As the holidays are upon us, it is difficult not to think about family, how you grew up and the state of your relationship(s) with your family. Estrangement from family is actually fairly common but it seems like it isn’t frequently discussed which often adds to the stigma and shame of not having a close and warm relationship(s) with your family of origin.
If you are among the unlucky group that is estranged from your family (or perhaps you have a very strained relationship), you may be thinking about what you could or should do to change things. There are three factors to consider:
For the first factor, do your best to consider that though you may not have intended to be hurtful or unkind, your behavior may have negatively impacted a family member is some way. We have all made mistakes. The best way to learn and grow from them is to acknowledge them, apologize for them and attempt to make amends when possible. Plus, when we are able to recognize our faults and hurtful behavior, others are far more likely to take ownership of theirs.
Another important factor in evaluating your behavior is considering how you engage you family member(s). Do you call or show up and brace yourself for a confrontation or fight? If so, you are likely looking for a negative interaction and will likely therefore find one. But if you engage them looking for what they are doing right, you may find better with the results.
Just as we have shortcomings, so do our family members. If you want them to be kind and patient about your faults and shortcomings, it only seems fair to show them the same curtsey. Perhaps you had a parent that you feel/felt was critical when you were growing up. Consider that while it was not fun to be on the receiving end of that kind of criticism, perhaps your parent did not know a better way to approach the situation. It may be useful to think about the challenges they were experiencing at the time of your conflict and attempt to see the situation from their perspective.
The sad truth is that for some, the strained relationship is largely do to with an unhealthy family member who is unwilling or unable to take an honest look at themselves and their impact on the people around them. Often things like mental illness, drug/alcohol addiction, fear of changing, etc. can sharply impact a family’s ability to communicate and cope with stress. There are times when it can be useful to take a step back and reevaluate if a person is or can be a positive addition to your life. For example, you may decide that a family member who has refused treatment for the substance dependence is welcome back into your life unless or until he/she begins efforts towards sobriety.
Even if you are able to mend fences with your family, it may not look and feel like an episode of Leave It To Beaver. Especially, if it has been a long time since the relationship has been good, it can be helpful to take things slowly and not to put too many expectations on yourself or on your family.
As the holiday season approaches, I think it is a great time to stop and think about what you hope to get out of it.
I made a list of my favorite FREE family gifts to give during the holidays:
Even if you don't share with the kids that you over indulged they will feel your stress when it is time to pay the bills. They will especially feel it if it creates conflict between you and your partner. Also, kids know when we are spoiling them and it does not help them appreciate the value of material possessions or money.
In my first job out of high school, as a staff we agreed not to do a 'secret Santa' or office gift swap. We elected to 'adopt' a family from a local non-profit. We learned about each of the family members and what they wanted and needed. As a team, we put together a meal and made sure that each member of the family had a gift (even the parents). It was a great team building exercise and I know the family we donated to appreciated that Christmas. It is a great way to remind your family that other families may not have all the 'extras' that you may have and that the needs of others are important.
Randomly assign each member of the family to write down three things about a family member that you admire or appreciate. It is important to make sure these are not superficial things like, "I like your hair." Things like, "I know when I'm having a bad day you will always hug me." Or, "I know that you work hard all day at work because that is part of how you care for our family."
The holidays are stressful for a lot of reasons; we are spending extra money, we are seeing family we may find difficult, we have cram additional work into fewer days, etc. The of the most caring things we can do for our families during the holidays is to make sure that we have a little down time and self care time so that we can be loving and patient and really enjoy their company.