What should psychotherapeutic professionals know about family estrangement?

Helen Gilbert

Helen Gilbert

Helen is a UKCP psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice. She has worked with groups and individuals experiencing estrangement. She is also a writer and practitioner of therapeutic writing.

Why are we talking about family estrangement here and now?

I am writing this blog post following the decision to close Stand Alone, a charity that I have worked for in different capacities since 2015. Currently, I manage the support group programme which helps hundreds of people experiencing family estrangement. In January 2024, after 12 successful years, the trustees took the hard decision to close, in the context of rapidly changing circumstances and a challenging wider environment which hampered our efforts to raise further funding.

As part of trying to support a good ending for our beneficiaries, who have either been disowned or have been in a position where they have had to cut off contact with a family member, I wish to hand on the baton to the therapy community at large.

Shame and stigma appear in the experience of family estrangement. Stand Alone advocates for the needs of those who are estranged and whose family capital is severely limited. Reducing the stigma about family estrangement by beginning the conversation in the mainstream media has been one approach. But bringing together people who are estranged and often think they are the only one in this position, has been at the heart of our work.

Our beneficiaries have told us time and time again that meeting others reduces the sense of shame that they feel. I regularly hear that seeing the faces of many others who are estranged and hearing them speak about their lives - seeing that they are not monsters, but rather normal, loveable human beings - is the most powerful aspect of being in a group.


So, what is family estrangement?

‘The condition of being physically and or emotionally distanced from one or more family members, either by choice or at the request or decision of the other.’ (Agllias, 2017). Estrangement is most commonly between parents and adult children but also includes siblings. It is not always clear who ‘chose’ the estrangement.


How common is estrangement?

A German study of over 10,000 people that lasted ten years found 9% were estranged from a mother and 20% from a father (Arránz, Becker and Hank, 2022).

A study in the Netherlands with a sample of 4,000 adults found 13% had contact with a sibling no more than once in the last year (Kalmijn & Leopold, 2018).

In 2014, Stand Alone commissioned an Ipsos Mori poll which showed that one in five UK families were estranged to a family member.


Why does estrangement happen?

The ‘Hidden Voices’ report commissioned by Stand Alone showed some of the key causes identified by people about their own estrangement. These were described by the researcher in the following terms: emotional abuse, mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships, clash of personality or values, neglect, issues relating to mental health problems, traumatic family event, issues relating to divorce, issues relating to in-laws (Blake, 2015).


How does estrangement impact people?

Estrangement affects the present in an ongoing way. Often it will be described as a complex grief that doesn’t end in the way that a death might, eventually existing among other living relationships. There is something unfinished, a kind of haunting that affects other relationships, your sense of wellbeing and identity. At the same time, it should be noted that some people who are estranged feel a sense of freedom from a relationship that may have caused pain and hurt for many years. There is often a secondary estrangement, an estrangement from society. This is particularly noticeable at Christmas and Mother’s Day where there appears to be a national marketing campaign to promote the idea that everyone has close, supportive, unbreakable family relationships.


How can psychological therapists offer support?

A recent paper addressed this question in some detail. The study interviewed 46 people who were estranged about their experiences of being in therapy. The researchers concluded that ‘the qualities of warmth, validation and safety are essential for the therapeutic relationship, particularly since they are often lacking in estranged family relationships’ (Blake et al, 2023). The relationship being key to therapy is not a new finding but should remind us that it is the most valuable. The skill set of the therapist was also deconstructed. Making the unspoken spoken was experienced as helpful. Clients described how they found it useful, fundamental to the relationship even, if therapists appropriately shared thoughts, opinions and expertise. ‘Addressing the causes and consequences of estrangement with sensitivity is an important ingredient of helpful counselling experiences’ (Blake et al 2023). When grief, pain, shame and isolation were acknowledged and explored, this was very powerful to the process of therapy.


What can I take away from this if I encounter clients who are estranged?

I encourage you to engage in this work. Therapy has been named many times by people experiencing estrangement as an essential aspect of their recovery, helping the estranged to frame and find ways to live with the estrangement in a way that does not negatively impact every area of life. Engaging in a non-judgemental attitude, assuming that no-one takes such decision lightly is essential. That’s not to say that no-one reconciles, they do - estrangement is a phenomenon that can be cyclical - but estrangement is a valid and necessary choice. The therapist can offer the experience of having one’s own humanity and loveable-ness reflected back, similarly to what people speak of seeing in the support group in the faces of others: that they are someone worthy of love, not a monster whose own parent/child/sibling cannot love and treat well.


Further reading material:


For private support group referrals:



Agllias, K. (2017) Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective. Routledge: Oxon.

Arránz Becker, O., & Hank, K. (2022). Adult children's estrangement from parents in Germany. Journal of Marriage and Family, 84(1), 347–360. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12796, 2022

Blake, L. (2015) Hidden Voices. https://www.standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf

Blake, L., Rouncefield-Swales, A., Bland, B., & Carter, B. (2023). An interview study exploring clients' experiences of receiving therapeutic support for family estrangement in the UK. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 23, 105–114. https://doi.org/10.1002/capr.12603

Kalmijn, M., & Leopold, T. (2019). Changing sibling relationships after Parents' death: The role of solidarity and kinkeeping. Journal of Marriage and Family, 81(1), 99–114. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12509

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