What is Family Estrangement?
Family estrangement refers to the loss of a former relationship between parents and children, siblings or other extended family members. Holidays are times when this estrangement can lead to anxiousness, PTS and other conditions. Estrangement reflects physical or emotional distancing and minimal contact or communication for an extended period. It can result from many things: physical, sexual, verbal, child or elder abuse, neglect, divorce, trauma, money, inheritances, substance abuse or something else. When people are estranged from their parents, their feelings may often be complicated. There may be a mix of relief, grief, sadness or anger. Often they see the decision to cut ties with that family member as a life-saving measure.
An Estrangement Example
One young man I’ve worked with was sexually abused for 5 years as a child by his older, schizophrenic brother after his father died. When he finally told someone at his school, the Department of Social Services intervened. He was moved to his aunt’s house where he lived until graduation. Since he has no contact with that brother who currently lives with their mother, he also has no communication with her. This is a choice he made for his own mental health. He believes his mother chose his brother’s well-being over his own. In order to move on with his life and cultivate healthier relationships, he needed to sever their communication. He still deals with his traumatic past when memories arise periodically, but he’s been able to find a loving partner and create his own family.
How to Manage the Holidays with Estranged Family Members
If you decide to see estranged family members over the holidays, it’s critical to establish clear, firm boundaries about your contact. Consider emailing in advance. Let et them know what you don’t want to discuss and what you do. Often these visits can be very triggering and activate old wounds.
If you feel afraid that the contact will not be safe for you, it’s okay not to push yourself.
Ask yourself these questions if you choose to interact:
- How long can I actually spend with this person before I start to feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable?
- What is my safety plan for when I am triggered?
- Who is my ally in this situation? What is my plan for checking in with them throughout the gathering?
- How can I appropriately leave when I need to and where will I go?
- Who will help me process this experience when it’s over just in case I need that?
- Whether you choose to connect with an estranged family member or not, check in with yourself. This has been a hard year, make sure you aren’t putting more on your shoulders than you can handle this year.