Wellness·4 min read

What Everyone Gets Wrong About Family Estrangement

A mother and daughter looking at a father on a couch
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
February 20, 2024

Millennials and Gen Z are going straight to a common source of their mental health issues: Toxic family members. And they’re not afraid to walk away. Family estrangement is becoming common, with more than a quarter of Americans having cut ties with a family member, according to one survey. While it may seem like a good option for some, it’s not for everyone. And even though family estrangement may appear black and white, just like our families, it’s more complicated than it seems. Here’s what to consider before making the cut. 

What people misunderstand about family estrangement

Cutting a toxic family member out of your life often means less stress, anxiety, and panic. But it can also be painful. That's why it's important to demystify some misconceptions. Like… 

It has to last forever 

“It's not like ‘if I make this commitment today, I can never talk to this person again,’” says Nedra Tawwab, therapist and NYT best-selling author. It’s possible to reconcile — and it’s common for people starting a family or if a parent becomes ill. She advises focusing on what works for you right now.

There needs to be one “big” incident to justify estrangement

That may be the case, like if you’re dealing with someone who is or has been abusive. But estrangement can happen after years of smaller transgressions. Sometimes it can come from emotional distance, and years can pass without speaking to a certain family member without noticing. 

Tawwab says those reasons are just as valid. Something as simple as “They just haven't been there for me emotionally when I've needed it,” is enough. 

You’ll always feel good about your decision

Saying, “Don’t you know that you’re toxic?” can feel great. But feelings of grief, guilt, shame, and loneliness can come up, too. “There may be some longing for things being different,” says Tawwab. Sit with those feelings — they don’t necessarily mean you’ve made the wrong choice. “There are some choices that we make that feel really icky that can be really good for us,” she says. “If that feeling is persistent, is an estrangement what you really want?”

You need an apology to reconcile

The reality is, some people just aren’t capable of apologizing. “We may not be able to reconcile that ‘I am your parent and I hurt you.’” You can still choose to have the relationship, just “know your truth, and allow them to have a different belief,” she says.

How to be intentional about your decision

It's a tough one. Before you decide, Tawwab suggests journaling how you feel during and after your interactions. "Notice feeling panicked, feeling anxious, not being able to talk, not being able to be heard, or them not having any interest in your life,” she explains. 

It may not always be necessary to have a conversation with them about cutting them off. Tawwab says it could invite them to convince you otherwise, creating more stress. Others may need that closure. Bottom line: You get to choose what works best for you.

Cutting someone out will probably upset them and even other people in the family. (Sorry to all our people-pleasers out there.) The other person may not want to ever reconcile. If you’re not ready for that commitment, try setting boundaries to navigate the relationship and protect your mental health instead. That might mean limiting how much time you spend with or speak to them and when. If you’re hungry, moody, or about to lead an important work meeting, “maybe it's not the best idea to talk to the family member who is constantly picking at you,” Tawwab says. 


Younger generations are asking whether being in a family is a want or a need — and they’re leaning toward the former. But cutting someone out of your life isn’t so black and white, and it’s not the only option for dealing with toxic people.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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