Parents and adult children

When you’re about to ask a friend or a colleague whether they’re going home for the holidays this week, think twice.

The holidays — so often tied to family and tangled in questions of going home — are not always so happy when you are estranged from a parent or child. They’re even more difficult when well-meaning types push you to bury the hatchet for the sake of peace in this theoretically joyous season.


Defining Estrangement

Kristina Scharp, an assistant professor at Utah State University and director of the Family Communication Lab there, has published extensively about parent-child estrangement. She defines estrangement as occurring when at least one family member voluntarily and intentionally distances himself or herself from another because of an ongoing negative relationship. And she notes that estrangement is complicated for the people experiencing it.

“Sometimes estrangement means a clean break, a fight and that’s it, but it can also be a chaotic disassociation, a relationship that’s on and off again over the years,” Scharp explained.

Estrangement is not simply needing to distance oneself from a parent and not coming home for the holidays one year, added Leah Bryant, an associate professor from DePaul University who teaches Family Communication and the Dark Side of Human Relationships.

“There’s a difference between wanting a hiatus or wanting space for awhile and deciding that your life would be better without them,” Bryant said.


How Estrangement Happens

Bryant notes that estrangement is not usually a mutual process, and the circumstances depend on who is doing the estranging.

“With adult children, it is often based on prolonged psychologically damaging interactions — mistreatment, abuse or just indifference — with their parents, and they finally have the fortitude to put some distance between themselves or sever that relationship,” Bryant said.

There is an idealized image of what families are like, and it’s a reminder now that the family is broken and they worry that maybe they themselves are broken.

— Professor Leah Bryant, DePaul University

Parents often don’t know why their child is estranged from them, though most people have heard stories about children of narcissistic moms who severed ties or “casually cruel” parents who severed for their own sanity and self- preservation as well as that of their loved ones. Scholars point out that this type of estrangement is sometimes healthy for both people in the relationship.

“A lot of parents have no idea why their grown children don’t talk to them anymore, and it’s devastating to them,” said Scharp. “It’s this weird thing where it feels terrible, but it’s probably also helpful because often, the other person (parent or child) might not be good for them.”

Although there are varied reasons cited for parents severing ties with their adult children, Bryant said much of the research cites parental disapproval of their child’s love interest or sexuality. In these cases, the estrangement can become mutual, she said.