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  • Writer's pictureGeorgina Sturmer

Family estrangement: coping with conflict and crisis

We all know the phrase, 'you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family'. Some of us are fortunate enough to have balanced, caring relationships with our relatives. But for others of us, our families are the scene - or cause - of a whole host of difficult and complex feelings. We often see this play out in fictional families on screen, or in the lives of celebrities. Last year, I commented here in Metro about the emotional toll of family estrangement. And more recently, I've commented here in The Independent about how we cope with a crisis within an estranged family.

If we are estranged from our family, what happens when we are faced with a family crisis? Family crises have the capacity to heal existing wounds or to exacerbate existing problems.  The extent of the impact will depend on the state of our relationships with each other, the nature of the crisis itself, and our own personal sense of security and self-esteem.  

The thing about family crises is that we don’t always handle them from what we might consider to be our ‘Adult’ state.  This isn’t about our age, it’s about behaving in a rational, confident way, and communicating what we need.  Family relationships have the capacity to pull our strings and trigger our ‘Inner Child’.  This can return us to painful emotions from the past, and trigger old reactions, like outbursts of anger, silence, fear or panic.  This can return us to our childhood grudges and feelings.  This is particularly likely if we are feeling vulnerable or struggling with our self-esteem.  

By contrast, a family crisis can sometimes offer us a way to lift ourselves out of old patterns of behaviour.  If we are able to stay in our ‘Adult’ state, and express our needs in a balanced and confident way, then we have the potential to rewrite scripts, to heal rifts and change how we view ourselves within our family.  

Similarly, when siblings are estranged, family crises can offer two alternative paths.  It can reinforce our underlying feelings towards each other, our anger, jealousy, frustration or fear.  Or it can allow ourselves to gain perspective on the fragility of life, and encourage us to reconcile.  

This will often depend on the reasons for the initial family rupture.  

Family dynamics, and managing a crisis with our parents. When we manage a parental crisis, it often requires us to step into a new role.  To care for our parents, in a way that they may have cared for us.  This can feel soothing, to be able to ‘return the favour’.  But it can also trigger latent feelings of frustration or sadness, if we haven’t had a positive relationship with our own parents or siblings.  We might struggle to work as a team with our siblings, or we might argue over what’s expected of us.  Particularly if we have different resources available to us, or if we live in different locations.  

Caring for our own parents opens up a new set of fears and worries about life and ageing and fragility.  It requires us to face up to our own mortality, and that of our loved ones.  And this might not feel like a welcome set of feelings.  

If it feels hard to set your differences aside, my main piece of advice is this.  When you look back on your life, will you feel regret at the way that you behaved and the decisions that you made?  This gut feeling, more than anything, is often a useful guide as to how to cope with these situations.  

Keen to explore more? In counselling we can take a deeper look at your relationships and how you interact with other people. Click here to contact me, or click here to book a 30-minute introductory call.

Family estrangement: coping with conflict and crisis

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