In 2001, the year I turned 10, my dad and I went on a week-long road trip from our home in Southern California to a small town in Western Wyoming.
While I was mostly just excited to get one-on-one time with my dad — with two younger siblings, that was a rarity — I was also a little nervous. At our destination, I was going to meet my dad's father. Technically he was my grandfather, but I didn't even know he existed until my grandma let me in on a secret, about a month before our trip: the grandpa I knew and loved at home was really Dad’s stepdad.
Even now, I don’t know what caused the estrangement between my grandfather and my dad, why they didn’t keep in closer contact, and why Dad didn’t mention him. But I suspect it was more a matter of convenience than anything else.
It was probably difficult for my grandpa, newly divorced, to co-parent across state lines decades before cell phones. And for my dad as a kid, it was probably even harder to foster a relationship with a rarely-seen parent, especially for a boy who already had two warm, doting parents in the household.
Why do families become estranged?
There’s a common misconception that estrangements start with a big argument or a long-running feud, when sometimes it’s just a disconnect.
The idea of meeting, or learning about, a close relative as late as fourth grade might seem odd. Certainly, during this road trip, and many years after, I thought my situation was extremely unusual. But, as it turns out, family estrangement is pretty common.
In fact, a U.S. survey by the Cornell Family Reconciliation Project suggested that tens of millions of Americans may be estranged from at least one family member. That’s not surprising, especially with how often we see estrangements in the media. From Meghan Markle's public drama with her father (and in-laws) to Angelina Jolie's estrangement from her father, actor Jon Voight, it seems almost commonplace.
A family feud is often quite complicated, and it can get even more complex when children are involved. While estranged adult family members can cut ties with each other, it’s not always clear how families will, or should, handle their relationships with younger members of the family — do they come along for the ride when an estrangement develops? It can be especially tricky when those children never experienced, or don’t remember, a time when the relatives were on better terms.
“Estrangements are tough at the best of times, but when you add children of any age, it becomes exponentially more painful,” says Karl Melvin, MA, MIACP, a clinical psychotherapist in Dublin, Ireland who specializes in family estrangement. “‘How do I tell them about the estrangement? When do I tell them? Will they blame themselves or me? Will they want to reconnect with the estranged parties when they get older?’ These are questions many parents ask themselves and there is no magic answer.”
On one hand, keeping a secret from a child could be damaging. While ten-year-old me was excited to learn about my “bonus grandparent” at the time, other children might not take similar news the same way. Some could get upset or lose trust in the family members who kept the secret. It also may be difficult to talk about their estrangement, and the idea of seeing the family member again could be triggering for the person who felt harmed or betrayed in the first place.
Should I explain the estrangement to my kid?
But even more important, parents should take safety into account before deciding to introduce kids to estranged family members. “In instances where estrangement stemmed from abuse or neglect, parents should be very cautious about allowing their children to have unsupervised contact with that family member," says Kristen Carr, Ph.D., an associate professor of Communication Studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
But of course, not every estrangement stems from abusive situations, and many children would benefit from knowing a more complete family tree. Not only could it be useful from a medical standpoint (it could be helpful to be aware of any genetic health concerns), but from a social standpoint as well. “Research continues to tell us that human beings need to know and understand their family of origin in order to hold a secure understanding of self in the world," says Kylie Agllias, Ph.D., Adjunct Lecturer of Social Work at University of Newcastle in Australia. "So, regardless of access and contact, estranged parents can contribute to their child’s well-being by honestly and openly acknowledging the situation, at the child’s developmental level, and talking about the other person with a level of respect." Parents find ways to talk about death in a way that kids can understand, why not estrangement?
Still, Melvin says it’s important to consider long-term effects of reconnecting with an estranged family, explaining that it’s possible to regret coming back into contact. He cites a recent client, a woman who was estranged from her sibling. Both siblings had families of their own and, in a time of optimism, they decided to get together with their kids. Eventually, the rift started again, and now the client deals with the guilt of no longer allowing her child a relationship with the family she briefly got to know.
"Ideally, if there have been efforts made amongst the different estranged parties to have a better relationship, then it might be appropriate for meetups with children,” says Melvin, “but ultimately you have to trust your intuition, keep realistic expectations, and watch out for red flags, such as past patterns which led to the estrangement.” Bottom line: the adults may need to do some hard work before a youngster meets an estranged family member, so that you don’t ping-pong back to where you started, with a confused child left in the crosshairs.
Lucky for me, when I finally met my grandfather, the experience wasn’t all that complicated. He was a gruff, sixty-something man with gray hair and a cigarette always in his hand. And while we didn’t completely bond over the long weekend, by the end of our visit, I felt the trip was overall a positive experience. I was even more thankful for the trip when, only a few months later, we learned my grandfather died in a car crash in Wyoming. I couldn’t believe I’d almost missed meeting him.
As an adult, I have to admit that I’m now the one with a distant dad. Over the years, we drifted apart, and I’m sorry to say that months, and even years, have gone by without seeing him. Now, I have a baby of my own and I plan to tell her everything about our family. I just hope that she won’t have to wait until she’s ten to meet every every relative.
Sometimes, I think back to the day I arrived in Wyoming. My Dad lit up with a broad smile, and gave his father a hug. They were obviously glad to be together again and I’m so happy I was there to see it.
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