On Mother’s Day, many pictures of happy families appear in the media and social networks. But sometimes the reality is completely different: contact breakdowns happen again and again. The patterns are similar.

She still remembers exactly when Svenja (32) last spoke to her mother. It was Christmas two years ago and her mother wanted to tell her – or at least that’s how she felt – how she should live her life.

The grandson needs a different hairstyle (a “real boy’s hairstyle”), the apartment needs to be cleaned better and she should break up with her partner. Since then there has been radio silence between Svenja and her mother. Both of them also spend Mother’s Day separately – without contact.

“I kept trying to explain to my mother that I wanted her to accept my life and my boundaries, but she insisted on her ideas,” says Svenja.

Although the loss of contact made her sad, she felt even worse after meeting her mother. “I was often very insecure and didn’t know who to support: my mother or my own family with our values.”

Breakdowns in contact between adult children and parents are not uncommon. In a representative, multi-year study with over 10,000 people in Germany – the so-called Pairfam study (Panel Analysis of Intimate Relationships and Family Dynamics) – the adults surveyed stated in seven percent of the partly repeated surveys that they had no contact with their biological partner Having a father, two percent not having a biological mother.

Even more felt emotionally distant from their parents. Almost one in ten people reported at least one phase of estrangement from their biological mother within ten years, and even one in five from their father.

According to the study, break-offs in contact and alienation occur even more frequently among stepparents. Other studies show similar frequencies. The relationships between generations are very heterogeneous, say the authors of the Pairfam study, Oliver Arránz Becker from the University of Halle-Wittenberg and Karsten Hank from the University of Cologne.

This is also evident at family counseling centers. Ulric Ritzer-Sachs from the online advice service of the Federal Conference for Educational Advice (bke), a specialist association for education, family and childcare, reports that he not only experiences families with broken contact, but often also people who still have contact with their family of origin but are suffering because of it Youth advice center based in Fürth.

“They maintain contact even though it is not good for them and they have been experiencing the same thing over and over again since childhood.” Therefore, British psychologist Lucy Blake, who has studied contact breakdowns and distance in families in detail, writes: “Estrangement can be a healthy response to an unhealthy environment.”

There are many reasons for breaking off contact. Rarely are there extreme reasons such as physical abuse or sexual abuse in childhood. Breakdowns in contact occur more often than average in families with separated parents and in families with addiction problems, for example if one parent is addicted to alcohol. But even if children felt that one parent was a substitute partner and the contact was too close, this can lead to a clear desire for distance in adulthood.

In a survey from England, emotional abuse, different expectations of family and role models, and large gaps in values ​​and personality were cited as the main reasons.

In a study from the USA, children cited “toxic behavior” from their parents as the most common reason, such as constant disrespect or the feeling of not being supported or accepted. In the studies, however, parents tend to give external reasons such as divorce or their children’s partners.

Most of the time, but not always, the break in contact comes from the children; sometimes it’s the parents, sometimes both sides. Sometimes those involved no longer even know who it was, according to the results of the English survey.

“My experience as a therapist is that there are often irresolvable problems between parents and children that have to do with narcissistic structures,” says Munich psychotherapist Bärbel Wardetzki, who is known for her work on “female narcissism.”

For example, when the children are always devalued by their parents and have the feeling that they cannot do it right. Even adults still sought the love, attention and recognition of their parents. To let go of it? Emotionally very difficult.

When is enough enough? Apparently there are various points in life at which breaking off contact becomes more likely. One such point can be the separation of parents. According to the aforementioned study from England, most children who break off contact are between their 20s and mid-30s. Contact with fathers is more often lost before adulthood.

According to the Pairfam study, contact with the other parent can also be lost after the death of one parent. The birth of one’s own children also seems to be a point.

“Then you have to think about how much contact the children should have with their grandparents,” says advisor Ritzer-Sachs. Especially when the grandparents show their grandchildren similar patterns to those from which the children suffer or have suffered.

Breaking off contact can be helpful, but first you should consider whether there might be a possibility for reconciliation, says Ritzer-Sachs. “Sometimes there are stupid arguments in which no one wants to take the first step.” Then both sides should consider whether they don’t want to take the first step after all. But attempts to get closer should be carefully considered.

“It’s difficult to raise your visor again and make yourself vulnerable. You have to think: Can I still endure an injury if it backfires again?”

In England and the USA there are self-help organizations – “Stand alone community” and “Together Estranged” – that support people from broken families, for example with advice on how to deal with holidays – the family’s high holidays.

According to a survey, 78 percent of those surveyed perceive Mother’s or Father’s Day as a particularly difficult time of the year. It is similar with birthdays, Christmas, weddings and deaths. Many people find counseling, psychotherapy and self-help groups helpful.

In Germany, there are also self-help groups for parents and grandparents in several cities under titles such as “Abandoned Parents”. The children are usually more likely to be found in thematic self-help groups, for example as relatives of alcoholics or drug addicts or children of narcissistic parents.

The Malteser emergency service advises not to pick up the phone immediately, as this could quickly make the other party feel harassed. A classic letter or email that can be read at your own leisure and several times at a time of your choosing might be better.

Svenja, whose actual name is different, has also done this several times: letters, voice messages, invitations to conversations. She wanted to explain to her mother why contact was difficult for her and what she would want. There was never a reaction from her mother. Meanwhile, she doesn’t try again. Even if it’s Mother’s Day.