top of page

Family Estrangement: Unveiling More Reasons Behind The Silent Epidemic

Truly, it is difficult to comprehend why a person would wish to cut off a family member from their life.

Family estrangement is when a family separates from within which is often caused by one (or more family members) choosing to detach themselves from another. Although it is more common between parents and their adult children, estrangements do exist between parents as well.

Being estranged from your family can be isolating and hurtful. It is not easy and the situation is hard to handle.

Cutting off contact is among the most common approaches people employ to withdraw from their family or from a particular family member.

There are a number of reasons why an individual would initiate separation from their families.

Because estrangement typically happens after a significant event, there's a prevalent misconception that there are particular types of incidents that cause the collapse of the relationship. Instead of being the primary cause, however, the event only just served as a trigger.

Here’s a short video on When family bonds are broken.

Also watch: Family Matters: Understanding Estrangement an interview with Dr. Karl Pillemer, sociologist and professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University and author of the book "Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them".

To dive deeper into Dr. Pillemer's study on family estrangement, watch Pillemer, Fractured Families, a production of Cornell University Library.

What Estrangement Is Not?

So, what really counts as family breakup?

According to the author of What is family estrangement? A relationship expert describes the problem and research agenda, her research revealed that family estrangement is an ongoing process that has varying degrees. In other words, the situation exists along a continuum, making it more accurate to identify family members as more or less detached –not as completely "estranged" or "not estranged". She further explains that:

- Estrangement is intentional.

- Estrangement is voluntary.

- It is typically based on ongoing issues –although some estrangements are sudden.

- It happens because of a perceived negative relationship.

According to studies, there's not one parenting style, specific interaction, or one remarkable family conflict that causes estrangement. In most cases, children and parents have very different ideas and understanding about what caused the problems. They each have a different interpretation of the event or issue.

Adult children frequently blame their parents' maltreatment, toxic behavior, neglect, child abuse, or feeling unsupported and unaccepted for their estrangement from them, while parents typically cite their own divorce, their children's sense of entitlement, or their children's problematic relationships as the cause.

Furthermore, a greater percentage of estranged parents than estranged children do not fully understand their estrangement –suggesting that children more often initiate the withdrawal from challenging relationships.

An extensive study of 898 estranged parent-child pairs identified three categories of common causes why adult children withdraw from their parents:


(Estranged person's personal character traits)

  • narcissism

  • mental illness

  • self-centeredness

  • immaturity

  • opposing personal values, e.g. religious belief, sexual orientation, lifestyle choice, etc.


(A result of the estranged family member's negative behavior)

  • manipulation

  • family rivalry or conflict

  • serious neglect

  • harsh, rigid parenting

  • sense of entitlement

  • perception (or actual existence) of parental favoritism

  • childhood abuse, e.g. sexual, verbal, physical, or emotional abuse –also abuse by siblings

  • substance abuse

  • ambivalence of parent-child bond

  • enmeshment or lack of healthy boundaries in roles and spaces

  • parental alienation

  • difficulty in controlling anger or handling disappointments

  • toxic behavior


(Problems outside the family)

  • geographical, physical distance

  • being in a dangerous or risky relationship

  • third-party influence, e.g. a controlling, abusive spouse

Although the study of family estrangement is still in its early stages, here are very important lessons to learn from existing findings:

1. Estrangement is heartbreaking and stigmatizing.

2. Estrangement can be a healthy option to an unstable, oppressive situation.

3. Even more challenging than achieving distance is maintaining it.

Since we are in a society where "blood is thicker than water" and "families are forever", keeping the distance from family is often a burden so heavy to bear. This is largely because people would frequently recommend unwanted or untimely reconciliations, plus there are the media’s portrayals of the "happy family". Hence, even if estrangement can bring positive change for a person, it is still a difficult option to take.

If you need help in overcoming estrangement and mending your family relationship, or if you've just cut off your family and need help making sense of what happened, contact JarvisHypnotherapy. We are here to help!

Also read related issue about adult children and their alcoholic parents: Alcohol Misuse and Adult Children


Content credits

3 Causes of Family Estrangement (also Photo credits)


bottom of page