Polarised politics and a growing awareness of how difficult relationships can impact our mental health are fuelling family estrangement, say psychologists.
It was a heated Skype conversation about race relations that led Scott to cut off all contact with his parents in 2019. His mother was angry he’d supported a civil rights activist on social media, he says; she said “a lot of really awful racist things”, while his seven-year-old son was in earshot.
“There was very much a parental feeling like ‘you can’t say that in front of my child, that's not the way we're going to raise our kids’,” explains the father-of-two, who lives in Northern Europe. Scott says the final straw came when his father tried to defend his mother’s viewpoint in an email, which included a link to a white supremacist video. He was baffled his parents could not comprehend the reality of people being victimised because of their background, especially given his own family history. “‘This is insane – you're Jewish’, I said. ‘Many people in our family were killed in Auschwitz’.”
It wasn’t the first time Scott had experienced a clash in values with his parents. But it was the last time he chose to see or speak to them.
Despite a lack of hard data, there is a growing perception among therapists, psychologists and sociologists that this kind of intentional parent-child ‘break-up’ is on the rise in western countries.
Formally known as ‘estrangement’, experts’ definitions of the concept differ slightly, but the term is broadly used for situations in which someone cuts off all communication with one or more relatives, a situation that continues for the long-term, even if those they’ve sought to split from try to re-establish a connection.
“The declaration of ‘I am done’ with a family member is a powerful and distinct phenomenon,” explains Karl Andrew Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University, US. “It is different from family feuds, from high-conflict situations and from relationships that are emotionally distant but still include contact.”
The declaration of ‘I am done’ with a family member is a powerful and distinct phenomenon – Karl Andrew Pillemer
After realising there were few major studies of family estrangement, he carried out a nationwide survey for his 2020 book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. The survey showed more than one in four Americans reported being estranged from another relative. Similar research for British estrangement charity Stand Alone suggests the phenomenon affects one in five families in the UK, while academic researchers and therapists in Australia and Canada also say they’re witnessing a “silent epidemic” of family break-ups.
On social media, there’s been a boom in online support groups for adult children who’ve chosen to be estranged, including one Scott is involved in, which has thousands of members. “Our numbers in the group have been rising steadily,” he says. “I think it’s becoming more and more common.”
The fact that estrangement between parents and their adult children seems to be on the rise – or at least is increasingly discussed – seems to be down to a complex web of cultural and psychological factors. And the trend raises plenty of questions about its impact on both individuals and society.
Past experiences and present values
Although research is limited, most break-ups between a parent and a grown-up child tend to be initiated by the child, says Joshua Coleman, psychologist and author of When Parents Hurt. One of the most common reasons for this is past or present abuse by the parent, whether emotional, verbal, physical or sexual. Divorce is another frequent influence, with consequences ranging from the adult child “taking sides”, to new people coming into the family such as stepsiblings or stepparents, which can fuel divisions over both “financial and emotional resources”.
Clashes in values – as experienced by Scott and his parents – are also increasingly thought to play a role. A study published in October by Coleman and the University of Wisconsin, US, showed value-based disagreements were mentioned by more than one in three mothers of estranged children. Pillemer’s recent research has also highlighted value differences as a “major factor” in estrangements, with conflicts resulting from “issues such as same sex-preference, religious differences or adopting alternative lifestyles”.
Both experts believe at least part of the context for this is increased political and cultural polarisation in recent years. In the US, an Ipsos poll reported a rise in family rifts after the 2016 election, while research by academics at Stanford University in 2012 suggested a larger proportion of parents could be unhappy if their children married someone who supported a rival political party, which was far less true a decade earlier. A recent UK study found that one in 10 people had fallen out with a relative over Brexit. “These studies highlight the way that identity has become a far greater determinant of whom we choose to keep close or to let go,” says Coleman.
Scott says he’s never discussed his voting preferences with his parents. But his decision to cut them off was partly influenced by his and his wife’s heightened awareness of social issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement and MeToo. He says other adult children in his online support group have fallen out due to value-based disagreements connected to the pandemic, from older parents refusing to get vaccinated to rows over conspiracy theories about the source of the virus.
The mental health factor
Experts believe our growing awareness of mental health, and how toxic or abusive family relationships can affect our wellbeing, is also impacting on estrangement.
“While there’s nothing especially modern about family conflict or a desire to feel insulated from it, conceptualising the estrangement of a family member as an expression of personal growth, as it is commonly done today, is almost certainly new,” says Coleman. “Deciding which people to keep in or out of one’s life has become an important strategy.”
Sam, who’s in her twenties and lives in the UK, says she grew up in a volatile household where both parents were heavy drinkers. She largely stopped speaking to her parents straight after leaving home for university, and says she cut ties for good after witnessing her father verbally abusing her six-year-old cousin at a funeral. Having therapy helped her recognise her own experiences as “more than just bad parenting” and process their psychological impact. “I came to understand that ‘abuse’ and ‘neglect’ were words that described my childhood. Just because I wasn't hit didn't mean I wasn't harmed.”
She agrees with Coleman it’s “becoming more socially acceptable” to cut ties with family members. “Mental health is more talked about now so it’s easier to say, ‘These people are bad for my mental health’. I think, as well, people are getting more confident at drawing their own boundaries and saying ‘no’ to people.”
The rise of individualism
Coleman argues our increased focus on personal wellbeing has happened in parallel with other wider trends, such as a shift towards a more “individualistic culture”. Many of us are much less reliant on relatives than previous generations.
“Not needing a family member for support or because you plan to inherit the family farm means that who we choose to spend time with is based more on our identities and aspirations for growth than survival or necessity,” he explains. “Today, nothing ties an adult child to a parent beyond that adult child’s desire to have that relationship.”
People are getting more confident at drawing their own boundaries and saying ‘no’ to people – Sam
Increased opportunities to live and work in different cities or even countries from our adult families can also help facilitate a parental break-up, simply by adding physical distance.
“It’s been much easier for me to move around than it would have been probably 20 years ago,” agrees Faizah, who is British with a South Asian background, and has avoided living in the same area as her family since 2014.
She says she cut ties with her parents because of “controlling” behaviours like preventing her from going to job interviews, wanting an influence on her friendships and putting pressure on her to get married straight after her studies. “They didn’t respect my boundaries,” she says. “I just want to have ownership over my own life and make my own choices.”
The impact of estrangement
There are strong positives for many estranged adult children who’ve detached themselves from what they believe are damaging parental relationships. “The research shows that the majority of adult children say it was for the best,” says Coleman.
But while improved mental health and perceived increased freedom are common outcomes of estrangement, Pillemer argues the decision can also create feelings of instability, humiliation and stress.
“The intentional, active severing of personal ties differs from other kinds of loss,” he explains. “In addition, people lose the practical benefits of being part of a family: material support, for example, and the sense of belonging to a stable group of people who know one another well.”
Feelings of loneliness and stigma seem to have been exacerbated for many estranged people during the pandemic. While the ‘Zoom boom’ enabled some families to feel closer and stay in touch more regularly, recent UK research suggests that adults with severed ties felt even more aware of missing out on family life during lockdown. Other studies point to Christmas and religious festivals being especially challenging periods for estranged relatives.
“I have my own family and my partner and my close friends, but nothing replaces those traditions you have with your parents,” agrees Faizah. Now in her thirties, she still finds the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr particularly tricky, even though she’s distanced herself from her parents’ religion. “It’s so tough. It’s so lonely... and I do miss my mum’s cooking.”
Choosing not to stay in touch with parents can have a knock-on effect on future family bonds and traditions, too. “For me, the biggest regret is my kids growing up without grandparents,” says Scott . “It’s preferable to [my parents] saying – gosh, I don’t know what – to them [but] I feel like my kids are missing out.”
Of course, all of this also has an impact on the parents who have, often unwillingly, been cut out of their children’s – and potentially grandchildren’s – lives. “Most parents are made miserable by it,” says Coleman. As well as losing their own footing in the traditional family unit, they typically “describe profound feelings of loss, shame and regret”.
Scott says his mother recently tried calling him. But he texted her saying he’d only consider re-establishing contact with his children if she recognised her comments had been “horribly racist” and apologised. So far, he says she hasn’t done that. “Even if all those things happened, I would always limit what I tell them about my life and certainly supervise any visits with the kids. Unfortunately, I don’t see any of that happening.”
Attempting to bridge rifts?
With political divisions centre-stage in many nations, as well as increasing individualism in cultures around the world, many experts believe the parent-child ‘break-up’ trend will stick around.
“My prediction is that it's either going to get worse or stay the same,” says Coleman. “Family relationships are going to be based much more on pursuing happiness and personal growth, and less on emphasising duty, obligation or responsibility.”
Pillemer argues that we shouldn’t rule out attempting to bridge rifts, however, particularly those stemming from opposing politics or values (as opposed to abusive or damaging behaviours).
“If the prior relationship was relatively close (or at least not conflictual), I think there is evidence that many family members can restore the relationship. It does involve, however, agreeing on a ‘demilitarised zone’ in which politics cannot be discussed,” he says.
It’s so tough. It’s so lonely... and I do miss my mum’s cooking – Faizah
For his book, he interviewed over 100 estranged people who had successfully reconciled, and found the process was actually framed by many as “an engine for personal growth”. “It is of course not for everyone, but for a number of people, bridging a rift, even if the relationship was imperfect, was a source of self-esteem and personal pride.”
He argues that both more detailed longitudinal studies and clinical attention are needed to get the topic of estrangement further “out of the shadows and into the clear light of open discussion”. “We need researchers to find better solutions – both for people who want to reconcile, and for help in coping with people in permanent estrangements.”
Scott welcomes the growing interest in adult break-ups. “I think it will help lots of people,” he says. “There is still a big stigma around estrangement. We see these questions in the group a lot: ‘What do you tell people?’ or ‘How do you bring it up when dating?".
But he’s unlikely to reconcile with his own parents, unless they recognise they’ve been racist. “The whole ‘blood is thicker than water’ - I mean, that's great if you have a cool family, but if you're saddled with toxic people, it's just not doable.”