New research on estrangement between parents and adult children

If you’ve ever wondered what the research says about parent-adult child estrangement, you’ll be interested to learn about a study published recently in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

This U.S.-based study is important for unwillingly estranged parents because of the large number of respondents (more than 8,500 adult children), the length of observation (24 years), and the fact that the focus is on parents and adult children, rather than family relationships in general.

Adult-child respondents in the study were at least 15 to start, and no older than 46 when the study ended. The research confirmed some findings from earlier studies and also revealed new information.

The most salient finding from parents’ point of view may be this:

“Despite moderate estrangement events, estrangement appears to be a relatively unstable family dynamic, with most people ending estrangement in subsequent waves.”

Reczek, Stacey & Thomeer 2022

As we always say in the Reconnection Club: Most estrangements are temporary!

Read on for more findings from this substantial new study.

Gender, Race & Identity Factors

Adult children were less likely to become estranged from mothers than fathers.

Sons in this study were more likely than daughters to become estranged from mothers, while daughters were more likely than sons to become estranged from fathers.

White people were more likely to become estranged from parents than Black and Latine people; however, the latter groups saw more estrangement from fathers than the White group.

LGBTQ+ adult children were more likely to become estranged, and to live farther away, from parents. They were markedly more likely to be estranged from fathers than mothers, which the researchers suggested may have been due to greater homophobia in fathers.

Timing and Course of Estrangement

Six percent of respondents (about 1 in 15) reported at least one estrangement from their mothers after age 15; more than a quarter of respondents (26%) had at least one period of estrangement from their fathers.

Although other studies have shown that many life transitions can be triggers, the transition from childhood to young adulthood was particularly volatile, and many of the estrangements observed in this study occurred during that period.

According to this paper, “most people who reported estrangement experienced only one acute period of estrangement (across a 10-year period), suggesting that estrangement is both temporary and not repeated.” (Other studies have uncovered on-again-off-again patterns in some parent-adult child estrangement, but the significance of this apparent discrepancy isn’t yet clear.)

Most estrangements (81.3%) came to an end, consistent with other research suggesting that estrangement is usually temporary.

Remember that no study can tell you what will happen in your particular case. The best thing you can do as a parent is to use the time during estrangement wisely, preparing for the next phase of your relationship. Your relationship with yourself is the foundation of your connection to your child.

There’s a lot more to unpack in this new study. Here’s a link to where you can download the report and read it yourself:

Parent–adult child estrangement in the United States by gender, race/ethnicity, and sexuality

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