The current study concerns the topic of family estrangement, also referred to in the literature as simply estrangement. Estrangement is defined as the loss of relationships between family members as a result of physical or emotional distancing. Estranged family members have little to no communication with each other, often for prolonged periods of time (Harman et al., 2016). It is a common belief that relationships between parents and children are unconditionally supportive and last a lifetime. However, the data on family estrangement prevalence suggests otherwise, making relationship dissolution in parent-child dyads a rather common occurrence. Conti (2015) has found that up to 53.5% of individuals experience family estrangement in one form or another, and 39% of them are alienated from their immediate family (parents, siblings, or children).
The focus of this literature review is on estrangement in parent-child dyads. Conti (2015) points out that immediate family estrangement has become more prevalent in the last couple of decades, bringing about a host of problems, be it psychological difficulties and decay of family structure. Because the phenomenon has a profound effect on all parties involved, it is critical to gain a deeper understanding of its nature and translate findings into practice. Oftentimes, a dissolution of a relationship comes as a surprise for either party. However, it is quite likely that estrangement is a result of longstanding dysfunctional family dynamics that can be traced back to early childhood.
A theoretical model that may help to understand the dynamics of estrangement is Bowlby’s theory of attachment. The theory hinges on the assumption that to develop socially and emotionally, a child needs to have a secure relationship with at least one primary caregiver (Heard et al., 2018). The quality of the said relationship impacts a child’s life outcomes as it teaches his or her relationship patterns to be followed later in life. According to Bowlby, a person develops one of three attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, or secure (Heard et al., 2018). The first two styles are insecure, though with orthogonally different manifestations. While an anxiously attached person is afraid of any space in a relationship and compulsively seeks maximum closeness, someone who is avoidant escapes such intensity to preserve themselves and avoid pain.
Pragg (2019) shows that avoidant attachment plays a role in the discontinuation of communication between adult children and their parents. Avoidant attachment emerges when parents fail to adequately respond to child needs or act neglectful (Pragg, 2019). Such parents actively discourage the expression of emotions in their children, especially those that are negative – fear, frustration, anger, and distress. Though suppressing children’s feelings may provide short-term relief, what it does in the long haul is erode the relationship and nullify the chances of a healthy emotional connection. Adult children give their parents “the taste of their own medicine” by keeping them at a distance. Interestingly enough, such behaviors are not subconscious but rather purposeful. For instance, Agllias (2015) interviewed a small sample of older adults who were estranged from their adult children at the moment regarding their perception of the situation. One-third of the participants said that their children were using estrangement to punish them for their past parenting failures (Agllias, 2015). The findings suggest that the children who could not process their pain stemming from childhood and adolescence in any other way chose to take revenge on parents.
Troubled early childhood attachment is not the only or primary driver behind parent-child alienation. Carr et al. (2015) cite literature that enlists many possible reasons such as traumatic experiences of family violence, abuse, neglect, parenting failures, and explosive fights between the parents, especially prior to divorce. Sometimes parents are aware of the destructive potential of such events and admit that their children must have decided to distance themselves from the rest of the family for their own emotional health (Agllias, 2015). However, as found by Carr et al. (2015), parents are more likely than children to be unsure about what ruined their relationship. Apparently, there is a discrepancy between parents and children interpreting the reasons for their loss of connection. According to Carr et al. (2015) what definitely does not help to fill in this knowledge gap is studies that focus exclusively on children or parents. In addition, a good share of research addresses a predefined cause of relationship dissolution, therefore, preventing the emergence of other themes.
To overcome this limitation of the existing body of research, Carr et al. (2015) studied an unmatched sample of 898 parents and children. A theory that Carr et al. (2015) utilized is attribution theory, a model that explains how people interpret their own behavior and the behavior of others. The authors of attribution theory claimed that humans never stop observing and analyzing others. A simple hypothesis was put forward: every time an individual is confronted with something that is not easily explainable, they resort to either internal (personal) or external attribution. Internal attribution explains behavior with a person’s character qualities while external attribution transfers responsibility to outside events. Carr et al. (2015) synthesize existing evidence and claim that in mutually satisfactory relationships, people tend to attribute positive behaviors to their partners’ dispositions while considering negative patterns involuntary and unintentional. These findings may be applied to family analysis to gain a better understanding of parents’ and children’s perspectives.
Carr et al. (2015) discovered that the two sides of the parent-child dyad interpreted the dissolution of relationships differently. Parents named intra- and inter-family reasons among the primary drivers of later separation. According to parents, it was situational and family stressors that eroded the connection, and if only they were absent, the family integrity would remain uncompromised (Carr et al., 2015). In other words, parents resorted to external attribution of negative events, while downplaying the role of their own and their children’s personalities. Conversely, children were more inclined to attribute internally: they reasoned that it was their parents’ immutable personal characteristics that made it impossible for them to maintain a relationship (Carr et al., 2015). Children named irredeemable differences as the main reason for estrangement.
An aspect where parents and children may differ significantly and fail to come to a consensus is values. Gilligan et al. (2015) studied the role of broader social norms and personal values in shaping family dynamics. The question was whether the violations of the former or discrepancies in the latter were a better predictor of parent-child estrangement down the path. Literature suggests that parents are sensitive to their children’s failures and achievements because they feel as if it is their responsibility to help their offspring succeed (Gilligan et al., 2015). Therefore, when children break social norms, parents’ self-image feels threatened. Value similarity is pointed out by researchers as being at the core of healthy intimate relationship development and maintenance.
Gilligan et al. (2015) discovered that the risk of estrangement was greater in those families where values were not shared. This is not to say that following social norms was a non-issue for study participants. It is rather that parents or children were ready to accept violations as long as the deeds aligned with their personal values. For instance, some parents from the sample reported their children’s incarceration status (Gilligan et al., 2015). Regardless, they were willing to maintain a relationship and forgive their children’s mistakes. However, the parents noted that had their children been charged with more serious crimes, they would probably think twice about the future of their relationships. In other words, social norms receive a subjective interpretation within family units and are held against individual values.
The literature review has shown the importance of including both sides’ perspectives in the agenda. Based on the research findings, the current study seeks to answer the following questions and puts forward the following hypotheses:
- R1. How different are the attachment styles of estranged parents and children?
- H0. Estranged parents and children have similar attachment styles, with the prevailing avoiding style.
- H1. Estranged parents and children have dissimilar attachment styles.
- R2. How do estranged parents and children explain adverse family events and stressors (divorce, fights, neglect, and others)?
- H0. Estranged parents and children attribute causes in similar ways (both attribute internally or externally).
- H1. Estranged parents and children attribute causes in dissimilar ways.
- R3. Are estranged children and parents more accepting of social norms violation or value dissimilarity?
- H0. Estranged parents and children are more accepting of social norms violations.
- H1. Estranged parents and children are more accepting of value dissimilarity.
Agllias, K. (2015). Difference, choice, and punishment: Parental beliefs and understandings about adult child estrangement. Australian Social Work, 68(1), 115-129.
Carr, K., Holman, A., Abetz, J., Kellas, J. K., & Vagnoni, E. (2015). Giving voice to the silence of family estrangement: Comparing reasons of estranged parents and adult children in a non matched sample. Journal of Family Communication, 15(2), 130-140.
Conti, R. P. (2015). Family estrangement: Establishing a prevalence rate. Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science, 3(2), 28-35.
Gilligan, M., Suitor, J. J., & Pillemer, K. (2015). Estrangement between mothers and adult children: The role of norms and values. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 77(4), 908–920. Web.
Harman, J. J., Leder-Elder, S., & Biringen, Z. (2016). Prevalence of parental alienation drawn from a representative poll. Children and Youth Services Review, 66, 62-66.
Heard, D., McCluskey, U., & Lake, B. (2018). Attachment therapy with adolescents and adults: Theory and practice post Bowlby. Routledge.
Pragg, B. (2019). Adult child-parent relationships: Predicting physical and emotional estrangement. In Population Association of America Annual Meeting. Austin, TX.