At the start of every new year, individuals often make resolutions to change aspects of their lives that they find undesirable. For some, these promises to themselves may involve trying to mend broken family relationships. Well-meaning friends and family members may encourage estranged older parents or adult children to reconnect with one another as well.

Iowa State University associate professor of Human Development and Family Studies Megan Gilligan studies family estrangement, and specifically estrangement between mothers and adult children. Along with colleagues Jill Suitor of Purdue University and Karl Pillemer of Cornell University, she has learned that rifts between older parents and their adult children are relatively common. In 2015 research, Gilligan and her collaborators examined older mothers and found that 1 in 10 experienced estrangement with at least one of their adult children. This was one of the first systematic studies of intergenerational estrangement.

New research, published in September 2021, followed the same families across seven years with the goal of better understanding how major life events — such as divorces, illnesses, and deaths in the family — had affected estrangement between older mothers and their adult children over time. In particular, the team wondered if important and potentially life-altering experiences would contribute to both rifts and reconciliation between older mothers and their adult children. Findings suggested a relatively high degree of stability in intergenerational estrangement in later-life families.

Read Gilligan’s’ full article in The Conversation here.