USU faculty member in demand to share research on family estrangement

Kristina Scharp, assistant professor of Communication Studies and director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, is among the nation's most accomplished researchers on family dynamics, particularly parent-child estrangement.

LOGAN – Estrangement research is a relatively new area of study but at Utah State University one faculty member is becoming a go-to source for journalists worldwide.

Kristina Scharp, assistant professor of communications studies, is director of the Family Communication and Relationships lab in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The concept of family estrangement has entered the public arena; it

can become one of the most devastating events in one’s lifetime.

“Certainly there can be trouble in any type of family. I think it is just now we are starting to talk about it,” said Scharp.

“Especially when I talk to adult children who decided to distance themselves from their parents, often they’re talking about some sort of abuse. It’s either psychological, physical, sexual abuse. Or sometimes someone in the family is struggling with a substance abuse or a mental health issue.”

She said there are myths about estrangement that should be understood.

“One is that estrangement happens out of the blue. Normally there are long term patterns of conflict and distress in a family before people decide to distance themselves.

“People might not know this, but it (estrangement) is fairly common; 12 percent of mothers report they are estranged from at least one of their children. We know that number is even higher with fathers.”

These painful break ups are rarely discussed openly because of what Scharp says is a long-held belief in an idealistic definition of family.

“There is often limiting communication, either the quantity of that communication or the quality. It is one way people both accomplish and maintain distance.”

One recent study identified that quality and quantity of communication as two of the eight components of family estrangement.

“The other six have to do with physical distance: sometimes people move far away. Also, how much emotion people feel for another person and whether that emotion is positive or negative.

“We look at something called role reciprocity, which is, are parents and children behaving the way we think a parent might behave toward the child and then a child might behave toward a parent. The desire for people to be in the relationship, which sounds counter intuitive; often people think of families as being non-voluntary, in the sense they have no choice but to maintain their relationship.

“Sometimes people come to a decision that, no I don’t have to be in this family anymore and I don’t want to be. And finally, sometimes people take legal action against family members.”

What about reconciliation?

“The majority of my participants who initiated estrangement, said they didn’t want to reconcile. I think that is another misconception: oftentimes people think that they want to be together; people try to reconcile them all the time and they say ‘that is not what we want’.”

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