Relationships between mothers and their children are expected to be lifelong: an everlasting bond that isn’t without snags, but nevertheless endures.
Yet sometimes, these relationships end. It could happen abruptly, or it could happen gradually, with contact ebbing – until there’s little or none at all.
It’s an aspect of intergenerational relationships that is often ignored: intergenerational estrangement, a phenomenon that’s actually quite common, but poorly understood.
You might assume that a mom would sever ties with her child because he or she started committing crimes or became addicted to drugs.
But two colleagues, Jill Suitor and Karl Pillemer, and I decided to identify the specific conditions in which a mother would become estranged from her offspring. And after interviewing more than 550 mothers over the age of 65, what we discovered might come as a surprise.
Before interpreting the data, we needed to come up with a definition for what constituted “estrangement.” We decided that children would be considered estranged if they hadn’t had contact with their mother in the past year. If they had very little contact, we also considered this estrangement if the mother also reported that they didn’t have a close relationship.
We began by examining how common estrangement was among these families, and found that approximately one in 10 of the mothers in our study reported that they were estranged from at least one of their adult children.
This finding suggests that intergenerational estrangement is a more common phenomenon than most people might realize.
You also might think that mothers who were estranged from one child would be very likely to be estranged from several – perhaps all – of their children. But this wasn’t the case. In fact, less than 2% of the mothers were estranged from more than one of their kids.
Because we found that it was rather uncommon to have multiple estranged children within the same family, we were able to take a look at each family and investigate why some adult children become estranged from their mothers, while their siblings don’t.
One important finding was that the mother’s age, religion, race and family size played almost no role in which mothers had estranged children.
However, mothers who were married – compared to divorced and widowed mothers – were less likely to become estranged from adult children. We theorized that married mothers were less likely to become estranged because the father might encourage the continuation of a relationship between the mother and the child.
More often than not, though, it was the behavior of the adult children that was the strongest predictor of which relationships ended up fizzling out.
It seems that if an adult child breached broader societal norms, it wasn’t any more likely to harm the relationship. So contrary to what we expected, engaging in deviant behaviors, such as substance abuse or crime, was substantially less likely to lead to estrangement.
However, if the child, through his or her behaviors, violated the mother’s own deeply held values and beliefs, estrangement was far more likely to take place.
According to the mothers we interviewed, a disconnect in values – from partner choices to religion – created some very real tension between them and their adult children. When this tension became unbearable, mothers and adult children gradually withdrew from one another.
For example, one mother, a devout Catholic, became estranged from her son because she was upset that he got divorced and remarried. Another mother expressed disappointment because her daughter didn’t share her work ethic. And one mother was simply upset by her son’s patterns of dishonesty.
Whereas previous research on this topic has focused on the relationships between fathers and children following divorce, the findings from this study shed new light on the patterns and predictors of estrangement between mothers and their adult children.
It’s important to note that this research is from the perspective of the mothers; future research should certainly take into consideration the experience of estrangement from the perspectives of the adult children. (After all, there’s often two sides to every story.)
Future work should also consider how this phenomenon affects other family dynamics: how the mother relates to her other children, how the estranged child gets along with his or her siblings and the quality of the parents' marriage, if it’s still intact.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting that breaking the law doesn’t seem to have any effect. It’s only when a child violates some core aspect of the mother’s identity – her sense of self, and how she views the world – that things can fall apart.