Parental Estrangement: Can the Family Heal After Adult Children Divorce Their Parents?Reading Time: 8 minutes
Most people understand what it’s like to have difficult, uncomfortable, or stressful family dynamics. Plenty of young adult children find spending time with parents or other family members draining and emotional. In these situations, they often try to maintain connection with their families while creating space. But in other cases, adult children end up disowning parents and other family members, sometimes referred to as parental estrangement.
Parental estrangement occurs for all kinds of reasons. It’s rarely an easy choice to make. Experiences like enduring abuse or other trauma at the hands of a parent can make “divorcing your parents” as adults the safest and healthiest decision. But other cases aren’t so clear cut.
An adult child’s safety, health, and well-being should always be prioritized. But there are ways to prevent or repair unwanted estrangement. With intentionality, mutual effort, and support, parental estrangement doesn’t have to be a life sentence.
- Parental estrangement is the physical and emotional separation of a family unit.
- Parental estrangement can be reconciled if all parties are open and willing to work honestly and authentically to repair the damage.
- Whether or not reconciliation is possible, mental health treatment helps individuals and families receive the support and care they need to navigate and process family wounds.
- Treatment at Newport Institute can support young adults and families experiencing family estrangement or concerned about the potential for family estrangement.
What Is Parental Estrangement?
Parental estrangement is physical and emotional distancing from a parent. It often, but not always, is the result of a conscious choice by an adult child.
Reasons for parental estrangement can range from differences in values to childhood abuse. In many circumstances, a young adult child makes the decision to separate from a parent. But in some cases, something else can cause the rift. A divorce, for instance, can get messy and end up with family members taking sides.
What other reasons might justify parental estrangement? Can it be prevented before it occurs? And once parents have been cut out from an adult child’s life, is it possible to make amends and repair family rifts?
How Long Does Parental Estrangement Last?
In general, there are no specific time criteria or “rules” around estrangement. Some estranged adult children attempt to regularly reconcile with their parents, which may form a cycle of estrangement.
Others may cut off contact for years or decades. And still others may be estranged for a while and eventually repair the relationship.
The Mental Health Impact of Disowning Parents
Western culture emphasizes individualism to an extreme. But it also emphasizes the importance of the nuclear family. An adult child estrangement can cause self-judgment, shame, grief, anger, and other difficult emotions. That’s true even when divorcing your parents is the healthiest choice for an adult child.
Moreover, family estrangement can emphasize any existing mental health issues that might have catalyzed the rupture. An adult child’s emotional wounds may stem from physical abuse, a parenting style that didn’t work well for the child, or a parent’s rejection of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Hence, whatever the family estrangement causes, treatment with mental health professionals can be incredibly beneficial.
How Common Is Parental Estrangement?
Family estrangement is common. In a national large-scale survey, 27 percent of American adults reported cutting off contact with a family member. And 1 in 10 reported they’d cut off contact with either a parent or a child. Here are some additional statistics on estrangement from a recent study in which adult children were surveyed about their relationships with their parents:
- 6 percent of adults in the study reported estrangement from their mothers
- 26 percent of adults in the study reported estrangement from their fathers
- Average age of first maternal estrangement: 26
- Average age of first paternal estrangement: 23
- Women were 22 percent more likely to experience paternal estrangement than men.
- LGBTQ respondents were more likely to be estranged from their fathers than non-LGBTQ respondents.
The researchers also found differences across race. Black respondents, for example, were much less likely to experience maternal estrangement than white or Latinx respondents. They also experienced paternal estrangement at a rate of over three times that of white respondents.
What Causes Parental Estrangement?
The reasons for parental estrangement tend to vary according to who’s being asked. Estranged parents may blame their spouse or the adult child’s spouse for an estrangement. Or they may say they simply don’t know why their estranged adult children have rejected them. However, from the adult child’s point of view, parental alienation is often due to a parent being emotionally abusive, overly critical, lacking empathy, or consistently overstepping boundaries.
In many cases, adult children cut off their parents because of early childhood experiences involving trauma, attachment wounds, miscommunication, or unhealthy dynamics. These experiences are often cumulative and can end in a “straw that broke the camel’s back” moment where the adult child decides they’ve had enough.
Whatever the case may be, it’s likely that there will be disagreements and miscommunication when it comes to the reasons for the rift. This can cause even more tension among the family members involved. Individual and family therapy can help parents and adult children better understand each other’s perspectives, motivations, and needs.
Common Family Estrangement Causes
Family estrangement is sometimes the result of one significant family conflict. But often it’s an accumulation of family conflict that eventually leads to parental alienation. While the reasons for parental estrangement are varied and individual, here are some of the common causes.
Parental narcissism is characterized by a caretaker’s intense and excessive entitlement, superiority, selfishness, and lack of empathy for others. A narcissistic parent tries to control or manipulate their adult child’s life. They tend to see their child as an extension of themselves. Therefore, they feel threatened by a grown child’s independence and autonomy. A narcissistic family member will go to great lengths to keep their child under their control and focused on them rather than living their own life.
Trying to purposely control, belittle, or manipulate an adult child are examples of emotional abuse. But even though such behaviors often feel harmful and traumatizing, divorcing a parent is rarely an easy or simple decision. If an adult-parent estrangement occurs as a result of narcissistic behaviors, young adults may experience grief, anger, sorrow, and guilt. But they may also feel a sense of freedom, relief, and even joy.
The term “toxic behavior” has been used widely in recent years to describe people who disagree with someone else, or to characterize unresolved tension or arguing in a relationship. This usage waters down the true meaning of toxic behavior. Labeling significant family conflict “toxic” can result in writing off certain family members without trying to understand deeper underlying issue.
However, actual toxic behavior on the part of parents can be a reason for parental estrangement. Many adult children divorce their parents over behaviors such as a lack of empathy, refusal to respect boundaries, gaslighting, and overt criticism.
Mental Health Issues
Mental health issues experienced by the parent or adult child—or both—can lead to family estrangement. Such issues may include generational trauma, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder.
When parents have mental health issues and children are forced to assume adult roles too early, the result can be PTSD or hyper-independence trauma. If adult children struggle with their mental health and parents are unable to support them in a way they accept, this can also lead to rifts in family relationships.
Adult children who experienced physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse by one or both parents, or another family member, may need to cut off contact with adults who either allowed or perpetrated the abuse. In a study of family estrangement in adulthood, three-quarters of participants cited emotional abuse during childhood as a reason they cut off their mothers. And 59 percent cited abuse as a reason for cutting off their fathers.
Sometimes family estrangement is the result of an abusive relationship between an adult child and their significant other. The partner or spouse may not like the parents, or they may believe the parents don’t like them and want to break up the parent-child relationship. So they attempt to keep the adult child away from their family members.
Political clashes, different parenting styles, or mismatched definitions of roles can all result in a parent-child rift. Sometimes an adult child is frustrated by their parent’s inability to see their side of an issue, or their refusal to acknowledge their adult child’s experience. Or a parent and child might have opposing political or social beliefs that drive them apart.
Different values can lead to parents insulting or criticizing a child’s lifestyle, choices, partner, or job, for example. It can also look like a lack of interest in an adult child’s life and challenges.
While family members will rarely agree on everything, parents need to support their adult children no matter what.
Separation or divorce among parents is a surprisingly common reason for family estrangement. Divorce can lead to fractured families and the expectation that adult children will “pick sides.” It can also bring out a cruel side of a parent. They may make snide or harsh comments about the other parent. And physical distance—a parent moving away or getting remarried elsewhere—can lead to resentment and growing emotional distance.
Psychologist Joshua Coleman, author of the book Rules of Estrangement, talked about divorce as a potential family estrangement cause in an interview with Salon. He discussed different ways that divorce increases the risk of estrangement:
It can cause one parent to poison the child against the other parent. It can cause the child, independently, to blame one parent over the other. It can bring new people into the family home—step-parents, step-siblings to compete. And in a highly individualistic culture like ours, it can cause any child to see the parents more as individuals with their own relative strengths and weaknesses and less as a family unit.
Author of Rules of Estrangement
Healing from or Preventing Parental Estrangement
Parental estrangement can be incredibly painful. In some cases, as with abusive parents, it can be a healthy choice for adult children to not be in contact with a parent or multiple family members. In these cases, adult children still need and deserve access to professional mental health care. Individual therapy can help adult children navigate the emotional impact of the estrangement and heal past trauma leading to their decision.
But if all parties are interested or open, reconciliation is possible. And family therapy can help address issues before they result in estrangement. In family therapy, licensed family therapists or counselors work with individuals and family units to help facilitate connection and positive communication while repairing old and ongoing wounds.
How Family Therapy Repairs Family Relationships
Family counseling helps repair the parent-child connection to build trust and healthy dynamics. Family members work to heal or prevent estrangement by:
- Learning to communicate effectively and positively with one another
- Exploring unhealthy dynamics and finding ways to change
- Getting support in understanding family conflict
- Expressing grievances with mediation and support
- Having a space to feel heard, seen, and understood
Family-Focused Treatment at Newport Institute
Regardless of whether repair and reconciliation feel possible, treatment at Newport Institute can help young adults navigate the trauma and turmoil of family estrangement. Our treatment programs focus on building connection, repair, and safety. These are vital parts of healing trauma-related issues and are the foundations of a healthy support system for young adults.
Young adults who are estranged from their parents can process past past trauma in individual and group therapy, connect with peers who have had similar experiences, and learn ways to maintain healthy relationships with both chosen and biological family.
Young adults and families in Newport Institute treatment programs receive:
- Tools to cultivate communication, emotional connection, and respect
- Support in navigating and repairing hurts and wounds
- Problem-solving skills for dealing with personality clashes, miscommunication, mistreatment, and other difficult family issues
- Resources to build connection, self-esteem, self-worth, trust, and confidence in oneself and with others
- Connection with others who are on the same journey
Start the healing journey today: Contact us for a free mental health assessment.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the reasons for parental estrangement?
Causes of parental estrangement vary but may include emotional neglect or abuse, different values and expectations, mental health issues, lack of support, divorce, and toxic behaviors such as lack of empathy or excessive criticism.
What is parental estrangement?
Parental estrangement is the physical and emotional separation of a family unit. It’s often, but not always, a choice made by an adult child as a result of past trauma or unacceptable behaviors by one or both parents. While parental estrangement may last a lifetime, it can also go in cycles and be reconciled.
How common is parental estrangement?
Parental estrangement is quite common. In a recent national study, 6 percent of adults reported estrangement from their mothers and 26 percent reported estrangement from their fathers. Despite how common it is, people who are estranged from their parents often feel a sense of shame, guilt, and grief.
How long does parent-child estrangement usually last?
Parent-child estrangement can last a lifetime, or it may come and go. In many instances, families repair the damage to at least some degree. Research shows that 81 percent of estrangements with mothers and 69 percent of estrangements with fathers eventually end in reconciliation.
What is the root of estrangement?
Root causes of estrangement vary, but emotional wounds and trauma are often at the core of significant family conflict. Miscommunication is a common problem as well.