Estranged: Navigating Difficult Family Members With Your Kids

cp48c
Illustration by Ray Mullan © UNICEF Turkey 2006

Another holiday season has rolled past, and along with it the complexity of family relationships that is inevitably intensified this time of year. I am or have been in fandom community in a variety of ways, and one thing I noticed is the abundance of family baggage. I don’t know if geeks have a higher rate of issues with their families or not. What I do know is that we create our own kinds of family through our common interests, and that the geeks I know who have become parents have used those passions to guide their family towards (hopefully) more healthy relationships. Maybe it’s the compassion and solidarity we feel with people who are as obsessed and weird about stuff as we are (and obviously I mean that in a good way), or maybe it’s that the stuff we geek out on have a better sense of loyalty, moral code, and guidance than we got. Regardless, we deal with our stuff and we make our own families.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we can move on. For those of us with estranged family members, the holidays (or other important days) can be difficult. At a time when we can sometimes revert into our childhood roles or feelings, those emotions can creep up on us. On top of that, our children get to an age where they start asking questions. So, how does one deal?

My children are old enough to make sense of our family tree. They know that even though they see my husband’s parents less frequently, video calls and letters keep them connected in some way to their grandparents. My mother and grandmother live nearby, and they have built a good relationship, the kind only Italian grandmothers with unlimited food and money tucked into little pockets after every visit can give.

Recently, however, they have started asking questions about my father. It started when they were young, with questions like, “Who is your dad? Where does he live?” I could easily answer them with a name and an, “I’m not sure,” and they would drop it.

Now, however, as they grow older and our own relationships become more complex, they are quite a bit more interested. This year in particular was hard. They wanted to know why they have never met my father, why we never see that side of my family, and didn’t he want to meet his grandchildren?

These questions punched me in the gut. It is not that I don’t have an answer, it’s that the answers are issues I don’t want my children to have to try to understand. The toxicity, alcoholism, and emotional instability that caused me to end my contact with him are not anything my children have any experience with, nor do I ever want them to be exposed to such grief. To them, it makes no sense that a father would not choose their child over anything else and I am so grateful for that. But I still had to answer the questions.

While I have my own ways of dealing with estranged family relationships, I wanted to get a professional perspective, so I spoke with Carrie Katz, MFT, who is a friend of mine and practices in the San Francisco Bay Area. She reminded me that children can bring us to levels of growing we were previously incapable or unwilling to do, and therefore the focus should be on what kind of message you want to pass on to your kids when talking about estranged or difficult relatives.

She recommends staying positive and keeping issues between adults, since our children are not responsible for healing our relationships, nor does it do children any good to internalize people as wholly good or evil.

It is a “sign of health and maturity to hold a person as not all good or not bad,” says Katz, and our energy is better spent modeling compassion and the way in which you want your children to process and talk about the behavior of others. This can be extremely difficult, regardless of how much work, processing, and/or healing someone has done. While it is human to be triggered by family dynamics, even as adults, we need to remember, for the sake of our kids, to act from our adult self, rather than acting from the activated child within us. There will always be a perceived imbalance of power. While this is really normal, Katz says, we must set boundaries and hold them. Not just for ourselves, but because our children are watching and learning from us on how to build healthy relationships.

Unfortunately, sometimes it is impossible to keep your children out of the conflict. Difficult relatives may try to exert their aggression through their interactions with your kids. In this case, boundaries are essential and immediate. If a relative is aggressive or hostile, or negative in any way to your child, you can talk to your him/her about the fact that that person has difficulty in their communication, for example, and that it is not a reflection of anything in the child. This is a concept that you can continue to talk to your kids more about as they get older, and it aligns with the idea above that people are not all good nor all bad, but that some people have something going on internally that makes them lash out or treat others inappropriately. This doesn’t condone the behavior, but it does offer some perspective and perhaps a sense of acceptance.

If you (and your kids) know you cannot change someone’s behavior, and it may be possible that they can’t change their own behavior either, then you can approach any interactions with this person as informed and ready to enforce the boundaries that are comfortable to you. Katz points out that you will be giving your children a blueprint for how they can deal with negativity in other people later on in their lives, which is bound to happen at some point. Setting firm boundaries from a clear place will be a skill they will inevitably be able to draw on in the future. If they can feel you backing them up, it is likely they will be able to borrow and internalize your strength as they grow.

In social occasions, it is important to establish what the child’s relationship to this relative is and differentiate your own issues. What would feel like success? Is either person actively open and trying for reconciliation? Children often give us opportunities to change relationships for the better. “Our most difficult moments have the potential to be moments of growth,” says Katz. “They allow us to stretch, not just for ourselves but for our kids. These moments can be the catalyst and result in relationships that change for the better.”

That sounds delightful, but what about in cases where there is no hope of reconciliation? There are times when it is appropriate to draw the line when the physical or emotional safety of you or your child is in question, as in some cases of abuse. In those situations, says Katz, there is no perfection, but there can be a personal shift of acceptance and peace around the death of a relationship. “It’s important for us adults to take a look at our grief around these kinds of relationships,” Katz gently reminds. “What is unresolved can inadvertently be passed on to the next generation.”

Here are some tips Katz and I came up with to keep in mind:

  • Wait for your children to ask questions, and keep your answers developmentally appropriate. In general, fewer details and more focus on what makes a healthy relationship and how to care for oneself.
  • Older children are able to understand the concepts of bullying and mental illness, but continue to use your own judgement on how many details you give, especially if the child has a good relationship with this person.
  • It is OK to feel sad or angry and to name those emotions to your kids. It is not OK to make them feel responsible for cheering you up or fixing your relationship issue.
  • If you (or your child) get too emotionally overwhelmed or triggered by someone, think carefully about any interactions with this person. If seeing them cannot be avoided, set a limit on time, setting, expectation, and whatever will help you make it through the occasion. Also, remember that kids pick up on our anxiety, so do whatever personal work is necessary to hold your patience and calm. It is like being in an airplane and needing to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you can help others.
  • You can only control yourself. I know I said this before but it is very important.
  • Set firm boundaries and keep them. Your children are your own. Any boundaries or rules you set around them are also to be respected and held.

Like I said before, my unscientific observations have led me to notice that many others in geekdom have similar experiences to my own, and we tend to choose our family in fandom, especially as we grow our own. We choose people like us, who understand us, who share our passions. This is a wonderful opportunity to explore without children what family means and what are your family values. Just like in families of blood, we have to be able to recognize patterns of unhealthy behavior and accept that all families of all kinds have disagreements. But the act of choosing your family and your community is empowering and can be the kind of example of healthy relationships that will benefit your children their whole lives. The act of choosing to moderate or end a relationship can also be empowering and healthy, and how we approach talking about any of these choices will become their inner voice. While it’s difficult, it’s necessary, and out of all this complexity and struggle, we emerge stronger and changed for the better.

So in the end, I told my older kids what they wanted to know in the simplest way I could. I told them it had nothing to do with them, that the estrangement we have in our family is my way of protecting them, and that I do not regret any decision I have made thus far in the matter. And what I got back was love. They appreciated my candor, they were sad about my experience, and they expressed gratitude for my boundaries. It is my hope that they will remember those things as they grow older and are navigating relationships on their own as adults. I have put on my oxygen mask so I can put on theirs.

Get the GeekDad Books!