Explaining Family Estrangement to Your Child

Family estrangement is one of the greatest challenges a person can face. It impacts nearly 1 in 4 Americans, according to a recent national survey, and can have dramatic impacts on a person’s life and relationships.

For children, family estrangement is even harder. Kids have a harder time grasping why they can’t see somebody anymore, and often blame themselves for something that had nothing to do with them. If they’ve never met the estranged family, they may have a difficult time understanding who that person is. The way family members deal differently with estrangement can also cause problems for children– for instance, if some members don’t speak of the estranged person and others do, it can be very confusing for children and may impact how they see roles within the family.

What Is Family Estrangement?

Family estrangement refers to the emotional or physical distancing and detachment between members of a family. It occurs when family members, such as parents, children, siblings, or other close relatives, choose to limit or cut off contact with each other due to various reasons. This distancing can be temporary or long-term and is typically characterized by a breakdown in communication and emotional connection within the family.

Family estrangement can result from a range of complex and deeply personal factors. It is a sensitive and often emotionally painful situation for those involved, as it involves the breakdown of what is traditionally considered one of the most important and enduring relationships in a person’s life.

Estrangement can take many forms, from a temporary cooling-off period to a complete and permanent separation, and it can impact individuals and families differently. Reconciliation and healing are possible in some cases with time and effort, but not all estrangements lead to resolution or reunion. It is important to remember that estrangement is a choice– it’s not the same thing as drifting apart from an old friend. Somebody in the relationship chose to create the emotional cutoff.

Why Are People Estranged?

Family estrangement can occur for a variety of reasons, and it’s often a complex and emotionally charged situation. Some common reasons for family estrangement include:

  • Abuse and Neglect: Emotional, physical, or psychological abuse within the family can lead to estrangement. In some cases, children may distance themselves from abusive parents to protect their own well-being.
  • Addiction Issues: Substance use disorder can interfere with normal family relationships and create breakdowns.
  • Conflict and Disagreements: Family members may have significant conflicts, disagreements, or arguments that they cannot resolve.
  • Financial Conflicts: Disputes over money, inheritances, or financial support can lead to estrangement, particularly in cases where one family member feels unfairly treated.
  • Identity: Sometimes, family members become estranged due to differences in their values, beliefs, or lifestyles. This is one of the reasons that many LGBTQIA+ individuals struggle with being estranged from their families, especially if those families have a religious or political prejudice against members of that community.
  • Mental Health Issues: Family members struggling with mental health problems may find it difficult to maintain relationships due to the challenges their conditions present.
  • Unresolved Issues and Trauma: Lingering issues from the past, such as childhood trauma, unresolved conflicts, or long-standing resentments, can strain family relationships and eventually lead to estrangement.

It’s important to note that every family’s situation is unique, and multiple factors can contribute to estrangement. Estrangement is a complex and often painful experience for all involved, and reconciliation, if desired, can be difficult but not impossible. It often requires open communication, empathy, and a willingness to work through the underlying issues. Family counseling or therapy can also be helpful in some cases to facilitate reconciliation or better coping mechanisms for those dealing with estrangement.

Explaining Family Estrangement to Kids

If estrangement has occurred and children are involved, what should you do? You need to talk about it with them, but it can be a very delicate, challenging conversation. It’s important to remember that kids aren’t one-size-fits-all, and some children will have an easier time understanding estrangement than others. How you explain it will depend on the child’s level of understanding and your knowledge of their emotional development. Here are some ideas for explaining family estrangement to kids of different ages:

For Young Children (Ages 2-6)

For the youngest kids, you need to keep things simple. Use age-appropriate language and keep your explanation simple and concrete. You can say something like, “Sometimes, family members can’t get along, just like how sometimes you and your friends don’t always get along.”

You want to also emphasize love, and that you will always love them and be there for them. Kids this age can often have a real fear of abandonment, especially as they transition into school and are away from their parents for a longer period of time. You can explain that you can still love your family members, even if you don’t see each other as often. It’s also important that you don’t assign blame or make one person out to be the “bad guy.” Keep it neutral and focus on explaining the situation.

For Older Children (Ages 7-11)

Be honest with older children and use more detailed language. However, be sure to keep it appropriate for what your child can handle. You don’t have to go into specific details about the nature of the problem– but be prepared for them to ask questions. In fact, you should encourage questions, because that’s one of the key ways they’ll be able to address their feelings. Be prepared to listen and provide answers as best you can.

If your child had a relationship with the estranged family member, be sure to reassure them none of this is their fault Teach them healthy ways to cope with their feelings about the situation, such as talking to you, writing in a journal, or seeking support from friends or a school counselor.

For Tweens and Teens

Teens can handle more complex information, and they often have a better situational awareness of family problems than younger children. Explain the reasons for the estrangement honestly and without sugarcoating, but also without assigning blame. This can be hard, especially when feelings are strong and tempers are hot– but this is also a place where you can be vulnerable and show your older child how to handle strong feelings.

Recognize that this can be a tough situation for them to handle emotionally. Encourage them to express their feelings and let them know you’re there to support them, and offer resources like counseling or support groups. They might struggle with talking to you about their emotions, especially if they were close to the estranged family member and are struggling with reconciling their feelings and yours.

Regardless of your child’s age, it’s crucial to emphasize that they are loved, and the estrangement is not their fault. Reiterate that people sometimes need space to work through their problems, and that while the family situation may be challenging, it doesn’t change the family’s love for the child. Keep communication open, and be there to support and listen to them as they process this information.

Many children who have estranged family members will benefit from seeing a mental health professional. If you and your family are dealing with estrangement and would like additional support, reach out to the team at  Love Heal Grow today.


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