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The Stress of Estrangement


One of the many stressors that can lead to dysregulated eating is loneliness due to estrangement from family members—when adults disconnect from relatives or families disconnect from them. This kind of problem can decrease a sense of belonging and, too often, lead to emotional eating. 

Family estrangement: Why rifts happen and how to cope with them explains the causes of alienation, why it has increased over time, and what to do if it happens to you. The article’s author, Jen Rose Smith, maintains that alienation is far more common than it used to be for several reasons. When abuse is involved, rather than turning the other cheek, more and more abusees are comfortable letting go of toxic relationships, a view reinforced by American culture’s individualistic, rather than family, orientation.

Although I’ve known a few people over the years whose parents shunned them for their life choices, it’s more common for me to be working with parents whose children rarely if ever contact them or clients who have non-existent relationships with a sibling. While the latter is distressing, it doesn’t match the painful chords that parent-child estrangement strike. These situations are deeply wounding.

In some cases, clients (all mothers in my cases) are heart-broken that an adult child wishes to have little or no contact with them. Sometimes it’s due to divorce, when the child felt a need—and still feels it—to choose one parent over the other. Other times an adult child who has been abused holds on to anger and remains unforgiving of a parent. Alternately, adult children may harbor tremendous resentment that a parent didn’t protect them from abuse by the other parent. Sometimes adult children choose partners who are needy and controlling and “won’t allow” a partner to have contact with a parent.

There are also cases in which estrangement is caused by religious, lifestyle or political differences. Each party thinks they’re right and puts more value on it than on breaching the divide. Sometimes both parties are stubborn but, in my experience, this kind of alienation is usually perpetuated by one party who refuses to grant that someone dare to have an opinion that is different from their own.

If you’re estranged from a loved one, it’s crucial not to minimize your pain, but you also don’t want to make this emotional loss the centerpiece of your life. Generally, therapy can support people through estrangements, even in patching up relationships. At best, it will help you find peace.