Family relationships can be challenging. We don’t pick who our family is, but they are usually a source of love, support, and affection. Sometimes, there are issues that grow and evolve until there are estranged family members. Family estrangement is a loss of a relationship between members of the same family, usually through physical and emotional distancing. It usually means there is little to no communication for a long period of time.
The most common estrangement happens between an adult child and their parents, but any family members can become estranged. It can leave people feeling sad, lonely, and angry, but also a little helpless.
This article breaks down some of the main reasons for family members to become estranged, along with some ways to help rebuild those estranged relationships. It’s not always possible to successfully bring people back in the fold, because it’s dependent on each member being willing to work on things, but there are some steps that make it a little easier.
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Reasons for Family Estrangement
According to a 2015 study, most estrangements between parents and adult children are initiated by the child. The numbers surprise a lot of people. Karl Pillemer wrote a book called Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. He found that 27% of Americans over the age of 18 had cut off communication with a family member. His study covered estrangements from parents, children, siblings, and extended family members. Let’s look at a few of the most common reasons estrangement happens.
1. Childhood Trauma
Kylie Agillias, a social worker and researcher, did an in-depth study with adults kids that had cut ties with their parents. Poor parenting and abuse were big contributors to the reason for the estrangement. In cases of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse, children feel betrayed by their parents, even if the offender is someone outside the family.
In order to process trauma and find healthy ways to move past it, many adults utilize therapy and learn ways to protect themselves going forward, which could include cutting ties in toxic relationships. Sometimes the estrangement is not something that can be mended easily.
2. Poor Parenting
Estranged children often call out poor parenting as the reason for cutting ties. The signs of poor parenting can include favoritism, criticism, shaming, narcissism, expecting the child to meet emotional needs, or even taking care of responsibilities that should fall to the parent. In these situations, children describe their parents as self-centered and manipulative. This is hard for parents to own up to and understand, which can make the reunification process difficult.
3. Religious or Political Differences
Rifts in family relationships can often be tied to differences in religious beliefs or political ideals. Things are becoming more polarised in today’s society, and it’s a much more emotional conversation than it was 100 years ago. Many people have difficulty understanding how someone can choose a leader or participate in a religion that stands for something so opposite from what they believe in. Conversations at dinner often turn nasty because someone says something triggering, and it becomes impossible to ignore.
These differences often build up and compound over time until there is an explosion. Gen Z reports a larger political split with their families than the generations before them, so there’s a chance that this could get worse in the years to come.
4. Disapproval of Relationships
In most cases, you don’t get to choose your family, but you do get to choose your partner. However, that can present a challenge if your family doesn’t love your chosen partner. Relationships with in-laws can be hard for some people. When you fall in love, you don’t necessarily fall in love with the entire family. Parents that don’t approve of the person their child has chosen to live with, marry, have children with, or just be in a relationship can be a big challenge. The same can apply to divorced parents who remarry.
5. Financial Disputes
Money can cause as many problems as it solves, especially with family. Some situations involve having a lot of money and fighting over inheritance or possibly being cut off from the family’s resources. Other situations might come from not having money and struggling to pay bills or feeling responsible to financially support someone else in the family.
When financial disagreements reach a certain point, there may be lawyers involved, and it can be extremely hard to bounce back from that. Open communication is important so there are never any misunderstandings or missed expectations. Money is a challenging topic in many different kinds of relationships, and family is no exception.
One of the most common reasons for estrangement in families today is distance. Children move away and find new routines, and it can be extremely hard to adjust for the family. There might be feelings of loss or a lack of connection that can lead to bigger issues. Technology makes things easier to keep in touch, but it doesn’t replace the connection you get from spending time together.
7. The Need for Independence
Some children grow up in a household where their parents are extremely engaged in their daily activities. It’s sometimes called anxious parenting or helicopter parenting. There should be a release over time to allow teenagers to start to feel independent. When there isn’t a transition like that, it might cause the children to leave immediately when becoming an adult to find their own independence.
8. Changes and Shifts in Family Dynamics
Family dynamics have rapidly changed in the last 50 years. Divorce rates are higher, birth rates are lower, and families look slightly different than they did in the early 1900s. Family relationships exist out of love and affection instead of duty and honor. Technology has changed the way that we connect with each other, and there is often less face-to-face time.
The polarization of political and cultural values is also having a big impact on the increase in estrangement. People are more open about their politics and social justice issues which can cause big rifts between family members. There is also a bigger focus on independence and more people moving out of the cities they were raised in. There are fewer and fewer family businesses to take over. Not to mention more awareness of gender identity, mental illness, and other struggles young adults might view differently than their parents.
All of these factors are helping to contribute to the rise of estrangement, along with a bigger emphasis on mental health. But that doesn’t mean the effects are irreversible, so let’s look at ways to bring family members back together.
Ways to Reach Out to Estranged Family Members
Once you’ve made the decision to improve your relationship with estranged family members, there are often quite a few more steps that you’ll need to work through to get back to healthy family life. Each situation is completely different, but here are a few things to consider to make the process a bit easier.
1. Get support and gain an understanding of the process.
Support is critical in these moments. Whether you have a friend or another family member who has gone through the process of mending a relationship like this or just someone that will be there when things get tough, it’s good to have some support. You can often learn a lot from someone who has been through this before, especially someone who knows you and your situation.
If you don’t have a strong support system that is well-versed in reunification after estrangement, there are some incredible resources available to you. Joshua Coleman’s book, When Parents Hurt, is filled with case examples and strategies he has used on the families he’s worked with for years. It’s a good place to start just to understand more about the healing process before you dive in. You’ll have a better grasp of the different outcomes and ways to improve the situation.
2. Start simple.
The first time you reach out to your estranged family member doesn’t need to be a long phone call detailing all your feelings and wishes for the future. It’s good to start with something more simple and feel out the temperature of the situation from the other side. You should continue doing this because you never know when someone is going to respond and reciprocate the communication.
Simple reach outs can include a birthday or holiday greeting to let them know you’re thinking of them. You can send cards in the mail or drop a quick memory in a text message. Just remember not to have high expectations that you will receive a response at first, but it’s important to keep making small attempts to get through to the estranged person.
3. Write down your feelings.
Once you’re ready to share more in-depth feelings, consider writing them down. Take time to organize your thoughts and put them down on paper (or on the computer.) There is probably a lot you want to say and get out, and the initial conversations can be emotional, and hard to communicate the things you want to say clearly. By writing a letter or an email, you can take your time, get input, and ensure that you aren’t missing anything.
You might not necessarily know how this will be received, so prepare yourself for little or no response. But it’s still a strong way to communicate your feelings and maybe offer an apology or take some accountability. It could really open a door and start communication again if possible.
4. Don’t feed the anger.
Anger is natural, especially when emotions are high. Try to rid yourself of that anger before you reach a reconciliation moment. Sometimes, your supporters will help fuel the anger by backing you up. You must work hard to let go of that anger and work hard to approach the situation with calm energy and rational thoughts. Many arguments escalate as people get angry and things are said in the heat of the moment.
If you aren’t sure how to approach the situation calmly, consider some physical exercises like deep breathing and meditation. Clear your mind and set intentions for positive interactions. Phone conversations might be easier because you can’t see people’s nonverbal cues, and you can write yourself a reminder and keep it where you can see it.
Bringing estranged family members back into the fold is tricky. Still, if you put a lot of good energy into the initial interactions, you can start to rebuild with a positive foundation. Leaving anger at the door will allow you to share your emotions calmly and hear the other party share their feelings as well.
5. Listen without being defensive.
Similar to feelings of anger, you must be careful of how defensive you are when communicating with estranged family members. In the findings from the Cornell University Family Reconciliation Project, which did in-depth interviews with people experiencing estrangement, most people want their version of the past to be acknowledged and for the person to apologize.
Each estrangement is different, but someone usually feels they are owed an apology. It might even be both parties that need to apologize and take accountability for their part in the situation. In either case, there isn’t much that can be gained if you enter the situation just wanting to argue your point and be right. Concessions need to be made to repair the relationship and move forward. Show your personal growth and understanding.
The best way to approach the conversation is to focus on active listening. Make eye contact, take time to process what the other person is saying, think before you speak, and ask questions to help you understand better. Don’t sit and wait for your turn to speak. You need to really hear the other person and make sure they listen to you to assist in the rebuilding process.
6. Be self-aware moving forward.
Once you’ve had a conversation and gotten to the root of the issue, it’s important to work hard to avoid a repeat in the future. Estranged parents or family members who take the time to process and understand why the estrangement happened in the first place must ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. Take some time to process and self-reflect to help avoid additional problems.
Self-awareness is essential for many things, but it’s especially critical in interpersonal relationships. Knowing how you come across to others and working on kindness and love will ensure you have stronger and more satisfying relationships. This is good for your family and your friends. There are many ways to become more self-aware, like journaling or meeting with a therapist, or just asking your closest friends to call you out on behaviors that you want to avoid. Learning from estrangements can help improve your other relationships if there are any toxic behaviors you have that you may not have realized before.
7. Set boundaries and abide by them.
To protect your mental health and well-being, it’s important to set some boundaries. Whatever caused the estrangement in the first place may have been resolved, but it is hard to jump back into a typical parent-child relationship. Healing takes time, and so does rebuilding trust in a relationship. Maybe you don’t return to the large family holiday gathering, but you join them for dessert and ease back into the fold.
Communicate your expectations clearly and be firm with the limits you set. At the same time, respect the boundaries set by others. If your initial falling out was due to political differences, maybe you all avoid those topics for a while. If your family disapproves of a relationship, perhaps you find new activities to do as a smaller group while people get to know each other. You might not return to a big, happy family overnight, or possibly never at all, but you can make small steps in the right direction to find a better place if everyone is willing.
8. Go to therapy individually and together.
Therapy is always a fantastic tool when dealing with strained relationships and unpacking emotional or physical trauma. Therapists are trained to have conversations and lead people to discover deep feelings and emotions. In addition to discovery, therapists can always equip their clients with tools to handle tough situations more gracefully and calmly. They are experts in ways to heal the conflict.
If you have tried everything with your estranged family member, but nothing is working, it might be time to consider therapy for all parties. This can be tricky if the other person isn’t interested, but you can sign up and attend first and see what strategies they can help with. Family therapists have lots of experience with all kinds of unique situations, so having someone unbiased to listen to your concerns and issues about your family situation is helpful. They can help you become more self-aware of the part you may have played in the disagreements and help you begin to mend the fences.
When your family members are ready to attend therapy as well, you can meet as a group and allow the therapist to act as a mediator. They will give you some leading questions and help you communicate and navigate the hard conversations to find some resolution. It may sound like a last resort, but therapy is helpful for everyone at any stage of life. Maybe you can suggest meeting with a therapist before a family conflict becomes so large that someone is cut off or distances themselves.
Final Thoughts on Reconciling with Estranged Family Members
If you are missing an estranged family member or are dealing with members of your family that are estranged, we hope these steps give you a place to start in the reconciliation process. Stay positive and lead with kindness when working to bring someone back into the fold. It can take a long time, but the efforts will be worth it in the end if the family is joined back together healthily and lovingly.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you have an estranged family member, start simple and slowly reopen the line of communication. Acknowledge their feelings, take accountability, and apologize for anything you’ve done to hurt them.
When dealing with an estranged family, take things one step at a time. Try and understand where the problems came from and work to resolve them calmly. Therapists are also a great help!
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