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What Is Mother-Child Estrangement?

Updated: Mar 27

“You are never so a stranger as when you become a stranger.” - Luigina Sgarro


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In this article I’m going over what mother-child estrangement is, how common it is, what causes it, the parenting choices that predict it, and more. Let’s get started.


What is mother-child estrangement?


Mother-child estrangement is a form of family estrangement between mothers and adult children. Here at the Mother Wound Project we define mother-child estrangement as the discontinuation of a relationship between a mother and her adult child over a period of time per the wishes of the mother, the adult child, or both. Other words and phrases commonly used to refer to mother-child estrangement include “going no contact,” “cutting off,” “break up,” and “divorce.”


How common is mother-child estrangement?


Current statistics show that approximately 1 in 10 mothers are estranged from one or more of their adult children. That means that for every 1 million moms, a whopping 100,000 are estranged from their adult children. Mother-child estrangement isn't rare. It's just that it is rarely talked about.


How is mother-child estrangement different from parental alienation?


Parental alienation is commonly confused with estrangement, but it’s important to know that the two are entirely different things. In the case of parental alienation, a third party (often the child's other parent) creates emotional and/or physical distance between a minor child and their parent without consent. When someone pushes a mother out of a child’s life without the child’s consent, the pushed-out mother is an alienated parent, not an estranged mother.


How are mothers who estrange different from adult children who estrange?


You might assume that mother-child estrangement is the same thing regardless of who does the estranging—the mother or the child—but this couldn’t be any further from the truth. Ethically speaking, the two are very different things. Here's the long and short of it:


When a child walks cuts off their mother, they’re leaving a relationship they never asked for, much less consented to. Children do not ask to be born, and they have zero say in who their parents are. When a mother walks away from her child, however, she’s leaving a relationship she not only asked for and consented to but also a relationship where she signed up to be the parent.


Why do people choose to be estranged from their mom?


People make the decision to estrange themselves from their mom for many different reasons, but some reasons are more common than others. The reasons we hear about most often here at the Mother Wound Project include:

  • Abuse during childhood (emotional, physical, financial, religious, sexual, etc.).

  • Current abuse (emotional, physical, financial, religious, sexual, etc.).

  • Favoritism.

  • Refusal on the part of the mother to acknowledge and/or apologize.

  • Disapproval of the child’s lifestyle or worldview.

  • Overbearing or otherwise inappropriate grandmothering.

  • Disrespect towards the child’s partner.

  • The mother chooses to maintain a relationship with an abusive or otherwise harmful partner.

  • Financial control or manipulation.

  • Homophobia or transphobia.


How do people who have decided to be estranged from their mom feel?


People who have ended their relationship with their mom feel a variety of different feelings. In general, these feelings tend to ebb and flow over time, with some being markedly more intense in the first few days and weeks of estrangement. It’s also not uncommon for estranged adult children to feel several different feelings at one time. The feelings they’re likely to experience include:

  • Sad

  • Optimistic

  • Lonely

  • Hurt

  • Disrespected

  • Relieved

  • Exhausted

  • Angry

  • Hopeless

  • Hopeful

  • Worthless

  • Disbelief

  • Peaceful

  • Confusion

  • Grief

  • Shame

  • Rejected

  • Empty


How do a mother’s parenting choices impact her chances of estrangement?


Our research has found direct correlations between a mother’s parenting choices and her chances of becoming estranged from her child in adulthood. Mothers who engage in any of the following when their children are young are at an increased risk of their children choosing to estrange themselves as adults:

  • Physical punishment (e.g. spanking, slapping, pinching, etc.).

  • Emotional invalidation (e.g. “Stop crying” or “It wasn’t that bad”).

  • Tough love (e.g. “Learn the hard way” or “Pull up by your own bootstraps”).

  • Authoritarianism (e.g. “I’m the parent, you’re the child”).

  • Forced religious service attendance or religious participation.

  • “Cry-it-out” or similar extinction sleep methods.

  • Forced isolation (e.g. time out, grounding from seeing friends, etc.).

  • Destroying or throwing away toys, electronics, clothes, etc.

  • Shaming (e.g. “What’s wrong with you?” or “You’re bad”).


Does mother-child estrangement last forever?

Many assume that mother-child estrangement is forever, but this isn’t always true. While some mothers are harmful to the extent that reconciliation would never be a healthy choice, there are many estranged mothers and adult children who are able to successfully restore their relationships through restorative mother-child counseling. To learn more about restorative mother-child counseling, click here.

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