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Family estrangement

Family estrangement (or, simply, estrangement) is the loss of a previously existing relationship between family members, through physical and/or emotional distancing, often to the extent that there is little or no communication between the individuals involved for a prolonged period. It may result either from direct interactions between those affected - including traumatic experiences of family violence, abuse, neglect, parental misbehavior such as repetitive explosive outbursts or intense marital conflict, attachment disorders, differing values and beliefs, disappointment, major life events or change, or poor communication - or from the involvement or interference of a third party.[1][2][3] The estrangement is often unwanted, or considered unsatisfactory, by at least one party involved.[1]

In one typical scenario, an adult child ceases contact with his or her parents, and possibly other family members, as the child transitions into adulthood. In another scenario, an intolerant parent casts out an adult child because of life choices. In both cases, the family estrangement may create an intergenerational rift that can persist for years and replicate itself in subsequent generations.[citation needed]



Family estrangements are broken relationships between parents, grandparents, siblings and children. Although a family estrangement can begin at any stage of life, it often begins during late adolescence or early adulthood. Characteristics of estrangement may include a lack of empathy in one or more of the parties involved. This can result in heightened levels of stress in all parties, although in the case of an abusive relationship the victim may feel a sense of relief once the source of stress has been removed.

A significant proportion of estrangements involve a third party,[1] such as a member of the extended family or the adult child's spouse. In some cases, the third party provides emotional support to the individual initiating the estrangement, providing the estranger with an alternate social support system and thus enabling the deepening of the estrangement. In other instances, the third party - either deliberately or not consciously - is actually the sole or primary cause of two family members becoming estranged. Parental alienation can be regarded as a particularly distinctive and widespread form of third-party estrangement whereby, typically, one parent involved in a family separation psychologically manipulates a child into rejecting the other parent and/or other family members.

The rejected individual, or estrangee, may or may not try a number of strategies to repair the rift. In some cases, taking responsibility and making amends for harsh words or difficult circumstances may improve the relationship. However, if the estrangement is the result of a behavioural pattern (such as a personality disorder) rather than a sequence of unfortunate life events, it is doubtful that the relationship will survive in any meaningful form.

In some cases, the initiator of the estrangement stipulates boundaries in order to maintain limited contact (and therefore limit emotional damage) with the person they see as a potential abuser. In other cases, the initiator is unable or unwilling to consider any type of reconciliation.[4]

Health implicationsEdit

Those rejected by one or more family members in a family estrangement experience a decline in psychological and physical health.[5][6] The social rejection in family estrangement is the equivalent of ostracism which undermines four fundamental human needs: the need to belong, the need for control in social situations, the need to maintain high levels of self-esteem, and the need to have a sense of meaningful existence.[7] The rejected parties suffer adverse psychological consequences such as loneliness, low self-esteem, aggression, and depression.[8]

Family estrangement activates the grief response. However, the rejected family may not achieve the final grief stage of acceptance, given that the social death of the relationship is potentially reversible. The prolonged suffering of the rejected party, together with a perceived or real stigma of having been rejected by a family member, results in isolation and behavioral changes in the rejected party.[9][10]


The separation of young adults from their families of origin in order to create families of their own is part of normal human development. According to Bowen theory, this separation can be achieved in a healthy and gradual manner that preserves the intergenerational relationships of the family of origin, providing both the new family and family of origin with a sense of continuity and support. Alternately, a schism can differentiate these life stages. Familial estrangement falls into the second category.

The United States has the highest rating on individualism on the Hofestede Cultural Dimensions Model.[11][12] The emphasis on the individual over a collective family unit is regarded as contributing to estrangement, as well as a rationale for estrangement.[13] In individualistic cultures, the estranger typically justifies the estrangement in relation to emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Estrangers who have suffered abuse often receive emotional support/validation as it can be easier for them to articulate and get others to understand their experience. For some victims of psychological or emotional abuse the damage has been done over a long period of time by a characteristic pattern of subtle deniable abuse. For these people, validation may never appear in any meaningful form unless it is professional help. The estranged may also become less socially accepted because of lowered self-regulation, a reaction to the social rejection.[14]

Contributing causesEdit

Although working through stressful issues with communication, consideration and compassion can be a healthy coping mechanism, the effort can be demanding.

Value conflictEdit

A family member’s sexual orientation, choice of spouse, or change in religion may challenge the social values of a family. Life choices regarding education, profession, and geography are other potentially emotionally charged topics that reflect social values. Working through feelings to reach an understanding that accommodates the individual within the family unit challenges each individual’s sense of identity as part of a society. When one or more family members rank their expectations and emotions as more important than those of another family member, then the conversation becomes a zero-sum game. This is known as a social trap in social psychology, a situation where the long-term consequences of decisions result in a cumulative loss to all parties. In these instances, estrangement is more likely than accommodation. When a parent or grandparent initiates the cut-off, the estrangement may manifest as disownment.


The parents' divorce is what Joshua Coleman, a psychologist specializing in estrangement, refers to as "a very, very common cause of estrangement."[15] The children may feel they need to choose sides, especially when parental alienation comes into play. Differing parenting styles may increase the rift. A parent's remarriage may also cause tension.


Domestic violence is a common trigger for estrangement.

Substance abuseEdit

Substance and alcohol abuse, on the part of either the estranger or the estranged, are common causes of family tension and the resulting separation. The most highly predictive domain of social estrangement for both alcohol and drug dependency is homelessness.[16]

Mental illnessEdit

Mental illness on the part of either the estranger or the estranged is also a common cause of family tension and estrangement.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is correlated with family estrangement. Both the PTSD sufferer's symptoms and the family members' failure to be sufficiently supportive can contribute to the estrangement. Studies on soldiers with PTSD have concluded that families with a PTSD patient require more support to facilitate healing and prevent estrangement.[17]

Personality disordersEdit

Personality disorders, particularly the cluster B personality disorders (antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder), cause significant interpersonal conflicts. Sufferers typically have volatile relationships and may be both the estranger and the estranged multiple times throughout their lives.


From disputes over inheritances to perceived insults in public settings, a sense of betrayal can weaken the trust bonds of a family. According to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, trust is the foundation of any relationship.


There are underlying psychological factors that explain family estrangement beyond the surface rationale of the scenario.

Environment of evolutionary adaptednessEdit

Humans have evolved to adapt to separation from their families and social units by bonding with new social units. This psychology was particularly valuable to the young women in hunter-gatherer societies who were kidnapped as brides. Being able to rapidly bond with a new family unit was a matter of survival for the captives, and consequently has become a universal human trait. This trait is exploited by various organizations seeking to indoctrinate new recruits and in so doing replace the family as the key support system for the individual. The ability to essentially change an entire mindset in response to environmental changes suggests that exposure to other persons and a different environment restructure the brain and thinking patterns of individuals. Patty Hearst is an example of a modern woman who experienced capture-bonding; attachment theorist John Bowlby coined the term Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) to explain the psychology that creates this type of behavioral change.[18]

Bowen theoryEdit

In Bowen family systems theory, emotional cutoff and avoidance are unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with anxiety and stress. These coping mechanisms represent emotional and intellectual systems that are fused rather than differentiated, so that emotions overwhelm objective thought process and govern behavior.[19] Poor differentiation is associated with continued relationship problems in life. Poor differentiation is also contagious in that it may induce stress in others. High differentiation is associated with emotional interdependence and multi-generational cooperation. Triangulation is when a third party enters the dynamic. A third party, however, may increase tension and trigger a rebellion.

Victim - persecutor - rescuerEdit

The Karpman drama triangle is precipitated by a familial estrangement that involves a third party. A family member plays the victim role, casting the family as the persecutor. The new romantic interest, close friend or another family, for psychological motivations of their own, come to the victim's rescue and in so doing validates the dynamic for the victim. A sensationalistic 2014 family estrangement involving a cheerleader in New Jersey is an example of this dynamic—another family not only provided refuge to the 18-year-old high school student who was battling her parents over curfew, drinking and her boyfriend, but also funded a lawsuit on the teen's behalf seeking child support and other material considerations from the parents. The family reunited only after international media attention that, although split, in the majority harshly rejected the teen's complaints.

Substitute familiesEdit

Both the estranger and the estranged may use social and work relationships to create substitute families.[20] Support groups and other highly emotional organizations also provide a conduit for emotional energy from unresolved issues with parents, siblings and other family members.[21] Becoming passionate about a cause or hobby is another coping mechanism, termed sublimation in psychiatry.

Other considerationsEdit

Social workers who work with the elderly population are at the forefront of a new fallout from the family estrangement. Non-supportive or absent family members during someone's end-of-life acutely increase the pain and stress of the final days.[2] Additional stress in financial, medical and welfare sectors requires a re-evaluation of the social policy regarding family expectations versus governmental support systems.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Agllias, Kylie (2017). Family estrangement : a matter of perspective. London: Routledge. ISBN 9781472458612. OCLC 937999129. 
  2. ^ a b Agllias, Kylie. (Sep 2013). Family Estrangement. Encyclopedia of Social Work. Subject: Couples and Families, Aging and Older Adults, Children and Adolescents. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.013.919
  3. ^ Carr, Holman, Abetz, Kellas, Vagnoni. (2015). Giving Voice to the Silence of Family Estrangement: Comparing Reasons of Estranged Parents and Adult Children in a Nonmatched Sample doi:10.1080/15267431.2015.1013106
  4. ^ Joshua Coleman’s website.
  5. ^ Agllias, K. (2011a). Every family: Intergenerational estrangement between older parents and their adult-children. (Doctoral dissertation, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Newcastle, Callaghan).
  6. ^ McKnight, A. S. (2003). The impact of cutoff in families raising adolescents. In P. Titelman (Ed.), Emotional cutoff: Bowen family systems theory perspectives (pp. 273–284). New York, NY: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.
  7. ^ Williams, Kipling D. (2002). Ostracism: the power of silence. New York: Guilford. ISBN 1-57230-831-1
  8. ^ McDougall, P., Hymel, S., Vaillancourt, T., & Mercer, L. (2001). The consequences of childhood rejection. In M. R. Leary (Ed.), Interpersonal rejection. (pp. 213-247). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  9. ^ Boss, P. (2006). Loss, trauma and resilience: Therapeutic work with ambiguous loss. New York NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  10. ^ Walter, C.A. & McCoyd, J.L.M. (2009). Grief and loss across the lifespan: A biopsyosocial perspective. New York, NY: Springer.
  11. ^ Geert Hofstede’s academic website.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Coleman, Joshua. (25 Aug 2010). How parents can start to reconcile with estranged kids. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
  14. ^ Richman, Laura Smart. Leary, Mark R. (2009) Reactions to discrimination, stigmatization, ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection: A multimotive model. Psychology Review. 116(2). DOI: 10.1037/a0015250
  15. ^ Flam, Lisa (April 1, 2013), "Parental estrangement: A 'silent epidemic' of cut-off kids",, retrieved February 23, 2015 
  16. ^ Sanna J. Thompson, Lynn Rew, Amanda Barczyk, Pepper McCoy, and Ada Mi-Sedhi. (October 2009) Social Estrangement: Factors Associated with Alcohol or Drug Dependency among Homeless, Street-Involved Young Adults. Journal of Drug Issues 39: 905-929, doi:10.1177/002204260903900407
  17. ^ Ray, Susan L, Vanstone, Meredith. "The impact of PTSD on veterans' family relationships: An interpretive phenomenological inquiry. 2009 Jun;46(6):838-47. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2009.01.002.
  18. ^ Henson, Keith (Summer 2006). "Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War". Mankind Quarterly (The Council for Social and Economic Studies) 46 (4).[permanent dead link]
  19. ^ Skowron, Elizabeth A.; Dendy, Anna K. (2004). "Differentiation of Self and Attachment in Adulthood: Relational Correlates of Effortful Control". Contemporary Family Therapy. 26: 3. 
  20. ^ The Bowen Center
  21. ^ McKnight, A. S. (2003). The impact of cutoff in families raising adolescents. In P. Titelman (Ed.), Emotional cutoff: Bowen family systems theory perspectives. New York, NY: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

External linksEdit