How to Deal With Estranged Parents During the Holidays

by Kathryn Rateliff Barr Google

    Family estrangement can lead to sadness and a feeling that things are incomplete around the holidays, especially when many of the advertisements revolve around family. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas can be especially painful for people who are estranged from their parents. You can use the holidays to restore the relationship with your parents or create family traditions of your own.

    Step 1

    Make peace with who your parents are and don’t try to change them. Accept that they aren’t perfect and can hurt you without meaning to do so, counsels Joshua Coleman, a family estrangement psychologist and author of “When Parents Hurt” and “Helping Parents Heal.” Assess the reason why you are estranged, such as divorce, remarriage, past abuse or influence from your extended family or a spouse. Determine if you want a relationship with your parents and if the relationship can be something positive in your life. Initiate healing if the relationship can be healthy for everyone involved, such as getting together at Christmas, making contact on Mother's Day and Father's Day or having them over for Thanksgiving.

    Step 2

    Make contact with your estranged parents and ask for a time when you can get together to talk without interruption. Perhaps you can get together a few days before everyone arrives for Christmas or visit alone after everyone else goes home. Coleman suggests that you set some goals and guidelines for the meeting that everyone can agree to follow, such as saying, “I want you to hear me without trying to answer” or “I know this isn’t easy for you, but I’d like to hear your side.”

    Step 3

    Avoid placing blame or accusing your parents of creating the situation, even if you feel they did. Express how the situation makes you feel and what it will take to make things better, such as writing letters more often but limiting face-to-face encounters to a small number each year, such as at Christmas or Thanksgiving. If you feel that a stepparent is trying to keep you and your parent apart, suggest that you meet your parent for lunch in a neutral place without the stepparent.

    Step 4

    Take responsibility for what you did to create the rift, such as being too quick to judge your parents or listening to one parent after a divorce and deciding the other parent was at fault. Listen to your parent and decide if there were factors you didn’t know about or if someone skewed your perspective. You might have reacted to things as a child that you now understand and see more clearly as an adult. Extend forgiveness and open the door to reconciliation if you see that you can reconcile and create a stable relationship. Suggest opportunities to slowly work things out, such as sending cards on Mother's Day or Father's Day or attending church together at Christmas.

    Step 5

    Decide to create your own family traditions for the holidays despite the rift. The relationship may be too toxic or even impossible to repair if, for example, the parent is abusive, trapped in substance abuse, refuses to reconcile or has died. So instead, celebrate the healthy parental figures, on Mother's Day and Father's Day, who helped to shape your life for the better. You can also write a letter to a dead parent to excise the hurt and move on. Do things for yourself that you wish your parents had done, such as taking in a sports event or being there for your own kids.

    Tip

    • You don't have to rebuild a toxic relationship. Sometimes the best that you can do is to accept that the relationship is unhealthy and move on.

    About the Author

    Rev. Kathryn Rateliff Barr has taught birth, parenting, vaccinations and alternative medicine classes since 1994. She is a pastoral family counselor and has parented birth, step, adopted and foster children. She holds bachelor's degrees in English and history from Centenary College of Louisiana. Studies include midwifery, naturopathy and other alternative therapies.

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