Skip to Content

Going No Contact with Parents: How to Be Estranged

Estrangement (also called cut-off or “no contact”) always brings heartache and loss for everyone involved. However, when we set boundaries with kindness as our “north star,” the space we create can be one of growth, healing, and movement forward.

Both as a therapist and someone who has initiated a period of no contact with parents in order to heal, I encourage anyone considering cutting off a relationship or going no contact with parents to engage in the process with extravagant kindness.

illustration of two roses with the text cutting someone off versus setting hard boundaries

Here’s how what I call “hard” boundaries can create space to heal:

A bit later in this article, I’ll get specific about what hard boundaries look like, but here’s why hard boundaries are more healing and generative than straightforward estrangement. While estrangement tends to come with passivity and giving up, hard boundaries have hope to re-shape a relationship.

Rather than foreclosing a relationship with a permanent end:

  • Setting boundaries,
  • communicating about boundaries clearly,
  • and reevaluating what conditions we’d need in order to be willing to re-enter relationship

allow space for imagination and hope. Setting hard boundaries lets us stay present to the hope and desire to have a healthy parent, sibling, friend, etc.

Most importantly, when boundaries create space between us, they create space to grow.

Although painful, this hope allows us to keep our hearts open and our minds flexible – the very thing that wasn’t offered to many of us who have found the need to set these hard boundaries.

An illustrated graph showing the results of a study that found people were most likely to be estranged from a father and least likely to be estranged from their mother.

Hard boundaries might look like:

  • the person going to therapy for a year before you’ll speak again,
  • being sober for 90 days before they can see you or your kids,
  • calls/visits ending immediately if they do or say something abusive,
  • etc.

I think that cutting off key relationships should not ever be an end goal. Doing so with finality requires that we cut off our own desire for that relationship (a desire that remains present even if deeply buried), and dissociate from the painful loss. The aftermath of cutting off a parent, sibling, or friend, then, isn’t healing but more pain.

For me, boundaries looked like a letter that named the harm they’d refused to acknowledge, emphasized my love for them, and stated exactly what I needed from them in order to heal. (In my case, a 12-month break in communication followed by a meeting with a therapist or mediator.)

For me, explaining that the shift in relationship was purposeful, in order to: 1. care for myself, and 2. to rebuild a deeper, healthier relationship, helped reduce unnecessary conflict. Providing a timeline and specific requests helped shape expectations while also helping me cope with feelings of ambiguity and guilt.

Download the Estrangement PDF

Image of the estrangement sketchnote as a pdf download.

Or get All-Access as a $5/mo Patron

Family Systems, Boundary Setting, & Roles

Let’s back up. One framework I find helpful for understanding the rational behind choosing a season of no contact from parents, siblings, or other relationships is based on Family Systems Therapy.

Family Systems (Yes, the foundation of the now-popular therapy model of Internal Family Systems, or IFS) holds that in any a system (i.e. a family), everyone has a role.

Once we’ve assigned, practiced, and played out years of life according to these roles, it’s really hard to break out of them.

An illustrated graph showing the results of a study that found the most common age to be estranged from a family member is age 31.

If you’ve always been the one who soothes everyone else in the family, suddenly becoming someone with big feelings and needs of your own isn’t just disruptive- for many, it’s impossible! Substitute any other role in place of family caretaker, and you’ll see how Family Systems Therapy offers a helpful perspective on understanding and changing how we relate in a family.

According to Family Systems, even if we try setting boundaries, we’ll often fall right back into our assigned role as long as the system is acting upon us with pressure to be in that role. A period of cutting off parents or siblings from communication can create the space to practice new ways of relating. Once we’ve had some time to heal and practice healthier ways of relating, we can decide if re-engaging the estranged relationship might be helpful.

Exploring the Research on Estrangement as Adults

An illustrated graph showing the results of a study that found most estrangement's last less than four years.

Cutting Off Doesn’t Heal Relationships

Cutting off a parent should serve a purpose.

While most adult children who go no contact with a parent just want to be free from toxic behaviors, abusive language, judgement, or manipulation, going no contact- in and of itself- might not help.

In fact, some research suggests that it might be harmful. One study found that people who had no contact with a nuclear family member (i.e. father, mother, or sibling) reported feeling more distressed compared to those estranged from extended family members. 1 Overall, people who are cut off from a parent report lower levels of well-being and highers levels of depression 2 , however, these markers may be a result of the impact of the harm of the relationship prior to estrangement. Estranged relationships fall into a category of loss called ambiguous loss. In ambiguous loss, the grieving process is blocked by all that is unknown and unresolved. 3

An illustrated graph showing the results of a study that found 75% of people experiencing estrangement would not recommend it.

Recent studies indicate that adult children who have chosen to initiate and/or maintain estrangement from a parent have acknowledged that it has led to personal growth, healing, and happiness 4

According to one research study, adult children who went no contact with their parents did so “to provide relief and space to heal from a difficult relationship, but it was also experienced as a considerable loss that impacted them across the lifespan.” 5

When Cutting Someone Off Signals Just How Connected We Are

Murray Bowen, a therapist who created the foundations of Family Systems Therapy, considered “emotional cut-off,” the creation of distance from a family member, to actually be an indicator of fusion. He said that even though estranged family members might be physically distant from one another, the comunication cut off was a sign they they were fused psychologically.” 6 This is why estrangement with boundaries and intentional work to grow and heal is so important.

What It’s Like to Go No Contact With a Parent

An illustrated graph showing the results of a study that found 43% of people have been estranged from a family member.

Although the experience of being estranged is a comon one (estimates of the percent of adults who have experienced estrangement range from 2.5% to 43%) it can be isolating. 7 Choosing to cut off a parent is a choice that is often misunderstood or stigmatized. “Adult children who are estranged from a parent go to great lengths to keep this information private and when they do disclose estrangement to those in their social networks, most feel unsupported.” 4

Why Adult Children Choose to Go No Contact

A study of 898 parents and adult children experiencing estrangement found that adult children cut off parents, typically, due to reasons “stemming from their perception of their parents’ toxic behavior, or feeling unsupported and/or unaccepted.” 8 The same study found tha tthe average age of estrangement was 31 years old.” 8

How Long Estrangement Lasts

An illustrated graph showing the results of a study that found most estrangement's last less than four years.

One study of 500 adult students found that the duration of nuclear-family estrangements ranged from 1 to 300 months, with an average duration of 59.4 months and 62.5% of participants reported a duration of 48 months or less. 9 On average, extended-family estrangement lasted about 52.8 months (around 4.5 years). 9

Does Going No Contact Work?

“A majority of participants reporting a nuclear estrangement (75%) indicated they would not recommend estrangement as a solution to a family problem.” 1 However, several studies have noted that adult chidren who go no contact with a parent have found, through experience, more personal growth, healing, and happiness. 4

How Common is Estrangement From Parents?

About 43.5% of participants in a study of 500 adult-students experienced estrangement. Some were estranged from parents or siblings and others from extended family. 9 However, a larger study (using a sample size of 5,000 people) found that 97.6% of people age 25-32 have an “active relationship” with at least one parent 10. Without comparing the details of how researchers defined an active relationship, or gathered data, it may be difficult to get an accurate number of the frequency of estragement.

Final Thoughts

In summary, estrangement, or “no contact,” involves both heartache and growth. Setting “hard” boundaries with kindness can create space for healing and transformation.

Drawing from personal experience as a therapist and someone who has navigated healing through estrangement, I stress the importance of compassionate boundaries. “Hard” boundaries, encompassing clear communication and reconnection conditions, offer a dynamic alternative to complete estrangement, fostering growth and hope while reshaping relationships.

While research highlights the positive outcomes of well-considered boundary-setting, it’s vital to recognize that experiences with estrangement vary. The choice to go no contact should be made thoughtfully, with support and understanding. In conclusion, navigating estrangement requires careful consideration. By embedding boundaries with kindness and intention, we can navigate the journey’s complexities with resilience.

  1. Conti, R. P. (2015). Family estrangement: Establishing a prevalence rate. Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science, 3(2), 28-35.,26 [][]
  2. Fingerman, Karen L., et al. “Ambivalent relationship qualities between adults and their parents: Implications for the well-being of both parties.” The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 63.6 (2008): P362-P371. []
  3. Boss, P. (2007). Ambiguous loss theory: Challenges for scholars and practitionersFamily relations56(2), 105-110. []
  4. Agllias, K. (2018). Missing family: The adult child’s experience of parental estrangement. Journal of Social Work Practice, 32(1), 59-72. [][][]
  5. ( Agllias, K. (2018). Missing family: The adult child’s experience of parental estrangement. Journal of Social Work Practice, 32(1), 59-72. []
  6. Blake, L. (2017). Parents and children who are estranged in adulthood: A review and discussion of the literature. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 9(4), 521-536. []
  7. Conti, R. P. (2015). Family estrangement: Establishing a prevalence rate. Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science, 3(2), 28-35. []
  8. Carr, K., Holman, A., Abetz, J., Kellas, J. K., & Vagnoni, E. (2015). Giving voice to the silence of family estrangement: Comparing reasons of estranged parents and adult children in a nonmatched sample. Journal of Family Communication, 15(2), 130-140. [][]
  9. Conti, R. P. (2015). Family estrangement: Establishing a prevalence rate. Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science, 3(2), 28-35. [][][]
  10. Hartnett, C. S., Fingerman, K. L., & Birditt, K. S. (2018). Without the ties that bind: US young adults who lack active parental relationshipsAdvances in Life Course Research35, 103-113. []