Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2014

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

Leslie A. Baxter


Many scholars contend that family relationships are nonvoluntary despite evidence that suggests family estrangement is both significant and on the rise. Typically, family estrangement is a serious life rupture often brought on by physical, emotional, or psychological abuse. In order to explore this understudied phenomenon, I began by applying a discourse dependence perspective framework to analyze 52 accounts from adult children who voluntarily and intentionally distanced themselves from a parent or parents with whom they had a negative relationship. Specifically, I engaged in thematic analysis to explore the communicative practices adult children enact to accomplish and maintain distance with a parent or parents as well as the practices they use to disclose and sustain their estrangement to members of their social network.

Based on in-depth interviews, results suggest that estrangement is a complex process that requires many communicative practices. At a broad level, these practices were categorized as declarative, one-time, and/or continuously enacted. Of note, adult children reported having to spend a considerable amount of time engaging in communicative practices to maintain the distance they were able to create, which suggests that relational maintenance is more than a constellation of practices that keep relationships close. Additional results reveal that the majority of participants did not disclose their estrangement to members of their social work. In the event others knew about the distance, it was typically because they were there to witness the distancing practices or because the participant conditionally disclosed the information. Similar to the emphasis on maintenance, adult children revealed that sustaining the estrangement required extensive communicative work. In other words, adult children had to resist social network members who sought to reconcile them with their parents. Taken together, results from this study hold promising theoretical and practical implications for researchers, clinicians, social network members, and other individuals going through the estrangement process. These implications and directions for research are discussed.


discourse dependence, distancing, family communication, parent-child estrangement


xiii, 198 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 186-198).


Copyright 2014 Kristina Scharp

Included in

Communication Commons