You might be reading this page because your relationship with your parent(s) has recently broken down, or you may have been living independently for some time, or perhaps you are thinking about stopping contact with your family. No longer having a relationship with your parent(s), for example not seeing them, or not communicating with them, is referred to as 'estrangement'. This page is designed to provide some information about estrangement, how and why it might happen, what difficulties it can cause, and what support and help is available, whatever stage you are at.
What is family estrangement?
Estrangement from family members broadly means physical and emotional distancing, so that seeing or communicating with your family either stops completely or occurs only rarely. Estrangement might occur between just two members of a family, or sometimes between one person and the whole of their family.
Family estrangement is not uncommon. Research by the charity Standalone suggests that one in five UK families will be affected by estrangement. A common time for estrangement to occur is during late adolescence when a teenager starts to assert their own beliefs and to make their own life choices.
Why might estrangement happen?
Estrangement can happen for all sorts of reasons and in all kinds of ways.
Often it is because parents and their adolescent or adult children have different values and beliefs which cannot be reconciled. Parents might reject their son or daughter because of life choices which the parent disagrees with, for example choosing a partner from a different faith or cultural background; parents might want their child to have an arranged marriage but their child wants to choose their own partner; parents might disagree with their child’s decision to go to university, or disagree with their choice of course at university; they may disapprove of their child’s sexuality. If the parent cannot accept their child’s identity and life choices, and insists that the child holds identical values to themselves, the relationship can break down because common ground cannot be found.
Sometimes estrangement occurs because there is domestic abuse in the family, and the person who is being abused removes themselves from the situation to a place of safety.
Estrangement can occur after a divorce, where a step parent comes into the family who does not get along with the children, causing tension and disagreements.
How might estrangement happen?
Estrangement can take the form of a long running deterioration in a relationship, and ongoing attempts to resolve this, which finally end in one or both parties cutting off from each other as they feel that there is nothing more they can do, and the situation is intolerable and irreconcilable. In a situation of domestic abuse, the abused person may decide to leave for their own safety. Sometimes estrangement happens as the result of a one off event which occurs and causes a huge disagreement to blow up, such that the parent and child cease communication.
Estrangement might be from just one member of the family, but can often mean estrangement from the entire family, or even the entire community.
It may be that both parties decide on the estrangement, or that you make the decision, or that your family decided to estrange themselves from you. The different ways in which it happens can cause different feelings, for example if your parent has rejected you, you may feel unable to understand why this has happened, which can be extremely painful and difficult to cope with. If you have left your family, you may be feeling guilty, and you may also feel very angry and unable to understand why they needed you to conform to their beliefs, and couldn’t accept you as you are. You may feel that you were forced into this position. Usually the person initiating the estrangement does so because they cannot see a way forward – they are letting go of what cannot be changed.
What issues can estrangement present?
On an emotional level, being estranged from your family can cause a number of very difficult feelings, which may feel difficult to manage.
Estrangement can cause feelings of rejection from a family and sometimes a community, and resentment at not belonging in a family anymore. Estrangement can trigger a grieving process for all that has been lost, such as close family ties. If you have become estranged you may have to move to a new and unfamiliar area which can to feelings of isolation and loneliness. This may lead to low self-esteem and depression and have a significant impact on your whole mental well-being.
On a practical level it can be a real challenge to suddenly leave the family home and have to manage by yourself, for example finding accommodation, being financially self-sufficient, cooking for yourself, making new friends and a new support network.
Making new friends might feel difficult, for example when you start university people often talk about their family and it can be hard to explain that you are not in contact with them. You may feel that there is a stigma around being estranged, or that if you tell people about it they won’t understand and might think that it would be simple for you to forgive your family for what they have done, which can lead to feelings of shame that this hasn’t happened. If you feel you cannot tell other people about your estrangement, you can feel isolated. Fear of the stigma can mean that some people who want to separate from their family feel they cannot do so.
What help and support is available
It is important to know that support is available – both practical and emotional – to help you deal with the difficulties that estrangement can cause, or to help you decide whether to estrange yourself from your family due to an intolerable situation. With appropriate support you will hopefully be able to make new friendships, to learn to enjoy your autonomy and being able to live life as you wish to, without being constrained by strict family values.
If you are dealing with difficult feelings caused by estrangement, or if you are in a difficult family situation which you are considering estranging yourself from, you may find it helpful to talk confidentially to a Counsellor. If you are a Queen Mary University of London student you can contact the confidential Queen Mary Advice and Counselling Service. You can read more about how Counselling can be helpful on our website.
Alternatively you could look for psychological therapy services in your local area through the NHS Choices website.
Standalone is a charity which supports people of any age who are estranged from their family. They can offer guidance and support around issues such as finding accommodation, and applying for Student Finance as an independent student. Standalone have a number of useful guides on their website, including a guide to going to university as an independent student.
Standalone run meet-up groups, therapeutic groups and a mentor programme to connect people for ongoing emotional support. They also have an online support group for students where you can meet others in the same situation and talk about your experience of student life without a family network. You can join this group via the website.
Welfare Advisers at the Queen Mary Advice and Counselling Service can help you apply for Student Finance as an independent student on the basis of estrangement. You are strongly encouraged to contact a Welfare Adviser for help with this, whether you are a prospective student or a current student. We have a separate webpage about applying for Student Finance on the basis of estrangement.