Family estrangement

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Family estrangement is the physical and or emotional distancing between at least two family members in an arrangement which is considered unsatisfactory by at least one involved party. Family estrangements can be attributed to any of several factors within the family, such as attachment disorders, differing values and beliefs, disappointment, major life events or change, parental alienation, or poor communication.[1] In one typical scenario, an adult child shuns his or her parents and possibly other family members as the adult child transitions into adulthood. In another scenario, an intolerant parent might cast out an adult child because of life choices. In either case, the family estrangement may create an intergenerational rift that persists for decades and replicates itself in subsequent generations

Estrangement is synonymous with alienation: the replacement of love, affection, or friendliness with enmity, cruelty, or indifference.[2]


Family estrangements are broken relationships between parents, grandparents, siblings and children. In common usage, family estrangement generally refers to an alienation between good or good enough parents who fulfilled their parental responsibilities and an adolescent or adult child who shuns them, generational rifts between grandparents and their families, and siblings who do not speak. Family estrangements differ from realistic or reasonable estrangements where family life is characterized by violence or neglect and the estrangement is a reasonable act of self-protection.[3] Although a family estrangement can begin at any stage of life, it often begins during late adolescence and early adulthood. Characteristics of estrangement include a lack of empathy or warmth on the part of the individual initiating the estrangement. This pattern of behavior causes psychological pain in the rejected family and heightened levels of stress in all parties. In many cases, estrangements are also characterized by another party intruding on the family dynamic. The outsider provides emotional support to the party initiating the estrangement, providing the estranger with an alternate social support system and thus enabling the deepening of the estrangement.

Health implications[edit]

Those rejected by one or more family members in a family estrangement experience a decline in psychological and physical health.[4][5] 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 a meaningful existence.[6] The rejected parties suffer adverse psychological consequences such as loneliness, low self-esteem, aggression, and depression.[7] 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.[8][9] The rejected parties typically try a number of strategies to repair the rift. In some cases, apologies and amends for harsh words or circumstances created by divorce improves the relationship. In some cases, the initiator of the estrangement attempts to control the family with conditions for maintaining limited contact, a type of emotional blackmail which rarely if ever results in any good resolution. In other cases, the initiator is unable or unwilling to consider any type of reconciliation.[10]

The health impact on estrangers is less obvious than on their families. Avoidance and bullying are the coping mechanisms of estrangers when under stress. They react emotionally and without sufficient self-regulation. They manufacture additional stress in their lives by being perfectionists or procrastinators. Estrangers are also more likely to binge drink. Consequently, estrangers are likely to have difficulties in future intimate relations as a result of their failure to resolve their family issues in a healthy manner.[11]


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 traumatic schism can differentiate these life stages. Familial estrangement falls into the second category.

A 2010 analysis of parent and adult-child relationships in England, Germany, Israel, Norway, Spain and the United States revealed that those relationships are most disharmonious in the US.[12] The United States has the highest rating on individualism on the Hofestede Cultural Dimensions Model.[13][14] The emphasis on the individual over a collective family unit is regarded as contributing to estrangement, as well as a rationale for estrangement.[15] In individualistic cultures, the estranger typically justifies the estrangement with broad generalizations about a dysfunctional family or toxic family member. Estrangers often receive emotional support for their portrayal of themselves as victims who rescued themselves, a celebration of individualism and power. The estranged are often stigmatized as probably deserving of their treatment, an example of victim blaming. The estranged may also become less socially acceptable because of lowered self-regulation, a reaction to the social rejection.[16]


Humans are fallible and no family is without its problems. Although working through stressful issues with communication, consideration and compassion should be the default coping mechanism, that effort can be demanding. When any family member dismisses another family member, ranking personal expectations over the family relationship, emotional cutoff and family estrangement is likely.


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 emotionally laden 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 culminative loss to all parties. In these instances, estrangement is more likely than flexible accommodation. When a parent or grandparent initiates the emotional cut-off based on non-conformity, the estrangement may manifest in disownment .


Verbal abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse are triggers for a reasonable estrangement. However, deciding what is abusive and what is within an acceptable range of human behavior is not always clear and differs culturally. A recurring pattern of malicious denigration is considered grounds for a reasonable estrangement in modern cultures. However, a recurring pattern of abuse is not the equivalent of a few harsh words spoken in anger by an otherwise loving person. Similarly, labeling a person narcissistic because he or she holds a different point of view may be a case of the accuser being intolerant of opposing viewpoints, rather than a case of needing to permanently remove oneself for self-protection.

Substance Abuse & Mental Illness[edit]

Estrangement over substance abuse or alcohol abuse may or may not be justifiable self-protection. Mental illness also poses a gray area when it comes to the reasonableness of estranging from a family member. In some cases, enforcing ground rules and boundaries may be an alternative to a familial estrangement. In either case, substance abuse and mental illness are significant family stressors. The most highly predictive domain of social estrangement for both alcohol and drug dependency is homelessness.[17]

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is correlated with family estrangement. The trauma resulting in PTSD can be anything, including but not limited to a sexual assault, imprisonment, bullying, battered person syndrome, physical assault or war experience. Although it is sometimes unclear whether a failure on the part of the family to be sufficiently supportive or the behaviors of the PTSD survivor lead to the estrangement, it is clear that feelings of emotional distancing from the family is a characteristic the PTSD victim introduces into the family dynamic. Ultimately, both family and victim are blameless. The fact of the PTSD can be a insurmountable family stressor. Studies on soldiers with PTSD have concluded that families with a PTSD warrior require more support to facilitate healing and prevent estrangement. [18]


From disputes over inheritances to perceived insults in public settings, a sense of betrayal weakens the trust bonds of the family. According to 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 adaptedness[edit]

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 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.[19]

Bowen theory[edit]

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 emotion overwhelm objective thought process and govern behavior.[20] Poor differentiation is associated with continued relationship problems in life. Poor differentiation is also contagious in that it creates high stress in others, as well as models poor behavior. High differentiation is associated with emotional interdependence and multi-generational cooperation. Triangulation is when a third party enters the dynamic. A third party increases tension and often triggers a rebellion. Bowen theory is part of attachment theory.[21]

Victim - persecutor - rescuer[edit]

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 a 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.

Faulty thought patterns[edit]

Splitting refers to the idolization or vilification of a person. At any point in time, a person is regarded as either 100% good or 100% bad, notwithstanding any evidence to the contrary. Splitting is an unhealthy coping mechanism that evokes a type of emotional amnesia. There are no shades of grey, no compassion, no acknowledgment of fallibility, and little forgiveness in splitting. Splitting is used by many people in various life circumstances. It is a characteristic of polarized ideology and naivete. Splitting is also a defining characteristic in both narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. Personality disorders can occur in indviduals of any age. However, therapists hesitate to diagnose a personality disorder until the individual is fully grown and brain maturation is achieved. Accurate interpretation of the environment and others is a function of thinking processes in the cerebellum and a differentiation between emotional and rational thought. According to Dr. Jay Giedd, Chief of the Unit on Brain Imaging in the Child Psychiatry Branch at the NIMH, this part of the brain is not fully developed until the mid to late twenties.[22][23][24]


The combination of Dr. Spock’s 1946 publication The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, the post-war baby-boom and a prosperous economy transformed the American family. Building a child’s self-esteem became central in modern child-rearing practices and education. Social welfare offices and court systems became more tolerant of youthful offenders, citing bad parenting or non-supportive environments as the root cause of bad behavior in adolescents. The 1960s and 1970s ushered in an increased focus on rights and a decreased emphasis on responsibilities. Murray Bowen called this pattern a societal or cultural regression. In 1974, Bowen predicted that societal regression would increase polarization between groups, weaken the interdependence of families, and generally erode societal functioning by the mid-21st century.[25][26][27] A survey of college graduates published in 2011 shows that two-thirds of college graduates score above the mean on a narcissism survey, a 30% increase between 1979 and 2006.[28]

Kindergarchy is a term that refers to a culture that revolves around the wants and needs of the youngest members, an unintended consequence of post WWII child-rearing philosophy. Dan Kindlon, educational psychologist specializing in the cognitive and emotional development of children and adolescents, states that when the ego of the child is over-indulged throughout childhood, the young adult becomes prideful, envious and greedy. When that young adult finds his sense of entitlement thwarted, the resulting conflict is out of proportion with the precipitating event. Over-indulgence, regardless of the socio-economic status of the family, is a contributing factor in familial estrangement.[29][30]

Social scientists and psychologists, such as Dr. Ron Taffel, claim that the parent – child relationship is fundamentally different from those relationships in previous generations due to the complexity of and rapid changes in the modern world. There is a growing belief that current "good" parenting practices in this social context are a mismatch. That mismatch manifests in troubling paradoxes and family estrangement. Social change may be the proximate cause of the increasing incidences of family estrangement.[31]

Substitute families[edit]

Both the estranger and the estranged may use social and work relationships to create substitute families.[32] Support groups and other highly emotional organizations also provide a conduit for emotional energy from unresolved issues with parents, siblings and other family members.[33] Becoming passionate about a cause or hobby, or even estrangement itself as an issue, is another coping mechanism.

The future[edit]

Social workers working with the elder population are at the forefront of a new fallout from the family estrangement. Non-supportive or absent family members during parent or sibling end of life acutely increase the pain and stress of this transition.[34] Additional stress in financial, medical and welfare sectors requires a re-evaluation of the social policy regarding family expectations versus governmental support systems.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  3. ^ Bow, JN; Gould JW; Flens JR (2009). "Examining Parental Alienation in Child Custody Cases: A Survey of Mental Health and Legal Professionals". The American Journal of Family Therapy .37 (2): 127–145.doi:10.1080/01926180801960658.
  4. ^ 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).
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Williams, Kipling D. (2002). Ostracism: the power of silence. New York: Guilford. ISBN 1-57230-831-1
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Boss, P. (2006). Loss, trauma and resilience: Therapeutic work with ambiguous loss. New York NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  9. ^ Walter, C.A. & McCoyd, J.L.M. (2009). Grief and loss across the lifespan: A biopsyosocial perspective. New York, NY: Springer.
  10. ^ Joshua Coleman’s website.
  11. ^ Skowron, Elizabeth A., Dendy, Anna K. (Sept 2004). Differentiation of Self and Attachment in Adulthood: Relational Correlates of Effortful Control. Contemporary Family Therapy. Vol. 26, Issue 3.
  12. ^ Silverstein, M., Gans, D., Lowenstein, A., Giarrusso, R. and Bengtson, V. L. (2010), Older Parent–Child Relationships in Six Developed Nations: Comparisons at the Intersection of Affection and Conflict. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72: 1006–1021. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00745.x
  13. ^ Geert Hofstede’s academic website.
  14. ^
  15. ^ Coleman, Joshua. (25 Aug 2010). How parents can start to reconcile with estranged kids. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ 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
  18. ^ 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. Epub 2009 Feb 7.
  19. ^ Henson, Keith (Summer 2006). "Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War". Mankind Quarterly (The Council for Social and Economic Studies) 46 (4).
  20. ^ Skowron, Elizabeth A., Dendy, Anna K. (Sept 2004). Differentiation of Self and Attachment in Adulthood: Relational Correlates of Effortful Control. Contemporary Family Therapy. Vol. 26, Issue 3.
  21. ^ Bowen Center.
  22. ^ Inside the Teenage Brain. (31 Jan 2002) Frontline. PBS. and
  23. ^ Baird AA, Gruber SA, Fein DA, et al. (1999) Functional magnetic resonance imaging of facial affect recognition in children and adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,; 38(2): 195-9.
  24. ^ Giedd JN, Blumenthal J, Jeffries NO, et al. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: a longitudinal MRI study. Nature Neuroscience,; 2(10): 861-3.
  25. ^ Comella, Patricia A. (2009). Emotional Process in Society: The Eighth Concept of Bowen Family Systems Theory. Family Systems Forum. Vol. 11, No. 2.
  26. ^ Bowen in Societal Regression and Leadership. (22 Feb 2012). Resilience. Systems Coaching LLC
  27. ^ Titelman, P. (2003) Emotional cutoff in Bowen family systems theory: An Overview. In P. Titelman (ed.), Emotional cutoff in Bowen family systems perspectives. New York, NY: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.
  28. ^ Twenge, J. M., Konrath, S., Foster, J. D., Keith Campbell, W. and Bushman, B. J. (2008), Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality, 76: 875–902. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00507.x
  29. ^ Slinger, Mary R. and Bredehoft, David J. (5 Nov 2010). Relationships between childhood overindulgence and adult attitudes and behaviors. NCFR Annual Conference, Minneapolis, MN.
  30. ^ Kindlon, Dan. (2001) Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. New York: Hyperion.
  31. ^ Taffel, Ron. Childhood Unbound: Saving Our Kids' Best Selves--Confident Parenting in a World of Change. Free Press. January 6, 2009.
  32. ^ The Bowen Center
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ 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

External links[edit]