"Familial Estrangement" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

Familial Estrangement

September 1st, 2012 -Sadly, the incidence of fractured families seems to be more prevalent today than ever before. Too many family groups—children, adult children, siblings, parents, and grandparents—are not enjoying the natural bonds of love, support, or at least communication, which were so necessary in olden times but now appear more commonly to be broken.

Almost everyone has a friend, relative, or is personally involved in a relationship which is less than desirable or happy. Most of these embarrassing and painful interactions are not openly discussed due to the guilt and/or denial with which they are associated. Unfortunately, these feelings are more common than anyone may realize.

There are no readily available numbers about actual incidence or prevalence but support groups such as Alienated Grandparents Anonymous, Inc (www.aga-fl.org) which is a local group of mutually supportive citizens, has had a rapid growth and now holds bimonthly meetings at Saint John the Evangelist Church on 111th Avenue on every month’s first and third Thursday afternoons and evenings, respectively. These extremely helpful meetings are coordinated by professionals and are very well attended; often, in season, there is standing room only.

The term parental alienation preceded grandparent alienation by over thirty-five years in the professional literate. Both alienations are recognized as painful separations causing dysfunctional behavior for all participants. Parental alienation typically describes the conduct of children and their parents who, through the process of an acrimonious divorce, engage in behavior which negatively compounds an already sad and difficult situation. With the incidence of divorce for first time marriages now estimated at over 40%, the numbers of families living with additional dysfunction continues to grow. One theory is that children who grew up in an environment where alienation was present, in turn practice the same behavior in their own families.

Grandparent alienation undermines the balance in a multi-generational family. Having mutually supportive generations, which grow by marriage and the subsequent addition of children, has been the pattern of successful multi-generational families, tribes, communities and larger societies since the beginning of time. Now, with the rapid growth of wealth, changing lifestyles, indulged habits, longer live spans, self-centeredness and general deterioration of social and societal order, we have a higher incidence of alienation among generations. This adds another very challenging dysfunction, which probably has a tendency toward self-perpetuation.

Being realistic in relationships over long periods of time, staying flexible and sharing empathetic wishes are all good ways of fostering long term positive relationships. Probably most important is picking the right mate to start with, one who has compatible values and shared experiences. Identifying common goals, having reasonable expectations, setting boundaries, examining one’s own reactions, appreciating both your strengths and weaknesses along with those of your other family members, knowing that we are not all the same and that is good—variety is the spice of life—being able to agree to disagree without undo rancor, while keeping balanced are all good ways to avoid the pain of estrangement.

Even when all the attitudes are in line and everyone has done all they can do to keep multi-generational families together problems can arise. Don’t give up. Seek others to share feelings and thoughts, be patient, and have reasonable goals with flexible timelines. Reach out for help; we have good support in southwest Florida. Life is a team sport—and we are all members of one team or another.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.