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Illustration by André da Loba

Broken families, reunited

Bringing an estranged family together takes time and care. But experts say it’s possible

SHARE Broken families, reunited
SHARE Broken families, reunited

Family is the first and perhaps strongest influence on a child’s life, providing role models and a support system. Still, no unbreakable thread is stitched into hearts to keep people connected. Families do come apart.

The word for this is “estrangement,” and it means no longer being part of a close-knit unit. It’s no coincidence the words “estrangement” and “strangers” share the same root. 

Fern Schumer Chapman knows not just the word, but the bewilderment and pain of the experience. Her only brother, Scott, cut ties with her for close to 40 years.

Joshua Coleman knows it, too. As a psychologist, he spends much of his time trying to help aging parents figure out why their now-grown children have chosen to become strangers to them. Can such families be restitched? Maybe.

The two authors separately published books in 2021, offering expert advice and research while sharing their personal experiences. Coleman wrote “Rules of Estrangement” about parents and adult children. In “Brothers, Sisters, Strangers,” Chapman recounts her quest to be a sister again. 

In recent interviews, Deseret Magazine asked the two writers why families become strangers — and how they can reconcile. 

Deseret: What leads to estrangement?

Fern Schumer Chapman: In my family, we didn’t have a close connection as children. Later, we traveled in different orbits and seemed not to share values or have much in common. Little by little, we had less to do with each other — and eventually nothing.

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Illustration by André da Loba

When I started this book, I did not realize there are many risk factors for estrangement. One is family trauma. Parental favoritism is a big one — when one child is the golden child and the other one is the scapegoat. It can be different lifestyle choices, different values, straying from what’s called the “family myth.” You see a lot of estrangement with sexual orientation or religious choice. Money is a big one.

Poor communication skills contribute. Model good communication, because children can be stuck in a very difficult place with a sibling where they never learn to manage differences.

Political differences are an issue in so many families because politics have become so extreme. I’ve heard from people who have a sibling who has mental health issues and they don’t want to get involved. They don’t know how to handle it. 

Joshua Coleman: The common assumption is if an adult child cuts ties with the parent, that parent must have done something egregious. That’s not always the case. It’s one pathway. Others are mental illness on the part of the adult child, addiction issues. ... Divorce is huge — especially “gray” divorce, later in life. New girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives can create problems. Finally, a highly individualistic culture like ours can cause the child to see the parents more as individuals with their own liabilities than as part of the family unit. And sometimes children who are too close don’t know any other way to feel separate than to reject the parent.

The good news is a higher percentage of parents are closer to their adult children than prior generations. But that may burn the relationship, raising parents’ expectations for a close lifelong relationship the child may not want.

A more subtle thing is the way the moral framework of family has kind of shifted away from “honor my mother and my father,” and focused on the child’s perspective: something that promotes my happiness, my growth, my identity. 

Deseret: How is sibling estrangement different?

Chapman: It affects self-esteem and how you see yourself. It affects friendships and other social relationships, because you start to wonder: My own brother doesn’t want anything to do with me; who will? I lost a whole branch of the family. I was no longer a sister, a sister-in-law. My children had no cousins.

Brothers and sisters are our first playmates, and they instill in one another necessary social qualities such as tolerance and generosity and loyalty. They affect relationships we have later, such as with friends, colleagues and lovers. For the fortunate, sibling relationships may be the longest you have, even 80 to 90 years, outlasting friendships, marriages and, of course, your relationship with your parents.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, underway since 1938, found a close relationship with a sibling, particularly during college years, was a reliable indicator of emotional health later. Lots of studies show siblings matter — that adolescents with a strong relationship with a sibling had higher levels of self-esteem, better academic performance, more chance of being a well-adjusted adult, less loneliness and lower levels of depression. 

Deseret: Do holidays and the start of a new year make people more apt to want to reconcile?

Coleman: If adult children have positive memories, they may be more motivated to reconcile for the holidays than if they have more sadness or regret. Others might feel pressured into it by parents or extended family. That can backfire. 

Deseret: Where does the road back begin?

Coleman: The most important way to start is an amends letter. Essentially, the parent takes responsibility and seeks to understand the adult child’s perspective. If the adult child complains about things they can’t relate to or don’t remember in the same way, it’s far more helpful to say, “I wasn’t aware that this was hurtful to you, but I’m glad that you’re letting me know and I’m committed to doing better going forward.” Not to explain, not to blame, but always to show empathy and take responsibility.

There are certain accusations you cannot endorse, like being falsely accused of molesting. If those are false, do not act like they happened. With emotional abuse, neglect, it’s easier to empathize. A parent can say respectfully, “I can see that felt bad to you.” 

Chapman: Sit down together. Listen without interrupting, without challenging each other’s stories. Experts agree reconciliation is largely impossible without genuine listening. Acknowledge the other person’s hurt and alienation and assume they have trustworthy intentions.

When each party can accept the other person’s perspective, and neither one feels devalued or shut out, you have to stress and act on your desire to create a mutual bond. One of the hardest parts is letting go of anger.

I also heard from respondents who said that they didn’t have to do any of this, that they simply both decided to move forward. 

Deseret: What if there are different views of what happened?

Chapman: That’s something you have to expect because each of us has our own perception. The point of this process is to try to understand each person’s perspective and not shut them out because you don’t agree. 

Coleman: Try to find the kernel of truth in the child’s complaints. “You’re always unavailable,” “You’re always critical.” You don’t want to get into the woods: “I always was,” “I never was.” You’re far better off saying, “It sounds like the times that I wasn’t available to you were really hurtful and upsetting to you. I’m really sorry. I could see how you would have wished that I could have done things differently.”

A huge disparity may be because the child needs that narrative to protect them from a much more shame-inducing narrative: If you’re not to blame, maybe I was born defective. 

Deseret: Is reconciliation likely?

Coleman: I have worked with parents who wrote a really great amends letter and the kid said, “I feel like you really finally are getting it. Let’s do family therapy, let’s talk more.”

Just as often, the adult children may not respond. I don’t want parents to assume always it’s because they’re doing something wrong. ... For a lot of reasons, kids may not want to reconcile, no matter how perfectly the parent reaches out.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We all have narratives about the past, and sometimes those are wildly different. A lot of what is now called abusive behavior in earlier generations wasn’t. But parents are parents forever; they have to take the initiative. A parent who doesn’t take the high road isn’t going to have a relationship. The majority of adult children who cut off their parents report feeling better. For parents, it’s all downside: shame, regret, sorrow, guilt, anger, being excommunicated from the community of other parents and grandparents. 

Chapman: The two parties must want this. It may help to propose parameters for the relationship, perhaps banning certain topics. You can seek common ground and shared experiences and memories to rise above differences. And you can have an exit strategy.

Many do lapse back. I worried, is (my brother) going to cut me off again? I don’t feel that now. We are not the closest, but we have a sustaining connection. We support each other. That is the gift of reconciliation. 

This story appears in the December/January issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.