We’re hard-wired to seek connection with our closest genetic relatives- our family members. The more family members connect with each other and help each other, the greater the chances of their gene pool to survive and reproduce.
In other words, there’s an in-built expectation in all of us to get help and support from our closest family members. This is especially true for parent-child relationships.
While you can be disconnected from siblings and extended family members, when people say they feel disconnected from their family, they usually mean parents.
This is because the expectation of getting your needs met is the highest with parents. Children have high expectations from their parents because they depend on them for a long time before they can fend for themselves.
Reasons for feeling disconnected from family
The greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment (and disconnection). When children believe their parents have been inadequate in meeting their needs, they feel disconnected from them.
It’s at the core of human nature to seek reciprocal relationships, within or outside the family. When we think our needs aren’t being met in a relationship, disconnection kicks in. The purpose of these feelings is to motivate us to move away from the relationship to find better, mutually beneficial relationships.
Let’s look at some specific reasons for feeling disconnected from your family:
If your family members abused you in any way, you’re likely to feel disconnected from them. We’re not only wired to seek mutually beneficial relationships but also harmless relationships. Disconnecting from a toxic relationship is a defense the mind uses to prevent further harm.
While you can tell when abuse is happening, neglect is more subtle. A parent may not be abusive, but they may be, intentionally or unintentionally, neglectful.
A child needs love, time, and other resources from parents. When parents fail to meet these needs, the child fails to form an attachment with them.
Childhood emotional neglect can range from not spending quality time to being absent physically and/or emotionally from the child’s life. Among other things, it leads to an emotionally detached relationship with parents.1
We get close to people who meet our needs and grow distant from those who don’t. But there is a thing as getting too close. That’s what happens in enmeshment.
In an enmeshed family, the family members are over-reliant on each other. There’s no boundary between them, no privacy. The parents fail to see their child as an individual.
Children start to develop their own identities when they reach their teens. If they are enmeshed with their parents, a conflict arises between what they are and who they want to be, leading to disconnection.
4. Parental Favoritism
Parental favoritism is when one or both parents favor one child over the others. They re-direct their time, energy, and other resources to one child at the expense of other children. The neglected children pick up on this and develop resentment and disconnection.
5. Clash of values
When adolescents embark on a journey to develop their identities, they have to leave who they’ve been to be what they want to be. Who they’ve been was borrowed from their parents, so there’s a clash of values between them and their parents.
Since it’s hard to connect with those who don’t share your values, disconnection ensues.
6. Connecting with someone else
If your parents couldn’t care for you in your childhood for whatever reason, it’s likely that members of your extended family took it upon themselves to care for you.
While we have an expectation of care from our closest genetic relatives, we can get attached to anyone who cares for us.
Ultimately, what counts for survival is getting love and care, not who we get it from. A child can’t reject the help of extended family members because the expectation originally lies with parents.
When you get attached to someone, you tend to get detached from someone else. If extended family members cared for you more than your parents, you’ll feel more attached to the former.
7. Lack of competencies
The whole aim of parental care is to develop in children the competencies to help them survive and thrive in the world.2
Parents have to teach children plenty of mental, social, and life skills. If they fail to do so, the children feel unprepared to tackle the big bad world out there they have to step into. They feel unparented.
This leads to resentment and disconnection.
Of course, when children grow up and come into greater contact with the world, they find teachers and mentors they can learn from. But that flame of unmet parental expectations remains alive inside them.
This is why, when admiring their teachers or mentors, people often say things like:
“He’s the father I never had.”
Maintain respectful distance
When it comes to disconnecting, it’s different for family and friends. When you disconnect with friends or break up with someone, you may never think of them again. You may occasionally miss them, but you’ll be mostly happy to have cut them off.
While not impossible, it’s difficult to cut ties with your family. If you do, you’ll have to deal with the guilt.
Even if you don’t feel connected with a family member, I don’t recommend cutting ties with them if you can’t deal with the accompanying guilt.
Instead, you should strive to maintain what I call a ‘respectful distance’. You treat them good, respect them, and do your duties, but you don’t emotionally engage. You don’t make them a big part of your life. You keep them at the fringes.
You stay disconnected and don’t strive to re-connect.
The strategy works brilliantly to guard your mental health. If you bring up past resentments, it’s only going to lead to unnecessary conflicts. If you argue and fight them, they may weaponize your arguing and fighting to guilt-trip you.
With respectful distance, you give them no reason to fight whilst maintaining your boundaries. It also saves you from the guilt of disconnecting from close genetic relatives.
- Musetti, A., Grazia, V., Manari, T., Terrone, G., & Corsano, P. (2021). Linking childhood emotional neglect to adolescents’ parent-related loneliness: Self-other differentiation and emotional detachment from parents as mediators. Child Abuse & Neglect, 122, 105338.
- Geary, D. C., & Flinn, M. V. (2001). Evolution of human parental behavior and the human family. Parenting, 1(1-2), 5-61.