Family estrangements are more common than you’d think.
First of all, being estranged from members of your family-of-origin may seem to be the exception rather than the norm, and while that may be factually true, over the years, I’ve come to believe that estrangement – be it the exception – is still a reality faced by more people than probably any of us know.
For example, according to 2015 research done by The University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research and the UK non-profit Stand Alone, it appears that 1 in 5 British families have some sort of estrangement within them.
And this study of US mother-adult child pairs found that about 10% of mothers were estranged from one adult child.
A 2015 study by Richard Conti that was based on college and graduate students, primarily female, showed that more than one-quarter reported extended estrangement, while close to 44 percent reported being estranged at some point.
And, for added context, I want to mention that Tara Westover’s incredible, megahit 2018 book – Educated – clearly struck a nerve, not only for its sensational story but also, I suspect, for its resonance at some level.
And while the population who seeks out relational trauma recovery therapy with me is self-selecting and thus disproportionately inclined to experience estrangement within their families of origins, I’ve heard enough stories from a wide enough range of people over the last decade to cement my opinion: family estrangement is much, more common than most people realize.
But still, despite it being a relatively common experience, it remains a sorely under-discussed subject (sidenote: I’m doing my best to change that!) and so, when it comes to parenting, many of us who live with family estrangement may feel, quite simply, adrift at how and when we’ll appropriately discuss this with our kids.
How do we tell our kids about the estrangement in our family?
“How do we tell our kids about the estrangement in our family?”
Well, first of all, I want to acknowledge that you don’t ever have to do this if that doesn’t feel right to you.
This – the decision whether or not to talk about the estrangement in your family – is totally subjective much like how you decide to talk about it is also a subjective experience.
Like with all things when it comes to parenting – there’s no one single right and best answer.
As with everything else with our kids, it’s up to you (and your partner if you have one) to gauge what’s best for you and your unique situation.
So, recognizing that I’m not the expert of your experience (only you can ever be the expert of your experience) and recognizing that what I’m deciding to do may not necessarily feel best and right for you, I still want to share one way that we – my husband and I – are actively dealing with this subject with our preschooler daughter in a developmentally-appropriate way.
- Letting her know early and often that families can look all kinds of different ways.
Last Summer, my daughter was in the developmental stage where she was trying to make sense of gender and other social categories in her toddler world (“Boys have penises? Girls have vaginas? Does daddy have a vagina? Do you have a penis, mommy? Girls are women? Boys grow up and be men? Are all babies girls?”).
This sense-making stage coincided with her admission to a phenomenal preschool that had a ton more diversity than her prior daycare had had (where the family constellation of each child only consisted of moms and dads).
In this new setting, some of her new friends now had two mommies, some had two daddies, and some were being raised by grandparents.
So she tried to make sense of this, too.
“He has two mommies? Where’s his daddy? Can I have two mommies? Why he call her Grandma? She his mommy?”
This opened the door for rich, toddler-level conversation and we got to introduce an important core belief of ours: families look a lot of different ways and each way is okay.
As she tried to make sense of this, reconciling what we were telling her and what she was seeing at preschool, she then started asking me and my husband, “You have two mommies? You have two daddies? You love your mommy and your daddy?”
And my husband would share with her, “I have a mommy and a daddy and I love them.”
And I would say, “I have one mommy, no daddy. And I love my mommy.”
“Where’s your daddy?”
“I don’t have a daddy. I only have a mommy. Remember, families look all kinds of different ways and each way is okay.”
It took some repetition for all these nuances to sink in, but now, months later, she’s really internalized this core concept: families look all kinds of different ways and each way is okay.
(She even plays this out with her stuffies and toy figurines, literally telling them, “You have one daddy and you have two mommies and you both lucky!”)
By introducing the concept early and often of families existing in many different iterations, we are (we hope) setting up a more flexible mental attitude for her to understand later on, in different developmental stages, why she doesn’t have some members on her family tree that other kids might see.
- Supporting the idea that friends can be family, too.
Another core belief of me and my husband’s is that friends can be family, too.
When it comes time to make the requisite family tree in grade school, we will support her in including these friends – her Aunties, Uncles, and Cousins-by-choice – on the tree.
We personally plan to legitimize the inclusion of friends in her life and on her family tree and how they count as much as we inherently and without question call the children who have been adopted into our family, family.
Adopted = family. Friends = family.
Back to point number one: families look a lot of different ways and each way is okay.
- Preparing ourselves to explain (and defend) our decisions with extended family, teachers, or institutions that challenge us.
While we hope to always live in communities and educate our daughter at institutions that embody values of inclusivity and diversity, if and when we are ever challenged by others (be they extended family members, teachers, or others) who tell us that our daughter has to list all blood relatives on her family tree – even if they are not a part of our life – and that she can’t list friends, we plan to defend this choice.
If adopted relatives can have a place on a family tree, so can friends.
And gaps are allowed to be on family trees if that’s what we as a family feel is right and good and true and in alignment with our values.
While we may never need to have these justifying conversations, we’re fully prepared to in order to support the reality of our lived experience.
Wrapping This Up…
Of course, because our daughter is only three and both my husband and I have never parented before, we’re figuring out this whole thing – explaining the reality of our families including the estrangements on both sides – as we go.
Building the ship as we’re sailing it, so to speak.
But, even as novices, we’re trying to do so in developmentally appropriate ways and will, of course, continue to refine what we do and don’t disclose as our daughter ages and becomes more developmentally able and receptive to additional concepts (concepts like mental illness, safety, unresolved conflict, etc.).
But, for now, those are three ways in which we personally are laying the groundwork for not only speaking about and helping her understand the estrangements in her family but also helping her have an attitude and embracing of diversity when it comes to family systems as much as it comes to race, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
And, quite honestly, we feel pretty good about what we’re doing.
And look, I’m not saying that we’re the experts. I’m only sharing some of what we’re doing. I share much more in my online course but, for now, I hope that even some of what I shared catalyzed your thinking and left you feeling even a little more validated and seen if you, too, deal with family estrangements and have wondered how and if to explain this to your child.
Now, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:
If you are estranged from family members, how do you explain this (or plan to explain this) to your own children (if at all)? If your children are older, how did what you share change as they grew?
Please, if you feel so inclined, leave a message in the comments below so our monthly blog readership of 20,000 plus people can benefit from your wisdom and experience.
And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
My son is 26, but when I became estranged from my brother last year (something I realize I should have done about 20 years earlier), I told him. But when he asked why, I blanked out! So it sounded like I didn’t have a good reason. I know that’s not the question you asked, but I just want you to know that I appreciate you addressing this matter. It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d do, but I know it’s the right thing. Also, kudos to you and your husband for handling your daughter’s questions so well. She sounds like such a sweet little person! <3
Thank you for your kind comment! I’m so pleased that this post resonated with you and I appreciate your sharing your own story with us. Take such good care of yourself.
Hi Annie, thank you for this newsletter. It is a great topics for people who are parents themselves now and had difficult childhoods. I am estranged from both of my parents due to alcoholism and borderline personality disorder. My children are now in their teens but when they were younger we talked to them about the estrangement in terms of playground behavior. We said if someone is mean to you at recess and you have told them several times to stop and they refuse, what do you do? You move away from them and play with someone else, right? We have had to move away from your grandparents in the same way. When they can agree to play nicely, we can reconnect. That brought up questions about choices people make and the effect of substances on people’s abilities to make good choices.
One of the biggest challenges we faced was having relatives (uncles, aunts and cousins of similar same age) that we see several times a year who are still in relationship with my parents. I put boundaries in place that we would not be attending any holidays/birthdays etc if my parents were present and we found alternative days/times to get together. Maintaining those sibling/cousin relationships for myself and our children were important to us but it did take repeated boundary setting and some creative thinking sometimes. When my children questioned why their cousins saw those grandparents when we didn’t, we explained to them that for many reasons my brothers had a different relationship with my parents than I did. Luckily, that was enough of an explanation for them…at least for now. The truth is my brothers are in denial about our childhood and it’s effects on all of us as as children and now as adults. I am the only one in recovery at this point.
Thanks for taking the time to comment. I love the playground analogy for younger kids! Creating and maintaining those boundaries is such a strong example that will serve your children well, as will the honest discussions about how substances can influence behavior. Sending you my very best.
M family on
That all sounds so much more simple when starting fresh with children who have never known the now-estranged family members.
I find it an ongoing turmoil trying to work out what to say to my 3 children who are older (5, 12 and 14), and have previously spent time around my family. Estrangement from my mother was by choice, but as I distanced myself from her, she destroyed the relationships I had with my two siblings and my father, and we now have no contact with any of them, including my niece and nephew who were previously quite close with my children.
In addition, I separated and divorced from my husband just over 2 years ago, and he has minimal contact with the children also.
We have “adopted” an aunt and uncle who are absolutely amazing, and I have talked to the children about how family is the people that you love. They have accepted this, but still feel sadness and question the situation – moreso with my siblings. We all have a lot of trust issues and have therapists, what I feel like I most need is a year by year guide to how and what is developmentally appropriate to share with them in terms of mental illness, childhood trauma and giving them tools to manage their own relationships and friendships.
It’s difficult to see them struggle with anxiety, trust issues, co-dependence, boundary issues etc and still be so new to understanding how these issues affect myself and my own behaviours. And to also be so very time poor that I often feel that even thinking about all of this makes it worse because it just reminds me of all the things I haven’t helped them with.
Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing your story with us. I love that you’ve given your 3 children an “adopted” aunt and uncle! I’m sorry that you’re reminded of all the things you haven’t helped them with, from here, it sounds like you are doing your very best to heal yourself while helping and protecting your children.
If I can offer you extra support through my online course – Hard Families, Good Boundaries as you work toward a positive future for yourself and your children, I’d love to work with you there. In the meantime, please take such good care of yourself.
The situation in my family is not so much total estrangement as it is that we see and talk to certain family members rarely. For some of those family members, it is our choice. For others, it is theirs. I find it much more complicated this way. How do I explain to my children that I do have a brother, a sister, a daddy and a mommy, but my siblings don’t reach out and my parents are very toxic and have caused me immense pain throughout my life? For my mother, the reality is that she was and is terribly manipulative to the point where she could make anyone question their reality. For this reason, I choose not to engage with her beyond emails here and there. The kids have met her a few times. They will probably see her again one day, but I don’t know when that might be. How do I explain why they can’t simply see or talk to her whenever they want to (aside from that she lives 2 hours away)? I guess my point is it’s not always so cut and dry. There’s a lot of messiness involved for some of us. My children’s father included. How do I explain why we got divorced? I told them he was mean to me. In truth, he was abusive. I don’t know if that was the right thing to say. I don’t want them to think I will leave them if they are unkind to me once in a while, but I want to give them some sort of truthful answer. He also chooses not to see them more than a few times a year. It’s all really complicated and difficult to talk about with anyone, my children included.
Thank you for taking the time to comment and to share your story. I truly understand how difficult it can be and I’d encourage you to give yourself the gift of seeking support while living in this complicated situation.
If I can support you through either of my online courses – Hard Families, Good Boundaries, or the forthcoming Relational Trauma Recovery School – as you work toward a positive future for yourself, I’d love to work with you there. In the meantime, please know I’m sending you my very best.
This was a very interesting blog post for me to read, as I am not a parent yet but have been thinking more about children recently. I have also, simultaneously, been having thoughts about my complete estrangement from one side of my family, and whether I had ‘made the right choice’.
Reading this blog made me realise it may be something I am asked about as a parent, and that being able to distill the reasons for it into something simple would be helpful. I attempted to do it in my mind, and as I practiced distilling and simplifying the ‘reasons’ it made me feel more confident and sure of my decision. So I am really grateful to have read this!
I also love what you mentioned about teaching your little girl about different types of family, and intentionally seeking educational systems and activities which nuture and celebrate diversity in families. Your little girl was spot on when she said “and you are both lucky!” to her toy families. 🙂
Thanks as always for your wonderful posts, Annie!
Thank you for kind comment, I’m so pleased this post felt helpful! I’m glad that thinking about what you might say to your own children gave you even more confidence in your decision. Estrangement can be so tough but I’m proud of you for making the choice that was right for you.
If I can ever support you through either of my online courses – Hard Families, Good Boundaries, or the forthcoming Relational Trauma Recovery School – as you continue to build a positive future, I’d love to work with you there. In the meantime, please know I’m sending you my very best.
Megan Dey-Toth on
Wonderful blogpost. Very thought-provoking, as always. There is one sentence in here though that hurts a bit — “If adopted relatives can have a place on a family tree, so can friends.” Adopted relatives are often left off of family trees, or the scarlet “adopted” is written. Family trees are often a source of sadness for adoptees. Everything else you wrote about our chosen family is wonderful. But the one sentence about “If…, then…” has nagged at my heart.
Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts with me. I’m truly so sorry that my words, however unintentional, hurt you! Please know that when I referred to “adopted relatives” having a place on a family tree, I was referring to Aunties, Uncles, and Cousins-by-choice – those friends that we “adopt” as part of our family. Perhaps the word “honorary” would feel better. No one who joins a family through adoption should ever be made to feel less than and I’m very sorry if that has been your experience. I’m sending you my very best.