- One in four Americans are estranged from a close family member, according to a national survey.
- Children, who have no control over family relations, can be devastated by family losses due to estrangements.
- When children witness a cutoff, they often fear their parents might abandon them; they may need reassurance.
One of the most difficult dilemmas of being estranged from a family member is how to explain the break to children. For children, the estrangement often means that they are cut off—perhaps suddenly, without explanation or input—from treasured relationships with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and maybe even older siblings.
As many as one in four American adults are estranged from a close family member, as reported in a large-scale national survey conducted by Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University. He shared these statistics in his 2020 book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.
The breakdown of supportive relationships connecting family members may be the result of many issues: abuse, neglect, mental health or substance abuse problems, differing expectations about family roles, or clashes in personalities, politics, or value systems. All are matters ill-suited to sharing with youngsters. Children, who have no control over family relations, can be collateral damage in estrangements.
“It’s heartbreaking for all of the kids involved,” says one woman who is estranged from her brother. Her young adult children have had nothing to do with their cousin for the last two years. “He blocked them on social media, so I had no choice but to tell my children the truth, I told them that this isn’t exactly normal, or how adults typically handle relationships. I said that it’s healthier to talk through issues, and I hope that things will work out soon!”
In a MedCircle interview with podcast host Kyle Kittleson, Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and expert on narcissism, offered guidance for helping children understand a cutoff with a difficult, possibly narcissistic relative. She recommends that parents wait until the children ask about their relative before offering information.
“You don’t have to make a big announcement,” she says. “If the kids say, ‘How come we’re not seeing Uncle Tony at Thanksgiving?’—you want to give them an age-appropriate explanation, and one that doesn’t denigrate or insult Uncle Tony, because that is not healthy behavior to model for your children.
“Instead, say, ‘You know, Uncle Tony has other people or other ways to spend his time, and right now they’re a little busy this year and so we may not be able to get together.’ If these are people that the children are accustomed to seeing on a regular basis, and they really notice much more quickly and may even see you having arguments, you might say, ‘You know how you and your sister sometimes argue? Well, sometimes grownups argue like that, too, and we’re just trying to figure it out.’”
Tips for discussing estrangement with children
Here are some other suggestions on how to explain difficult family situations to your children:
- Assess what’s best for your child, given their age, maturity, sensitivity, and personality. There’s no "one-size-fits-all" solution. Younger children don’t need to be told what happened. Kids under 7 certainly cannot grasp the complexities at play in a challenging relationship.
- Avoid discussing family members and conflicts within earshot of children. Children are aware of family dynamics; they often pay close attention to adult conversations about relatives, particularly when they’ve already noticed something has changed.
- Tackle the topic as truthfully and directly as possible when you and your child are alone together. Expect this topic to be an ongoing conversation; as the child grows and matures, a parent can disclose more information.
- Young children often draw their own conclusions, so it’s important to reassure them that their own parental figures won’t abandon, reject, or leave them. You don’t want them to fear that you would cut them out of your life—simply because they had a moment of not being “nice.”
- Remind children that “family” isn’t necessarily defined by blood relation. Support the idea that friends, too, can be considered family when they love you, show up for you, and share your values.
- Reassure your child that their estranged relative still loves them, Ramani suggests. The estrangement doesn’t have anything to do with them or anything they've done.
Salvaging the relationship for the sake of the children and generations to come
Whatever you do, Ramani recommends that you don’t waiver on your decision. “If you’re going to really lower the guillotine...you’re done. But to say, well, now we’re not mad at Uncle Tony and your cousins again, that’s not going to fly.
“There are ramifications to these decisions. Sadly, many times, when narcissistic adults get into conflicts with people, they’ll use their children as pawns. They’ll say, ‘Okay, that’s how it’s going to be, then you don’t see your nieces and nephews anymore.'" Even if there’s a peaceful resolution, kids are likely to be confused and to need more explanation.
In some families where estrangement has occurred, the number of cutoffs seems to multiply exponentially. Long‐standing estrangements may become an acceptable model, replicated by generations that follow. In these families, when stressful situations arise, siblings easily justify cutting off from one another, given that their parents didn’t maintain relations with their own brothers or sisters. Estrangements can become so entrenched that some relatives never even have the opportunity to meet the new babies in the family.
For the sake of the children and generations to come, the estranged may want to consider whether there’s any way to salvage this relationship. Many decide to maintain a restricted relationship with toxic relatives, limiting their interactions to occasional emails, infrequent phone calls, or seeing each other only at major family gatherings.
This kind of superficial connection, focusing on harm reduction via minimal exposure, can contain the hurt that a deeply contentious relationship may inflict on an individual. While even limited contact can still be painful for the estranged parent, it allows children to maintain separate, often loving relationships with cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Facebook image: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock
Pillemer, Karl, (2020) Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, Avery
Medcircle, "Narcissism in Siblings/The Signs", Kyle Kittleson interviews Dr. Ramani Durvasula - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHeM0jJiB3U&t=553s