Would you like to divorce your parents? The recent case of the Scottish student who took his mother to court showed how hardened family rifts can become. And sometimes, as Corinne Sweet finds out, children decide to sever the umbilical cord for good
"To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune... to lose both seems like carelessness," to quote Oscar Wilde's aunt from hell, Lady Bracknell. But in these days of separation, divorce, step-parenthood, serial monogamy and multiple relationships, it is easier than ever for children and parents to lose touch - and not just out of carelessness on the Brighton line.

The recent case of Patrick MacDonald, the 20-year-old law student from Aberdeen who sued his mother in court for student financial support, raised hackles and questions alike. Estranged from his mother for five years after his parents split up (he went to live with his unemployed father, Hugh), MacDonald claimed pounds 400 a month from Margaret MacDonald, a pounds 45,000 a year Scottish Office solicitor. "I have no misgiving about taking this action against my mother," MacDonald told the Scotsman, "I'm exercising my right. It is a business transaction and this avenue is open to me. That is what the law states." The Sheriff recently issued an interim decision, granting MacDonald pounds 60 a month from his mother (who has four other children), pending a full hearing.

The question remains, however, as to how mother and son allowed their relationship to reach such a litigious low. To slug things out in public, and in court, is seldom the best way to heal any familial rifts or to take revenge - in fact, it is usually a desperate and ineffectual last resort.

When parents and children become estranged, something usually needs sorting out on an emotional level first. Sarah, a 2l-year-old musician, told me that when her parents divorced five years ago she spent a lot of time bouncing between the two family homes. "I was doing my A -levels and spending the week with mum and weekends with dad. It felt very disruptive because, not only did I not know where 'home' was any more, but I was terribly upset about the split." Sarah was angry that her parents just announced over breakfast, to her and her brother, Simon, that their life together was at an end. "I was utterly gobsmacked, although I knew they weren't getting on that well. But when I discovered dad had a new girlfriend and was going to live with her, I found that really hard to swallow."

Now finishing university, Sarah has lost touch with her dad, although she goes home to her mum and brother in the holidays. "I'm furious with dad: furious that he's broken up our life, furious what he's done to mum, furious he's with another woman who's not much older than me," Sarah says with feeling. She won't return his calls or open his letters and says, with the anguish of an angry, abandoned young child, that she doesn't care if she sees him again or not. But this bravado belies a well of pain, as Sarah was her daddy's favourite: she feels confused and betrayed.

Sometimes, a period of estrangement can offer the necessary time for both parents and children to adjust to new circumstances. It might be simply that a child grows up and moves away and needs space to establish their own independent life, while the parents become accustomed to being alone again. Steve, a 31-year-old computer programmer, needed a break from his family when he left home at 20. Though still living in his native Manchester, he soon began to make excuses about visiting and never stayed over. "I think I left home too late," he explains. "My family is very close and my mother wanted to rule my life and I let her, it was comfortable." Steve's father, a garage owner, had always been a late-evening worker and local pub drinker. Steve can now see that he filled the emotional gap for his mother, who needed companionship.

"I suppose I've felt angry that I put my own life on hold for so long," explains Steve. "I certainly couldn't take girls home and seldom went out with any while I was there. I now have a private life away from my parents, particularly my mother. She doesn't like it, though," he adds, guiltily, "and I don't tell her much, either." Steve has found he has to be "economical with the truth", and pretends to be busy working at weekends and on high days and holidays. He makes an exception on her birthday, when he now takes her out for a fancy tea, without his father in tow. "I can't tell my mother straight how I feel because it would upset her too much," he says. "I know it sounds hard, but I can't make it better for her and dad, that's their business. Anyway, I've got a lot of my own living to catch up with."

Some children put a lot of oceans and continents between themselves and their parents when things get tough. Min, a 27-year-old trainee counsellor, spent most of her teens and twenties travelling. From a small village in Devon, Min found home claustrophobic and needed time to "find herself". "I suppose I'm the black sheep of the family: my elder brother is in the Army, my younger sister is married to a bank manager, but I'm on the road."

The key difference between Min and her family, is that she's gay. "My parents are so straight that I could never tell them I sleep with women. But travelling gives me the freedom to be myself. I had a legit excuse in travelling, because I could be away for a year or two at a time. Travelling made me look at my life and discover how confined I'd felt."

Now living in Brighton, Min is in a steady relationship with Chloe, a dancer, and is undergoing counselling herself, as part of her training. "In all, I've had about five years away from home - I sent the odd postcard, I rang very occasionally. But now I'm back it's more complicated. I'm not sure how to integrate my parents into my life." Min is dreading Christmas, her first in Britain for years, and the inevitable question: "Are you coming home?" "I'd love to say, yeah, me and Chloe would love to come, but I can't quite see it."

Acceptance seems to be key to parents and children being able to heal any rifts. Not only a parent being able to accept their child as different from themselves, with different goals, lifestyles, sexuality, perspectives and politics, but also a child being able to accept their parent as human, fallible, disappointingly imperfect. Communication - or at least the attempt to communicate - between both camps is crucial, but surprisingly hard to achieve. Few families are able to sit down and talk it all out. There just isn't the language or skills available.

In extreme cases, especially where abuse (emotional, physical, sexual or all three) is concerned, some children will decide to "divorce" their parents by turning temporary estrangement into a permanent state. Eve, a 40-year-old potter, was born into a comfortable, middle-class business family in the shires. "My parents and I were caught in a vicious, eternal triangle. I'm an only child and my father totally adored me, while my mother (who was mentally ill) was exceedingly jealous."

Eve's childhood was blighted by abuse: sexual on the part of her father, and emotional on the part of her mother. "I felt sandwiched between these two maniacs, like an emotional ping-pong ball," she explains, "and I vowed to leave home as soon as I could." In her teens, Eve became anorexic and when she tried to tell her GP, he simply didn't believe her - after all, her dad played golf with him each Saturday. Desperate, Eve took an overdose (which was hushed up by her parents).

When she failed her A-levels, Eve went to live with her best friend Sue's family for the rest of the summer. "My parents were furious and we fell out. Living with Sue was wonderful as people related to each other so normally. I had no idea what real family life was like and I suppose I decided never to go back." To Eve's surprise, her parents let the relationship drift, too. "I had the odd call and letter from dad, but then they stopped. I think mum was glad to be rid of me - her rival. But I'm still sad - and angry - about dad." Eve has no idea whether her parents are dead or alive or even where they live. "I suppose I have recreated myself from scratch", she says. "I've built my own life, I'm single and independent and I like it that way."

If a parent-child relationship goes badly wrong, whose job is it to sort it all out? It's generally believed that the onus is on the child to continue paying filial duty regardless of what their parents inflict on them. But surely few truly loving parents would want to let go of their children for ever?

In most cases, estrangement is usually temporary. Mary, 25, had not had contact with her parents for three years after falling out over her choice of career - she's a nightclub stripper, not an accountant, as they had hoped. She decided to try to re-establish relations when she married and had a daughter. "It was difficult meeting up again after so long. But I can understand more about what my parents had been through, now I'm a mother myself. I didn't want my child not to have grandparents."

Although nothing was ever resolved or even aired about the reason for their rift, there has been an truce, for now at least. "I could see how pleased mum and dad were to have me back. And I had to accept they were too proud to be able to contact me meanwhile. So, I suppose I'm the one who's changed, I've grown up," says Mary. "I guess I just don't feel such an angry young woman any more."

Names have been changed.