Estranged from family? This is what it can do to your mental health

As children and young adults, family is at the very core of our development.

So, if you have a troubled relationship with one or both parents, it can have a knock-on effect on who you are as an adult.

Marie Yap, the associate professor of psychology and lead at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health at Monash University, explains that young people can experience estrangement – especially from a figure as important as a parent – as a deep rejection.

She adds: ‘Research has clearly shown that perceived rejection from parents increases young people’s risk of mental health problems like depression or anxiety disorders.’

Counselling Directory member Georgina Stumer points out that estrangement is painful for everybody involved – even a person who chooses it.

‘Family relationships are at the core of how we see ourselves, and how we interact with others,’ she goes on.

Below are a few ways it might affect a person’s mental health in the long-term…

Sense of belonging

Not having a stable family environment can have a knock-on impact on the way we feel we fit in the world.

‘Our family of origin offers us a sense of belonging, of community,’ says Georgina.

‘If we are cast out from that family, or choose to separate ourselves, then we lose that sense of belonging. This can impact on our sense of identity and make us question who we are.’

Guilt and shame

There’s a lot of stigma associated with estrangement, and the guilt of that can be hard to handle.

‘There might be a sense of guilt that we caused the estrangement,’ says Georgina, ‘or that we didn’t do everything in our power to keep the family together.

‘We might feel embarrassed when other people find out that we are estranged from our relatives. This can all lead to a sense of shame that we have done something wrong because we are bad, or because there is something fundamentally wrong with us.

‘This can weigh heavily on how we feel about ourselves, on our own self-esteem.’

Regulating emotions

Marie says getting love and guidance from a parent is hugely important to developing children – it helps them build important independence as well as social, problem-solving, and emotional self-regulation skills.

She adds: ‘If that is the only parental figure in the child’s life, such estrangement is similar to child neglect and/or abandonment – which can also increase the young person’s risk of mental health problems.’

Unhealthy coping mechanisms

If we don’t feel like we can get unconditional love and support from our family, we can end up looking for it elsewhere to mixed results.

‘Sometimes we can find this by building other, nurturing communities of support,’ says Georgina.

‘But if we don’t find this support, then we might end up developing less healthy behaviours or habits while we are searching for our needs to be met, or to numb the pain that we feel.’

Trust issues

It’s hardly surprising that, if you find you can’t even trust your parents, you can easily start to feel like you can’t trust anybody.

‘Estrangement can be a sign that we are building healthy boundaries and looking after ourselves,’ Georgina points out.

‘However, it might have a lasting impact on how we interact with others.

‘We might find it hard to trust and show vulnerability. Or we might desperately seek out connection, potentially putting us at risk of being manipulated.’

What can we do about it?

All of this isn’t to say that you’re broken or damaged forever – even if it might feel that way sometimes.

You’ve been through something incredibly hard, but there are things you can do to cope with it effectively.

Georgina has put together some advice:

  • Recognise what you need. If you can’t get your needs met by your family, think about how you can get your needs met elsewhere.
  • Don’t push your feelings away. Maybe you’re angry, sad, happy, frustrated, liberated, or embarrassed. It’s likely to be a whole mixture of feelings. Seek out a way to explore and express them.
  • If things are unlikely to change, consider what you “need” in order to accept the situation, or to gain some kind of closure for yourself. Do you fantasise about a conversation, an outburst, an altercation where you really get a chance to voice how you feel? Consider whether this is possible – or whether it would deliver the outcome that you’re looking for. If the answer is no, then reflect on how you can accept this.
  • Prepare yourself for family gatherings. It’s not easy. Remember this: you can’t control what other people do or say, but you can control how it makes you feel.’

Degrees of Separation

This series aims to offer a nuanced look at familial estrangement.

Estrangement is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and we want to give voice to those who’ve been through it themselves.

If you’ve experienced estrangement personally and want to share your story, you can email [email protected] and/or [email protected]

Do you have a story to share?

Get in touch by emailing [email protected].

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