The Pain of Family Estrangement

A strained, distant or broken relationship with a family member is one of the most painful things a person can experience. When your childhood was complicated by abuse, neglect or trauma, the relationships you have with your family in adulthood can continue to be painful, confusing and sometimes difficult to endure. Often, the hurtful or dysfunctional behaviors continue, even after you've left home and established your own life.

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From the outside, it can be so hard to understand how family members can become estranged from each other. But the heartbreak of distancing or cutting off contact with a parent or sibling can stem from traumatic events, such as emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect, growing up in a household with mental illness or addiction. According to Kylie Agllias, author of Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective, these particular issues strain family relationships in ways that make families vulnerable to estrangement.

Estrangement takes many forms—efforts to establish emotional distance while maintaining contact, a breakdown of support, or a complete cut off of communication and contact. Trying to figure out what kind of relationship you can have with someone who's hurt, neglected or abused you is a painful process. Many questions arise during the process of trying to determine how to approach such damaged relationships. How much time can you spend talking with or visiting them? How much will you let them know about your life? Do you need to take a break from the relationship for awhile to give yourself time work through and heal from trauma? Or is contact with this person just too painful, damaging?

Many of the people I see in my therapy practice are struggling with this painful issue-either after becoming estranged from family members or as they're trying to find a way to stay connected. When there has been abuse or a failure on the part of a parent to acknowledge or protect against abuse, the adult parent child relationship is often deeply effected. If estrangement has grown out of a history of abuse between parent and child, the decision to cut off contact or find a way to maintain some sort of connection is naturally fraught with having to make decisions that will promote your own well-being and healing.

In her book Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective, Kylie Agllias writes that: “estrangement from a perpetrator of abuse is a legitimate and often essential way to promote health and healing for survivors. There are times when reconciliation is not appropriate. There are other instances where survivors of abuse find some form of reconciliation or forgiveness important to their health and healing. The very personal decision to estrange or attempt some form of reconciliation is one that should always be respected.”

A broken family relationship is often difficult to talk about openly. Trying to explain why you're estranged or distant from your family can add to the distress of your experience- and add to the guilt, anxiety and shame that can become overwhelming at times. It's common for those who are estranged from their family to try to conceal this part of their lives, for fear of being judged, criticized or to avoid stigma. Add to this the fact that abuse is often kept secret, hidden away from others in the family and the community, making it that much more difficult to find the understanding and support you need.

Therapy can be a safe place to thoughtfully explore what you need for your own healing and how to best approach your family relationships-whether you're ready to work toward a reconciliation, to grieve the loss of the relationship that you can no longer be a part of, or to find somewhere in between.

To read more on this topic, check out this recent article from the New York Times:https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/well/family/debunking-myths-about-estrangement.html

If you're concerned about how the past is impacting you now, help is available.  To learn more about how therapy can help, please give me a call at (626) 808-5463 or email me at hollyaevansmft@gmail.com.  I look forward to talking to you- Holly

Haunted: Living With Unresolved Childhood Trauma

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Like a ghost, your traumatic past can come back to haunt you long after that part of your life is over. Disturbing memories may intrude, and stir up feelings about events that you thought you'd left behind. Because of the way traumatic memories are stored, reminders of disturbing events can stir up trouble in your body, your mind and your relationships, and make the past feel ever present.

Ghosts from the past

Common life experiences can bring up reminders of the past. Traumas large and small, issues that you may have already worked through, or that hadn't been bothering you for years can be reignited by a big change in your life or a seemingly minor event.

A situation at work may leave you feeling on edge, wary of others. A health crisis leaves you feeling dependent, or helpless. Changes in relationships can unsettle your sense of security. Life altering events like having a baby, a sudden loss or death, or a taking on a new roles, such as caregiving for a parent- all of these kinds of situations can open up old feelings and memories and bring the past rushing back. And often, like a troublesome ghost, it can be difficult to figure out just exactly where your emotional and physical reactions are coming from, what's causing you to feel this way.

Strong connections exist between childhood trauma and challenges in adulthood.

Unresolved trauma is one of the most common reasons people seek therapy, and early experiences are a common focus in trying to answer questions about why you're struggling right now.

Childhood is a time when we need to experience a sense of security and being loved, to help develop a sense trust in self and others. But when childhood is complicated by abuse (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse), neglect, and other types of traumas (large and small), the ability to trust ourselves and connect to others can be compromised. Common problems linked to childhood trauma include:

  • difficulty handling emotions

  • increased risk for anxiety, depression, PTSD

  • feelings of shame and guilt

  • low self esteem

  • feeling alienated and difficulty relating to others

  • self destructive behaviors, including problems with alcohol/drugs

But this happened so long ago. It shouldn't be bothering me now.”

Adults who find themselves once again dealing with the past often make comments like “I'm a grownup. This shouldn't still be bothering me”. However, study after study has shown that adverse events in our younger years can be linked to problems in adulthood. One recent longitudinal study published earlier this year found that women who experience adverse events during their formative years (abuse, neglect or family dysfunction) are more likely to experience depression during midlife when compared to women who did not experience these kinds of stressors. (Read the study here: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-03/uops-tas032717.php). Another important longitudinal study, The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) showed important connections between childhood abuse and neglect and a person's health and well-being later in life.

Overcoming Childhood Trauma

While childhood trauma can make your life more challenging at times, it doesn't have to define you and how you live your life. Therapy can help you establish a sense of safety, and develop the tools and understanding of yourself you need in order to free yourself from the grip that trauma can have on you. So that you can enjoy your life and the people in it. Develop more confidence and trust in yourself. Find peace of mind.

If you're concerned about how the past is impacting you now, help is available.  To learn more about how therapy can help, please give me a call at (626) 808-5463 or email me at hollyaevansmft@gmail.com.  I look forward to talking to you- Holly