Megan Gilligan, Iowa State – Maternal Estrangement

Megan Gilligan

An often overlooked segment of family research deals with maternal estrangement.

Research from Megan Gilligan, professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University, delves directly into this understudied topic.

Megan Gilligan is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and a faculty associate of the Gerontology Program at Iowa State University. Her research focuses on the effects of life course transitions on family relationships and well-being, with specific interest in parent-child and sibling relationships in the middle and later years. In particular, Dr. Gilligan is interested in the predictors and consequences of intergenerational relationship quality. Dr. Gilligan’s research has appeared in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, The Gerontologist, Journal of Marriage and Family and Research in Human Development.

Maternal Estrangement


Relationships between mothers and their children are expected to be lifelong and mutually supportive – so what causes that bond to break? It’s only under extreme conditions that these ties are severed, but it’s more common than you might think. My colleagues Jill Suitor, Karl Pillemer, and I used data from more than 550 mothers over age 65 to explore the conditions under which they were most likely to become estranged from their offspring.

One of our most important findings was that the mothers’ characteristics, such as age, religion, race, and family size played essentially no role in which mothers had estranged children.

The strongest predictors were characteristics and behaviors of the adult children – specifically, when the adult child’s behaviors or attitudes greatly violated the mothers’ personal values and beliefs.  Contrary to what we expected, engaging in deviant behaviors such as substance abuse or other illegal behaviors, were substantially less likely to lead to estrangement than was placing oneself at odds with their mother’s core values. In fact, one mother, a devout Catholic, was estranged from her son because she was upset that he got divorced and remarried.

We found that approximately 11-percent of the mothers – or about one in 10 – reported that they were estranged from at least one of their adult children. 

We considered a child to be estranged if he or she had no contact with his or her mother in the past year, or if they had very little contact and the mother also reported that they did not have a close relationship. 

You might think that mothers who were estranged from one child would be estranged from several, or perhaps all of their children, but this was very rare. 

Family structures are changing. This research focused on an often overlooked segment of family relationships.

Read More: Iowa State News: Estrangement likely when adult child does not share mother’s values, Iowa State study finds