Estrangement is a final boundary that many adult children choose to enforce with their parents after a lifetime of not being heard, valued, or respected.
It’s not a decision that people make lightly or easily — indeed, there are countless barriers to estrangement that come from a societal belief that family is an immutable, infallible bond that can’t be broken or ignored.
But being family doesn’t mean that people get a free pass to treat you poorly. You don’t have to accept mistreatment and abuse just because you’re related to your abuser.
Enforcing healthy boundaries is a worthwhile exercise and can help to repair a lot of stress in toxic parent relationships. But if people continue to ignore your boundaries, estrangement is often a natural end consequence.
(PS. If you’re more of a listener than a reader, this blog was inspired by my podcast episode on estrangement! Go check out Run Like Hell Toward Happy on your favorite podcast platform).
How does someone decide to choose estrangement?
Surely we don’t wake up one day in a perfectly healthy relationship with our parents and think, “I think I’ll never talk to mom again.”
So what is the final straw, the breaking point, that allows you to cut off your parents?
It’s different for everyone.
And for some people, estrangement isn’t the right move.
Some people choose not to cut off toxic parents because their parents are aging, or sick, or otherwise dependent. If you feel a sense of obligation to care for your parents, that’s okay. Enforce what boundaries you can to protect yourself — but don’t feel you have to cut off parents if you don’t feel like it’s what you need.
Some people simply do not want to enact this boundary. That’s okay too. You don’t have to cut off your parents. You can limit contact, enforce boundaries as much as you can, and do your best to have the best relationship possible with them.
Some people who want to cut off their parents can’t do so because they depend on their parents for financial support, health insurance, shelter, or other reasons. And that’s okay! There are so many factors that go into estrangement and there is definitely a privilege of being independent in it.
There is no morality in estrangement. Those who can cut off their parents aren’t better people with better boundaries. Those who continue a relationship with parents who abused them aren’t broken or codependent or foolish for wanting to keep their parents in their life.
Estrangement is not necessary for healing. But for some, it is a big part of their healing journey.
Estrangement can take different forms and does not have to be final. You can choose to be “low contact,” keeping in touch minimally. Or “no contact,” totally cutting off communication. You can choose to reach out and reconnect after a period of time when you’ve had the space to process.
Whether you choose estrangement or not, the help of a good therapist who feels safe is infinitely helpful in processing childhood trauma and development of healthy boundaries and communication as an adult.
You might also benefit from reading books about toxic parents, codependency, estrangement, etc. before, during, and after an estrangement decision.
Books to Heal Childhood Wounds
These are some of my favorite books that helped me process childhood trauma.
Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride, PhD
“Will I Ever Be Good Enough” was the first book I read as I was beginning to understand that my mother was abusive toward me. I got it on CD from the library and kept the case hidden in my car out of shame that I was considering that my mother could be abusive.
Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Dr. Susan Forward with Craig Buck
“Toxic Parents” is a classic book about, well, toxic parents. It’s one of the best known books on the subject and a great place to start your research and healing process.
Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Francine Shapiro, PhD
I read “Getting Past Your Past” when I was considering EMDR therapy after cutting off both parents and leaving an abusive marriage. I found the self-help techniques incredibly helpful and still use the techniques years later for myself and for coaching clients.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, MD
I have read “The Body Keeps the Score” two or three times and it always has a new piece of knowledge for me. An incredible book about the ways trauma is stored in the body and a must-read for people who have both childhood trauma and chronic illness.
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD
I read “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” years into my healing process after I was estranged from my parents and still found it deeply moving and helpful. It brought up new thoughts and perspectives I had not yet considered.
What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Bruce D. Perry, MD/PhD and Oprah Winfrey
I haven’t read “What Happened to You?” yet but it’s highly recommended by one of my clients and a member of my group about healing from family abuse. I will be reading it soon and can provide my first person account!
Consider these Honorable Mentions not specifically about childhood wounds, but helpful for abuse and trauma recovery.
Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft
“Why Does He Do That?” was extremely helpful after leaving an abusive marriage. I’ve read it twice and it is an incredibly powerful book for survivors of domestic abuse (emotional, financial, physical, ANY domestic abuse).
Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattie
I used to stop halfway through books on codependency, thinking they obviously weren’t for me. I was deeply in denial because of unprocessed childhood trauma and the fact that I was still in my abusive marriage being codependent as all hell to feel safe. “Codependent No More” is an excellent primer on codependency and I recommend it to anyone who had a traumatic childhood because there’s probably some codependent coping skills in your toolkit you may not even be aware of.
Healing Isn’t Linear
Healing from abuse and trauma is not a linear process where you get a little better each day.
It’s a long process with ups and downs, setbacks and breakthroughs, and things that pop up long after you thought you were over them.
You will grieve the loss of the relationship you deserved.
You will see examples of healthier relationships around you and probably feel sad that you weren’t loved that way.
It’s complicated. And it will probably always be complicated.
Subscribe and Listen
This blog was inspired by a conversation I had recently on my podcast, Run Like Hell Toward Happy, in episode 17, “Estrangement: Can It Help You Reconnect with Yourself?”
This episode is all about how my sister and I have reconnected with our intuitive passions after choosing estrangement and working through childhood wounds and the resulting self-doubt and imposter syndrome.
Subscribe on your favorite podcast platform!