When the ties that bind are cut: The silent epidemic of parental estrangement

Family estrangement often happens between adult children and their parents. There are many reasons why people may experience or instigate estrangement from their families. Often, estrangement occurs after a major event or incident, but the event usually serves as a trigger rather than the main cause.(Photo credit Getty Images)

One of the most magical times in the lives of many parents is when they hold their child in their arms for the very first time. Looking into their babies’ eyes, they would do anything to protect their child.

Even before the baby is born, parents will often dream about all the things they will share with their child — throwing around a baseball, playing dolls, dressing them up in the cutest clothes and more.

As those babies grow into teens, those thoughts shift to teaching them how to drive, first dates and graduating from high school. And when those teens grow into young adults, parents think about their kids’ future wedding, the birth of grandchildren and watching their kids achieve their dreams and aspirations.

However, some parents of adult children lose those experiences due to family or parental estrangement.

Family or parental estrangement happens when there is a separation within a family, with one or more members choosing to withdraw from one another, reports the Parenting for Brain website. Family estrangement often takes place between adult children and their parents.

“Cutting off contact and communication is one of the most common ways people use to distance themselves from the family or certain family members,” the website states.

Family estrangement can be categorized in two different forms: continuous estrangement and chaotic disassociation.

Continuous estrangement occurs when an adult child can communicate effectively with their parents while maintaining distance from them despite pressure to reconcile.

Chaotic disassociation is when an adult child succumbs to the pressure to reconcile, but the relationship is “on-and-off” until they eventually cut off ties.

Studies show that there is no one type of interaction, one parenting style or one significant family conflict that leads to estrangement. (Photo courtesy Getty Images)

Contributing factors to family estrangement

The reasoning behind family estrangement can be very broad and differ between families, but research has shown there are some common threads.

A sociologist and gerontologist, Karl A. Pillemer has done extensive research on family estrangement, also serving as the Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Pillemer’s studies have found that 1 in 4 U.S. adults have become estranged from their families.

“We become attached to family members early in life, and separation from them is often very distressing,” Pillemer said. “Older parents, in particular, feel the loss of the relationship greatly, and they can become deeply depressed as a result.”

Throughout his studies, Pillemer has discovered that there are three main reasons adult children estrange from their parents and family.

Karl Andrew Pillemer, PhD, is an American sociologist and gerontologist who is the Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, and Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. (Photo courtesy Karl A. Pillemer)

The first reason, which Pillermer calls “the long arm of the past,” is when an adult child feels that childhood experiences in the family were “very adverse, including harsh discipline, parental favoritism, or even verbal or physical abuse.”

“Even if things were better in adulthood, the person cannot get over the negative family atmosphere he or she grew up in,” Pillemer explains. “In addition, parental divorce in childhood can cause someone to have weaker ties to the non-custodial parent, leading to estrangement later on.”

The second factor is when an adult child has differences in values and expectations.

“In particular, we found that estrangements are more likely to happen when values differ greatly among family members,” he said. “In general, we are closer to people who share our values, and this holds for families, as well.”

Rifts in family relationships can be caused due to differing religious beliefs, not approving of lifestyle choices, political views and other reasons.

“We also found that rifts can result from family members’ strong, and sometimes unrealistic, expectations for one another,” Pillemer said. “One frequent case was rifts over family caregiving. One sibling is placed in charge as the caregiver, when other siblings do not help as expected, the relationship can deteriorate and even fracture.

Adults will also estrange from parents or other family members due to situational factors.

Pillemer reports two specific factors in particular: problems with the adult child’s spouse or in-laws and financial issues.

“Sometimes, a new wife or husband will deliberately alienate a person from his or her family,” Pillemer said. “Finally, money, wills and inheritance were major causes of rifts, when adult children battled over an estate, family property or a family business.”

Dr. Joshua Coleman (Photo courtesy Dr. Joshua Coleman)

Other reasons adult children will cut ties with family are when they feel they are not being supported or validated or feeling judged, explained Rick Sinkiewicz, a mental health clinician with North Range Behavioral Health.

“A lot of the children have a sense of entitlement — you didn’t pay for my college, you didn’t pay for my car, you didn’t take me to London,” Sinkiewicz said. “And that’s all based on a perception rather than an actual toxic event. That’s a perception of toxicity, and that can be difficult to overcome those because they are not as easily identifiable and they are objectionable.

“Abuse is clearly abuse, but someone being upset because they didn’t get a new BMW for their graduation, that’s a matter of opinion or sense of value that could be completely misconstrued.”

What it ultimately comes down to is a difference in values, Sinkiewicz said.

“There are thousands of different reasons for why this could happen,” he added.

Through his research, Pillemer was able to identify one overarching theme in family estrangement: a severe, and sometimes total, breakdown in communication.

“Often, a major event or blowup would occur and communication shuts down. People in the family take sides, and the situation hardens,” he said. “When communication ends, the estranged person begins to do what is called, ‘stonewalling,’ that is, they put up a communication wall and refuse all contacts.”

While Pillemer’s research has shined a light on three main reasons behind estrangement, there also seems to be a trend “urging young adults to cut ties with their families,” psychoanalyst Galit Atlas wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

“I’ve seen that trend in recent years become a way to manage conflicts in the family, and I have seen the steep toll estrangement takes on both sides of the divide,” Atlas wrote. “This is a self-help trend that creates much harm.”

In today’s society, there is a call to cancel or censure oppressive or harmful people as a way for those who are powerless to gain power.

“But when children use the most effective tool they have — themselves— to gain a sense of security and ban their parents from their lives, the roles have simply flipped, and the trauma only deepens.”

Another factor behind the growth in number of adult children who estrange from their parents has to do with therapists not being properly trained in the specific area of family estrangement.

“They often give really bad advice because they are not trained in it,” explained Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families. “The idea of honoring thy mother and father and respecting elders has been replaced with ‘does this relationship make me happy or not? Does it align with my personal ideals and mental health? And if not, then I should cut that person out of my life, no matter who they are.’”

The effects of estrangement between family members can be devastating to some members. (Photo credit Jamie Grill)

The need to claim one’s individualism or autonomy, ideals for personal growth and mental health, pursuing individual rights and social media’s online communities that support estrangement are just a few reasons behind the growth in parental estrangement numbers.

This trend to estrange parents to preserve one’s mental health and happiness is being referred to as a silent epidemic as many parents who are estranged from their adult children are embarrassed or ashamed to admit what’s going on.

Studies have shown estrangement tends to take place more in white families, Coleman said.

“It’s far less common in Asian communities, and I very rarely see it in African American or Latino families,” Coleman said.

As with many family traits, estrangement can be passed down to future generations.

“My worry is that the overall presence of family estrangement is further fracturing a highly fractured society,” Coleman said. “When there’s an estrangement, not only is there a cutoff with the adult child, but often the grandchildren as well.

“Often these are loving, dedicated grandparents who are being kicked to the curb, and I don’t think that is good for the grandchildren and certainly not for the grandparents.”

When divorce causes a rift in family ties

Divorce is one of the leading causes of parental estrangement, according to Coleman.

“Divorce increases the risk for estrangement because it can cause a child of any age to blame one parent over the other, can cause one parent to poison the child against the other parent, it can bring new people into the child’s life that they have to compete with, and it can cause the child to see the parents’ as individuals with their own strengths or weaknesses,” Coleman said. “So all these things make divorce a risk factor for parental estrangement.”

Divorce was the cause behind Windsor resident Wayne Scott’s estrangement from his two children.

“I didn’t know about parental alienation when this all started. Sadly, I know far too much about it now,” Scott said. “I was tremendously involved as a dad; they were my life. Part of the best of me is being a dad.”

Scott, 58, became estranged from his son and daughter in August 2018 when he told their mother he wanted a divorce. At the time, his son was 16 and his daughter was 15. His son is now 20, and his daughter is 19.

At a court-ordered therapy session, Scott’s daughter read off a list of things that he would not get to do such as walk her down the aisle, attend any of her graduations and other life events.

“My son was so mad at me he tried to spit in my face,” Scott said. “It was so awful. I was basically in a chair sobbing, and my daughter was smiling at my pain. I had never seen this side of my kids; I love my kids dearly. I stayed in a bad marriage for 18 years for my kids.”

“Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them” by Karl A. Pillemer. (Photo courtesy Karl A. Pillemer, PhD)

During the divorce, Scott’s kids refused to communicate with him in person, over telephone calls or by text message. They also refused to attend reunification therapy sessions.

Until last year, Scott would send his kids holiday and birthday cards and texts despite the lack of communication.

Scott said he takes ownership for the part he caused in the divorce from his kids’ mom and has written letters apologizing for the hurt the divorce caused them. In addition to estranging Scott, his kids cut ties with Scott’s dad, their grandfather, who has stage 4 dementia.

“Parental alienation requires that you hate everybody on that side,” Scott said. “It is awful because my dad is a sweet, old man who loves his grandkids.”

Scott still has not reunited with this son and daughter. Though it is hard, especially during Father’s Day, birthdays and Christmas, Scott has moved forward, trying to enjoy the here and now.

“I’ve given up on trying to have a relationship with them. It’s not going to happen. No matter what I do, it’s not going to happen until my kids think it’s time for it to happen,” Scott said. “I keep hoping things will continue to soften as they are away from home, but I don’t know that they will.”

Lisa Gayle Scallan is also an estranged parent of an adult child.

Scallan became estranged from her daughter and son after a traumatic divorce. She has been estranged from her son for 7 ½ years. She has, however, reconciled with her daughter over the past year.

“The first five years was horrible; it affected me physically, mentally, spiritually,” she said. “It’s devastating.”

For years, Scallan felt trapped, replaying moments of her past over and over, never able to move forward. Scallan refers to this replaying of the past “The Rs” — reminiscing, recollecting and ruminating.

“After my lowest moment, I became determined to not only survive, but to thrive,” Scallan said. “Finding any information on estrangement was difficult. But I soon found out I was not alone.”

Rick Sinkiewicz, MA, MFT, Mental Health Clinician, North Range Behavioral Health. (Photo courtesy North Range Behavioral Health)

From that day forward, Scallan has been on a mission to educate the community about parental estrangement and help parents experiencing estrangement with an adult child learn how to heal and move forward with their lives.

Throughout her work, Scallan has earned numerous Master Coaching and Group Facilitation certifications and has become a Certified Facilitator of Support Groups for Estranged Parents/Grandparents.

She has also begun a free support group for moms and grandmothers of estranged adult children/grandchildren offered at 2 p.m. the third Thursday of the month at the Eaton Public Library. The next session is scheduled for Thursday, June 16.

“Everybody has their own story. They feel things differently, experience things differently and have their own life experiences,” Scallan said. “I always tell people that some things will not resonate with you and other things will.”

The pain and confusion of not knowing why

While some parents are given reasons for why their adult children have alienated them, there are many parents who have no idea the reasoning behind the break in family ties.

“Parents can often get blamed for things they didn’t do, the idea of a duty or obligation which existed in prior generations is no longer part of the equation,” Coleman said. “So all of these things make the ties between parents and their children, in some ways, more vulnerable.”

Stacy, whose name has been changed to protect their privacy and the privacy of their family, falls into this group.

“Unfortunately, there’s no easy answers for it,” Stacy said. “I’m a parent and grandparent who has been alienated from my children and my grandchildren.”

Unlike Scott and Scallan’s estrangement, Stacy’s case was not caused by a divorce. Stacy attributes the estrangement to their children feeling that Stacy was “toxic” and a drain on their adult children’s mental health.

“To me, it’s not that black and white and I don’t think they can tell me why they did this,” Stacy said. “For me, I think there is a spiritual aspect involved in this. Like a darkness or deception or something, a switch went off and there weren’t like the same person I saw two weeks ago. I know that there’s influences within their own marriages.”

Stacy does admit things in the family were said and done, but nothing above what a typical family would address and nothing that was abusive or adverse.

“When I look back, I carried that blame for years, but then I think, ‘No. You were adults, you knew this’,” Stacy said. “I am not going to count myself blameless but we could have communicated and moved past this.”

In their experience, Stacy discovered when their adult children decided to go down the path of estrangement, there was no turning back.

“Once it starts and there’s engagement, it’s almost like they can’t stop. They have to do it,” Stacy said. “And then they have to justify it. They can justify it with accusations, not even good enough excuses. They will try anything to justify it; use anything, use anybody.”

When Stacy was faced with parental estrangement a little over a decade ago, they had no where to turn — no support groups, nothing in their church, no therapists or any other professional.

“I found a couple of authors that have been helpful, but again it’s situational. So I’ve had to deal with it basically on my own in different terms and methods,” Stacy said. “I think the reality of it is that there’s so much of it out there.”

Around the fifth year of the estrangement, Stacy decided to make the best of what they had and move forward with their life the best they could.

“I think one of the things that happened at that particular point was that it wasn’t just my continuance of determining that I have to do it on my own, I could get support from my spouse and a couple of good friends,” Stacy said. “I try to keep myself the healthiest that I can. Life will go on and we will do the best we can.”

Stacy feels that shining a light on parental estrangement will give others hope that there is a way to get through it.

Sometimes estrangement is necessary

Separating from your parents or a family member is definitely called for at times, especially when there is abuse.

For Lorin Stocks, 35, of Cheyenne, cutting ties with her father was necessary for her own mental and physical health.

Stocks grew up in Greeley with her parents and other family members. Stocks’ parents divorced when she was 7 and still “fight like cats and dogs.” Stocks’ mother and younger sister have restraining orders against her father and Stocks has had a restraining order against him in the past.

“There was a lot of drugs and alcohol when I was younger on both my parents’ side,” she said. “As I teenager, I believed my father over my mother and estranged my mother for several years.”

When Stocks got pregnant, she started to “see the truth for itself” and reconnected with her mom.

“My mom is no angel, but my dad — I covered up his sexual abuse, I covered up his drugs, I covered up his alcohol, I bailed him out of jail,” Stocks said. “My mom and I are super close now, and I love my mom dearly.”

The estrangement doesn’t just leave Stocks without that father-daughter bond. Her son also suffers through not being able to see his grandfather.

“He doesn’t know what went on, so he doesn’t understand. He just knows he can’t see Papa,” she said. “It sucks because I have good memories of my dad, but it’s not who he is.”

Studies show that there is no one type of interaction, one parenting style, or one significant family conflict that leads to estrangement. (Photo courtesy Getty Images)

Tips on reconnecting with an estranged family member

Reconnecting with an estranged adult child or grandchild doesn’t just happen overnight, even if both parties are open and willing to the idea of reconciliation.

“It’s important to take a close look at the situation and decide if it is the right thing to do. The individual needs to examine what, if any, role he or she played in causing the estrangement. That’s not to blame oneself, but by looking at one’s own role, one sometimes can find ideas for bridging the rift,” Pillemer said. “People who successfully reconciled learned how to set new and clear boundaries in the relationship, and they made it clear that they could and would end it again if those limits were violated.”

All parties must also agree to not rehash the past and create a new future.

“When you feel your family may be splitting apart, get help before the rift occurs,” Pillemer advises. “Many people who were still in estrangements told me that they deeply regret not getting family counseling of some kind before the rift occurred.”

Coleman also tells estranged parents he works with that “it’s a marathon, not sprint” and they should assume the reconciliation process will take a while before “you can turn around the ship.”

Coleman hosts Q&A sessions every Monday on his website to help parents navigate the world of estrangement. Some of the strategies Coleman advises parents who are working on reconciling with an estranged adult child are:

1. Find the kernel of truth in the adult child’s complaints

2. Don’t be defensive or explain

3. Show compassion and empathy

4. Take responsibility

5. Don’t shame, guilt-trip or return fire

In addition to parents, grandparents are often swept up in the whirlwind of parental estrangement, being cut off from contact with their adult and/or young grandchildren. (Photo credit Thanasis Zovoilis)

Parents and grandparents will also want to keep in mind that they can only control their own feelings and actions, not the feelings and actions of the estranged adult child.

“We are not responsible for what people think or feel. Trying to control someone else’s behavior and make them love you, it’s really an uphill battle and you are setting yourself up for frustration,” Sinkiewicz said. “If somebody takes the time to let go of the things they can’t control and focus on themselves, then they will be in a healthier place to handle the situation in a better way with healthier boundaries and be OK with the outcome.

“It may not be the one that we hoped for, but at least somebody can still walk away feeling as a whole person.”

Personal perspective

As a reporter, I have had the privilege to write many different stories over my career. I’ve written about a hoity-toity dog wedding, covered funerals for fallen police officers and firefighters and attended endless city council meetings. I’ve covered concerts, protests and fundraising events.

Some of the stories I have written have a personal connection like when I wrote about breast cancer and colon cancer.

This story on parental estrangement is one that hits very close to home because for the past five years, my son has been estranged from my family and me.

As with many of the parents of estranged adult children I spoke with and found on social media, I too felt embarrassment and shame when asked if I had kids, if we were close or where my son lives.

When I got to the point where I felt comfortable telling people that he was estranged from my family, a whole new feeling of shame would come on when they would ask, “What happened?” and look at me like I was Joan Crawford in the movie “Mommy Dearest.”

And like many of the parents, the reasoning behind my son’s estrangement puzzles not only myself, but also many of my family members and friends.

I admit I wasn’t a perfect parent. I became impatient and cranky at times. There were times I would rather go home and flop on the couch after work than cart my son and his teammates from to and from wrestling matches. Sometimes I couldn’t afford to buy him the designer shoes or clothes or send him on all the expensive school trips to Europe or Chicago.

But I did my best, like most parents do.

As I look back on his reasoning behind his need to cut me and my family out of his life, I realized there are deeper underlying issues, personal things that only he can deal with.

It took me quite a few years of self-reflection coupled with counseling to be able to come to terms that I was not a terrible parent, and even though I love my son more than anything, there’s a chance that myself, my parents, sister, niece and other family members may never see or hear from him again.

I hope that for the parents, grandparents and other family members who are going through being estranged from an adult child or grandchild, they understand that they are not alone. Also, their adult child’s choice to erase them from their life doesn’t necessarily reflect on their parenting skills or define their value as a human being.

If you are an estranged parent of an adult child or grandchild, I urge you to reach out to a therapist and support groups as well as read books on parental estrangement to help you find the path to start moving forward and living your life.

The hurt will never go away, but we all deserve to live and be happy — with or without our adult children in our lives.

Related Articles