Intergenerational Estrangement Based On Values, Not Societal Norms


What causes mothers and adult children to part ways? Iowa Stae University researchers wanted to find out.

Results of their study suggest violations of societal norms, such as substance abuse, don’t cause the rift, but rather differences in core values.

Lead author Megan Gilligan, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, said:

“I was surprised it wasn’t a big event or that the child did something illegal. You might expect that if a child is incarcerated or in some type of legal trouble that mothers might be ashamed and that would lead to estrangement. Instead, we found mothers were upset about other issues that related to their core values and beliefs.”

Researchers defined estrangement as mothers who had no contact with their child (38.2 percent) and mothers who had very little contact with their child and described their relationship as very emotionally distant (61.8 percent).

The data used were collected as part of the Within-Family Differences Study, a project funded by the National Institute on Aging and based at Purdue University. A total of 566 families met the research criteria (mothers 65 to 75 years old, with at least two living adult children) and 64 were estranged.

Broken Trust

In their paper, researchers included anecdotes from interviews with mothers talking about how their son or daughter violated their trust or expectations, related to their values.

For example, one 75-year-old mother, a devout Catholic, explained how her one son’s divorce and subsequent remarriage led to far less contact and support. Here is part of her narrative:

“It’s a difficult situation. Now he has remarried and made a new family. So it’s painful for me to be judgmental, but I have religion in the way and my own morals and social ideas.”

The woman’s other two children both had been arrested for drunk driving and had a history of substance abuse. But she was not bothered by these problems. In fact, she considered her son with the arrest record to be her success story because he is married.

Who Is Cutting Ties?

In a majority of the cases, there was only one estranged child. However, in one case, the mother’s only two children were both estranged. In addition to core values, the mother’s marital status is also a predictor.

Mothers who are divorced or widowed are more likely to have an estranged child than mothers who are married.

“An explanation for this might be that fathers are maintaining contact with the child. Even if the relationship between the mother and adult child is strained, it’s less likely to become estranged because of the father’s pull,” Gilligan says.

Children’s gender does not appear to be a factor, but birth order is. Last-born children are less likely to be estranged.

The study is based on the maternal perspective. However, researchers were often able to verify the nature of the estranged relationship through interviews with other siblings and in some cases the estranged child.

Gilligan is interested in exploring how children would describe what led to their estrangement in future research.

“Mothers are upset about these events, but I don’t think they’re always the ones cutting off the relationship,” she says. “In some cases the mother may be upset and voice her opinions, but the child is the one pulling away in reaction to the mother’s criticism.”

  1. Gilligan, M., Suitor, J. J. and Pillemer, K. (2015)
    Estrangement Between Mothers and Adult Children: The Role of Norms and Values.
    Journal of Marriage and Family. doi: 10.1111/jomf.12207

Last Updated on October 20, 2023