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Family Dynamics

What to Say to Someone Who Is Experiencing Estrangement

Cutoffs are common, yet most people don't know how to support the estranged.

Key points

  • Family estrangement is both common and stigmatized; it has become a kind of "Me Too" movement.
  • The estranged say the depth of their loss is misunderstood by family and friends who tell them to "move on."
  • Ask questions that validate the feelings of the estranged. Don't assume you can fix the problem.
Karolina Grabowski/Pexels
Source: Karolina Grabowski/Pexels

Sibling estrangement is its own "Me Too" movement. While I was working on my book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers, about sibling estrangement, I found that whenever I told people about it, they would sit up a little straighter and lean in, as if I had tapped into a dark secret. Even those who haven't experienced this loss likely know someone who has, and they, like the estranged themselves, welcome insights to understand it.

Still, no one wants to admit to this level of family dysfunction, to face these elemental doubts about oneself. And many don’t want to talk about it. Consequently, the estranged suffer in silence, isolated twice: not only from a primary family member, but also from social support against the loss.

Friends and family members often have no idea how to approach the topic. For the estranged, the situation typically has been building for several years, and it can be painful to discuss the subject openly.

The estranged struggle with other relationships

In a survey I conducted, many respondents recognized that the emotional void of estrangement had handcuffed them in other relationships, as they found it difficult to be direct and honest with friends and family. Fearing a cutoff, the estranged often don’t present their authentic selves and thus forfeit the quality of their connections.

Several factors unique to estrangement contribute to an inability to establish full relationships outside the family, according to author and researcher Kylie Agllias, who has identified the following three critical challenges:

  • The estranged fear that others won’t understand their severed family relationships, particularly if they choose to cut off.
  • Those who have initiated the cutoff worry that others will identify them as untrustworthy and a poor prospect for friendship.
  • With only a few (perhaps no) family members and/or friends to support them, the estranged—prone to ruminating on their protracted, traumatic loss—often overburden their other relationships, resulting in burnout and yet another ruined association.

“A number of estranged people report that the depth of their loss is misunderstood by family and friends,” explains Agllias, “who advise them to ‘forget about’ the estranger or ‘move on.’”

Offering support to the estranged

How can friends and family members offer genuine support to the estranged?

  • Ask questions that validate the feelings of the estranged friend or family member. Those who are cut off often feel that they are all alone. Be willing to listen. Let them know that you’re there for them, whether or not they want to talk. Reflect back what you hear with statements like, “That sounds so hard,” or “I’m so sorry that you’re hurting; I’m happy to listen.”
  • Don’t push them to reconcile. Unless they specifically express a desire to reconnect, don’t even suggest it. Respect their reasons for establishing distance, and accept their emotional experience. Keeping the estrangement in place might be right for them, and it's their decision. Do ask, however, how they feel about the situation. Let them talk if they want to. If they do want to reconcile, working with a professional is a good idea.
  • Seek to understand. Estrangement is not easy to move through and maintain; it’s difficult to go against society’s expectations of family. Don’t assume you can fix the problem with a quick solution of your own creation. Unless your friend asks you to engage in problem-solving with them, don’t offer advice. Simply show up, check in, listen, and validate.
  • Respect their pace of disclosure. Discussing this topic is difficult for many people who are cut off. Some may not want to go into detail about their experiences. Be sensitive to their needs.
  • Don’t avoid talking about your own family experiences with the estranged. You don’t need to censor yourself. Most likely, they’d like you to share when you’re annoyed or happy with your family members.
  • Remind your friend they are loved. As Agllias mentioned above, the estranged often have a hard time trusting others. Letting them know they are loved reminds them that they have a chosen family who share their values, memories, and experiences. Reassure your estranged friend that your opinion of them hasn’t changed just because they are cut off from family.
  • Get to know them beyond the estrangement. Ask about how they create meaning in their lives. What brings them joy? Help them focus on pleasurable experiences.
  • Avoid minimizing comments like “if it makes you feel better, my mom or grandma…” or “at least you don’t have to deal with my family drama.” These comments may feel dismissive rather than helpful.
  • Remember them on holidays. Invite friends who are estranged from their families to your own family gatherings. Special days like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or Christmas, when families typically gather, can be long and difficult for your friend. If they’re estranged from a parent or child, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be especially lonely. Try to include the estranged in gatherings; if they tell you they’d prefer to spend the day on their own, respect their wishes.

Estrangement can be both extremely and chronically stressful. “Stress is a killer,” says 41‐year‐old Stephanie Bleacher of New Brunswick, Canada, who has been estranged from one of her five sisters for a decade. “There’s nothing worse than the stress that comes from family conflict!”

Another respondent to my survey succinctly summed up the profound effect experienced by many of the estranged: “I feel incredibly lonely, physically sick, and emotionally insecure most of the time.”

Sadly, chronic stress may lead to illness and compromised physical health, including insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and emotional problems, such as recurrent episodes of depression and anxiety. Pitching in to support friends and family members who are estranged may make an important contribution in helping to lessen some of these symptoms.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Agllias, Kylie, Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 47–48.

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