How to Be Supportive to Someone Estranged from Family 

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Imagine you’re at a work dinner attempting to make polite conversation, and you embark upon the topic of family. Instead of being a neutral topic as you’d hoped, you watch the person across from you start to shut down, grow uncomfortable, or fight back tears.  

How do we respond to someone who shares that they’re estranged from family? Conversations about family can be tough for all parties in an estranged relationship. Let’s explore some ways in which to support those who are estranged.  

For partners  

As the compassionate partner or spouse of a person who has experienced a relationship rupture with a parent, you recognize how painful the estrangement is for your loved one. Use these recommendations to support your partner:  

1. Follow your partner’s lead. When walking into a scenario where discussions of family systems or dynamics come up, allow your partner to lead the conversation. Support them in their decision to disclose as much or as little as they need to in order to interact with others in ways that feel safe to them. If they decide to not disclose their estrangement, they have their reasons. If they choose to name their current status as an adult estranged from a parent, that’s their choice too.  

2. Ask “What do you need?”
 When your partner or loved one finds themselves triggered by people, places, media portrayals, or memories, try asking your loved one what they need. This question can be especially helpful because it gives your partner permission to advocate for what might help them best. 

3. Encourage chosen connections.
 As a partner, it’s not expected that you’re the one and only support person. It’s not fair to them and it’s not healthy for you. Encourage your partner to develop additional healthy relationships. When the estrangement is from a parent, support them in befriending parental figures if appropriate. By exploring and building their support network alongside them, your loved one will feel that there are people they can confide in without over-relying on you.  

For siblings 

A strained relationship between a parent and adult child can ripple out to siblings. Siblings may feel they’re caught in the middle — wanting to please and maintain connection to both parties. Or they may feel pushed to choose sides. In walking the delicate line of maintaining relationships with both your parent and your sibling, here are some ways to keep healthy boundaries with both.  

1. Don’t share what they share. The urge to report back on what your parent is saying about your sibling is strong. However, repeating what your parent said can be very hurtful to your sibling who is attempting to achieve a clean break from that relationship. Your disclosures can keep the trauma cycle alive. The reverse is also true — refrain from sharing what your sibling is saying or doing with a parent who is estranged. Not only does this keep the wounds raw for your parent who is trying to grapple with feelings of abandonment and rejection within their family system, but your sibling will feel betrayed.  

2. Reflect their emotions. 
Instead of getting caught up in the details, remain focused on your sibling’s emotions. By reflecting their hurt, anger, or outrage, you keep the focus on them and their needs rather than the details of the conflict. They may disclose a variety of emotions, all of which are valid. Acknowledge without attempting to minimize or negate their emotions. Statements such as “I can see how that hurt you,” or “I hear how painful this is for you,” can indicate that you are listening with compassion. 

3. Attempt to remain neutral.
 Recognizing that you may only see one piece of the puzzle in the conflict between your parent and sibling, attempt to remain neutral. Even if you were raised alongside your sibling and feel that you witnessed all the same events, trauma cements memories differently for different people. Your experience is not their experience. Arguing or defending one perspective as the “true perspective” will create distance from your sibling if you aren’t careful.  

4. Don’t play mediator.
 It’s a delicate balance between empathy and compassion when listening to your sibling speak of the estrangement. You are at risk of triangulation in being connected to both your sibling and your parent, and you may find yourself taking on the role of mediator in wanting them to reconcile. Avoid allowing your desire for them to reconcile to push you into the “fix- its” where you attempt to repair the relationship for them.  

5. Have your own supports.
 You are human and your desire to have an intact, healthy family is natural. However, experiencing your family members’ estrangement can take its toll on you as well. Create your own support system outside of your family. Find a mentor, mental health professional, or friend who is neutral to your circumstance with whom you can speak openly of the estrangement’s impact on your life. A counselor or therapist can take this a step further by introducing new coping skills that allow you to understand and adapt to your current situation.  

For friends  

Friends, colleagues, and extended family wanting to best support a person in their social sphere who is estranged from family can follow these dos and don’ts:  

DO  

Encourage new holiday traditions — like Friends-giving in lieu of traditional Thanksgiving.  

Remain compassionate to triggers in conversations about family.

Respect their choice to be estranged.

Follow their lead on whether they want to talk about the estrangement or not.

See them as a whole person, not just estranged.

Listen when they choose to talk about their family.

Encourage healthy, supportive relationships with others.

DON’T  

Push them to attend family gatherings that would make them feel unsafe. 

Argue with them to reconcile because “they might regret it.”

Assume you understand the reasons for their estrangement.

Label them selfish, impulsive, or manipulative for choosing
estrangement.

Shame them because “family comes first.”

Attack the character of their estranged parent, thinking it’s helpful.

Expect them to reconcile when estrangement may be permanent.

Each estrangement comes from unique and personal circumstances. It’s important to realize that the decision to be estranged isn’t an easy one to make. As a support person, attempt to set aside your own opinions on the matter. Your role is being fully present and compassionate for the person who has chosen estrangement for their own safety, survival, or mental health. Pay attention to their body language and ask for feedback on how you can remain a valued support to them in this difficult process.  

If you stumble and offend them, apologize. You’re human and can make mistakes. 

By being genuinely caring about their experience, you’re conveying an important message of connection in an otherwise stigmatized existence of estrangement.  

Written By Khara Croswaite Brindle 

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Khara Croswaite Brindle is a licensed mental health therapist in private practice in Denver, Colorado. She holds various roles, including financial therapist, TEDx Speaker, burnout consultant, author, and professor. Her new book is Understanding Ruptured Mother-Daughter Relationships: Guiding the Adult Daughter’s Healing Journey through the Estrangement Energy Cycle (Rowman & Littlefield, July 1, 2023). Access therapeutic tools for adult daughters at estrangementenergycycle.com

The post How to Be Supportive to Someone Estranged from Family  appeared first on Wellbeing Magazine.

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