What is family estrangement?

Estrangement is basically a breakdown in a family relationship. Families are complex and the reasons for breaking off contact are as varied as families themselves. There could still be some limited contact and it’s not always clear who or what caused the break. You may have no contact with your entire family or just one member. The rift may last a short time or it could go on for many years.

I moved to a new area so I could be closer to my son and his family but I kept having arguments with my son because he was always asking for money. I used to rely on my son and daughter-in-law for lifts and to go shopping but now I don’t see them. I’m thinking of moving away again.

People often feel that there’s a stigma attached to estrangement and it can be a hidden issue. You may find it very difficult to talk about or explain to others why you’re no longer in touch with a family member. And yet it’s surprisingly common – one in five families are affected.

Why it happens

There can be many reasons why a family relationship breaks down. Some of the most common include:

  • a clash of personality or values
  • mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships
  • religious or cultural differences
  • emotional abuse, such as intimidation or threats
  • a traumatic family event such as a death.

Conflict can arise between generations who see things differently. Partnerships, marriage and divorce can cause a rift within the wider family. Siblings may fall out because of longstanding resentments from childhood, perceived or actual favouritism, or different lifestyle choices. For example, older LGBTQ+ people are more likely to have strained relationships with their family or be estranged from them.

How you might feel

Feelings about estrangement can be very mixed. If you’re the one who has chosen to cut ties there may be positives. You may feel a greater sense of independence and freedom, as well as feeling stronger, happier, and less stressed. Friendships may take on more importance in your life.

I’m estranged from my daughter. I tried to get in touch with her recently to mend the relationship but she didn’t respond. But I’ve got good friends and neighbours and I’m close to a couple with a young child. I think these relationships may be better than many families.

If a family member has broken off contact with you, you may experience a sense of hurt and rejection. This can be especially painful at certain times, such as during holidays or festivals, family occasions, and on Mother’s day or Father’s day.

Dealing with estrangement over holidays or religious festivals you celebrate

If you’re estranged from a family member, holidays can be difficult. You may want to reach out, but try to limit your expectations and look after yourself.  If you’re worried about feeling lonely over a time that you would traditionally spend with family – for example, over the Christmas period, you could plan ahead to make it a positive experience. For example by:

  • indulging in a hobby like going to the theatre or watching your favourite film
  • ringing, emailing or writing a letter to friends, or using Skype to call free between two computers, tablets or smart phones
  • looking for local events taking place that you might be able to join in with, or volunteer at.

You can always talk to someone at The Silver Line - a helpline offering emotional support and advice specifically for older people. It’s open 24 hours a day, every day. 

Our guide If you’re feeling lonely suggests things you could try which could help to reduce loneliness, as well as information about where to look for more help.

Getting help

It may be helpful to talk to someone about your situation. You could try speaking to a close friend or a trained counsellor can help you work through your feelings. Your GP may be able to arrange counselling or you could contact Relate, or find a counsellor through the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. You may have to pay for these services.

If you need to speak to someone urgently for emotional support, you could call the Samaritans.

Getting back in touch

If you want to get in touch with an estranged family member again, the internet makes it easier to track people down these days. However, it may be better to ask a third party to make contact for you. If you need help finding someone, the Salvation Army has a family tracing service and they can also act as intermediaries. There is an administration fee for their services.

If you’ve lost touch with grandchildren, contact Kinship for information and advice (0300 123 7015).

Reconciliation may be possible but all parties have to be willing and this isn’t always the case. You may risk being rejected all over again so it’s a good idea to get support. If you do manage to get in contact:

  • Take it slowly – you’ll need to rebuild trust.
  • Manage your expectations – you may not get the outcome you want.
  • Try not to judge or blame.
  • Look after yourself.

Sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible or desirable. It can help to know that you’re not alone and you may want to join a support group with others who are in the same position.

Impact on other relationships

Being estranged from an adult child can mean you no longer have access to grandchildren. If you’re in this situation, you could consider family mediation to try to resolve the problem. See our advice on Being a grandparent for more information.

I was estranged from my daughter for 23 years. I’ve never met my grandchildren. I recently reached out to my daughter and we’ve arranged a holiday so I can spend time with them.

Next steps

For relationship support, contact Relate or Relationships Scotland.

To find a counsellor, contact the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy

The charity Stand Alone provides information and advice on family estrangement. 

Opening Doors offers help and advice to LGBTQ+ people.

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