What Makes Adult Children Cut Ties With Parents

Summary: Mothers who report estrangement from their adult children report they often believe their ex-husbands, and the current partner of the child is responsible for the break in their relationships. Additionally, some cite mental health problems experienced by their child as a factor for estrangement.

Source: Ohio State University

A study of more than 1,000 mothers estranged from their adult children found that nearly 80% believed that an ex-husband or their son- or daughter-in-law had turned their children against them.

A majority of moms also believed their child’s mental health or addiction issues played a role.

While this study only looked at mothers’ views, the results, when combined with other research, suggest that moms and their children don’t generally agree on the reasons for their rift.

“There’s a real disconnect between what the mothers are saying and what their adult children are saying about why they aren’t talking,” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

“It has real implications for what clinicians and others need to consider when they are trying to heal these relationships.”

The study was published online recently in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.

Schoppe-Sullivan conducted the study with Joshua Coleman, a psychologist who is on the board of directors of the Council of Contemporary Families, and author of the book Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict.

Data from the study came from the Understanding Parental Estrangement Survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center in 2019. Parents were recruited from an email discussion list of people who were experiencing and interested in discussing parental estrangement.

This study focused on 1,035 mothers who agreed to complete an online survey. The study showed 52% were estranged from a daughter and 45% were estranged from a son.

More than half of the moms (56.8%) had gone more than a year without contact with their children.

Most of the moms surveyed were divorced and 36% were currently married to or in a marriage-like relationship with their estranged child’s other biological parent.

The most common reason moms cited for the estrangement (noted by 79.1%) was that family members turned their children against them.  Most often, mothers blamed the child’s biological father or the child’s spouse or partner.  That finding is consistent with other research, Schoppe-Sullivan said.

But nearly two-thirds of moms (62.4%) said their children’s mental health – including anxiety, depression, addiction or alcoholism – played a role.  That had not been found in previous research.

“The fact that we used an anonymous survey may have made mothers more comfortable attributing the estrangement to their children’s mental health,” she said.

Disagreements about values were mentioned by just over a third of mothers (35.7%) as a cause for their rift, but surprisingly, very few mentioned fundamental issues like their children’s sexuality or sexual orientation, or religious issues.

More common were “other” value issues, which could include topics like politics and parenting.

“Other research shows that adult children are much more likely to explain their estrangements as stemming from emotional abuse, conflicting expectations about roles and personality clashes, to name a few,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.

While only 18% of mothers said they were at fault for the estrangement, it may be that few children would take any blame, either, Schoppe-Sullivan said.

Regardless of who is to blame, the biggest issue in trying to help families reconcile may be navigating the differing perspectives on what went wrong in their relationship, she said.

This shows a sad looking woman
While this study only looked at mothers’ views, the results, when combined with other research, suggest that moms and their children don’t generally agree on the reasons for their rift. Image is in the public domain

Some of those differing perspectives may have arisen because of broader societal changes.

“For example, there are generational differences in what parents and children view as appropriate parenting behavior. Perspectives on what is considered abusive, harmful, neglectful or traumatizing behavior have shifted over the past three decades. What was once seen as normal behavior may be viewed as abusive or neglectful today,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.

“Each generation sees things differently now and we have to help them bridge that gap if they want to repair that relationship.”

Estrangement may be especially difficult for mothers because even the views on the nature of child-parent relationships have changed.

“Many of these mothers were of a generation that thought family relationships were non-voluntary and permanent,” she said. “But younger people may feel that if you’re harming my well-being, I don’t have to have a relationship with you – even if you’re my mother.”

Other co-authors on the study were Jingyi Wang, a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State, and Jia Julia Yan, a former Ohio State graduate student, now at Utah State University.

About this psychology research news

Author: Jeff Grabmeier
Source: Ohio State University
Contact: Jeff Grabmeier – Ohio State University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Mothers’ attributions for estrangement from their adult children” by Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan et al. Couple and Family Psychology Research and Practice


Mothers’ attributions for estrangement from their adult children

Parent–child estrangement is a relational phenomenon associated with significant distress for adult children and especially their estranged parents. Understanding parents’ attributions for estrangement is critical—parents’ willingness to make necessary changes to facilitate reconciliation may depend on how they make sense of their adult children’s reasons for estrangement.

This study used quantitative data from an online survey conducted in 2019 and completed by 1,035 mothers currently estranged from one or more of their adult children. We explored mothers’ endorsement of attributions for estrangement, the demographic correlates of their endorsement of attributions, and the relations of their endorsement of attributions to current levels of contact with estranged children.

Results indicated that about half of mothers reported no contact at all since the estrangement began, and over half reported that it had been at least 1 year since they had any contact with their adult children. These mothers tended to endorse external attributions for estrangement, including family members’ turning the child against them (e.g., child’s other biological parent or adult child’s romantic partner) or children’s struggles with mental illness and/or addiction.

Mothers were less likely to endorse internal attributions for estrangement compared with external attributions or to validate their children’s complaints about abuse or neglect.

Results are discussed in the context of changes in parent–child relationships across generations; implications for future research and clinical work with estranged parents are also discussed. 

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  1. While I agree this article is a bunch of BS,I am a mother who is estranged from her son and I do take some responsibility for that but at no point was I neglectful or abusive. Yes I was hard on my kids but I was a single parent that worked all the time to give them a good life, a home all that stuff us parents must do and yes it is our job you kids didn’t ask to be put on this earth that was our choice(I get that). Now my son is grown and has a good job and I’m so proud of him. I helped him to grow into that man he is today. When things got hard for me, lost my job and everything I worked for throughout his life(my fault again of course). Well I couldn’t continue to give and be the mom he was use to he just stopped talking to me I’ve tried asking him why and to please be apart of our family again, why are you so mad I would say, and he replies “you know what you did”. Honestly I don’t. I want to know so I can fix this and see my son again. So where does that land in this BS study I admit to my faults but he also needs to step up and tell me his. How does a mom handle that?

    1. Please anyone have some kind of suggestion on how to handle this situation with my son. I need help I miss him severely. ???‍?‍?

  2. I cut my father out of my life because he was a paranoid delusional bipolar alcoholic. THAT is why I cut him out! Now ask yourself this: if you ask HIM why, what will he say? “My son cut me out because I’m completely unstable and abusive.” Yeah, right. No. He would never tell you the truth. He does not even know the truth. He’s mentally ill. He will tell you one of his paranoid delusions, and he will actually believe it.

    1. Yes,I can understand your situation with your father. I cut my father out of my life after his last disrespectful act against me, trying to take customers from a business my husband,(now ex-husband) and I bought from him. He was a lifelong alcoholic who was hurtful to me in many ways and I decided this last move was his last. On a flip side, my ex-husband took from me my adult son and daughter, as well as 10 grandchildren, all friends and acquaintances, by an (I know now) extensive and long smear campaign. My son and daughter claimed to have deep love for me, my son saying that I saved his life and my daughter claiming that I was her best friend. I also had close relationships with my grandchildren. He has isolated me so they cannot see the abuse he deals to me daily,even now,three years after our separation. However, my family is at fault too for not questioning what they have been told. I’m still trying to let it go.

  3. Many mothers won’t take accountability for the fact that they are manipulative, gas lighting, narcissists. No one is expecting a mother to be perfect but take responsibility for not fully protecting your child(ren). They eat away at your self-esteem and constantly remind you what they do for you. I find it very ridiculous for parents to do so because it’s their job to take care of children they bring into the world. How many of those mothers in the study were abusive, neglectful, or just plain evil?

  4. This article is one sided and misleading. I’m discussed it’s always poor mom, what about the fathers who do right and get the short end ofvthe stick.

  5. If you want to know why somebody does something, ask THEM. If the kid cuts off the parent, then the parent can only GUESS why. Ask the kid! I am the only one who knows my inner motivations.

    My wife cut off her mother. Her mother was *terrible*. Daughter genuinely suspects that Mother has undiagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Mother went to college to get her MRS, and barely cobbled together a degree in journalism. The most her career ever amounted to was being a pharmaceutical sales rep, back before they were required to have any medical training.

    Daughter has her Master’s degree in a STEM field. She’s a senior engineer with a major company. She’s never touched drugs or gotten into any trouble.

    And yet Mother constantly criticized Daughter for stupid little things, like her weight, or her choice of hair color. Mother engaged in constant gas lighting, invalidation, and other emotional manipulations. Mother became physically abusive a few times. So yes, at age 30, Daughter finally cutoff Mother.

    In my Mom’s final weeks, she looked at my wife and said “I don’t understand your Mother. What more could anyone want in a daughter?”

  6. Now study dads and their estrangement from their kids. You will find that mother’s and son and daughter in laws are the reason 90% of the time. Even when mothers are the ones that left with no real esson for leaving except they wanted out.

    1. I agree with James. My ex husband had to fight for his daughter, when the mother was very unfit. My husband now paid over 100,000 dollars in child support, never spoke bad about his children’s mother and she would tell lie, never follow court orders, play poor me, she demolished their relationship. Wouldn’t let him claim a kid at tax time, lived rent free at an in-laws house and when it came time for college there was money. Between her job, tips, child support, tax return, she was bringing home more money then him. The only time she contacted him was for money. They had joint custody 50/50. This Goverment needs to make better laws. Bitterness brings the next generation the same way. This article should not have been one sided. This is what’s wrong with Government.

    2. Lemme guess, your kid(s) cut you off. You are literally the personification of this article.

      I think if more studies are done, it will be found that most estranged parents *assume* they know what happened, but they are often incorrect. Parents have the bad tendency to be oblivious to their own flaws. “If my kid doesn’t want to talk to me, it must be because somebody turned them against me! It couldn’t possibly be because I’m a terrible person!” FFS, nobody leaves for no reason. Leaving is hard. People leave when staying is harder than leaving. When my parents got divorced, my father told everyone “She left me! It’s not my fault!” He didn’t mention the fact that he was an bipolar paranoid delusional alcoholic who refused to get any treatment. She left because it was impossible to stay anymore.

  7. My mother was the most neurotic person on the planet who was always victimized. She loved the roles of villain, hero, and victim because it was familiar to her. It didn’t occur to her that any other possibilities existed.
    Because she was raped by her father, she hated all men. That’s not my fault.
    Your article is quite disgusting and not worthy of a neuroscience news article. Shame on you.
    Mothers are manipulative, especially when they think that they know best. But there is the key:thinking takes a brain.
    I played in Carnegie Hall my first time when I was 14. I was valedictorian in my class of 555 students. No matter which accolades I brought home, it was never good enough. She hated me.
    I left home and I never came back. Who needs that? That’s not parenting, that’s abuse. So put the shoe on the other foot instead of listening to the mothers because there’s a reason why they are called mothers in the pejorative.

    1. I mostly agree with you, but the genders were reversed for me. My parents got divorced when I was 12. My father blamed Mom for everything. It took me a few years to realize that he was a paranoid delusional bipolar alcoholic. His sanity was falling apart. He started abusing Mom before he started abusing us. So I cut him out of my life at 16. As the years went by, he became less stable. Eventually, he moved to a cabin in the woods because he believed the government was out to get him. Meanwhile, Mom was finally free from his insanity. It was like she came back to life. My respect for Mom became much deeper over time.

  8. The system of governmental educational ideology since the 70’s, in my opinion is the corpet. Parenting of old father work mother stay home raise the kids instill, parenting rolls- as the citizenry let government dictate control over our lives, with higher prices cost of living, thus resolve of separation begin. For instance when l was a child, l started school at 6 years of life. All my previous training came from home, mom-dad, thus closeness of parental envolve. When governmental start issuing, preschool the earlier the better, bull***t started. God laws says train up a child in the way he or she should go,and when he or she is old they want depart. Remember the biblical story of the prodigal son. Again the more educational our society have gotten. The more problems-number one problem-God have been left out. Thank you for letting me comment. P. S. ALL THE HIGHLY reseacher- never mention (God).

  9. I wanna know who thought the parents are the victims? My mom definitely should not get any sympathy for traumatizing me and my sibling. She deserves to be abandoned by her kids and you’re never gonna change my mind about that just because “boohoo what would your mother feel about this? ?”. Actually fucking think about what the mothers did to their kids to become estranged and not just blame the child.

    1. Amen! If anything, this just proves that the estranged parents are *oblivious* to the real reason their kids disowned them! Frankly, I suspect that many parents DO know why, but refuse to admit the truth to themselves or anyone else.

  10. After years of being an unpaid live-in maid and babysitter, I had had enough. I told my mom that I was going to be going away to school in the fall and suddenly I’m “abandoning the family” “but who is going to watch your brother after school???” “You’re so ungrateful that we adopted you” and “how could you do this to us” she then threw me out of the house to “teach me a lesson” upon returning to talk and try to salvage things I was presented with a list of even more demands on top of everything I was already doing and every cent I had saved (I assume so I had no way to leave) I walked out of that house never to return. At that point I would have rather lived on the streets than go back to live there. The months following I tried to mend things from a distance, but got nothing but hate back and her refusing to accept that she was making me feel unsupported, unaccepted, and completely worthless. We haven’t spoken in 11 years, but I still feel guilty because no matter how bad I was made to feel I still feel like I failed them (my family). Even though I know better. This article is a bunch of boohoo the poor parents, but maybe there’s a really good reason why this is happening and you aren’t going to hear it from them.

  11. How about a mother that was having an affair her husband’s best friend and the best friend molested me the daughter. And my mother’s only issue with all of this has she looks like a hore no apology for what I went through

  12. I was going to therapy to be a “better daughter” to help my relationship with my mother. I was told that the emotional and verbal abuse I was receiving from her had a name and that she was borderline personality disorder. You can’t go to a mother I had and say “Um you have a mental illness and need to get treatment” Interesting therapist were “told by mothers” it was their children’s or their spouse fault to blame for estrangement. My mother blamed my father. More research needed to be done for their article. It did not resonate to me.

  13. Whoever did that “study” was at best incompetent. Anyone who only interviewed incels and abusive men and then concluded “all women are crazy” would be dismissed as incompetent and biased towards men. So why is a “researcher” who is just as incompetent and biased towards parents given a pass for the same ineptitude?

    “Parents” can be and are just as abusive (or moreso) than males towards women. Anyone who doesn’t know this and are unwilling to consider the possibility isn’t qualified to be doing “research” or writing about it.

  14. I appreciate this topic matter. I am currently stepping away from my mother whom I love dearly. She is a narcissist. I would like to have seen results on the parents divorcing and remarrying. That plays a huge role in adult children maintained ng relationships due to the personality conflicts with their parents new partners. Adult children bear the blame because their parents never are mature enough to take responsibility. The adult children have to decide is the relationship worth the cost. We all want our parents love and approval, but not at the cost of our sanity. Thank you.

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