What Science Knows About Adult Child-Parent Estrangement

Taking a look at a contentious topic loaded with societal shame.

Posted Nov 14, 2019

Photograph by Jody Hong Films. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Jody Hong Films. Copyright free. Unsplash

Recently, I reposted an article I'd written about estrangement—or “No Contact” as it’s informally called on Facebook—and got pushback from mothers who were estranged from their adult children and who did not initiate the cut-off.

What they had to say was achingly familiar—it’s what I and other daughters who’ve made this painful but sometimes necessary decision have heard from our mothers, family members, people we know, and strangers alike. It was a consistent narrative composed of declared innocence (“I was a good mother"; “She was loved and cared for”), defensiveness and rationalization (“She didn’t like being held as a baby”; “She resisted any effort to discipline her”; “Everyone agreed she was a problem”), and downright blaming  (“She has always been difficult”; “She is extremely abusive and everyone sees it”; “Abusive, ungrateful, and a bad person”).

This isn’t to say that a daughter or son cannot be abusive, especially if there is an undiagnosed mental illness or addiction involved. But I have a horse in this race and I know for sure that most adult children don’t self-orphan—and, yes, most of the time the loss is never just the mother—because it’s a spur-of-the-moment angry or thoughtless decision.

As I have written before, most daughters mull the decision over for years, if not decades. And, if they go no contact, they are prone to reverse themselves once or twice, because their need for connection and maternal love has not abated, despite their recognition that they probably won’t get either from the mother they have. Research confirms that estrangement can go through a predictable cycle—of going no contact and then reinstating connection— so it’s not just my experience or those reported by women I’ve interviewed.

The reality is that these mothers—who claim to be abandoned by ungrateful, impetuous, and difficult adult children, who never informed them of either their complaints or their plans—are more likely to get a fair hearing by our culture, to get sympathy and support when they wage war against the so-called ungrateful adult child, and to be embraced by their communities for their actions. That’s precisely what a study by Christine Rittenour, Stephen Kromka, and others found when they looked at stereotypes and attitudes toward adult child-parent estrangement.

The Cultural Onus of the Adult Child’s Estrangement

It has the weight of a stone tablet—yes, a Commandment—and it’s “Honor Thy Mother and Father.” I have had a number of different pastors explain the injunction in context and they all agree it does not include accepting being emotionally abused, marginalized, or ignored. But, in the court of public opinion, the Commandment is hard to beat.

The mythology of motherhood, I think, has just as much clout and maybe more for the culture. Despite the science that makes it clear that motherhood in the human species is learned behavior, the culture is content to pretend that we are more like elephants for whom mothering is pure instinct. As a group, we cling to the myths that all women are maternal and nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, and that maternal love is always unconditional; not one of those three statements is true.

But that doesn’t explain why the adult child-parental estrangement is the elephant in our cultural living room. Mind you, when the parent initiates estrangement—ridding the family of the bad seed, the intransigent one, the odd-one-out—the culture clucks with sympathy because everyone knows that parenting is hard. The mother myths carry weight here, too, testifying to the myth that no one divorces a child without compelling reasons every sane person would agree with.

But are we getting the whole picture on why we’re so quick to judge the adult child? Why do we, as the study by Ritenour and others found, revert to stereotypes calling the adult child “childish, immature, and ungrateful” for initiating estrangement?

Looking at the Big Picture

Here are some pieces of the puzzle revealed by research that are worth considering when we talk about familial estrangement.

1. There may be an evolutionary reason for the taboo.

That’s exactly what psychologist Glenn Geher (a blogger on this site) and his colleagues suggested when they examined the evolutionary psychology of social estrangements. Remember that humans began as tribal folk—try surviving as a hunter or gatherer on your own—and social bonds were primary. Thus, estrangement was not exactly a strategy for survival.

Seen through this lens—that of evolution—forgiveness is a step forward while saying that someone is “dead” to you is a step back. The research team wanted to test whether the number of estrangements in a person’s life would be predictive of adverse psychological outcomes and whether there were psychological factors that could predict estrangement over the more conciliatory act of forgiveness. (In case you’re interested, the more estrangements a person had in life, the more likely they were to exhibit narcissism and other not-so-wonderful traits. That’s not surprising—but here, we’re looking at a specific kind of estrangement that tends not to be part of a larger pattern). So, perhaps, the problem we have with estrangements, especially of close others, may have to do with our human history.

2. It’s not really rare (and, no, blood isn't always thicker than water).

There isn’t a reliable number on how common estrangement is but it’s clear that it’s neither as rare nor as unexpected as cultural taboos and mythologies would have us believe.

One 2015 study by Richard Conti which was conducted with a sample of college and graduate students found that 43.5 percent had been estranged at some point and that 26.6 percent reported extended estrangement. His study also confirmed that anecdotal evidence makes clear: that estrangement from a parent always involves estrangement from other family members.

He concluded that estrangement “is perhaps as common as divorce in certain segments of society.” That sounds pretty dire—but another study, this one conducted by Lucy Blake in Great Britain, found even higher percentages; out of the 807 people interviewed, 455 were estranged from their mothers.

As someone who was estranged from her one surviving parent on and off and then finally, I can tell you from experience that given the cultural onus, few people come forth and speak out. So, the truth is that for every incident of adult child estrangement you hear about, there’s probably one or two that is kept under wraps. That’s not a scientific statement but an educated guess, which happens to be bolstered by the following research study.

3. Estrangement isn’t the only way adult-child relationships destruct.

In an effort to clarify the various ways in which communication within families is disrupted, Katrina M. Scharp and Elizabeth Dorrance Hall posited that there were indeed three separate processes at work: Family-member marginalization, Parent-child alienation, and Parent-child estrangement. They define family member marginalization as signifying one person as the outsider or black sheep. Being the black sheep can be a function of being or looking different, having different interests or a different point of view, not conforming, or simply telling truths about the family the group prefers not to hear.

According to the authors, even though they are marginalized, most so-called black sheep don’t tend to break ties with the family entirely. Parent-child alienation is their second category, which mostly occurs in the context of divorce and, according to the studies they cite, affects about 13.4 percent of parents. It seems to me that while part of the landscape, parent-child alienation is different in kind because 1) it is the result of active efforts by one parent to create a rift between the child and the other parent and 2) the child is still in a position of dependency, forced to be loyal to one side at the cost of the other. 

Adult child-parent estrangement is the third process; they note that research indicates that estrangement instigated by a parent is conservatively estimated at 12 percent. They note that all the research underscores that estrangement is highly stigmatized and writes, “Indeed, adult children go to great lengths to keep their estrangement experiences private or even secret.” That is a statement every daughter or son who has gone no contact can corroborate.

A personal opinion: While it’s useful to see these different distancing processes, it seems as though parent-child alienation is the odd man out, even though it might ultimately be the basis for a continued adult child-parent estrangement later, since it is a function of an adult’s deliberate and tactical effort to disrupt the other parent’s connection to the child.

4. While estrangement may be cyclical, reconciliation is usually elusive.

Both research and the interviews I’ve conducted with women for my books, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Mean Mothers confirm that estrangement is usually not a single or decisive action.

Daughters usually attempt to manage the relationship to their mothers or fathers first, either by attempting to set boundaries, limiting communication, or simply having fewer interactions; what’s informally called “low contact” works in some cases, especially when there’s geographic distance between the adult child and her family of origin, but not always. Sometimes, the failure of low contact simply yields to a decision to move into a full-blown estrangement. Other times, a daughter will reinstitute contact either because of hopefulness that things can change or some other reason.

But, as a study by Kristen Carr, Amanda Holman, and others showed, the difference between the parent’s perspective and that of the adult child is usually enormous. In a study of 898 of unmatched parents and adult children, the researchers found that there was absolutely no agreement at all about what had caused the estrangement.

While parents tended to focus on their children’s objectionable relationships or sense of entitlement, adult children honed in on toxic treatment or feeling unloved and unaccepted. Interestingly, while the adult children were able to be explicit about why they felt unloved or unsupported and connected those feelings to their parents’ behaviors, the parents showed very little self-reflection.

It’s worth saying that this research supports every story I have heard from adult children over the years.

Old ideas die hard, and new research on family estrangement offers a new opportunity for all of us to discuss and learn.

Copyright © 2019 Peg Streep

References

Rittenour, Christine, Stephen Kromka, Sara Pitts, Margaret Thorwart, Janelle Vickers, and Kaitlyn Whyte, “Communication Surrounding Estrangement: Stereotypes, Attitudes, and (Non) Accommodation Strategies, “Behavioral Sciences (2018), vol.8 (10), 96-112.

Geher, Glenn, Vania Rolon, Richard Holler, Amanda Baroni, et, al. : You’re dead to me! The evolutionary psychology of social estrangements and social transgressions.” Current Psychology (2019). 10.1007/s12144-019-00381-z.

Conti, Richard P. “Family Estrangements: Establishing a Prevalence Rate,” Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science (2015), vol.3(2), 28-35.

Blake, Lucy. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone. http://standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf

Scharp, Kristina M. and Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, “Family Marginalization, alienation, and estrangement: questioning the nonvoluntary status of family relationships,” Annals of the International Communications Association (2017), vol.41 (1), 28-45.

Scharp, Kristina M. “You’re Not Welcome Here: A Grounded Theory of Family Distancing,” Communication Research (2017), 1-29.

Agilias, Kylie. “Disconnection and Decision-making: Adult Children Explain Their Reasons for Estranging from Parents, Australian Social Work (2015) 69:1, 92-104.

JAgllias, Kylie. “Missing Family: The Adult Child’s Experience of Parental Estrangement,” Journal of Social Work Practice (2018) vol. 31(1), 59-72.

Carr, Kristen, Amanda Holman, Jenna Abetz, Jody Koenig Kellas, and Elizabeth Vagnoni, "Giving Voice to the Silence of Family Estrangement: Reasons of Estranged Parents and Adult Children in a Non-matched Sample, Journal of Family Communication (2015), vol. 15, issue 2, 130-140.