How to Navigate Family Estrangement

Family estrangement is painful, and it's also common. Here's what the experts say about helping young kids cope when it comes to family fallouts.

An image of a mother holding her son's hand.
Photo: Getty Images.

My husband and I recently had a terrible falling out with his brother and sister-in-law, who ultimately decided to sever ties with us. I won't get into the sad details of what happened beyond saying it's been shocking and painful. But this family mess has driven me to find out more about something that matters beyond the adults involved: How to talk to our 3-year-old daughter about it.

She's their niece, and they'd been her closest extended family during her early years. At first, I didn't know how to tell her they will no longer be a presence in our lives. I felt like Mama Bear, wanting to protect my cub with my whole being, but not knowing, instinctively, how I could go about it.

Of course, there's no easy way through a family estrangement. It can be painful, isolating, and traumatic—not to mention stigmatized. It's also a silent epidemic: As many as 1 in 4 people has reported experiencing estrangement with a close family member, according to a large-scale national survey conducted by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., professor of human development at Cornell University—statistics he shared in his September 2020 release Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.

The reasons for estrangement, described as "the breakdown of a supportive relationship between family members" in a 2015 University of Cambridge survey on the matter, are several: abuse and neglect, mental health issues and substance abuse, clashes in personalities and value systems, or differing expectations about family roles. Add to that today's crucible-level conditions of the pandemic and polarizing politics, and relationships can easily get heated to the point where things boil over.

Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in family estrangement and author of Rules of Estrangement, explains, "In general, things that raise anxiety and stress and fear tend to have more corrosive effects on families and family well-being. So when you have those kinds of things going on, you're much more likely to see fighting and disagreement and the like."

The Ripple Effects of Estrangement

My daughter's since asked for her aunt, uncle, and cousins on numerous occasions and I've grappled for answers. How do I protect her, at such a delicate age, from feelings of abandonment—from the unfortunate reality that people who you love and trust can disappear?

I'm by no means alone in this plight, of course. Michelle Crafton, 40, a New York-based nurse and mother to three young children, hasn't spoken to her older brother in over 10 years. For her, the equation has perhaps been made simpler, since her kids have never even met their uncle. But she anticipates that one day they will ask about him, and that it will be tough to lay out easy answers: "I've honestly just thought about telling them he's dead," she says.

Cornell's Dr. Pillemer says, "The estrangements in the parental generation have tremendously important ripple effects. Anybody who is making the decision to say to a sibling or someone else in the family, 'We're done. I never want to speak to you or hear from you again,' has to think about what the collateral damage will be."

He says one of the biggest losses for kids is the relationships and associated benefits of extended family, and notes that rifts often result in children taking sides.

Through his studies, Dr. Pillemer found estrangement can become a very negative family tradition. "The idea that you can just cut somebody off when the relationship gets difficult becomes a family theme and a part of family culture that's replicated," he says, urging people to ask themself, "Do you really want to do something that may ripple down through generations?"

How to Get Through Family Estrangement

Estrangement brings a heavy emotional toll that often extends beyond our own experience of it. So how can we help ease the burden for the children involved? Here are the major takeaways from research and leading experts.

Reach out for support

The emotional gravity and psychological impact of estrangement can be intense, with stress, anxiety, and grief to process. Thankfully, many mental health professionals are well-versed in treating issues of family estrangement—and therapy can offer you the safe space you need to explore your feelings and sense of loss (connecting with a licensed marriage and family therapist was one of my own family's first stops for triage in the immediate aftermath of the event). Depending on the magnitude of the impact, some kids may also benefit from direct counseling themselves.

"If you're noticing that your kids are wondering and you're having difficulty explaining, help from a counselor to understand your own feelings and what narrative you want to share is invaluable," says Dr. Pillemer.

Experts also advise to avoid a sense of social isolation by actively reaching out to trusted friends and other impartial family members for emotional support. My husband consulted with a cast of close friends in the weeks following the estrangement. Their perspective and distance, coupled with their love for him, provided some needed clarity and insight to help him surmount the initial shock and despair.

Ultimately, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you put one on your kids. Once you've worked out some of your own feelings, you can then settle into considering your children's point of view and what they need to know to move forward.

Talk to kids in an age-appropriate way

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this scenario. Determinations on what developmentally appropriate information to share will vary widely, based on factors like your child's age, personality, maturity, and the closeness in their relationship to the family member prior to the estrangement (if there ever was one).

Much to my relief, however, expert consensus points to this: Younger children do not need to be weighed down with the specific details of all that has transpired—and, if they're not asking questions right now, there's no real reason to draw attention to the matter.

"I don't think that parents need to feel obligated to tell younger children about either these rifts or estrangement if it's not yet on their radar," says Dr. Coleman. "It's better to wait until they notice it, or comment on it, and then have an explanation."

If questions are posed by your kids, do aim to address them—after all, you want them to know they can come to you to ask about situations that are confusing or upsetting to them. But keep their stage of development in mind. "You certainly don't want to give a very complex, emotionally laden, conflicted report about a family member for a kid who just doesn't have the attention or bandwidth or intellectual cognitive ability to make sense out of that," says Dr. Coleman.

Experts emphasize to clearly communicate to the kids that this has nothing to do with them and is in no way their fault. It's also advisable to specifically outline just what's changing for them—like if you will no longer be seeing the relative for holidays, or on FaceTime calls, for instance.

It's important to also allow kids space for their feelings to emerge and time to respond. And expect this to be an ongoing conversation rather than a one-time thing. At your discretion, perhaps more can be disclosed about the nuances of the relationship in the future as they get older and more mature.

Make sure kids know you won't leave them

No matter the age, you don't want to inadvertently create a fear of abandonment or rejection, in which the child might draw conclusions that even their own parental figures could leave them. It can be a realistic concern for kids. "Your kids may very well get that message that this is the way that adults handle really difficult relationships," says Dr. Pillemer.

This is especially concerning in scenarios where caregivers are estranged from their own parents. "One reason why some people reconcile after [having] their own children is they do want to model at least having some relationship with a difficult parent," adds Dr. Pillemer. "They don't want to give their kids a model that when you don't get along with your parents, you never see them again because they are worried about it replicating in the family."

The best way to make kids feel secure is to explain what occurred in an age-appropriate way, explains Dr. Pillemer.

Dr. Coleman adds, "To just be very frankly reassuring is really the best thing to do."

Recognize your role as gatekeeper

While your own determinations for distancing yourself from a family member might be entirely righteous, experts advise to try putting your personal differences aside to consider your child's own unique relationship with the estranged relative. Of course, this might not be a possibility in cases of safety, but it might warrant consideration in other scenarios that are not as cut and dry, especially wherein the child had a good relationship with this person.

"Your truth is not the same as their truth," advises Ruth Hirsch, a New York-based marriage and family therapist, who has worked directly with my family. She suggests the relationship between the estranged family member and your child might still continue on, beyond your own. Ask yourself, she says, "Is there a way to salvage this relationship for the sake of my child?"

Dr. Coleman agrees, adding, "I think that you could have a tense relationship with your own parent, and they might still be able to be a very loving grandparent ... similarly, an aunt or an uncle. People sometimes do better with different roles and there's a lot of research that shows that close relationships, say between a grandchild and a grandparent, is clearly good for the grandparent, but it's also good for children's social and cognitive development."

Recognize that you hold a role as a gatekeeper who can permit or deny access. If you do decide to permit such interactions, the experts say you are well within your parental rights to set firm boundaries—meaning specific conditions under which the relationship can exist—and should be comfortable making demands that they be respected.

Make your own extended family

Remember that family is not always limited to who you share DNA with. Family can also be friends and members of the community who love you, show up for you, and share your values. Nurturing these connections as examples of good role models and healthy relationships will benefit your kids for the rest of their lives. See if there are people who might step up to the plate to stand in for things like "Grandparents Day" at school, or other events or holidays, which can be particularly challenging, where the role of the estranged family member might be more missed.

Most of all, for those of us who have experienced estrangement firsthand, we can find strength in solidarity, in knowing that we're not alone in our struggles.

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