Estrangement: What The Research Says

ResearchWhen it comes to estrangement between parents and adult children, there’s stuff we know, and stuff we don’t know.

For instance, parents often ask, “Why do these kids think it’s okay to treat their parents this way?”

Well, we don’t know the answer to that one. But there is some evidence to suggest that maybe they don’t think it’s okay. See below for more.

I was pleased recently to find an up-to-date review of the research on parent/adult child estrangement. It seems the topic is finally starting to receive the attention it deserves.

So in this month’s news, I’ll share some highlights from the research on this painful and frustrating problem.

What We Know (Sort Of)

Research on estrangement between parents and adult children has only just begun.

There’s virtually no information from the 20th century, and it’s really only in the last 5-10 years that the topic’s been garnering interest from Academia.

That’s why it’s impossible to say whether parent/adult child estrangement is a new phenomenon, or even whether it’s on the rise. We just don’t have the data.

Here’s what we have learned so far.

Experts consider the mother-daughter bond to be the strongest in the family. However, an estimated 10% of mothers are estranged from at least one of their adult children — often a daughter.

The numbers are still sketchy. But we know estrangement from Mom is not rare.

Fathers may be more likely to be estranged from adult children than mothers. Unfortunately, so far most research subjects in this area have been women. More information about fathers’ and sons’ experiences of estrangement is desperately needed.

Divorce

Divorce is often a contributing factor in estrangement. However, it’s the quality and nature of the divorce that influences the quality and nature of family relationships over time. That is, divorce in and of itself is not necessarily a risk factor for later estrangement.

Divorced adult children as a group have less frequent contact with their parents than their never-married siblings do.

Children of divorce are less likely than their parents to report divorce as a major contributing factor in the estrangement.

Estrangement can be inherited, with relatives becoming estranged from family members they’ve never met, or with whom they have no conflict.

Adult children who reported feeling close to a parent during adolescence were less likely to become estranged later on. High conflict with a parent during adolescence is a risk factor for estrangement.

Estrangement from parents may be more common among communities that are marginalized or stigmatized, such as the LGBT community.

Having a small family, or having strained or non-existent ties with extended family, may support estranging behavior. That is, a smaller family network makes it easier to maintain estrangement.

When it comes to attribution, parents are more likely to blame external circumstances — such as divorce or third-party interference — for the estrangement than are children. Adult children are far more likely to identify the “personal, negative characteristics” of their parents as the cause(s) of estrangement.

Major factors that appear to contribute to estrangement include the following:

  • Feeling a lack of support, acceptance, and/or love from the estranged family member
  • Feeling like their parent or child’s behavior has been unacceptable or toxic in the past and/or present
  • Choosing one relationship over another
  • Having different values from one another

Just about anything you can think of that might stress or damage a relationship can also contribute to estrangement.

Some contributing factors mentioned in the literature are:

  • Physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse and/or neglect,
  • Poor parenting and betrayal
  • Traumas surrounding infertility, miscarriages and stillbirths,
  • Parental incarceration
  • Drug abuse
  • Disagreements, romantic relationships, politics, homophobia
  • Issues relating to money, inheritance, or business

Also, physical or mental illness of a family member can put extra stress on family relationships.

Factors contributing to estrangement are unlikely to exist in isolation. I.e., it’s not just one incident or factor that triggers estrangement.

Adult children feel pressured by family, friends, and society to reconcile. They often report feeling uncertain about their decision. This leads many to fall into an “on again, off again” pattern of communication with parents.

Adult children experience stigma and isolation, as well as feelings of loss, when they distance themselves voluntarily from parents. When they choose to disclose the estrangement to others in their social circle, they feel mostly unsupported.

 

* Source: Blake, L. Parents and Children Who Are Estranged in Adulthood: A Review and Discussion of the Literature. Journal of Family Theory & Review 9 (December 2017): 521-536.

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