How to handle return of a long-lost family member during holidays

by NCN Health And Science Team Last updated on March 16th, 2019,

The homecoming of estranged family members at the holidays can be joyous and taxing. Humans are social animals who crave connection with others. It’s a drive that seems hard-wired into our systems so that when we experience rejection or estrangement from others, the experience can feel much like physical pain.

The desire to avoid these painful feelings may be why many people go out of their way to reconnect with wayward family members during the holidays, even if this reconnection risks discomfort, hurt feelings or disappointment. This does not mean that we should avoid welcoming home family members but suggests it does mean that a dose of realistic expectations, with some proven techniques, can make for more peaceful holiday visits with estranged family members.

As a clinical psychologist and researcher who studies couples and families with chronic health problems, I often hear from people who feel like they are the only ones who have family relationships that have gone awry. Yet, they have more company than they realize, and there are strategies to cope.

An undesirable distance

Many people experience tense family relationships from time to time. Estrangement is a more prolonged condition that consists of physical or emotional distancing from one or more family members that is not mutually desired. Family estrangement is relatively common, with 4 to 10 percent of adults reporting distancing behaviors between adult children and their parents.

The numbers are likely to be higher when examining other family relationships, such as sibling relationships and when considering the large numbers of families that are affected by problems that may contribute to estrangement. For instance, alcohol and drug addiction, a common trigger of estrangement, affects the lives not only of the person with the addiction but also of 100 million adult family members globally.

In addition to addictions, parents with estranged adult children also blame estrangement on problems such as chronic lying and problematic relationships with people outside the family.

Estrangement can go both ways

Wayward children are not the only cause of family estrangement. Parents who are controlling or abusive also cause distance.

Yet, it is not always the behavior of children that contribute to estrangement. Adult children report actively distancing themselves from parents they perceive as judgmental, narcissistic or abusive. Thus, estrangement can serve a protective function, allowing affected people the emotional space to care for themselves and decide how to navigate their relationships.

While distancing oneself from a family member may be a healthy strategy for some people, it can also contribute to feelings of loss, distress and stigmatization. Why is this the case? One explanation is that many people deem family ties as permanent ties, worthy of respect and care. Expressions like “blood is thicker than water” and “charity begins at home” symbolize the importance of family ties and the need to protect them at all costs. These strong cultural messages can contribute to feelings of guilt and attempts to reconcile, especially when friends and relatives push reconciliation, a strategy that is not recommended unless both parties wish to do so.

As shown in addictions research, family members can benefit when they nonjudgmentally explore the pros and cons of different types of engagement with their loved ones. For instance, they can take a zero tolerance approach, such as barring the loved one from the house, remain silent in the face of problematic behavior, or distance themselves from the loved one. Finding people on whom to rely for support can also provide relief to families who are considering welcoming home estranged family members.

Building bridges and gingerbread houses

Making a gingerbread house together or playing games can take the stress away from a potentially stressful reunion.

But what other strategies can be used by loved ones when welcoming a family member with whom they share a troubled relationship? Much of the advice for handling stress around the holidays is fitting in this situation. In addition, there are several strategies based on psychological therapies that may be useful:

  • Be honest and realistic with yourself

What is it that you want to achieve by reconnecting with estranged family members over the holidays? Are you looking for a brief, nonthreatening together time, the first steps to rebuild a relationship? Based on your prior interactions with your family members and reflecting on why the estrangement happened, how likely is it that this will happen? Might you need to change your expectations? Or are there certain things you can do to add structure and reduce the likelihood of greater distancing? For instance, if you are concerned about sensitive topics that might trigger angry and hurt feelings, perhaps build in an activity, a project such as making a gingerbread house together or playing games to take the focus away from past hurts or rehashing negative events. If alcohol use or abuse has contributed to the estrangement, consider serving a variety of non-alcoholic beverages instead.

  • Develop the capacity to tolerate distress

When we avoid how we feel because it is painful, we may sometimes act in ways that may drive others further away. Distress tolerance is essential to counteract the likelihood of hurtful exchanges. One way of building the capacity to tolerate distress is mindful awareness practices including meditation, short breathing exercises, or mindful and intentional focus on activities like walking and listening to music. These activities can build up distress tolerance prior to gathering with family members but also during family gatherings. For instance, one could retreat to the kitchen to mindfully chop vegetables or wash the dishes, or excuse oneself to take a brief walk.

  • Pay attention to your loved ones

Mindful awareness can also be directed to family members. In my own research and clinical practice with couples coping with challenging health problems, emotional distancing often happens when family members do not accept their loved ones’ painful emotions as valid or real. Emotional validating responses such as asking questions about how a loved one is feeling and reflecting back the feeling or experience – phrases such as “That sounds tough,” or “I am sorry that you’re feeling this way” – express care and concern, and are related to better personal and relationship well-being. Emotional validation is not the same as agreeing with their choices or why they feel the way they do. Therapies to improve emotional validation are promising treatments for couples and families experiencing emotional distance, though they remain to be tested in cases of estrangement.

  • Practice gratitude and, if possible, forgive

Whether it is possible to welcome back family members or be welcomed back yourself, it is still possible to express gratitude for those people who bring you joy or have helped you learn something important. Acts of gratitude are associated with well-being and may help focus on the positive aspects of difficult relationships. When that is not possible, appreciate the goodness in life rather than focus on relationships gone wrong. Perhaps the most difficult of all is forgiving those from whom we feel alienated. Forgiveness can heal the pain associated with memories of betrayal and difficult relationships and promote well-being. Yet, no one should feel shame or beat themselves up for not being able to forgive.

  • Start new traditions

It may not be possible to salvage family relationships; perhaps, it is just too risky to engage with an estranged family member. In these cases, consider starting new traditions to celebrate the holidays, and find the social connection you desire. Celebrate at home with friends, have personal retreat time, or take a trip. It is not necessary to wait for the holidays to start new traditions. The Family Dinner Project has resources for creating mealtime rituals to create and sustain mealtime rituals to promote healthier bodies and relationships.

The holidays, a generally optimistic time, may be just the right time to reconnect with family members with whom we are distant. It is also a time to take care of ourselves, experience joy, and recharge for the year ahead. It is possible to do both with planning and preparation.

Author: Annmarie Cano received funding from the National Institutes of Health.

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NCN Health And Science Team

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