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Disconnection and Decision-making: Adult Children Explain Their Reasons for Estranging from Parents

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This article reports on a qualitative study of adult children who were estranged from at least one parent. Twenty-six Australian participants reported a total of 40 estrangements. Of these, 23 estrangements were initiated by the participant and 16 were maintained by the participant after being initiated by the parent or occurring after a mutual lessening of contact. Participants reported three core reasons for estrangement: (i) abuse, (ii) poor parenting, and (iii) betrayal. However, estrangement was predominantly situated in long-term perceived or actual disconnection from the parent and family of origin. Most participants had engaged in cycles of estrangement and reunification, using distance to assess the relationship and attend to their own personal development and growth across time. Estrangement was generally triggered by a relatively minor incident or a more serious act of betrayal considered to have been enacted by the parent.
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... Even though previous research conceptualized the term "estrangement" in different ways, there is considerable overlap in the various definitions (see Blake, 2017). Agllias (2016Agllias ( , 2018, for example, points to the presence of physical distance or lack of affection between family members, often resulting from conflict or disagreement. Accordingly, she distinguishes between physical and emotional estrangement. ...
... More recently, Scharp and Hall (2019, p. 10) advocated a model of family distancing accounting for the fact that estrangement (a) may evolve and change over time, taking different pathways or trajectories, and (b) may involve multiple family members as well as individuals outside the family. Essential sociodemographic predictors of estrangement (such as gender or parental divorce; see Blake, 2017) are thus likely to be situated in a longer-term process of disconnection from parents and to be embedded in complex family circumstances (Agllias, 2016). Accordingly, long-term effects of parental death, divorce, and remarriage have been in the center of many studies of intergenerational relationship qualities, indicating that the risk to lose contact is particularly high in postseparation father-child relationships (e.g., Kalmijn, 2013;Köppen et al., 2018; also see Hartnett et al., 2018). ...
... For example, whereas the analysis by Carr et al. (2015) is based on the mothers' perspective, our investigation exclusively relied on reports of estrangement provided by children, whose perception of intergenerational relationship qualities might be somewhat less positive than that of the parent generation (e.g., Steinbach et al., 2019). Moreover, parents and children tend to provide different reasons for their estrangement (e.g., Agllias, 2016;Carr et al., 2015), an issue that we were unable to assess in our study. Unfortunately, pairfam does not provide information on parents' sexual orientation. ...
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Objective To analyze the prevalence and predictors of children's estrangement from noncoresident biological mothers and fathers during young and middle adulthood. Background Intergenerational relationships exhibit considerable heterogeneity and need not always be close or intact. However, despite its potentially far-reaching impact on the entire family system, only very few quantitative studies have been conducted yet investigating adult parent–child estrangement. Method This study draws on ten waves of longitudinal survey data from the German Family Panel (pairfam;n = 10,228). We estimate two-level random-intercept logit panel regressions of parent–child estrangement, defined as noncontact or emotional distance. Results Substantially, more children experienced periods of estrangement from fathers (20%; corresponding to 12% of person-years of observation) than from mothers (9%; corresponding to 5% of person-years of observation). We observed a longitudinal pattern reflecting “modest” dynamics, that is, neither continuously estranged relationships nor multiple transitions into and out of estrangement were the rule. Disruptive family events and, particularly, children's estrangement from “other” (biological or nonbiological) parental figures turned out to be the most important predictors of being estranged from the “focal” biological parent, especially from fathers. Children expressing stronger familistic attitudes were less likely to experience estrangement. Conclusions Estrangement is a quantitatively relevant phenomenon in adult parent–child relations, where relationships with fathers are particularly vulnerable. Crossovers between children's relationships with various parental figures indicate that estrangement is a family matter that is best addressed by taking a family systems perspective. Estrangement deserves further attention by both researchers and practitioners in family counseling and therapy.
... The factors that contribute to family estrangement are diverse and unlikely to exist in isolation (Agllias, 2016;Blake, 2017). Stressful family circumstances and experiences that might contribute to estrangement include, but are not limited to, sexual, physical, or psychological abuse or neglect (Agllias, 2015(Agllias, , 2016Conti, 2015;Scharp & McLaren, 2018;Scharp, Thomas, & Paxman, 2015); poor parenting and betrayal (Agllias, 2016); drug abuse (Conti, 2015;Davis-Berman, 2011); disagreements, romantic relationships, politics, homophobia, and issues relating to money, inheritance, or business (Conti, 2015). ...
... The factors that contribute to family estrangement are diverse and unlikely to exist in isolation (Agllias, 2016;Blake, 2017). Stressful family circumstances and experiences that might contribute to estrangement include, but are not limited to, sexual, physical, or psychological abuse or neglect (Agllias, 2015(Agllias, , 2016Conti, 2015;Scharp & McLaren, 2018;Scharp, Thomas, & Paxman, 2015); poor parenting and betrayal (Agllias, 2016); drug abuse (Conti, 2015;Davis-Berman, 2011); disagreements, romantic relationships, politics, homophobia, and issues relating to money, inheritance, or business (Conti, 2015). Family estrangement may also be initiated or exacerbated by physical or mental health problems in the family (Agllias, 2015;Conti, 2015;Mitrani & Czaja, 2000;Scharp et al., 2015). ...
... The factors that contribute to family estrangement are diverse and unlikely to exist in isolation (Agllias, 2016;Blake, 2017). Stressful family circumstances and experiences that might contribute to estrangement include, but are not limited to, sexual, physical, or psychological abuse or neglect (Agllias, 2015(Agllias, , 2016Conti, 2015;Scharp & McLaren, 2018;Scharp, Thomas, & Paxman, 2015); poor parenting and betrayal (Agllias, 2016); drug abuse (Conti, 2015;Davis-Berman, 2011); disagreements, romantic relationships, politics, homophobia, and issues relating to money, inheritance, or business (Conti, 2015). Family estrangement may also be initiated or exacerbated by physical or mental health problems in the family (Agllias, 2015;Conti, 2015;Mitrani & Czaja, 2000;Scharp et al., 2015). ...
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For the first time, this study explored the counseling experiences of individuals estranged from a family member and the ways in which therapy was helpful, unhelpful, or both. Family relationships are often assumed to be permanent. However, family members both can and do become estranged from one another, which can be a challenging experience, leading to feelings of sadness and loss and experiences or perceptions of stigma. Findings are presented from an online survey of individuals who are estranged from one or more family members and had sought support from the charity Stand Alone. Open‐text responses were thematically analyzed from 209 respondents, 133 of whom elaborated on counseling experiences that had been helpful and 107 of whom described counseling experiences that had been unhelpful. Helpful encounters with therapy were those in which respondents felt supported to make their own decisions about their family relationships, developed insight and understanding through working with professionals who were knowledgeable about estrangement, and moved forward in their lives. Therapy that is delivered by professionals who offer nondirective support (rather than suggesting that clients act or feel a certain way) and who are knowledgeable about estrangement will be of the greatest help and utility to individuals estranged from a family member. Commissioning bodies who offer support to estranged individuals need to ensure that counselors are knowledgeable about estrangement and that training on this issue is included in ongoing career professional development.
... However, recently researchers have begun investigating the often complex reasons family members provide for estrangement and the process of estrangement during adulthood. Estrangement from a family member is characterised by lack of trust and emotional intimacy, sometimes accompanied by physical distancing from an individual or wider family (Agllias, 2015, Agllias 2016. Physical estrangement refers to discontinuation of communication whereby contact with family member(s) ceases altogether. ...
... Carr et al. (2015) found a disconnection between reasons given by estranged parents and adult children, with parents often attributing estrangement to external factors and events, and adult children often attributing estrangement to intrapersonal issues. In the case of adult children, four recent studies reported similar main reasons stated for estrangement, summarised by Agllias (2016) as abuse, poor parenting, and betrayal (see also Carr et al., 2015, Scharp and Thomas, 2016, Scharp et al., 2015. ...
... Children experiencing maltreatment can encounter difficulties with regulating emotions, confidence, identity, trust and relating to others, and maltreatment can also influence stress response systems (Anda et al., 2006, Cicchetti andToth, 2005), and these effects can have negative influences on wellbeing that continue into adulthood (for example, see Hagele, 2005, Hildyard and Wolfe, 2002, Sroufe, 2005. On the other hand, for adult children, removing themselves from situations which have involved, or continue to involve, parental maltreatment, there may be an experienced sense of positive wellbeing and a greater sense of agency (Agllias, 2016, Agllias, 2018. ...
Article
Estrangement from a family member is characterised by lack of trust and emotional intimacy, and often includes ceased communication and contact. Existing estrangement research suggests adult children report three main reasons for estrangement from a parent: abuse, poor parenting and betrayal. However, research into estrangement and experiences of psychological wellbeing is sparse. This study used semi-structured interviews to explore this with 7 female participants with experiences of parental maltreatment, aged 24–37. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis resulted in 4 main themes: experiences of contact; gaining agency; navigating relationships; and navigating estrangement. Results suggest estrangement can be experienced both positively and negatively in terms of psychological wellbeing. Positive experiences provide insight into maintenance of estrangement, and suggest processes of benefit-finding following stressful life events can be applicable to estrangement. Practice implications for those working with adult children include considering reasons for estrangement, and facilitating sense-making to assist with coming to terms with estrangement.
... While estrangement is an ongoing process in which one or both parties are actively communicating to adjust and renegotiate intimacy boundaries [6,7], parental estrangement is often the result of the child wanting to decrease their parent's unwanted involvement [8]. These adult child estrangers report betrayal, parental indifference, and lack of support, inclusion, and acceptance among their reasons for distancing [9] with some relationships involving abuse [6,10,11]. Intensifying of the estrangement can occur in linear and non-linear trajectories, with the latter including a "cycle of reunification" whereby an adult child attempts to reconnect with a parent, discovers that the behaviors or opinions that caused the estrangement had not changed, and then chooses to remove him or herself again from the relationship [6,10]. Even when children feel confident in their decision to cease contact, they experience great pain [7]. ...
... These adult child estrangers report betrayal, parental indifference, and lack of support, inclusion, and acceptance among their reasons for distancing [9] with some relationships involving abuse [6,10,11]. Intensifying of the estrangement can occur in linear and non-linear trajectories, with the latter including a "cycle of reunification" whereby an adult child attempts to reconnect with a parent, discovers that the behaviors or opinions that caused the estrangement had not changed, and then chooses to remove him or herself again from the relationship [6,10]. Even when children feel confident in their decision to cease contact, they experience great pain [7]. ...
... In addition to negative experiences and/or the absence of positive experiences within the parent-child dyad, the internal struggles surrounding this familial disconnection and reconnection might be influenced by external pressures. Adult children are likely influenced by pressures from social networks that encourage reconciliation and stress that family relationships should never be dissolved [10], and may internalize cultural expectations to reunite with their parent [6]. ...
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To address Americans’ general attitudes and behavioral intentions toward adult children who are estranged from their parents, the current study employed online survey data from 151 Americans recruited through Amazon MTurk. Their responses revealed negative stereotypes (e.g., childish, ungrateful) and positive stereotypes (e.g., independent, strong) of the adult child who is estranged, as well as negative assessments of the parent who is estranged. Generally, participants perceived the adult children as more competent than warm. Compared to other participants in this sample, those participants who were estrangers or estrangees themselves held more positive attitudes overall, including more positive perceptions of estranged children’s warmth and competence. In response to open-ended survey questions asking participants how they would communicate with someone they knew to be estranged, common responses were avoidance of family-related topics, (heightened) physical distance, and accommodation to the needs of the person who is estranged. Implications are discussed surrounding the lack of warmth associated with those experiencing estrangement.
... Indeed, research from adult children's perspectives emphasizes that the control parents can assert over their children (Agllias 2015). This might resonate with the culture considering parents are traditionally assigned greater power because of their age difference and expectation for care (Minuchin, 1985). ...
... Furthermore, the parent-child estrangement process is highly stigmatized (Agllias, 2016;Scharp & Thomas, 2016), rife with uncertainty (Scharp & McLaren, 2017), and difficult to disclose to others (Scharp, 2016b). When trying to understand underlying attributions, adult children cite gross negligence as well as psychological, physical, and sexual abuse as reasons they sought distance (Agllias, 2015;Carr, Holman, Stephenson-Abetz, Koenig Kellas, & Vagnoni, 2015;Scharp, Thomas, & Paxman, 2015). In this regard, researchers often characterize adult children as victims while their parents are positioned as villains. ...
... Not only is it important to study estrangement because of how the distancing process can influence meaning but it is also important to study emergent meaning from multiple perspectives. The evidence cited above emerges from research conducted with adult children who initiated distance from their parents (see Agllias, 2015;Agllias, 2017;Scharp, 2016b;Scharp & McLaren, 2017;Scharp & Thomas, 2016;Scharp et al., 2015). What little we know about parents comes from the perspective of the parents from whom adult children sought distance (see Agllias, 2011;Carr et al., 2015). ...
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This study employs relational dialectics theory to explore the meaning of the parent–child relationship from the perspective of parents who distanced themselves from their children. Contrapuntal analysis of 36 online narratives revealed 2 discourses competing to make meaning of the parent–child relationship. The discourse of inseparable connection (DIC) drew upon themes of unconditional love, biology, and permanent role identification, constructing parents and children as forever connected; the discourse of effortful transactions (DET) manifested through themes of reciprocal respect and positive emotions, work and support exchanges, and physical and emotional boundary negotiation. Overall, the DET worked to challenge assumptions of the DIC, undermining culturally dominant understandings of family permanence through talk of parent–child relationships characterized by a reciprocal give-and-take.
... Much of the family estrangement research has focused on intergenerational estrangement of a parent by an adult-child in a general population (Scharp & Hall, 2017). While the role of external stressors in family estrangement has been acknowledged, it has largely been conceptualized as a private family matter (Agllias, 2016). Scharp and Hall (2017) widen the definition of family estrangement to include children seeking distance from their parents through legal routes following abuse or neglect. ...
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Loss of sibling relationships is a common experience across international jurisdictions for children entering public care. This is the case despite statutory guidance that emphasizes the need to place siblings together when in their best interests, and increasingly robust evidence of the protective nature of sibling relationships when children face adversity. Research on the experiences and outcomes of siblings in care has thus far focused predominantly on placement and contact patterns, particularly of siblings in care concurrently. This study extends this research by comprehensively mapping sibling networks both within and outside the care system and measuring sibling estrangement (living apart and lack of contact) over time. Drawing on administrative and case file data within the Children's Hearings System in Scotland, the circumstances of 204 children and young people from 50 sibling networks were examined longitudinally. The study found very high rates of sibling estrangement with seven in 10 relationships between a child in out-of-home care and a sibling classified as estranged and half of all siblings classified as strangers (siblings having never lived together and no record of any communication or meetings between the child and sibling). Moreover, sibling estrangement increased significantly as children moved through the care system. We argue that continued effort is needed to improve the accuracy with which aspects of sibling relationships of children in care are recorded and measured in order to assess the longer-term impact of state interventions on children's lives and the capacity of child welfare agencies to meet policy goals. Keyterms: sibling placements, sibling contact, family estrangement, permanence, sibling reunions.
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This chapter considers how far the Barnardos adoptees achieved legal, residential and emotional permanence after adoption. It draws on minimal follow-up data, available for 124 adoptees (59% of the original cohort); extensive data collected through responses to an online survey concerning 93 adoptees (44% of the cohort) 5–37 years after placement; and interviews focusing on 24 adult adoptees. Ages at follow-up ranged from 5 to 44. All adoptees had achieved legal permanence. Many had achieved residential permanence after numerous placements in care: 34% of those aged 18 or over were still living with their adoptive parents. Twelve (13%) placements had disrupted, but all except eight (9%) adoptees had achieved psychological permanence. Relationships between adoptees and adoptive parents were twice as likely to persist as those between care leavers and foster parents.
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