Family Estrangement: Ways to Cope and Reconnect
Wed, April 21, 2021

Family Estrangement: Ways to Cope and Reconnect

The saying "family is forever" doesn’t apply for everyone as some families are broken in function and structure. Family estrangements are also increasing. US-based licensed therapist and coach Annie Wright has defined it clinically as the cessation or loss of a relationship that previously existed between family members, whether it be families of choice or family of origin. Family estrangement can happen between a child and a parent, child and grandparent, siblings, child and uncle or aunt, or between larger groups of people in the family setting.

The Common Family Estrangement

Some people cut ties with their family members and it can be complicated and painful. Although there are not many studies about family estrangement, partly because many people do not want to talk about not being a part of their family anymore, behavioral research and mental health platform Psychology Today recently shared that estrangement between adult children and parents is more common than what others may expect.

A survey of college and graduate students in several universities in the US found that nearly 17% of respondents experienced family estrangement from an immediate member of their family. Most of the fall out is with their father. When the researchers surveyed older adults, the results showed that 12% were estranged from their children or child and the adults were often the ones to cut ties. Only 5 to 6% of the parents estranged from their son or daughter said they initiated it.

Most Common Reasons for Parents: Objecting Their Kids’ Relationships

A common reason why parents cut off their children is that they do not approve of the relationships that their kids are having. For instance, they object to their son’s or daughter’s spouse, someone they are dating, their stepparent, or their in-laws. On the other hand, it is less common for parents to initiate ex-communication with their child just because they felt the child was thankless or selfish. These were findings from a study that involved almost 900 participants involving both adult children and their parents who experienced family estrangement.

Reasons given by adult children

On the other hand, adult children admit they cut ties with their parents because of different reasons. These include abuse (either sexual abuse in childhood, physical, or emotional abuse), continued harmful behaviors, and feeling lack of support concerning their relationships, life choices, disability status, and other important parts of their life. A participant talked about the “cumulative pain” from the past that never went away as he or she grows old and it was never discussed nor reconciled. That participant, who was unnamed, said that he or she hoped that the feelings of pain will go away but it never happened and never did the parents acknowledged or apologize for it.

But does family estrangement last forever? The answer is only a few do, especially when a daughter or mother is involved. The survey shows that only 29% of kids who cut off their moms remained estranged for a long time. A majority had cycles of reconciliation and estrangements.

Family estrangements come in eight components, including (1) communication quality, (2) physical distance, (3) communication quantity, (4) absence and presence of emotion, (5) negative and positive affect, (6) role reciprocity, (7) desire to be a family and reconciliation, and (8) taking legal action.

Role reciprocity has to do with whether the adult children feel that they and their parents are adhering to the expected parent and child roles, such as providing financial and social support. Estrangement happens when children feel they did not assume the role of a child and parents fail to fulfill their associated duties.

How to Cope With Family Estrangement

To cope with family estrangement, family members should accept that there are things they cannot control and be open to the idea of second chances or reconnection although it may be impossible to think of at first. Psychology Today went on to say that it takes two to tango, which means that one person alone cannot always manage the outcome.

Making peace with oneself will also help, especially if their heart aches strongly. This part requires acknowledging that they may be responsible for the family rupture and having honest compassion with oneself and the person lost.

Pepperdine University faculty member Susan Finley, EdD likewise shared via mental health site Rtor the important considerations for family reconnection. One is to prioritize safety. Confrontation will not be a healthy option if the physical safety of one party is at risk. Having a nonbiased mediator will also help facilitate a healthy discussion. Both parties should prepare emotionally and mentally for rejections as not every person may be willing to reconcile. Next, reflect the source of conflict as it often involves both parties. Forgiveness is also a part of the process but this should be embraced in a healthy way that requires inner work on both. Dr. Finley added that there is no easy way to forgive the other person or an ideal way to move forward after the hurt. Yet, families can decide to reconnect and hope for a better future.

Broken Families: Statistics

Approximately 42 to 45% of (first) marriages in the US alone end in divorce and this does not even include legal separations. Washington-based law firm McKinley Irvin detailed the facts as follows: 60% of second marriages and 73% of third marriages end in divorce. Divorce data by age group likewise shows that 27.6% of women and 11.7% of men under 20 years old are getting divorced, as well as those 20 to 24 years old (36.6% women, 38.8% men), 25 to 29 years old (16.4% women, 22.3% men), 30 to 34 years old (8.5% women, 11.6% men), and 35 to 39 years old (5.1% women, 6.5% men). The law firm also gathered data from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

The number of single-parent families in Canada has also been increasing. Database company Statista shows that there were 1.47 million single-parent families in 2006, 1.48 million in 2007, 1.51 million in 2008, 1.54 million in 2009, 1.56 million in 2010, 1.6 million from 2011 to 2014, 1.62 million in 2015, 1.63 million from 2016 to 2017, and 1.64 million in 2018.

Being part of a family, tribe, or clan is comforting if there is acceptance, protection, respect, and understanding among members. Intimacy will be preserved and estrangement can be avoided when members are encouraged and allowed to have minds of their own while still maintaining connections with each other.