Why Do Some Children Become Estranged Their Parents?

Lack of communication during upbringing and traumatic experiences can be reasons why some children decide to estrange themselves from their parents. Let's take a closer look at some of the causes that can lead to this and give you some tips for how to strengthen bonds with your parents in adulthood.
Why Do Some Children Become Estranged Their Parents?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 14 November, 2023

During the transition to adulthood, it’s common for family dynamics to undergo significant changes. One of the realities that has emerged in today’s society is children becoming estranged from their parents, a complex phenomenon that deserves to be explored in depth.

There are multiple causes of this event, ranging from situations such as trauma or differences in beliefs, to the influence of significant others and friends, and although this estrangement can generate concern and confusion, understanding the origin and consequences can shed light on this issue.

What are the causes of estrangement from children?

Before delving into the main reasons for children’s distancing, it’s essential to remember that this phenomenon should not be interpreted as a simple omission of responsibility on all occasions. Instead, it can be understood as an expression of personal growth, where children seek to find their voice, independence, and happiness.

Bearing this in mind, we’re going to share some situations with you that are often the origin of these family “breakups” and that may allow you to evaluate and take actions to strengthen your family’s communication.

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Traumatic experiences and the need to put distance between parents and children

The relationship between parents and children is crucial in the formation of identity and self-perception. However, when traumatic experiences mark childhood, this bond can become fragile. Sometimes, children choose to distance themselves as a way of healing the wounds of the past. In this process, the search for independence is intertwined with the need to establish healthy boundaries to protect their emotional well-being.

Studies have identified that the most frequent causes of these traumas may include parental separation, the death of close family members, exposure to domestic violence and substance use problems, as well as having been the protagonist or witness of violence in the home and living with a multiproblem family. The family environment also plays a key role, as having a weak or unhealthy family system can lead to disengagement and a sense of loneliness in adulthood.

In relation to parental separation, this can trigger problematic factors such as the manipulation of children to make claims about the other parent. In addition, when one of the parties involved in the separation finds a new partner and the child does not sympathize with this partner, it can also lead to estrangement. How the separation is handled and how communication is established between parents and children in this process can have a profound impact on the evolution of the relationship between them.

Forced migration and geographical distance

In an increasingly globalized world, job opportunities, political and social conflicts, as well as other factors, can lead people to seek a life in places distant from their place of origin. This situation, although often unavoidable, can have a profound impact on family relationships.

Forced migration, resulting from situations such as armed conflict, political persecution, or natural disasters, can lead to abrupt separation between parents and children. The need to seek safety and a better life can lead family members to disperse to different regions or even countries. This leads to a break in close coexistence and the impossibility of maintaining regular contact.

On the other hand, geographical distance can also arise due to job opportunities in distant areas. Many times, children move to different cities or countries to pursue their professional and educational goals. In addition, the economic aspect also plays a crucial role here, as the cost of airfare and other travel-related expenses can make it difficult to visit parents who reside far away on a regular basis.

Differences in values and ongoing arguments

Adult life brings with it the formation of personal values and beliefs, which may diverge from those instilled during upbringing. When visits with parents trigger constant arguments, some children may choose to space their encounters to avoid unnecessary tension. It’s in this process that they learn to set limits and safeguard their own peace of mind.

Differences usually arise from adolescence onwards, since it’s at this stage that the child seeks independence, beyond the bond of attachment that has been formed during upbringing. It’s there where the family climate and respect from the parents have the greatest influence in establishing how relationships will be in the future.

Studies are positive in this sense; they outline that the generation gap is less and less influential in family breakups, due to the fact that, unlike in previous decades, the ideological gap between parents and children is increasingly smaller, since topics such as religion, politics, and sexuality, which used to be taboo, are addressed.

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Conflicts with partners and relationship tensions

Love and romantic relationships can generate complications in the bond between parents and children. Clashes of values and difficulties in accepting chosen partners can trigger a gradual distancing. Parental resistance to the relationship or partners’ dissatisfaction with their loved one’s family may put pressure on family ties, leading some to reduce the frequency of visits.

Children or parents with mental health problems or difficult personalities.

The family context can be challenging for children who struggle with mental health issues or have difficult personalities – or especially children who have parents with these issues. The complex dynamics that emerge in these cases can negatively affect the relationship with parents. Personality disorder and other conditions can influence people’s decision-making, contributing to distancing as a protective measure.

In fact, it has been shown that the lack of union and communication within a family can be the reflection of parents with cases of depression, and usually results in children with emotional and behavioral problems, which generates a progressive breakdown of relationships.

Parental preferences and favorite siblings

The dynamics of “golden” or favored children can trigger resentment and conflict within the family. When parents favor one child over others, family bonds may suffer and equity is compromised. The feeling of being disadvantaged may influence some children’s decision to distance themselves to find their own identity and value outside of this pattern.

The importance of balance and communication

While parent-child estrangement can be rooted in a variety of causes, it’s vital to maintain a balanced perspective. Recognizing that modern family life presents challenges and opportunities allows both parties to reflect on their role in the relationship. Open and honest communication, where concerns and expectations are shared, can pave the way toward mutual understanding and redefining the relationship in adult terms.

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How to maintain a healthy relationship when you do reunite with your family members

Reconciliation and strengthening the bond between parents and children are desirable goals for both parties. To achieve this, it’s essential to establish a solid foundation of communication and mutual understanding. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your time together.

  • Keep communication open: Express your thoughts and feelings honestly and respectfully. Listen actively to the other parties and allow them to express their points of view.
  • Set clear expectations: Before the meeting, discuss the issues that could generate conflict during the visit and establish boundaries that safeguard family peace.
  • Seek mutual respect: recognize differences and individual perspectives, avoiding judgment and constant criticism.
  • Seek quality time: Instead of focusing on the quantity of visits, prioritize the quality of time spent together. Engage in meaningful activities and enjoy shared moments.
  • Express gratitude: Recognize and value the efforts and sacrifices that each family member has made. Maintain a state of gratitude for love and support.

The parent-child relationship is a complex dance of love, challenges, and personal evolution. While the reasons for estrangement may be varied, the possibility of rebuilding bonds is always present. By adopting an open, empathetic, and committed attitude, it’s possible to cultivate a nurturing and meaningful relationship that will endure for years to come.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Cantón-Cortés, D., Cortés Arboleda, M. D., & Cantón Duarte, J. (2010). Experiencias traumáticas, ambiente familiar y ajuste psicológico. Revista INFAD de Psicología International Journal of Developmental and Educational Psychology, 1(1), 363-369. https://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=349832324039
  • Montañés-Sánchez, M., Bartolomé-Gutiérrez, R., Montañés-Rodríguez, J., Parra-Casado, M. (2008). Influencia del contexto familiar en las conductas adolescentes. Revista de la Facultad de Educación de Albacete. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=3003557
  • Weissman, M. M., Wickramaratne, P., Nomura, Y., Warner, V., Pilowsky, D., & Verdeli, H. (2006). Offspring of depressed parents: 20 years later. The American journal of psychiatry163(6), 1001–1008. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16741200/

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.