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Family estrangement

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Title: Family estrangement  
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Subject: Disownment, Social rejection, Family, Shunning, Homelessness among LGBT youth in the United States
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Family estrangement

Family estrangement is the physical and or emotional distancing between at least two family members in an arrangement which is usually considered unsatisfactory by at least one involved party. Family estrangements can be attributed to any of several factors within the family, such as attachment disorders, differing values and beliefs, disappointment, major life events or change, parental alienation, or poor communication.[1] In one typical scenario, an adult child ceases contact with his or her parents and possibly other family members as the adult child transitions into adulthood. In another scenario, an intolerant parent casts out an adult child because of life choices. In both cases, the family estrangement may create an intergenerational rift that persists for decades and replicates itself in subsequent generations.


Family estrangements are broken relationships between parents, grandparents, siblings and children. Although a family estrangement can begin at any stage of life, it often begins during late adolescence or early adulthood. Characteristics of estrangement include a lack of empathy in one or more of the parties involved. This may result in heightened levels of stress in all parties, although in the case of an abusive relationship the victim may feel a sense of relief once the source of stress has been removed.

Estrangements may involve a third party, such as a member of the extended family or the adult child's spouse. The third party provides emotional support to the party initiating the estrangement, providing the estranger with an alternate social support system and thus enabling the deepening of the estrangement.

The rejected parties may try a number of strategies to repair the rift. In some cases, taking responsibility and making amends for harsh words or difficult circumstances may improve the relationship. However, if the estrangement is the result of a behavioural pattern (such as a personality disorder) rather than a sequence of unfortunate life events it is doubtful that the relationship will survive in any meaningful form.

In some cases, the initiator of the estrangement stipulates boundaries in order to maintain limited contact (and therefore limit emotional damage) with the person they see as their abuser. In other cases, the initiator is unable or unwilling to consider any type of reconciliation.[2]

Health implications

Those rejected by one or more family members in a family estrangement experience a decline in psychological and physical health.[3][4] The social rejection in family estrangement is the equivalent of ostracism which undermines four fundamental human needs: the need to belong, the need for control in social situations, the need to maintain high levels of self-esteem, and the need to have a sense of a meaningful existence.[5] The rejected parties suffer adverse psychological consequences such as loneliness, low self-esteem, aggression, and depression.[6]

Family estrangement activates the grief response. However, the rejected family may not achieve the final grief stage of acceptance, given that the social death of the relationship is potentially reversible. The prolonged suffering of the rejected party, together with a perceived or real stigma of having been rejected by a family member, results in isolation and behavioral changes in the rejected party.[7][8]


The separation of young adults from their families of origin in order to create families of their own is part of normal human development. According to Bowen theory, this separation can be achieved in a healthy and gradual manner that preserves the intergenerational relationships of the family of origin, providing both the new family and family of origin with a sense of continuity and support. Alternately, a traumatic schism can differentiate these life stages. Familial estrangement falls into the second category.

The United States has the highest rating on individualism on the Hofestede Cultural Dimensions Model.[9][10] The emphasis on the individual over a collective family unit is regarded as contributing to estrangement, as well as a rationale for estrangement.[11] In individualistic cultures, the estranger typically justifies the estrangement in relation to emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Estrangers who have received physical, sexual or other forms of obvious abuse often receive emotional support/validation as it easier for them to articulate and get others to understand their experience. Unfortunately for some victims of psychological or emotional abuse the damage has been done over a long period of time by a characteristic pattern of subtle deniable abuse. For these unfortunate people validation may never appear in any meaningful form unless it is professionally. The estranged may also become less socially acceptable because of lowered self-regulation, a reaction to the social rejection.[12]

Contributing causes

Humans are fallible and no family is without its problems. Although working through stressful issues with communication, consideration and compassion should be the default coping mechanism, that effort can be demanding.

Value conflict

A family member’s sexual orientation, choice of spouse, or change in religion may challenge the social values of a family. Life choices regarding education, profession, and geography are other emotionally laden topics that reflect social values. Working through feelings to reach an understanding that accommodates the individual within the family unit challenges each individual’s sense of identity as part of a society. When one or more family members rank their expectations and emotions as more important than those of another family member, then the conversation becomes a zero-sum game. This is known as a social trap in social psychology, a situation where the long-term consequences of decisions result in a cumulative loss to all parties. In these instances, estrangement is more likely than accommodation. When a parent or grandparent initiates the cut-off, the estrangement may manifest in disownment.


The parents' divorce is what Joshua Coleman, a psychologist specializing in estrangement, refers to as "a very, very common cause of estrangement."[13] The children may feel they need to choose sides, especially when parental alienation comes into play. Differing parenting styles may increase the rift. A parent's remarriage may also cause tension.


Domestic violence is a common trigger for estrangement.

Substance abuse

Substance abuse and alcohol abuse, on the part of either the estranger or the estranged, are common causes of family tension and the resulting estrangements. The most highly predictive domain of social estrangement for both alcohol and drug dependency is homelessness.[14]

Mental illness

Mental illness on the part of either the estranger or the estranged is also a common cause of family tension and estrangement.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is correlated with family estrangement. Both the PTSD sufferer's symptoms and the family members' failure to be sufficiently supportive can contribute to the estrangement. Studies on soldiers with PTSD have concluded that families with a PTSD warrior require more support to facilitate healing and prevent estrangement.[15]

Personality disorders

Personality disorders, particularly the cluster B personality disorders (antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder), cause significant interpersonal tension. Sufferers typically have volatile relationships and may be both the estranger and the estranged multiple times throughout their lives.


From disputes over inheritances to perceived insults in public settings, a sense of betrayal weakens the trust bonds of the family. According to Erik Erikson, trust is the foundation of any relationship.


There are underlying psychological factors that explain family estrangement beyond the surface rationale of the scenario.

Environment of evolutionary adaptedness

Humans have evolved to adapt to separation from their families and social units by bonding with new social units. This psychology was particularly valuable to the young women in Patty Hearst is a modern woman who experienced capture-bonding. Attachment theorist John Bowlby coined the term Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) to explain the psychology that creates this type of behavioral change.[16]

Bowen theory

In Bowen family systems theory, emotional cutoff and avoidance are unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with anxiety and stress. These coping mechanisms represent emotional and intellectual systems that are fused rather than differentiated, so that emotion overwhelm objective thought process and govern behavior.[17] Poor differentiation is associated with continued relationship problems in life. Poor differentiation is also contagious in that it creates high stress in others, as well as models poor behavior. High differentiation is associated with emotional interdependence and multi-generational cooperation. Triangulation is when a third party enters the dynamic. A third party increases tension and often triggers a rebellion. Bowen theory is part of attachment theory.[18]

Victim - persecutor - rescuer

The Karpman drama triangle is precipitated by a familial estrangement that involves a third party. A family member plays the victim role, casting the family as the persecutor. The new romantic interest, close friend or another family, for psychological motivations of their own, come to the victim’s rescue and in so doing validates the dynamic for the victim. A sensationalistic 2014 family estrangement involving a cheerleader in New Jersey is an example of this dynamic. Another family not only provided refuge to the 18-year-old high school student who was battling her parents over curfew, drinking and a boyfriend, but also funded a lawsuit on the teen’s behalf seeking child support and other material considerations from the parents. The family reunited only after international media attention that, although split, in the majority harshly rejected the teen's complaints.

Substitute families

Both the estranger and the estranged may use social and work relationships to create substitute families.[19] Support groups and other highly emotional organizations also provide a conduit for emotional energy from unresolved issues with parents, siblings and other family members.[20] Becoming passionate about a cause or hobby is another coping mechanism.

The future

Social workers working with the elder population are at the forefront of a new fallout from the family estrangement. Non-supportive or absent family members during parent or sibling end of life acutely increase the pain and stress of this transition.[1] Additional stress in financial, medical and welfare sectors requires a re-evaluation of the social policy regarding family expectations versus governmental support systems.

See also


  1. ^ a b Agllias, Kylie. (Sep 2013). Family Estrangement. Encyclopedia of Social Work. Subject: Couples and Families, Aging and Older Adults, Children and Adolescents. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.013.919
  2. ^ Joshua Coleman’s website.
  3. ^ Agllias, K. (2011a). Every family: Intergenerational estrangement between older parents and their adult-children. (Doctoral dissertation, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Newcastle, Callaghan).
  4. ^ McKnight, A. S. (2003). The impact of cutoff in families raising adolescents. In P. Titelman (Ed.), Emotional cutoff: Bowen family systems theory perspectives (pp. 273–284). New York, NY: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.
  5. ^ Williams, Kipling D. (2002). Ostracism: the power of silence. New York: Guilford. ISBN 1-57230-831-1
  6. ^ McDougall, P., Hymel, S., Vaillancourt, T., & Mercer, L. (2001). The consequences of childhood rejection. In M. R. Leary (Ed.), Interpersonal rejection. (pp. 213-247). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  7. ^ Boss, P. (2006). Loss, trauma and resilience: Therapeutic work with ambiguous loss. New York NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  8. ^ Walter, C.A. & McCoyd, J.L.M. (2009). Grief and loss across the lifespan: A biopsyosocial perspective. New York, NY: Springer.
  9. ^ Geert Hofstede’s academic website.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Coleman, Joshua. (25 Aug 2010). How parents can start to reconcile with estranged kids. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
  12. ^ Richman, Laura Smart. Leary, Mark R. (2009) Reactions to discrimination, stigmatization, ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection: A multimotive model. Psychology Review. 116(2). DOI: 10.1037/a0015250
  13. ^
  14. ^ Sanna J. Thompson, Lynn Rew, Amanda Barczyk, Pepper McCoy, and Ada Mi-Sedhi. (October 2009) Social Estrangement: Factors Associated with Alcohol or Drug Dependency among Homeless, Street-Involved Young Adults. Journal of Drug Issues 39: 905-929, doi:10.1177/002204260903900407
  15. ^ Ray, Susan L, Vanstone, Meredith. "The impact of PTSD on veterans’ family relationships: An interpretive phenomenological inquiry. 2009 Jun;46(6):838-47. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2009.01.002.
  16. ^ Henson, Keith (Summer 2006). "Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War". Mankind Quarterly (The Council for Social and Economic Studies) 46 (4).
  17. ^
  18. ^ Bowen Center.
  19. ^ The Bowen Center
  20. ^ McKnight, A. S. (2003). The impact of cutoff in families raising adolescents. In P. Titelman (Ed.), Emotional cutoff: Bowen family systems theory perspectives. New York, NY: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

External links

  • Young Adult Development Project
  • The Bowen Center
  • Stand Alone Charity
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