October 01, 2021

Family estrangement

When loved ones aren't speaking

Although not everyone is as public as Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the Royals are not the only family experiencing a possible rift. More than one-quarter of American adults have cut off contact with a family member, according to a recent large-scale national survey.

Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P.

"Sometimes we are left with uncertainty if we are on the receiving end of estrangement. We may not know or never know fully why we are being cut off."

Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P. Mayo Clinic clinical psychologist


Family estrangement is a suspension of direct communication between relatives, often triggered by a conflict. In some families, a series of conflicts is followed by periods of avoidance and withdrawal. In others, an incident — potentially even seemingly unrelated to an underlying tension — can be the "last straw." Not all estrangements are between parents and children — sometimes communication breaks down between siblings or between extended relatives.

Estrangement may occur for a variety of reasons. Adult children most commonly cut off their parents because of toxic behaviors such as violence, abuse or neglect, or feelings of being rejected. On the flip side, parents often cut ties because they object to a child's dating partner or spouse. Stark differences in beliefs — over subjects such as politics, the pandemic or vaccinations — can be divisive and may also drive a wedge between family members.

The toll on emotional health

When a child does break ties...