationships that are:

  • Closer
  • More positive
  • More loving

In addition, adult children wished their mothers would be less critical and judgmental; they wanted their mothers to acknowledge when they have engaged in hurtful behavior. Adult children also wished that their fathers would take more interest in their lives. They wanted them to stand up to other family members, including their spouses or partners.

If you'd like to try and move forward in your relationships, keep these tips in mind.

  • Parents/grandparents should try to provide emotional support, reduce drama, and be less critical.
  • Parents should strive to get along with their child's partner and also with their in-laws.

A Word From Verywell

Family estrangement can feel very personal and painful. It may be hard to understand for others who are not in such a situation. Individual or family therapy could be helpful to sort out feelings or make the best of an estrangement scenario.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Pscyhological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology. 2020.

  2. Scharp K. "You're not welcome here": A grounded theory of family distancing. Communication Research. 2019 June;46(4):427–455. doi.org/10.1177/0093650217715542

  3. Stand Alone. Family Estrangement: Advice and Information for Adult Children. 2015

  4. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research, Stand Alone. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. 2015.

  5. Conti R. Family estrangement: Establishing a prevalence rate. Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science. 2015 December;3(2):28-35. doi:10.15640/jpbs.v3n2a4

  6. Turton S, Campbell C. Tend and befriend versus fight or flight: Gender differences in behavioral response to stress among university students. J Appl Biobehav Res. 2005;10(4):209-232. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9861.2005.tb00013.x