Download the FREE SBS Radio App for a better listening experience
What happens when differences within a family lead to a breakdown of relationships? While social researchers say that estrangement is common, few talk about it.
Family estrangement is a problem that affects many according to social worker Dr Kylie Agllias, who is the author of Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective. Her earlier research suggests that 1 in 25 Australians are estranged from their families, but Dr Agllias believes that is only a conservative estimate. And in a 2014 UK study by charity Stand Alone we find that almost 1 in 10 people had cut contact with a family member.
“A number of things will lead to it: a divorce in the family might require that people take sides, poor health, mental health, drug, and alcohol abuse. Those things place a strain on the relationship, as do things like sibling rivalry, and those end of life issues about who receives what in the inheritance.”
Another common cause of a breakdown in family relationships is differences in values.
“So when family members have different values about money; what’s good parenting, when someone brings a new person into the family; that can really unsettle family dynamics; that can cause a series of events and complex that may eventually lead to estrangement.”
Estrangement in multi-generational families usually starts from small family conflicts.
It’s a painful experience for people who are estranged from their loved ones. We met a 73-year-old father who no longer sees his only son. He’s asked SBS not to reveal his voice, name, or country of origin.
“What can I feel, other than despair? It is very difficult to explain, when we came here, we thought we would live a peaceful life, with the family, grandchildren you know? But now, we hardly see them. I feel hopeless and my wife, she is always crying and sad."
It’s a scenario Melbourne-based social worker and anthropologist Anu Krishnan has repeatedly seen over the past 15 years of working in the field. She says estrangement in multi-generational families usually starts from small family conflicts. She’s referring to parents who’ve left their home countries to live with their grown-up children in Australia.
“It’s different when families are visiting but when they come here and live with their children, there might be one child or two children who live in Australia. It becomes a bit difficult because then they’re expecting things to be exactly like they were at home. There might be gender politics happening; they might be expecting a different level of respect from their children; their children have their own lives; they’re working; often they don’t like the way the grandchildren are being brought up; they might not like career choices. They find it quite difficult to adjust to a completely new life.”
Krishnan believes estrangement gets more complicated for parents who’ve moved to Australia to be with their children as they often lack existing local social networks, language skills, and an understanding of their rights and entitlements.
When the relationship breaks down and there’s nowhere else to go, things can get really tough for those with no choice but to depend on their children in order to survive in a new country.
“Many are not used to accessing services on their own. They have never accessed Centrelink or Medicare or gone to local library without their children dropping them and picking them up. So what they often do is they’ll try and work around that situation. They’ll continue to live in the house. They might do own cooking, they might just take confines to one part of the house or to one room, and this can make it quite difficult and often cause serious psychological issues for them.”
She suggests if you are thinking of moving in with your children consider setting some ground rules and make sure you keep your circle of friends and activities.
“Clearly establish some ground rules to start with for all family members so there is an understanding in what everybody’s role is, and also, they must engage with the broader community to develop networks: so whether this is going to library, going to a neighbourhood house, joining a social group of peers - just making that connection is important for their social and emotional health, and also allowing their children and themselves to have individual spaces.”
It’s also important to embrace the local way of life.
“So to try and learn as much as they can about Australia and the Australian way of life, and try and participate in some of those community activities, and I find if people address some of those small issues then things don’t escalate.”
Living with estrangement often means living with long-term uncertainty.
As for the 73-year-old father we heard from earlier, he says he’s tried absolutely everything to try and resolve the situation.
“I have tried everything, everything. I spoke with my son and tried to reason with him, but these young people, for them, it has to be their way. Doesn’t understand that sometimes in family, things can become emotional and people say things in anger, cannot take back the words. How can parents mean bad for children?”
From Dr Kylie Agllias’ experience, parents who end up estranged from their children often feel that their intentions are misunderstood.
“So our daughter thinks we interfere too much or we criticise her parenting but all we want is the best for her. We’re doing this for the best of intention. So while their intentions might be good, and while they want to help: the fact is those intentions are actually causing the other person who might have other values hurt and pain.”
She says for a lasting reconciliation, both sides need to come together at the right time.
“People will often try to reunify or try to get back together a little too early and they might do that when they’re actually not ready to hear what the other person’s got to say and they often want their side heard. One of the key things is having that space and that capacity to acknowledge that the other person is hurt without defending and justifying all your actions, your beliefs, are really important. People really want to hear that their experience and that their hurt is understood and acknowledged.”
Getting back together isn’t always the best answer. Estrangement can also be the right response to certain situations.
“When there’s violence in the family and abuse, when there’s power differentials, estrangement can be a good thing to keep people safe. It can be a protective thing.”
However, living with estrangement often means living with long-term uncertainty.
“If we could just go and see them sometimes, have my grandson come with us sometimes. Have maybe lunch or dinner together- that’s all I ask. But time is the problem, not enough time, my wife - her health is bad. God knows how long? We are old people. Before I go, I want family to be happy- that is what I pray every day.”
If you or anyone you know needs help with resolving family conflicts, Relationships Australia provides counselling and mediation services at relationship.org.au
For crisis support please call LifeLine on 13 11 14.