Coping with Family Estrangement

A new study explores counseling experiences that are helpful and unhelpful.

Posted Oct 09, 2019

Although it is often assumed that “blood is thicker than water” and that relationships between family members are lifelong, a growing field of research is focused on those relationships that are distant or inactive, which are increasingly referred to as "estranged."

Current estimates suggest that one in five families in the U.K. will be touched by estrangement (Ipsos MORI, 2014) and a U.S. study concluded that it might be as common as divorce (Conti, 2016).

Many factors contribute to family estrangement, which include: sexual, physical and/or psychological abuse and/or neglect; poor parenting; feelings of betrayal; disagreements about romantic relationships and politics; issues relating to money, inheritance, or business; as well as physical and/or mental health problems in the family (Blake, 2017).

Those who are estranged from a family member discuss it rarely and with few people. Parents feel ashamed and like they are not “normal”; mothers, in particular, have been found to feel anxious and guarded in social situations, changing the topic of conversation if the subject of children or grandchildren is raised (Agllias, 2013). Adult children often feel compelled to keep this information private, and when they have disclosed their situation to social networks, feel unsupported (Scharp, 2016).

Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images, CC BY-SA 3.0
Counselling Services
Source: Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images, CC BY-SA 3.0

Given that those experiencing estrangement discuss it rarely, as well as perceive and experience stigma around estrangement (Blake, Bland, & Golombok, 2015), counseling might be a particularly valuable or helpful endeavor. But what kind of counseling experiences are the most helpful?

In 2015, an invitation to complete an online survey was sent to the members of the Stand Alone community, a charitable body based in the U.K. that aims to provide support to individuals who are estranged from their family or a family member. Of these respondents, 133 described which aspects of counseling had been particularly helpful and 107 told us about those that had been unhelpful (Blake, Bland, & Imrie, 2019). We found that:

  • Therapy was helpful when counsellors were supportive of respondents’ decisions and feelings and did not push them to think, feel, or act in a certain way (e.g., to forgive family members, or to initiate estrangement). Those who reinforced commonly-held assumptions or myths about family relationships (e.g., that mothers are always loving, or that active and close relationships with family members are always desirable) were identified as being unhelpful.
  • Helpful encounters with therapy were also those in which respondents felt that their counsellors had a good understanding of estrangement and/or specific family experiences (e.g., childhood sexual abuse, alcoholism and addiction).
  • In addition to appreciating that estrangement can and does happen, therapy delivered by counsellors who appreciated that no two individuals’ experiences of estrangement are the same was highly regarded. For some, learning about family roles and history was valuable, whereas for others, practical information as to how to move forward was a more desirable goal.

As well as informing practice, we hope that this is the beginning of a body of research that will be of use to individuals experiencing family estrangement, so that they are better able to evaluate and reflect on the counseling that they receive.

For those interested in reading more, the paper can be found here.

References

Blake, L. (2017). Parents and Children Who Are Estranged in Adulthood: A Review and Discussion of the Literature. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 9(4), 521–536. https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12216

Blake, L., Bland, B., & Golombok, S. (2015). Hidden Voices: Family estrangement in adulthood. Retrieved from https://www.standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf

Blake, L., Bland, B., & Imrie, S. (2019). The Counseling Experiences of Individuals Who Are Estranged From a Family Member. Family Relations. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12385

Conti, R. P. (2016). Family Estrangement: Establishing a Prevalence Rate. Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science, 3(2), 28–35. https://doi.org/10.15640/jpbs.v3n2a4

Ipsos MORI. (2014). Family Estrangement Survey for Stand Alone. Retrieved from https://www.standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/StandAlonePrevalenceRESEARCH3.pdf

Scharp, K. M. (2016). Parent-Child Estrangement: Conditions for Disclosure and Perceived Social Network Member Reactions. Family Relations, 65(5), 688–700. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12219