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Sex + Relationships

Drifting Away: What Family Estrangement Looks Like in 2021


I've always felt a twinge of guilt when I compared my relationship with my parents to that of friends who seem to have close bonds with their moms and dads. My parents divorced early, so naturally, I lost much contact with my father after we moved away, and I couldn't shake the feeling that my relationship with my mother was also at risk.

Estrangement, or the gradual emotional and/or physical separation from close family, has become a popular topic of discussion in the social science field as many experts believe children of the millennial generation are more likely to cut ties with family for a few years or more.

Though there are many reasons why a child may feel justified for severing ties with their parents (abuse, neglect and general inability to communicate effectively), our society has experienced a major shift in our expectations of relationships. Where before, it may have been based on familial obligation, a recent Atlantic article cited a shocking email from the historian, Stephanie Coontz.

“Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles,” Coontz said.

I showed this quote to a couple of friends who also have strained relationships with one or more parents, and I immediately began to wonder if we could repair these connections before the distance became too great.

Should I stay, or should I go

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In a survey of 807 participants, the most common reasons for estrangement were emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Next up was unresolved disparities in personalities and mental health problems. The children were also most likely to initiate the break-up.

Parents and children often remember the past differently, and through further reading, I found that this has a destructive impact on communication ability and the possibility of acceptable apologies.

For relationships that seem reparable, it’s important for us, as children, to grieve and mourn the relationships we did not have with our parents so that we can begin to accept that a parent will not be the way we dream, but the way they are. Once we accept the reality of their individuality, we can include them in those ways rather than resent the ways they can be included. Another option is to not include them if the damage to our wellbeing is too great. and either option will require courage and compassion.

Handle with care

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Family estrangement is confusing and heartbreaking for everyone involved. It is also incredibly liberating and healing for some. I have chosen to try, and if you’re reading this, maybe you have too. So what can we do as young adults?

What is within your control in the relationship? Your response is in your control. Practice being forthright with feelings before they fester. Practice mourning resentments and choose love-based responses every time you remember. Clearly establish boundaries. Keep the door open, even just a crack. 

When we choose to respond consciously and with courage, the response from the other side may show whether the relationship can be mended in the future.

If your friend is in this predicament, offer your love and respect for their emotions and decisions. Fractured relationships with family have a negative stigma, and the experience is hard.

Our parents have their own stories that impact who they are and so do we. Handling strained relationships alone is no easy feat. Ask a therapist. Vent to a friend. Spill it all out in a journal. There is no shame in trying, but so much courage in doing so. 

As we become more independent due to emerging adulthood and social distancing, the strength of our relationships become that much more important. 

Always remember, your right to choose is always valid.



Georgia State University c/o 2021
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