finding a path forward

In his book Fractured Families, released in late 2020, Dr. Karl Pillemer discusses family estrangement in the United States. He is referring to people who have not been in communication with a family member for years at a time. He goes on to discuss the physical and emotional toll that such a breach places on those involved.

The natural bonding that occurs during childhood between children and parents makes severed ties between those now-adult children and their older parents a constant source of pain for these families. Moreover, depriving grandchildren of their grandparents and other extended family negatively affects all concerned.

Holidays are especially painful for those who have lost touch with their families. Growing up, we experience the [sometimes fictionalized] portrayal of life’s occasions as celebratory Hallmark events where tables are filled with laughing family members, decorations are perfect, and families are intact. Facebook postings and photo collages provide the illusion that everyone else has a great or near-perfect family life. That is not reality for many people. For some, years of conflict and abuse have made reconciliation impossible. For others, however, there may be another chance.

Historian Steven Mintz noted, “… In recent decades the majority of American families have experienced weakening [extended] kin ties and high rates of mobility and dispersion… These factors have made the opportunities for familial alienation greater than in the past.”

Divorce is another factor often resulting in family estrangement: specifically, children becoming estranged from one parent. Stephanie Coontz, the director of education and research for the Council on Contemporary Families, explained, “For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding.” Children worked in family businesses and lived nearby with grandparents providing childcare in return.

Parenting has evolved from that historical perspective. Some parents set expectations for their children that may not agree with the course the adult children choose to follow, leaving parents disappointed and children resentful. According to a survey of over 800 people, estrangements were often initiated by adult children who cited abuse as children, or disrespect and lack of support for them as mature individuals. On the flip side, parents often blame estrangement on their divorce, the child’s spouse or their child’s sense of entitlement.

Grown children may also resent the demands placed on them by aging parents: an older parent making unreasonable demands or relying only on their children for help that is available from others. This requires understanding on both sides.

While we cannot go back and undo our history or necessarily agree on our perceived truths, we can work on moving forward. People who provide therapy for estranged family members talk of the need to set boundaries. These boundaries require parents acknowledging the demands from work and/or family on their adult children.

How can a family move towards more harmony? Initiate a phone conversation, and follow that up with a regularly scheduled call. End each call with, “How about we talk the first of next month?” or some such suggestion.

Get rid of – or at least minimize – that feeling of walking on eggshells by determining what subjects are off-limits. Stick to those boundaries as you try and ease into regular contact. While some topics may need to be avoided altogether, give some thought to other areas of conversation. Ask about children, work, activities. Listen for the emotion behind the words. Is that anger or fear? Is it disappointment or annoyance? Try to recognize these emotions and act accordingly. Try not to overreact or react too quickly; acknowledge emotions (“I’m sorry if that disappointed you.”) and move to a safer subject.

Reflect on how your own behavior may contribute to the problem. When you receive a phone call, do you respond by saying, “You never call!” Or do you say, “It’s so good to hear from you?” Our responses and attitudes matter. Words matter.

Relationships require effort, understanding and boundaries, regardless of how close we are to one another. The work is worth it if it helps repair estranged families, your estranged relationships.

Latest posts by Gail Goodman (see all)