Estrangement has been defined in numerous ways; typically it has been defined as the negative quality of a relationship between two people, and the decision by at least one family member to start and maintain distance from the other.
There are many reasons that parents and children become estranged, such as not feeling love, support, or acceptance; physical/sexual/psychological abuse or neglect; poor parenting skills; substance abuse; issues related to money; and differences in values. Parents typically describe the cause of their estrangement as being due to external factors, such as work or stress, while children are likely to describe it as due to internal factors, such as saying their parent is too controlling or abusive.
What is important to understand with estrangement is that it is a result of the relationship between the two parties themselves, not due to outside interference. This problem can, however, become exacerbated by other problems in the family, such as mental or physical illness of a family member, or another family member exaggerating the reasons for the estrangement. For example, a parent may have a mental illness that only impacts their parenting abilities slightly, and the other parent may exaggerate this problem to their child and others. Typically, the parent causes estrangement because it is assumed that parents are responsible for maintaining the parent-child relationship; however, sometimes estrangement can be caused by children.
Unhealthy parent-child relationships typically become estranged when the child becomes an adult, not before, even in cases of divorce. Even in families in which there is abuse or neglect, children do not always reject their abuser. Children inherently want a relationship with their parental figures, even if they are not healthy or supportive. Younger children will be ambivalent and hopeful about their relationship with their parent in such situations, and with the right support and intervention, such relationships can still be positive and healthy. Only when children start to become more autonomous and mature, such as in late adolescence, are they likely to choose to distance themselves from a parent. Therefore, a younger child’s rejection of a parent is not often due to estrangement, but rather due to the external involvement of another parental figure (parental alienation).
Estrangement creates negative consequences for families. Parents report feeling sadness, anger, surprise, and disappointment, and often blame themselves for the problem. They often feel they have lost their role and voice in the family and feel helpless to repair their relationship with their child. Adult children who are estranged from their parents often question their decision, feel isolated from other family members, and are often concerned about starting their own families because they do not want to inadvertently recreate the negative relationship again with their own children. Estrangement can be healthy in order to protect the individual from further abuse, and so the long-term consequences of estrangement can be positive and better than if they had remained in contact with the other person.
Intervening in cases of estrangement require understanding the cause of the problem and ways that the family has, or has not dealt with it. In cases where the cause is due to poor parenting skills or anger management problems, psychoeducational programs or structured therapeutic trainings can help ameliorate the problem. If the problem is due to mental illness or substance abuse problems, then therapy, treatment, and/or medication management may help the parent, and family therapy can then be used to repair the parent-child relationship. When there has been violence or abuse, other more structured interventions are necessary to protect the child while also providing treatment to the parent, and ultimately therapy to reunify the parent and child if and when there is no longer cause for safety concerns.
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