Health

Being away from family is especially difficult during the holidays. Here’s how to deal with stigma and unwanted advice.

When I tell people I don’t have a relationship with my mom, most of them are polite and sympathetic. But some ask me questions like, “How can you not see your mother?”

While I was coming to terms with my decision to end the relationship, dealing with questioning and judgment from others was incredibly uncomfortable.

Researchers estimate that 27% of American adults have a distant family relationship, although the true number may be higher. Estrangement is difficult to experience, and experts say it often comes with stigma.

“People are reticent to talk about it because of fear of criticism or judgment,” said Joshua Coleman, a clinical psychologist who wrote The Rules of Alienation. “It’s a problem because social support can provide emotional resilience. So if you’re depriving yourself of that social support, you’re depriving yourself of something that can really be key to your mental health and well-being.”

Living with estrangement can be especially challenging around the holidays. Coleman said you may feel sadness over not spending time with family, but also pressure from others about reconciling the relationship. Answering questions about how the holidays are spent can also bring up some difficult feelings.

Coleman and Christina Sharp, assistant professor of communication at Rutgers University who researches family alienation, share some tips for handling uncomfortable conversations about this estrangement—and, on the flip side, what not to say to someone you care about.

Why is there a stigma behind family estrangement?

Ending a relationship with a family member is not easy, and it is difficult for people who have not experienced it to understand it. So it makes sense that people would feel uncomfortable talking about it.

“We live in a culture that promotes the idea that family is forever or that blood is thicker than water,” Sharp said. “This creates a social norm about how families should behave. However, not all families love their members unconditionally, and not all family members have the capacity to provide support and care.”

Family is also a common small talk topic—not just around the holidays, though it can seem to come up a lot during the season—and the reasons for estrangement are usually personal, Sharp said. People may choose to keep estrangement from themselves because they often experience negative feedback, unsolicited suggestions for matchmaking, and pressure to reveal highly personal information. This makes the experience feel stigmatizing.

How to deal with conversations about estrangement

Coleman said you have the right to control the narrative about topics where you feel social judgment. There are several ways to handle questions about the holidays when you’re experiencing estrangement.

Keep your responses short and sweet

When someone you don’t know very well or who doesn’t need to know your work asks how you spend the holidays, don’t feel the need to say too much.

“Let’s say you’re busy, or your family doesn’t exist,” Coleman said.

Scharp suggested simply saying you’re not close with your family or that you have other plans, like Friendsgiving.

Redirect the conversation

People can be curious. If they press for details, Coleman suggested, they say it hurts to talk about the situation. Then bring the conversation back to the other person by asking them about their vacation plans.

“Most people are eager to talk about their private lives,” he said.

Provide details only if you are comfortable

For the people closest to you who might be a source of support, Coleman recommended providing a few details, as long as you’re comfortable with it.

“It’s helpful if they have a reasonable amount of information so they can understand the context that made you feel what you’re feeling and make the decisions you made,” he said.

Teach others how to be supportive

People who have not dealt with estrangement usually do not know what to say. Explaining what the care response should look like can help, Coleman said.

“You might say, ‘I just want to talk about it and get your support,’” he said, “or, ‘I don’t actually need advice or encouragement. I just want to be able to talk about it.”

What not to say to those who mention estrangement

On the flip side, if a friend or acquaintance mentions a breakup, it is imperative to respond without judgment or criticism. Coleman said it’s important not to say things like, “I can’t stop seeing my family.”

“One of the things people might think about after announcing a estrangement is to refrain from offering condolences immediately or to assume that the person has negative feelings about the distance between family members,” Sharp said.

Instead, she said, ask the person how they are feeling and then offer support based on that response, or ask what type of support would be most helpful.

Coleman said to avoid reassuring feedback or assuming the situation is fixable — or that someone wants to fix it.

When do you talk to a therapist about family alienation?

Experiencing estrangement, Sharp said, means you have to “manage multiple uncertainties, process complex triggers, and negotiate an entire family system” — as well as deal with the stress of feeling stigmatized by the situation.

Coleman added that it’s a good idea to talk to a mental health professional if you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed with your emotions, or if you have persistent feelings of shame, depression, or anxiety.

“I think anyone could benefit from counseling at any time,” Sharp said. “Counseling is not just for people who feel hopeless or realize they have no other options.”

Smith

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