How to Support a Friend Estranged from Family
What does it mean to be family?
Many of us have mental pictures of what family looks like. Often, those pictures include parents who have loving and trusting relationships with their children. There’s no question that the bond between parents and children is often our closest and most enduring relationship.1 But family harmony is not everyone’s reality. Many adult children and their parents are estranged from one another, meaning they choose to put distance between themselves. This could mean anything from talking rarely to completely cutting ties, and the degree of estrangement can vary over time.
Estrangement is more common than you might think. Dr. Kristina Scharp studies difficult family transitions and how people cope with them. According to her, although there are no official statistics, “Research suggests that family estrangement might be as common as divorce in some parts of society. Studies also suggest that about one in every eight mothers identifies as being estranged from at least one of her children2—and we know that this number is even higher for fathers.”
Despite how common it is, estrangement can still feel lonely and painful for both the person being distanced and the one who wants more space.
What makes estrangement so hard?
1. The reasons for it. There are many factors that lead people to put distance between themselves and their family members, including abuse, a nasty divorce, or unresolved family issues. A parent or adult child might feel a lack of acceptance, support, or love. They may hold different values or feel the other’s behavior has been unacceptable or toxic.3 None of this feels good. But according to Dr. Scharp, estrangement can be a very healthy solution to an unhealthy environment. Some adult children experience personal growth, healing, and happiness after distancing themselves from family.4
2. Stigma, guilt, and shame. It can feel socially unacceptable to distance ourselves from family, or to be the person cut out of a family member’s life. We may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or uncomfortable talking about the situation with other family members or friends.5 A recent study found that parents have an especially hard time with feelings of shame and guilt around estrangement, because they are expected to love and support their children no matter what.6 Friends and family may think they’re helping by pushing for a reunion between estranged family members, but according to Dr. Scharp, “Qualitative research tells us that people who are estranged from family experience significant stigma that’s made worse by well-meaning friends who pressure them to reconcile.”
3. It’s not recognized as a loss. If a person hasn’t spoken to their dad in ten years, it can feel like they don’t have a dad anymore—even though they technically do. Dr. Scharp explains that people who are estranged can feel “disenfranchised grief”—a kind of bereavement that is not publicly acknowledged or socially supported. But their grief is real because they are missing the emotional, educational, financial, and physical support that family can provide.7
4. It’s a process. Estrangement is not always something that feels finished at a certain point. As Dr. Scharp tells us, “Those who distance themselves must also continue the separation. The process is often marked by an on-again/off-again pattern, which can be difficult in and of itself.”
How can you help a friend who is estranged from their family?
1. Respect their reasons. It can take a lot of effort to put distance between oneself and one’s family. So if a friend has done that, trust that they have good reasons for it. “People often have enough difficulty gaining distance from their family the first time,” Dr. Scharp says. “It is often helpful to respect that those who desire distance have legitimate reasons.” Even if you don’t entirely understand or agree with their actions, trust that your friend knows what’s right for them.
2. Be willing to listen. Your friend might not want to talk about their estranged relationship. But you can still let them know that you’re there for them, whether they want to talk or not. People in the estrangement process often feel that they are alone. Letting them know you’re there for them can go a long way.
3. Don’t push them to reconcile. Unless they specifically express a desire to reconnect, don’t suggest it. Keeping the estrangement going might be the right call for them, and it’s their decision. Ask how they feel about the situation. Let them talk if they want to. If they do want to reconcile, working with a professional counselor is a good idea.
4. Remind your friend they are loved. People who are estranged can have a hard time trusting others, which can weaken all of their relationships.8 Letting them know they are loved reminds them that they have a chosen family who may not share DNA but do share their values, memories, and experiences. It helps your estranged friend to know that your opinion of them hasn’t changed.
5. Remember them on holidays. Special days like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or Christmas, when families typically gather together, may be tough for your friend. And if they’re estranged from a parent or child, Mother’s and Father’s Day can be difficult as well. Invite friends who are estranged from their families to your family gatherings or make plans together. If they prefer to go on vacation or spend the day on their own, respect their wishes.