A study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family sheds new light on the sociodemographic factors that make someone more likely to be estranged from a parent. Compared to heterosexual respondents, gay, lesbian, and bisexual respondents were more likely to be estranged from fathers. White respondents were more likely than participants of other races to be estranged from their mothers but less likely to be estranged from their fathers.
Not all parent-child relationships are happy, and some children grow to be estranged from one or more parents as adults. Estrangement can mean no contact at all between parent and child or it can mean a poor quality relationship with very little contact.
Family scholars have attempted to study the dynamics of estrangement, but most studies have relied on retrospective reporting or included a single wave of data. Study author Rin Reczek and associates aimed to expand on this research by using longitudinal data to obtain estimates of estrangement among United States families. They also aimed to uncover factors associated with estrangement and with future reconciliation.
“My first book, Families We Keep, told the story of people who had challenging relationships with family members but chose to keep these ties intact,” explained Reczek, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University. “I wanted to learn more about the flip side — those who did end up ending family relationships. This paper is the first paper in a series of papers and a book that will explore estranged family ties.”
For their study, the researchers obtained data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79), a nationally representative survey of American youth born between 1957 and 1964. They also obtained data from the Child and Young Adult supplement (NLSY79-CYA), which surveyed children born to mothers from the NLSY79. The earliest wave of data from these children was collected in 1994 and the most recent one in 2018.
After excluding participants with missing data, the researchers had a final sample size of 8,495 mother-child relationships and 8,119 father-child relationships. The data included 13 waves, during which the adult children answered various questions about their relationships with their parents.
Estrangement was measured via questions assessing how often respondents see their mother and father, how often they communicate with them, and how close they feel to them. Other measures included sociodemographic factors like gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual identity.
“Estrangement is fairly common,” Reczek told PsyPost.
In their analysis, the researchers estimated the prevalence of estrangement from mothers and fathers. First, estrangement from a father was more common than estrangement from a mother — about 26% of respondents reported being estranged from their fathers at least once throughout the study, while only 6% of respondents reported being estranged from their mothers. The average age at first estrangement from mothers was 26 years old, and from fathers, 23.
Next, the researchers uncovered significant differences by participant gender, race, and sexuality. Women were 22% more likely to be estranged from their fathers than men were. Compared to White respondents, Black respondents were 27% less likely to be estranged from their mothers but over three times more likely to be estranged from their fathers
Black respondents were also less likely to be estranged from mothers compared to Latino respondents — possibly a reflection of norms that place mothers at the center of Black family life. Compared to heterosexual respondents, gay, lesbian, and bisexual respondents were more likely to be estranged from fathers.
Some respondent characteristics appeared to increase the risk of estrangement, such as having been previously married. Certain parental characteristics lowered the risk of estrangement, such as mother’s and father’s older age and father’s higher levels of education.
When it came to family reconciliation, it was more common for people to become unestranged from mothers (81.3%) than fathers (68.6%). There were no sociodemographic patterns for the likelihood of becoming unestranged from parents.
“Estrangement is often not permanent, with most people reconnecting at least to some degree in later years,” Reczek said. “I was surprised by how many people reconnected after a period of estrangement.”
“Future work needs to look at what the quality of these reconnected ties are, and in particular try to understand whether the relationships remain poor quality once reconnected, or if they become stronger and heal when the tie is reasserted. We also need to know more about the process of becoming reconnected after estrangement.”
The authors said their findings show that estrangement is distributed unevenly across the U.S. population. “We theorize these findings are a consequence of broader institutional and structural factors such as gendered (and often sexist) expectations and inequalities, racism, and homo/biphobia,” Reczek and colleagues wrote.
“This study provides compelling new evidence that a deeper look at estrangement—including the consequences of estrangement for both generations—should be a central goal for future family scholarship.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“A first caveat is that these are adult children’s reports of relationships with their parents,” Reczek explained. “Data from parents would be very useful in understanding estrangement patterns from their perspective.
“A second caveat is that we didn’t talk to people about their estrangement; we plan to do a qualitative study on estrangement would be a great companion piece for this project,” Reczek told PsyPost. “If folks want to learn more or enroll in the study, they can connect to us here: https://www.rinreczek.com/families-we-lose-study”
The study, “Parent–adult child estrangement in the United States by gender, race/ethnicity, and sexuality”, was authored by Rin Reczek, Lawrence Stacey, and Mieke Beth Thomeer.