Family estrangements are more common than you’d think.
First of all, being estranged from members of your family-of-origin may seem to be the exception rather than the norm, and while that may be factually true, over the years, I’ve come to believe that estrangement – be it the exception – is still a reality faced by more people than probably any of us know.
For example, according to 2015 research done by The University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research and the UK non-profit Stand Alone, it appears that 1 in 5 British families have some sort of estrangement within them.
And this study of US mother-adult child pairs found that about 10% of mothers were estranged from one adult child.
A 2015 study by Richard Conti that was based on college and graduate students, primarily female, showed that more than one-quarter reported extended estrangement, while close to 44 percent reported being estranged at some point.
And, for added context, I want to mention that Tara Westover’s incredible, megahit 2018 book – Educated – clearly struck a nerve, not only for its sensational story but also, I suspect, for its resonance at some level.
And while the population who seeks out relational trauma recovery therapy with me is self-selecting and thus disproportionately inclined to experience estrangement within their families of origins, I’ve heard enough stories from a wide enough range of people over the last decade to cement my opinion: family estrangement is much, more common than most people realize.
But still, despite it being a relatively common experience, it remains a sorely under-discussed subject (sidenote: I’m doing my best to change that!) and so, when it comes to parenting, many of us who live with family estrangement may feel, quite simply, adrift at how and when we’ll appropriately discuss this with our kids.
How do we tell our kids about the estrangement in our family?
“How do we tell our kids about the estrangement in our family?”
Well, first of all, I want to acknowledge that you don’t ever have to do this if that doesn’t feel right to you.
This – the decision whether or not to talk about the estrangement in your family – is totally subjective much like how you decide to talk about it is also a subjective experience.
Like with all things when it comes to parenting – there’s no one single right and best answer.
As with everything else with our kids, it’s up to you (and your partner if you have one) to gauge what’s best for you and your unique situation.
So, recognizing that I’m not the expert of your experience (only you can ever be the expert of your experience) and recognizing that what I’m deciding to do may not necessarily feel best and right for you, I still want to share one way that we – my husband and I – are actively dealing with this subject with our preschooler daughter in a developmentally-appropriate way.
- Letting her know early and often that families can look all kinds of different ways.
Last Summer, my daughter was in the developmental stage where she was trying to make sense of gender and other social categories in her toddler world (“Boys have penises? Girls have vaginas? Does daddy have a vagina? Do you have a penis, mommy? Girls are women? Boys grow up and be men? Are all babies girls?”).
This sense-making stage coincided with her admission to a phenomenal preschool that had a ton more diversity than her prior daycare had had (where the family constellation of each child only consisted of moms and dads).
In this new setting, some of her new friends now had two mommies, some had two daddies, and some were being raised by grandparents.
So she tried to make sense of this, too.
“He has two mommies? Where’s his daddy? Can I have two mommies? Why he call her Grandma? She his mommy?”
This opened the door for rich, toddler-level conversation and we got to introduce an important core belief of ours: families look a lot of different ways and each way is okay.
As she tried to make sense of this, reconciling what we were telling her and what she was seeing at preschool, she then started asking me and my husband, “You have two mommies? You have two daddies? You love your mommy and your daddy?”
And my husband would share with her, “I have a mommy and a daddy and I love them.”
And I would say, “I have one mommy, no daddy. And I love my mommy.”
“Where’s your daddy?”
“I don’t have a daddy. I only have a mommy. Remember, families look all kinds of different ways and each way is okay.”
It took some repetition for all these nuances to sink in, but now, months later, she’s really internalized this core concept: families look all kinds of different ways and each way is okay.
(She even plays this out with her stuffies and toy figurines, literally telling them, “You have one daddy and you have two mommies and you both lucky!”)
By introducing the concept early and often of families existing in many different iterations, we are (we hope) setting up a more flexible mental attitude for her to understand later on, in different developmental stages, why she doesn’t have some members on her family tree that other kids might see.
- Supporting the idea that friends can be family, too.
Another core belief of me and my husband’s is that friends can be family, too.
When it comes time to make the requisite family tree in grade school, we will support her in including these friends – her Aunties, Uncles, and Cousins-by-choice – on the tree.
We personally plan to legitimize the inclusion of friends in her life and on her family tree and how they count as much as we inherently and without question call the children who have been adopted into our family, family.
Adopted = family. Friends = family.
Back to point number one: families look a lot of different ways and each way is okay.
- Preparing ourselves to explain (and defend) our decisions with extended family, teachers, or institutions that challenge us.
While we hope to always live in communities and educate our daughter at institutions that embody values of inclusivity and diversity, if and when we are ever challenged by others (be they extended family members, teachers, or others) who tell us that our daughter has to list all blood relatives on her family tree – even if they are not a part of our life – and that she can’t list friends, we plan to defend this choice.
If adopted relatives can have a place on a family tree, so can friends.
And gaps are allowed to be on family trees if that’s what we as a family feel is right and good and true and in alignment with our values.
While we may never need to have these justifying conversations, we’re fully prepared to in order to support the reality of our lived experience.
Wrapping This Up…
Of course, because our daughter is only three and both my husband and I have never parented before, we’re figuring out this whole thing – explaining the reality of our families including the estrangements on both sides – as we go.
Building the ship as we’re sailing it, so to speak.
But, even as novices, we’re trying to do so in developmentally appropriate ways and will, of course, continue to refine what we do and don’t disclose as our daughter ages and becomes more developmentally able and receptive to additional concepts (concepts like mental illness, safety, unresolved conflict, etc.).
But, for now, those are three ways in which we personally are laying the groundwork for not only speaking about and helping her understand the estrangements in her family but also helping her have an attitude and embracing of diversity when it comes to family systems as much as it comes to race, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
And, quite honestly, we feel pretty good about what we’re doing.
And look, I’m not saying that we’re the experts. I’m only sharing some of what we’re doing. I share much more in my online course but, for now, I hope that even some of what I shared catalyzed your thinking and left you feeling even a little more validated and seen if you, too, deal with family estrangements and have wondered how and if to explain this to your child.
Now, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:
If you are estranged from family members, how do you explain this (or plan to explain this) to your own children (if at all)? If your children are older, how did what you share change as they grew?
Please, if you feel so inclined, leave a message in the comments below so our monthly blog readership of 20,000 plus people can benefit from your wisdom and experience.
And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.