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Family Estrangement, What is It? 

All families have their squabbles and days when one member might not speak to another. However, there is one type of painful situation where the communication between family members stops; this is family estrangement.

Often, family estrangement occurs when an adult child is learning to cope with and get rid of harmful people in their lives, but it can happen under other circumstances as well.

This article will explore family estrangement, what it is, and what a person might do to help themselves when facing this devastating event.

The Definition of Family Estrangement


A good definition of family estrangement is as follows:

Family Estrangement (FE) is an emotional distancing and cessation of communication between one or more members of a family. It is the breakdown of the support from and to a person who can no longer trust their family to be on their side any longer.

Often FE happens when two members of a family disagree on the facts of a matter such as in the case of childhood trauma. The adult survivor might come out and talk about what happened to them, but the other member or members of the family think he or she is lying. This can lead to family estrangement, where the survivor refuses to speak to the family and often vice versa.

However, there are some situations where a family member becomes shunned by the rest of the group to the point where they may be an outcast to the entire family.

Any way one sees it, family estrangement is excruciatingly painful.

The Reasons for Family Estrangement

There are as many reasons for family estrangement as there are people who experience it, but the following list at least gives one a little understanding of the scope of the process.

  • Abuse
  • Bad Parenting
  • Betrayal
  • Mental Illness
  • Unsupportive Behavior
  • Toxicity
  • Drug and Alcohol Abuse

The trauma involved in not only what caused the estrangement but also the estrangement itself is palpable as each side struggles with the shame and guilt that often accompanies FE.

For adult children who have survived highly traumatic events in childhood where one or both parents were abusive, the pain can be even more profound as they crave the love and compassion they can never receive.

Parent-Child Estrangement


While any form of estrangement in a family is uncomfortable, nothing compares to the agony when a parent and child become estranged.

The parent-child relationship isn’t something the child chooses, and they do not choose to become dependent upon people who are not dependable. It is nature that causes the most significant harm because children must bond with their parents for safety, even if the parents never bond with them. This is where attachment disorders originate.

Societal views that say that the child-parent bond is sacred and is never broken make estrangement even more awkward and hurtful than it need be. There are times and situations where adult children of toxic parents need to distance themselves from them for self-preservation and to heal.

Adult children often find little to no support from others in their social network for two reasons. One is the fact, as mentioned above that society views an adult child should honor their parents no matter what because the bond is sacred. And, two, the adult child tends to hide the grief and anxiety they are feeling from their friends and other family members due to shame and guilt.

When Nature and Nurture Breakdown

When a baby is born, it’s first instinct is to cry out for a parent to care for it. Babies cannot forage for food, feed themselves, or even change their wet clothing and are utterly dependent on those who brought them into the world. Parents have an inborn instinct to care for the needs of their children. This is nature.

Nurture is a bit more complicated.

Nurturing a child means supporting him/her in other ways other than just physical support. It means protecting the child from danger, making sure they are clean, making certain their child feels wanted, accepted, loved, and heard.

When a parent or parents are unable or unwilling to follow their instincts, nature, and nurture, child abuse, and neglect are the results leaving the child to cope with enormously stressful years when growing up.

Family estrangement often begins with this breakdown of nature and nurture as the adult child finally understands that the toxic environment they grew up in was unnecessary and harmful to their mental and physical health.

Estrangement, then, is the natural outcome of parents not caring enough about their children, no matter what the reason, and adult children saying, no more.

Other Types of Family Estrangement

Parent-child estrangement isn’t the only type of FE that can happen; it can occur between any two family members or even who sides of a family. These begin as resentments, grow into arguments, and finally end with neither party speaking with, nor having anything to do with the other.

Never assume these kinds of estrangements are not painful because, to most humans, losing the support and possibly the love of someone in their family is utterly devastating.

Responding to Family Estrangement


What to do if one feels estranged from family? Do they run back to them and apologize? Should they continue their healing journey without them? The answer to both questions is yes.

Under some circumstances, it is wise to return to the parent or parents and apologize and make up with them. This should only happen if it is the survivor’s choice, and only if it is healthy to do so. Allowing a toxic parent to gain access to their soul again is not wise, but if that parent has changed or one finds they cannot live without some contact then survivors should go to them but limit their exposure to a timeframe they can handle.

If, on the other hand, the parent or parents involved in the estrangement are so toxic that being around them will cause more harm, then moving on without them is the thing to do. Life will continue, and survivors deserve and need better treatment than they will offer.

No matter what survivors decide to do, they should keep their chins up because there is no one more valuable to you than they. People can leave their parents, but they can never leave themselves.

One Can Not Un-Spill Milk


The old saying goes that one should not cry over spilled milk. The reason? Because one cannot un-spill it. What is done is done.

The same holds for the past. If one has become estranged from their family, they cannot go back in time and undo what has been done. That is pure physics; time is not reversible.

Instead of crying because the milk cannot be un-spilled, why not build a better life, in other words, pour a more significant, fresher, and better glass of milk.

This is especially true if they were abused by a parent or your parents as a child. While they cannot un-spill what they have done, you do not need to allow them to use and abuse them today.

The milk now belongs to the survivor. They can pour it into a new glass and enjoy it or forever weep because it cannot be un-spilled. It’s entirely up to them.

Letting Go to Cope with Family Estrangement

Family estrangement is an excruciating event that leaves people shattered and feeling alone. This is true whether the family member or members were ever supportive of the person or not because we all have images in our mind of what family is and not having it shatters our dreams.

Broken dreams are hard to overcome. They nag at the back of survivors and make them feel lonely, especially during the holiday season.

Learning to let go is much harder than it looks on paper as we all want our families to be together in a Norman Rockwell fashion. Survivors harbor in their minds how it should be and wonder what we can do to make things right and bring that fuzzy Christmas to ourselves with our estranged family.

There is little to nothing one can do to heal a breach, so stop trying to make it happen. Sitting and dreaming of the things you should have done or could do is counterintuitive and harmful. Letting go doesn’t mean you don’t love that person it means you are choosing to take care of yourself and allow them to live their own lives.

Planning for a Future Despite the Estrangement

If one craves to have a member of your family in their future as part of their life, you are not weak; they are a good son or daughter. Maybe the survivor’s anger is overshadowing the love they harbor toward the people who have disavowed them, or they have denied, but the only reason they are angry is that they care.

Moving on without a mom or dad, sister or brother or another family will hurt in the future. When survivor’s get a new job they are proud of, they have a baby, or they get married; all of these plus many more life experiences will bring a twinge of new pain because that person is not there.

However, making plans to move on is precisely what one must do, no matter how hard doing so becomes. Survivors must leave behind the old thoughts of how those people figure in the future and make a future for themselves.

Keep in mind that if those people who were toxic to survivors were indeed in their future, they would be miserable and wish they would go away. By making plans to move on without them survivors are saving themselves pain and standing on their own two feet and shouting to the world, I am worthwhile, I am kind, and I deserve respect, love, and dignity.

“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” ~ Buddha









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