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Difference, Choice, and Punishment: Parental Beliefs and Understandings about Adult Child Estrangement

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Abstract

This article reports on qualitative research that examined the experiences of 25 Australian participants aged over 60 years who were estranged from at least one adult child. When participants were asked about their perceptions of the cause of the estrangement they described events prior to and at the time of the estrangement, possibly perceived as a form of parental rejection or relational devaluation by the estranged children. Findings suggested a complex interplay of long-term factors that appeared to contribute to an eroded relationship between parents and children, including divorce, third-party alienation, and multiple family stressors. Ultimately participants said that the adult children responded by: (1) choosing what they perceived to be a less rejecting or less dangerous relationship over a relationship with their parent; (2) choosing to stop contact or reduce emotional interactions with their parent; or (3) using estrangement to punish their parent for the perceived rejection.
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Difference, Choice, and Punishment:
Parental Beliefs and Understandings
about Adult Child Estrangement
Kylie Aglliasa
a Social Work Program, University of Newcastle, Newcastle,
Australia
Published online: 15 Jul 2014.
To cite this article: Kylie Agllias (2015) Difference, Choice, and Punishment: Parental Beliefs
and Understandings about Adult Child Estrangement, Australian Social Work, 68:1, 115-129, DOI:
10.1080/0312407X.2014.927897
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2014.927897
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Difference, Choice, and Punishment: Parental Beliefs and
Understandings about Adult Child Estrangement
Kylie Agllias*
Social Work Program, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia
Abstract
This article reports on qualitative research that examined the experiences of
25 Australian participants aged over 60 years who were estranged from at least one
adult child. When participants were asked about their perceptions of the cause of the
estrangement they described events prior to and at the time of the estrangement,
possibly perceived as a form of parental rejection or relational devaluation by the
estranged children. Findings suggested a complex interplay of long-term factors that
appeared to contribute to an eroded relationship between parents and children,
including divorce, third-party alienation, and multiple family stressors. Ultimately
participants said that the adult children responded by: (1) choosing what they perceived
to be a less rejecting or less dangerous relationship over a relationship with their parent;
(2) choosing to stop contact or reduce emotional interactions with their parent; or
(3) using estrangement to punish their parent for the perceived rejection.
Keywords:Aged; Family Interventions; Qualitative Research; Estrangement
In Western cultures, ideologies about family tend to emphasise the nuclear formation,
kinship, affinity, and agreement. Conversely, diversity, conflict, and intergenerational
estrangement are often minimised or unacknowledged. Family estrangement occurs
when a family member stops contact with one or more other members due to
decreased affection, disagreement, or conflict (Agllias, 2011a). When all contact
ceases this is referred to as a physical estrangement. When family members are
uncomfortable with each other and avoid or minimise contact, this is referred to as
emotional estrangement. Both situations are characterised by some degree of physical
distancing, and a significant lack of emotional intimacy and trust (Sucov, 2006).
While the literature offers theory and practice wisdom in relation to the causes of
family estrangement, there is very little empirical evidence about the cause of
estrangement from the perspective of the initiator or the person who feels they have
been cut off.
Accepted 23 February 2014
*Correspondence to: Dr Kylie Agllias, School Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, University
Drive, Callaghan, NSW 2308, Australia. Email: Kylie.Agllias@newcastle.edu.au
Australian Social Work, 2015
Vol. 68, No. 1, 115129, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2014.927897
© 2014 Australian Association of Social Workers
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Recent qualitative research conducted in Australia investigated the experience of
25 older parents estranged from at least one adult child (Agllias, 2011b). It found that
estrangement was often experienced as a traumatic and unanticipated loss that was
difficult to reconcile and had negative implications for other family and social
relationships (Agllias, 2013a,b). This paper draws from this research with a focus on
the older persons explanations for the estrangement. It makes no claim about
causation, but rather presents participantsperspectives on causation. It offers a
phenomenological examination of one side of the story: the older persons
perceptions, beliefs, and musings about the possible reasons for estrangement. It
examines a number of associated factors emerging from the data warranting further
investigation, including the adult childs perceived relational devaluation, multiple
family stressors, and third-party alienation, and suggests that sociohistorical
conditions have considerable potential to affect intergenerational relationships in
later life. It suggests that social workers are well placed to work preventatively with
families experiencing such complex stressors.
Causes of Family Estrangement: A Brief Review
The literature about family estrangementsometimes referred to as cut offis
relatively rare, and located primarily in the popular, clinical, and family therapy
realm. There is a dearth of social work literature on the topic (see Jerrome, 1994;
Sichel, 2004). However, related concepts in social psychology are useful in under
standing the concept. For example, Wilguss(2003) review of ostracism in the animal
kingdom, and the social psychological study of ostracism and rejection primarily
regard estrangement as an innate mechanism for survival (Lakin & Chartrand, 2005).
People might exclude or estrange others to encourage conformity or as a form of
punishment or self-protection (Williams & Zadro, 2005).
One of the most developed theoretical explanations for family estrangement
originates from the work of Dr Murray Bowen, and Bowen Family Systems Theory.
For Bowen (1982), emotional cut off primarily relates to the adult childs relationship
with his or her parents, and deals with the way people separate themselves from the
past in order to start their lives in the present generation(Bowen, 1982, p. 382).
Separating or differentiating from parents is considered a normal process in Western
cultures. Family therapists suggest that renegotiation of the hierarchical boundary (or
parental authority) establishes a more equitable relationship where both generations
are more able to accept and appreciate the individuality of the other and where
intimacy is a choice rather than an obligation (Williamson, 1981). However, adult
children are also anticipated to have some degree of unresolved attachment to their
parents, using some combination of emotional and physical distance to maintain
equilibrium in the intergenerational family (Bowen, 1982). Bowens work views
differentiation processes on a continuum, from children who grow away, to those
who tear awayand those who cut off. Cut off is thought to be most likely when
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the attachment between parent and adult child is situated in the fusion realm
i.e., where emotional intensity, dependency, and conformity are high (Bowen, 1982).
Other literature and research also point to disordered attachment as being the most
salient cause of estrangement between parent and child. Attachment theory suggests
that people with avoidant attachment styles are most likely to withdraw from an
attachment relationship at times of conflict or during the activation of distressing
attachment-related emotions (Bowlby, 1979), and this propensity is confirmed in
studies of people with avoidant attachment working models (Shaver, Mikulincer,
Lavy, & Cassidy, 2009). Originally attachment theorists focused on maternal sensi
tivity as the primary condition for secure attachment, but later work has confirmed
that adverse events, including divorce and maternal depression, are much more
common in adolescents exhibiting avoidant and anxious attachment patterns
(Weinfield, Sroufe, & Egeland, 2000).
However, family estrangement is mostly viewed as an interpersonal process, which
might be influenced by stressors. For example, Bowens(1982) work on triangulation
suggests that a third person is often drawn into a dyadic relationship when
differences are perceived to be too difficult to solve through negotiation. The effect
is the reduction of tension between the pair, but it perpetuates avoidance of conflict
rather than facilitating relational maturity. The controversial concept of parental
alienationwhereby one parent uses persuasion and manipulative tactics to recruit a
child to side with them against the other parenthas been recognised as a source of
estrangement since the 1940s (Meier, 2009). This particular type of estrangement
originates in childhood and is most often associated with significant marital conflict,
divorce, and custody disputes.
Family stress theory suggests life-cycle changes create tension in the family system
requiring individuals to adjust their roles to accommodate events such as birth,
marriage, and death (Galvin, Bylund, & Brommel, 2008). While stressors are
generally buffered by family resources, social supports, and parental self-efficacy,
some families may have limited resources from which to draw (Hill, 1957). When
major non-normative stressors compound with normative or developmental stres-
sors, when there is minimal recovery time, and when individual needs become
incompatible, the family system can become unbalanced and more susceptible to
family conflict and cut off (Galvin et al., 2008).
Estrangement might occur due to ones perceived betrayal of, or disloyalty to, the
family (LeBey, 2001; Sichel, 2004). When families are more rigid, inflexible, and
heavily invested in their values and beliefs, conflict and estrangement are more likely
to result from challenges to political, moral, and religious ideals (Davis, 2002; Sucov,
2006). Some authors agree there are instances where family estrangement could well
be viewed as a balanced and appropriate response to an unhealthy situation, such as
abuse (LeBey, 2001; Sucov, 2006). Estrangement is often considered a process
maintained by feelings of hurt and inadequate communication skills (Kelly, 2003;
LeBey, 2001).
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As illustrated above, understandings about the cause of estrangement are limited
by variable definitions of estrangement. However, one unpublished survey (Carr,
Holman, Stephenson-Abetz, Koenig Kellas, & Vagnoni, 2013) specifically examined
the causes people attributed to their family estrangement and discovered a wide
variety of explanations that differed somewhat between parents (n= 546) and adult
children (n= 352). It showed that adult children were more likely to attribute
estrangement to their parents personal characteristics including toxic behaviours and
being unsupportive or unaccepting, than parents who were more likely to attribute
the estrangement to situational and family stressors including divorce and third-party
interference (Carr et al., 2013).
Methodology
Study Design
A qualitative methodology grounded in the interpretive constructivist paradigm was
employed to explore and understand the lived experience of older people estranged from
their adult children. Due to the complex and relatively unexplored nature of this topic,
the exploratory method needed to capture the various feelings, thoughts, values, and
ideologies associated with the experience, rather than search for universal truths. Ethical
considerations included the sensitive nature of the topic and the potential vulnerability of
participants who might have experienced traumatic responses to the estrangement. Ethics
clearance was granted from the University of Newcastle Ethics Committee in December
2008, which operates in accordance with the Australian National Statement on Ethical
Conduct in Human Research, 2007 (Australian Government, 2007). Pseudonyms have
been ascribed to participants to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
Sampling and Recruitment
Older people with direct experience of estrangement from an adult child were recruited
through purposive theoretical sampling. Invitations to participate were distributed
through media outlets including radio and newspapers in regional New South Wales
(NSW), Australia. Potential participants were told that family estrangement was a
common but poorly understood concept, and the researcher requested to speak to
parents who were able to detail their daily experienceof living with estrangement in
order to advance understanding. Twenty-five participants, who were estranged from
adult children were recruited. There were 18 women and 7 men, including three
couples. Participants were aged between 61 and 80 years with a mean age of 71 years.
Data Collection
In-depth interviews were conducted with 25 participants initially and a second
in-depth interview was conducted approximately six months later with 23 of the
original participants (16 female and 7 male). Of the two participants who did not
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participate, one stated she was happy with the findings but had nothing further to
add, and the second was unable to be contacted. The main purpose of the second
interview was member checkingwhere research participants were asked to verify
and, if desired, suggest amendments to the researchers interpretations and conclu-
sions. Free-text diaries were offered to participants who wished to record additional
data between interviews and three participants used the diaries during this period.
All data was collected between February 2009 and January 2010.
Data Analysis
Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed using the NVivo software
package (QSR International NVivo 8). An interpretive phenomenological analysis
was employed to engage with participantsdetailed interpretations of the estrangement
experience and the meanings they associated with it. An adapted version of Smith,
Flowers, and Larkins(2009) guidelines for interpretative phenomenological analysis,
and some of van Manens(1990) suggestions for hermeneutic phenomenological
inquiry were incorporated. This provided a reflective frame where the focus of reading,
re-reading, note-taking, and rewriting occurred throughout the entire project, and
emergent themes were analysed in relation to new data and researcher reflections.
Findings
Participants had a total of 74 adult children, and had experienced 47 estrangements
from them over their lifetime. Of these, 41 estrangements were current at the time of
the first and second interview. These estrangements ranged from five months to 43
years duration at the first interview (with an average duration of 15.5 years). Two
main types of estrangement were described. Participants described 33 estrangements
(from 18 males and 15 females) that could be classified as physical. Participants
described six estrangements (from five males and one female) that could be classified
as emotional. Sometimes an emotional estrangement led to a physical estrangement
or vice versa, and in two cases participants described cyclical estrangements, where
the child would oscillate between emotional and physical estrangement.
Explanations for Estrangement
The participants in this study all said that the adult child initiated the estrangement
by rejecting them in some way. Participants attributed three main reasons for
estrangement:
(1) The adult child made a choice between the participant and someone or
something else.
(2) There was an inability to sustain an emotional connection due to disparate values
and behaviours.
(3) The adult child punished the older person for a perceived wrongdoing.
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It is important to note that these reasons were not mutually exclusive, and many
of the participants described elements common to more than one of these
categories.
Choice
The participants said their adult children made choices between the following:
between their two parents when divorce occurred or when there was domestic
violence in the relationship; between their parent and new spouse; between their
parent and a particular lifestyle; and between their parent and their own childs safety
from sexual assault. It appeared to the participants that the adult children were
unable to incorporate, integrate, or manage the tension between the different parties
or lifestyles and they needed to make a choice between them. John said his adult
daughter chosehis wife after his divorce; She didnt want contact at all and she
told me that straight out, I dont want contact with you. I feel Im cheating Mum’”.
(Interview 1).
When the child chose between the participant and their other parent, the
participants felt their children were pressured or manipulated by the other parent
to make the choice. They often suggested that the other parent encouraged this choice
by using false information, for example, telling the children that their father had been
engaged in an affair during the marriage. They detailed subtle acts of parental
alienation that occurred throughout the marriage, which intensified after separation
or divorce and continued into the childs adulthood.
Some participants thought the other parent offered the child incentives for
remaining loyal to them, or threatened the child with negative consequences for
disloyalty:
The dynasty almost sought [my son] out and he was their focal attention. So he
obviously got all the smothering from the dynasty point of view, which coloured his
decisions.He wasnt prepared to find out why or he listened to the one particular
side of the family that had not the true story or the complete story. (Lois,
Interview 2)
Participants often said the child did not have the full story to guide them in this
decision. This was particularly evident in situations where domestic violence
occurred. Participants stated their children often did not know of the abuse occurring
in the home, or have the capacity to understand the manipulative behaviours of the
abusive parent.
Participants also stated that children were forced to make a choice when divorce
proceedings were bitter: [My wife had] done an excellent job of poisoning those
childrenBasically she turned them against me. Its very hard to defend.(Gary,
Interview 1).
Participants suggested, as a consequence of choosing one parent, the adult child
was prevented from gaining a new perspective or different information about the
relationship.
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In the case of the adult child choosing between their parent and spouse, this was
often linked to spouses who brought different values, behaviours, and expectations
into the family system. In this study, this was always an adult sons choice between
his wife and his mother (and sometimes additional family members). However, the
choice between spouse and parent was never explicitly stated but rather couched in
terms of the mother or familys dislike of, or behaviour towards, the daughter-in-law.
The son usually suggested his partner was not being accepted or treated well by the
mother or the family before ceasing contact:
[My son] said we didnt welcome [his wife] into the family.This is when we first
moved in and the first Christmasand she wouldnt come. She said she hadnt had
enough respect. (Carol, Interview 2)
The participants in this study also described instances when they were aware of, or
suspected, that their daughter-in-law was using alienating tactics to recruit their son
into an estrangement. Tactics included badmouthing or discrediting the participants
motives and quality of parenting.
Two female participants said their adult daughters had chosen to estrange because
they believed their child had been sexually abused by a male relative while being
minded by the participant and the accused male. The two adult daughters
consequently estranged from their mothers who, in both instances, stated that they
believed the accusations were false, and based on inaccurate information. In other
instances, the teenage child chose a different lifestyle to his or her parents and this
estrangement continued through to adulthood. For example, one son left home to live
with another family, while one participants teenage daughters chose to become part
of a motorcycle gang.
Disparate Values and Behaviours
Disparate values and behaviours were cited as the reason for estrangement by many
of the participants who described emotional estrangement. They often commented
on disparate values and behaviours in relation to telling the truth, parenting, money,
politics, and cleanliness. The behaviours resulting from different values were often
regarded as insults by the older participants. For example, Beth remembered
buying towels for her new grandson, but she was disappointed that when she visited
they were just lying all over the backyard(Interview 1). When participants cited
emotional disconnection as the primary element of their estrangement, their childs
drug, alcohol, and mental health issues were alluded to as the possible source of
different values, behaviours, and communication difficulties.
Disparate values and behaviours did not seem to be spoken about between the parties
and, in some cases, participants said they did not mention anything for fear of overt
disagreement, and physical estrangement from their adult child (and grandchildren).
Meetings were often described as shallow,tense, and strained. Generally, the
parties described themselves as walking on eggshellsin an effort to avoid offence or
conflict:
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Theres always trepidation. Theres always fear. You dont go with a freedom, you
dont go with a joy in your heart. Until you get there, you sort of thinkpanic. Even
that time I went to [my sons house]I didnt bring up any politics, I didnt bring up
religion, Im not allowed, I wouldnt dare do that with [my daughter-in-law present].
(Jean, Interview 1)
Punishment
One notion regularly linked to physical estrangement was punishment. Participants
stated that they felt they were being punished because they did not fulfil an
expectation of the adult child. When Betty spoke about the estrangement from her
son and daughter-in-law, she recalled the following:
[My daughter-in-law said] I was punishing her by removing my babysitting services
and that she would punish me; that I would never see those children again and I
havent. (Interview 1)
While most acts of punishment were not as clearly stated as this, they tended to be
implicit in the accusations made against the participant or the actions occurring after
the expectation was not fulfilled. Many of these expectations were connected to
money; when participants refused to give their adult children financial support or
loans, or asked adult children to pay back a loan. Some participants felt they had been
punished for leaving the family home due to divorce or domestic violence, or for not
being there enough as the child grew up (often due to work, illness, or crises).
A Search for Meaning
During the process of conducting the initial in-depth interviews, it became evident
that estrangement made participants regularly question and reflect upon their lives.
While the search for meaning is an expected and appropriate activity at this period of
the lifespan, the participantssearch was often intensely focused on the cause and
experience of estrangement. This cohort primarily experienced marriage and child-
rearing in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of considerable social conformity, where
marriage was highly desirable, labour was divided along gendered lines, and
motherhood was idealised (Lindsay & Dempsey, 2009; Poole, 2005). Complex parti
cipant stories emerged about the nuclear family, and the participants life at the time
of the estrangement. It is important to note here that participants were not making
causal links between events in family life and the estrangement; most continued to
search for the underlying causes of estrangement beyond their initial choice,
difference, and punishment explanations. Rather, it appeared they were offering
cluesthat they thought mightbe important to this investigation.
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The Story of the Nuclear Family
Each participants nuclear family storyexcept one couple and one female
participantlocated their childs upbringing, and possible estrangement, in relation
to divorce or marital discord:
I think the divorce has got something to do with it. Their father is dead now but
splitting up with their father when they were nine and eight, I think thats when the
trouble started, without anyone realising it. (Trish, Interview 2)
While divorces were often cited as key points of family stress, many female
participants told family stories of physical, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse
from their partners prior to the divorce. These stories involved long-term abuse, often
explained by the sociohistorical and religious impediments to a woman leaving a
marriage with young children:
Because [the house] was in both of our names he was allowed to do what he liked
and hed comeSo, he terrorised us and the polices response was get out of the
state. So, the kids were traumatised and I dont know[my son] to this day, cant
talk about his father. (Dianne, Interview 1)
Some participants spoke about very complex family lives and multiple traumas
surrounding infertility, mental illness, and violence. Stressful and abusive marriages
were often cited as contributors to the participants poor mental health while
parenting. Additionally, divorces that occurred when children were young were cited
as contributors to relocation stress, financial restrictions, loss of support, and
readjustment to new partners for all parties.
Many stories also featured key stressors, such as a child with a serious medical
problem or disability, or one of the parents with an addiction, or a mental or physical
illness. Another stressor for some women was having, or being expected to have, large
families:
Number seven was having a lot of medical problems.Then number eight was on
the way, and that was devastating. ThatI didnt know how I was going to cope
with that one.Id been physically abused. Id been verbally abused, and that had
been going on for years. Couldnt go to anybody, couldnt tell anybody. (Joyce,
Interview 1)
A stressor for some participants, male and female, was being the primary breadwinner,
which effectively reduced their time spent with family members:
I dont think I ever worked less than 80 hours a week and up to 100 hours a week
and I probably didnt have as much time to give the family as I could have or
should have. (John, Interview 1)
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The Participants Life at the Time of Estrangement
Most participants were experiencing life changes or stressors around the time of the
estrangement, which resulted in less time for their child or adult child:
I lost [my husband] to cancerI had a breakdown after that and I was in [Mental
Health Clinic]Im thinking Im in there for grief, my children thought I was in
there for attentionthe biggest break in my family was then, from my children.
When I lost him, I more or less lost my children too. (Jean, Interview 1)
Participants did not conceptualise these conditions as a deliberate move awayor
rejection of their child but many of them acknowledged or wondered about the
possible contribution to the development of the estrangement. A common event at
the time of the estrangement was a divorce or separation, and nearly half cited
parental conflict or domestic violence before and around this time. In some cases this
was the point when the child or adult child appeared to make a choicebetween the
two parents. Some participants suggested the chosen parent was more able to offer
some sort of normality or stability at the time, particularly the family home:
My health was up the creek. My doctor said to me, Well, Lois, we cantdo
anything more for you. Youre going to have to remove yourself from that
situation. It took till the September…’cause I had to walk away from the children
as well. So that was hardI cooked this wonderful meal. It was like a last supper.
(Lois, Interview 1)
Many participants spoke about periods when they experienced overwhelming
intersecting developmental or non-normative stressors and losses, and most spoke
about periods of stress that resulted in less time for their child or adult child. They
particularly referred to non-normative stressors affecting their family relationships,
that is, stressors that were significant, unanticipated, and undesired that occurred
inconsistently with developmental expectations. These included: separation and
divorce; conflict and domestic violence; a child with a disability, serious illness, or
mental illness; a parent with mental illness or serious illness; miscarriage or stillbirth;
forced relocation; poverty; and parental incarceration. Additionally, coexisting factors
often affected their capacity to adjust to stressors, including large numbers of
children, strained or nonexistent intergenerational relationships, minimal support
from the intergenerational family and community. Many participants queried the
effect of crisis, and particularly those who had experienced prolonged periods of
crisis, on their relationship with the estranged child.
Discussion
Findings from this study suggest a complex interplay of long-term factorsand
particularly non-normative stressorsthat appear to erode the relationship between
parents and children and ultimately result in estrangement for some children. The
following discussion refers to associations within the data, and does not make claims
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about causation. Rather, patterns of parental behaviour and life transitions possibly
linked to family estrangement are discussed in relation to currentand potential
theoretical and research knowledge.
As participants tried to make sense of the estrangement they often described events
prior to, and at the time of the estrangement, that they suggested might be construed
as rejection or relational devaluation by the adult child. This was quite consistent with
Carr et al.s(2013) findings that older people were more likely to attribute estran
gement to external or situational stressors rather than the behaviours of their
children. Additionally a number of risk factors appeared to precede, coincide with, or
follow this perceived rejection, which either confirmed the perceived rejection or
exacerbated the estrangement. Participants suggested that when several factors
intersected, children evaluated their parental relationship negatively, and responded
with some degree of estrangement.
The findings of this study suggested that regardless of participantsintentions
many of their children or adult children had been exposed to one or more acts or
situations that could have been perceived as dangerous, lowering the parents worth,
exploitative, or rejecting (see Leary, Koch, & Hechenbleikner, 2001). The most
obvious situations were connected to separation and divorce, conflict, and domestic
violence. Others said that their refusal to give money or a loan; or perceived dislike or
disapproval of the childs partner, activities, or behaviour might have been interpreted
as rejection or relational devaluation. However, it is important to view these findings
with the knowledge that participants often had children who had been exposed to
similar stressors and were not estranged. Also, Carr et al.s(2013) findings that
suggested when external factors (e.g., divorce or abuse by another person) were
attributed to the estrangement, adult children were more likely to attribute
estrangement to the parental response to the event. This contrasted with parental
perceptions that tended to focus on the environmental factor(s) as the prime
attribution and frame their responses as appropriate.
Research confirms many of the stressors mentioned by participants had the
potential to impact family relationships. Divorce has been shown to activate a
number of interrelated stressors, such as the disruption of parental and intergenera-
tional relationships, economic hardships, and relocation (Hakvoort, Bos, Van Balen, &
Hermanns, 2011). Domestic violence has been shown to coexist with childhood
physical and or sexual abuse in 40% of cases (Itzin, 2006), and has been shown to
affect parentsability to control emotions, organise their lives, maintain social
support, and attend to children, which might, in turn, affect childparent attachments
(Cleaver, Nicholson, Tarr, & Cleaver, 2007). Stress and distress has been shown to
diminish the attachment figures psychological resources and interfere with caregiving
(Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007).
In this study, many of the participants also alluded to third-party behaviours that
could be described as alienating, and pressured the child to stop or reduce contact
with them. They said their adult childs memories and understandings of family
dynamics, and particularly their beliefs about the estranged parent, were manipulated
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or coloured by someone else, and this was most commonly the estranged childs other
parent, or their spouse. This was also consistent with Carr et al.s(2013) findings
where 28.6% of parents suggested that an objectionable relationship had altered their
child in such a way as to cause estrangement.
Participants suggested that parental preoccupation with divorce and domestic
violence, along with coexisting stressors led the parent to be less available or
responsive to the childs requests for closeness or assistance. Stress pile-up has been
shown to reduce parenting capacity and responsiveness, while third-party alienation
is a direct attack on parentchild attachment (Baker & Darnall, 2006). The conditions
for the development of an insecure avoidant attachment style, such as stressors that
resulted in the parents being less available and responsive to the child, were evident in
some of the participantsstories, but this was not a specific avenue of investigation or
measurement.
Participants in this study suggested that the culmination of family estrangement
was linked to feelings of rejection and betrayal within an interpersonal dyad or family
system. However, they also suggested a more complex situation, where estrangement
appeared to develop over a long period of time in response to a number of conditions
and stressors beyond the estranged parties, and were intricately linked to socio-
historical and political conditions (e.g., pressure on women to stay in abusive
relationships, men working excessively long hours to support their families). This
suggests that occurrences such as divorce should not be considered one-off moments
of vulnerability within the family system, but should be understood as complex
processes that develop over time, intersect with other stressors, and are often
exacerbated by sociohistorical and political processes over which families had no
control.
Practice and Research Implications
This research suggests estrangement is a complex situation where perceived rejection
or relational devaluation is often created by factors greater than mere interpersonal
misunderstanding or miscommunication. This contrasts with most literature and
research, which neglects a macro or structural analysis and tends to fortify the notion
that family estrangement is caused by personal defects or family dysfunction. These
new findings provide impetus for a broader and more critical analysis of the
connections between sociopolitical ideologies about family and relationships within
the intergenerational family, suggesting the utility of social work intervention at the
individual, group, community, and policy levels.
While inconsistent with the neoliberal focus on swift measurable outcomes with
high risk populations, this research suggests that early interventions aimed at
improving the general wellbeing of a family are likely to be most useful in preventing
intergenerational conflict and estrangement. When an investment approach is
prioritised, families have access to adequate financial, educational, medical, and
social resources, and they will be better prepared for times of normative and
126 K. Agllias
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developmental stress. When laws and policies protect family members from
discrimination, inequality, and violence, and accessible and effective services are
provided to support families in times of need, families will be better prepared to
address non-normative stressors, such as disability and domestic violence.
As documented previously, this study needs to be supplemented with the childs
side of the story, and future research needs to ask adult children about their
experiences and reasons for estranging. For example, the study of nonestranged
siblings might illuminate differences in resilience and coping strategies. Further
qualitative research may reveal more variables possibly associated with the develop-
ment of family estrangement that could be investigated with quantitative measures.
This study found variables, such as divorce, domestic violence, and third-party
alienation that could be tested in large samples of estranged and nonestranged adult
children. These studies would advance understandings of the impact of various events
and processes on the developmentand maintenanceof emotional or physical
estrangement, offering practitioners empirical evidence about the processes and
periods that pose increased risk for later estrangement.
Study Limitations
This study focused on the experience of the older person to gather rich data, so the
estranged adult child was not interviewed and one side of the story is missing. The
retrospective collection of data might have made it susceptible to participantslapses
of memory. Additionally, most participants suggested that estrangement was a
difficult topic that they were embarrassed about, or had hidden from others in the
past. Therefore, it is possible that sensitivity, self-protection, and the desire to offer
socially acceptable responses may have increased prosocial reporting of personal
choices and actions.
Conclusion
Participants said that their child or children estranged for three main reasons: choice,
difference, and punishment. Their attempts to understand the childs perceptions
leading to the estrangement uncovered a complex situation, where estrangement
appeared to develop over a long period of time in response to a number of conditions
and non-normative stressors outside of the immediate relationship. Findings
complement and advance the existing literature, which tends to offer an array of
biological, psychological, and social explanations for estrangement, by suggesting
further sociopolitical and critical analysis of the interplay of such factors. This means
that occurrences such as divorce should not be considered one-off moments of
vulnerability within the family system, but should be understood as complex
processes that had developed over time, intersected with other stressors, and were
often exacerbated by conditions over which parents had little or no control. Previous
research from the perspective of estranged adult children suggests that it is not an
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actual event or crisis, but rather parental responses, that influence estrangement (Carr
et al., 2013). This research on parent perspectives suggests that points of intervention
exist well before the family members become estranged highlighting the significance
of social and contextual factors and the importance of early intervention. It calls for
further investigation of particular factors that have emergedincluding divorce,
family stressors, and third-party alienationand how they interact in relation to
intergenerational estrangement.
Acknowledgements
The author would like to thank the parents who participated in this study for their
insights and generosity.
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... We also expect that young adults who have experienced the divorce or separation of their biological (or adoptive) parents will be more likely to lack contact later. Family Stress Theory says that family discord and estrangement are more likely to happen in the context of stressors, such as union disruption (Agllias, 2015a;Galvin, Braithwaite, Bylund, & Braithwaite, 2016;McKenry & Price, 2000). Research in the field of social work has supported this contention, finding that estrangement is often caused when major disruptive events lead to interpersonal conflict (Agllias, 2015a;Carr, Holman, Abetz, Kellas, & Vagnoni, 2015). ...
... Family Stress Theory says that family discord and estrangement are more likely to happen in the context of stressors, such as union disruption (Agllias, 2015a;Galvin, Braithwaite, Bylund, & Braithwaite, 2016;McKenry & Price, 2000). Research in the field of social work has supported this contention, finding that estrangement is often caused when major disruptive events lead to interpersonal conflict (Agllias, 2015a;Carr, Holman, Abetz, Kellas, & Vagnoni, 2015). A common pattern found in qualitative research is that adult children report cutting off contact with a parent whom they believe reacted poorly to a divorce (Agllias, 2015b). ...
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Families, Relationships and Intimate Life Second Edition is a thorough exploration of the controversies, contradictions and broad patterns that characterise contemporary relationships and families. Beginning with the conceptual scaffolding of families in their historical and cultural context this text includes the key cultural differences of ethnicity, class and sexuality. Theoretical perspectives including functionalism, feminist approaches and reflexive modernisation are also clearly outlined. Once the groundwork has been established this book delves into examining the complexity of contemporary family life, covering key elements in the life course - childhood, youth, partnering, parenting and ageing and both the positive and negative sides of family life including intimacy and violence. This edition has been extensively updated with contemporary examples from pop culture and current affairs and incorporates developments currently reshaping families including new technologies and social mobility.
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Cover Blurb: Researching Lived Experience introduces an approach to qualitative research methodology in education and related fields that is distinct from traditional approaches derived from the behavioral or natural sciences—an approach rooted in the “everyday lived experience” of human beings in educational situations. Rather than relying on abstract generalizations and theories, van Manen offers an alternative that taps the unique nature of each human situation. The book offers detailed methodological explications and practical examples of hermeneutic-phenomenological inquiry. It shows how to orient oneself to human experience in education and how to construct a textual question which evokes a fundamental sense of wonder, and it provides a broad and systematic set of approaches for gaining experiential material that forms the basis for textual reflections. Van Manen also discusses the part played by language in educational research, and the importance of pursuing human science research critically as a semiotic writing practice. He focuses on the methodological function of anecdotal narrative in human science research, and offers methods for structuring the research text in relation to the particular kinds of questions being studied. Finally, van Manen argues that the choice of research method is itself a pedagogic commitment and that it shows how one stands in life as an educator.