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How To Find Peace And Acceptance Amid Estranged Family Dynamics This Holiday
Love & Relationships

How To Find Peace And Acceptance Amid Estranged Family Dynamics This Holiday

As a child, my favorite childhood memories happened during the holidays. Whether it was Thanksgiving or Christmas, my house was the house my aunts, uncles, and cousins came to.


Christmas in a Caribbean household is full of laughter and vibrance. I remember my father playing his soca, calypso, and parang on vinyl. I remember my brother and I wine down the whole living room. We loved to dance, and we liked to cut up. I remember my mother would start cooking from the night before.

I would wake up to the aromas of freshly baked bread, fry bake, ham, brown stew chicken, curry goat, callaloo and rice, dahl, macaroni pie, and roti---all the traditional holiday foods of a Trinidadian household. I had thoroughly enjoyed being around my family during the holidays. And I truly miss those days.

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Navigating estranged family dynamics is a reality for many during the holiday season.

AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

As I transitioned into a young adult, the holidays started to look a lot different for me. Life happened – my uncle, brother, cousins, and I all moved out of state. So, while my mother’s house was still the gathering spot, not so much anymore. And it wasn’t because of physical distance. But because of distance, something else became more visible even though it was always there. My home environment was subject to strain and tension among family. Yes, I have already stated my mother, and I never had the best relationship. However, this type of strain was before I came into this world.

Some family members have gone for years without speaking, and to this day, I couldn’t even tell you why. What I can say is pride, jealousy, ego, and envy ruin every single thing, including familial relationships.

At the time, I was too young to understand. I was told to “mind my business.” But I will say the notion of family not speaking in my immediate family was and still is a generational and/or repetitive cycle. An off-and-on type of thing where nothing is ever resolved – but hidden and buried. When you’re a child, you don’t notice these things at all. As an adolescent, you notice but you avoid asking questions to not add fuel to the fire.

As a young adult, you take mental notes, but you avoid addressing the issue. And as an adult when you finally leave your home environment, it is then you start to fully understand. You realize certain behaviors that you were surrounded with were completely toxic, unhealthy, and definitely not normal.

I imagine there will be a few women who might feel triggered as they read this but surely will relate, as their family dynamics may be similar.

This holiday season, let's take a look at the true definition of estranged family and how other women, including myself, navigate the holidays with estranged family dynamics, create new traditions, and find peace.

What Is Family Estrangement?

Psychology Today describes family estrangement as something that occurs when at least one family member begins distancing themselves from another because of longstanding negativity in their relationship. Causes of estrangement vary – this includes abuse, neglect, bullying, unaddressed mental illness, lack of support, destructive behavior, and substance abuse. It could also look like a parent not agreeing with a child’s sexual orientation, choice of spouse, gender identity, religion, and/or political views. This includes sibling estrangement, too.

According to an article from The Conversation, 27% of adults experience family estrangement that either they or another family member initiates. The article further emphasizes family estrangement is a process that is ongoing and varies in degree.

It is voluntary, intentional, and based on ongoing issues. It is not a particular event or outcome. My therapist states, “In my professional experience, estranged families are often in adults that experienced developmental and/or childhood trauma by one or both primary caregivers and/or other relatives that may have been closer, or when they realized that these relationships are toxic, unhealthy, or damaging to them.

"These adults have set boundaries expressed verbally or with their behaviors for their well-being and mental health. Taking this decision can be difficult for many and tends to happen after years of trying to navigate the challenges, disappointments, and upsetting interactions. For some, having clear limits about how they will continue some sort of relationship, making these changes, and being consistent suffices. For others, this estrangement is absolute.’”

Estranged Family & The Holidays

When undesirable family dynamics exist, it’s never easy. It is difficult AF. Whether you are the person who initiated the distance or on the receiving end of it. And I want more people to understand this. Regardless of whether it is the holidays or not – dealing with estranged family dynamics can be a constant emotional torment that may never end. You’re constantly longing for a reality that could never be true. For something you do not have.

Over the past 13 years, I have always spent holidays with my uncle, cousins, and friends as I live out of state. Despite a non-existent relationship with my mother, a conditional relationship with my brother, and a stable relationship with my father, I managed to find family in friendship.

As a child, I always felt lonely within my immediate family. So, from an early age, I gravitated towards others as a means of survival. Whatever emotional needs that my immediate family was incapable of giving, I was able to get from uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends.

woman-sitting-on-couch-with-Christmas-decorations-and-wrapped-presents-in-her-hand

Even if you're experiencing family estrangement during the holiday, choose to make joy the center.

Image by Milko/Getty Images

Last year, for the first time in years, the holidays were not something I looked forward to as my parents divorced after 40 years of marriage. I just couldn’t get into the holiday spirit at all. What little family I was holding on to was officially gone. At least, I felt this way. How the hell do four people become somewhat strangers? I had to find a way to grieve and/or cope with my reality despite my family and friends' opinions. Because at the end of the day, it is my reality and mine alone. I had to realize my decision to not communicate with certain family was for my own protection from dysfunctional, hurtful, and unhealthy behaviors.

My process for coping involved journaling, talk therapy, and connecting with friends who have similar family dynamics to mine. But this year, during the holidays, I chose to make joy the center of my life.

Krystal, 35, V., 31, and Kendra, 37, share what the hardest part of the holidays is for them and how they have coped with their feelings and reality over the years.

Krystal: “Having to re-establish boundaries, particularly with certain family members. As much as I would desire to have a 'typical' family holiday that I can spend with my mother and brother, it's just not possible, and the anxiety is triggering knowing I have to reiterate that I have set my own traditions and should not nor will jump through hoops in order to make others happy when there is no respect, to begin with.”

V.: “The hardest part about holidays for me over the years were the times when I didn’t have anyone to celebrate with or spend the day with – it felt really lonely and isolating.”

Kendra: “The hardest is seeing the families around you come together. Seeing them be a family and a happy one at that. Being envious and wishing you had that. I still get that way occasionally, but it's a very small thought.”

​Finding Acceptance & Peace In Estranged Family Dynamics

I am not sure that acceptance and peace is something that is truly absolute when it comes to one’s own family. As children, we are socialized with the notion of “family first” and “blood is thicker than water.” What if the importance of family is not those things? I think we ignore the percentage of people that have family dynamics that bring more hurt than love. But if peace is absolute, it definitely takes time to get there simply because we are human. We are meant to feel, and we feel every single thing.

You can be triggered by the smallest of things – holiday movies or seeing other families doing holiday activities together. Yet, secretly wishing that your family can be that family. However, it takes a level of self-awareness to catch your triggers and thoughts, and reprocess them.

For me, I found acceptance and peace by learning how to accept my family and making peace with who they are. Also knowing it’s not going to change. It’s not on me to fix or do anything because I am not responsible for the dynamics at play.

Here is how Krystal, V., and Kendra found acceptance and peace with their families.

Krystal: “Journaling and therapy are vital. Making sure I do not compare my family dynamics with other families during the holidays and reminding myself to be present as opposed to looking at the past or future. Holidays do not have to be negative if your family dynamics are not what you would hope for. But also allowing myself space to grieve and process because you need to give yourself grace.

"Moving on and establishing boundaries is a lifelong process, especially when you come from a culture (Hispanic) that pushes heavily on family first, even if they are narcissistic and toxic. You have to be willing to accept that some family will not accept your decisions.”

V.: “Lots of healing work around my childhood trauma, reprogramming, and compassion. While also discovering my needs and learning to vocalize and enforce my boundaries.”

Kendra: “My family is messed up, and I chose to kick them to the curb. I wish I had different circumstances, but I don't, and I accept that I don't like these people, that I want nothing to do with them. I am very happy with my decision. It takes a while for some to accept that or get the courage to be on their own. Don't be afraid. Just fly!”

​Self-Care & Wellness During The Holidays

Social media and media in general portray holidays as the most joyous time of the year. We see this in posts, Reels, commercials, television, and movies. It’s all around us in public places, at restaurants, and at holiday parties. The messaging and emphasis is always on the concept of family, love, warmth, togetherness, and creating memories. Again, what they get wrong or neglect is the percentage of people who may be unable to enjoy the holidays because of their family.

This is where self-care and wellness practices come into play. People who are navigating unfavorable family dynamics have the right to put themselves first to protect their mental health. It is not an act of selfishness to choose not to be around family for the holidays.

The intention is not to offend or hurt other family members, even though outside opinions may view your decision this way. In an article published by Monarch Therapy, it is stated that you must honor boundaries, own your feelings, recognize triggers, be compassionate to self, and engage in a self-care routine when it comes to how someone deals with their family.

Acknowledgment of self and wellness practices are key to coping and healing. This looks like being mindful of your thoughts, allowing yourself to feel, processing your feelings, and creating a routine you enjoy. As I mentioned previously, I practice all of the above not just during the holidays, but daily. And I think this is what makes holidays easier for me even though I have my moments.

Self-care around the holidays for me is allowing myself to process how I feel regardless of how uncomfortable it is, choosing to be around people I feel happy and emotionally safe with, and doing whatever makes me feel good. Whether that is lighting my favorite scent candle, binge-watching my favorite holiday movies, or making my favorite holiday treats.

Krystal, V., and Kendra explain how they handle their triggers and what self-care looks like for them.

Krystal: “Making little traditions for myself and those around me who are supportive and whom I consider family, as well as making sure to keep myself open to doing new or non-traditional holiday activities, also help. Yoga and moving my body have always been important, so incorporating movement such as walking outdoors to see a tree lighting ceremony or a winter art festival are other forms of self-care I like to implement.”

V.: “Giving myself permission to always do what’s best for me and my mental health. Knowing that at any moment, I can choose to leave a space that I feel isn't serving me. Also, giving all the parts of me extra love and comfort.”

Kendra: “I do what I want. I have a great partner that I lean on if I need it, and vice versa. He's way more into the holidays than I am, so he tries to bring all the cheer that I'm not a big fan of. I like making others happy, so I’ll be all festive for him.”

​Creating New Traditions

The holidays are strongly tied to tradition, values, and societal and/or cultural norms regardless of where you are in the world, especially in America. With that said, I find at least in America more and more people are getting away from tradition. They are choosing to celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas through non-conventional choices. There are a number of reasons for this, too.

However, in an article byThe Atlantic, it is stated that there has been a shift in American family values, and this is the underlying cause of family estrangement. We as a society fail to realize the rules of family life have changed in the last 50 years regardless of how we try to hang on to tradition. And for people who struggle with being around family around the holidays — they are opting to do their own thing and create new traditions for themselves willingly.

I am still navigating through what new holiday traditions look like for me as a single 38-year-old woman with no kids. Ideally, I’d like to travel to different countries to spend the holidays there, and I have before.

I spent Christmas in my parents' home country of Trinidad as a child and as an adult. In 2020, I spent Christmas with a friend in Jamaica for a friend’s birthday. I loved every second of it.

However, this year, I proudly decorated my fireplace with a mini garland, gold beads, and red and white mini stockings. I put up a mini-Christmas tree with gold, silver, and bronze metallics. So, I guess I will start there.

Krystal, V., and Kendra share what holiday traditions they are creating for themselves and their family.

Krystal: “I just had a child, so focusing on giving him and my partner and being able to pass on the experiences and traditions I would have enjoyed is big for me. I still want to maintain cultural traditions such as Three Kings Day, which now, with a child, I can find a way to make it our own. I had already implemented a holiday ornament to add to the Christmas tree yearly that represented the year and all that has happened as well as going to a winter festival or tree lighting festival is also essential.

"A new tradition we are starting this year comes from Iceland where you gift each other a book to read and spend that evening (usually done Christmas Eve but could be done anytime) reading together.”

V.: “Some new traditions I am creating for myself are reminding myself that it is just another day and the day has whatever meaning I choose to give it. And just like any other day, I can spend it with whoever I choose - whether that’s my birth family, friends, or no one but myself.”

two-women-at-a-restaurant-laughing-together-over-something-funny-on-their-phone

The holidays do not have to be a painful or lonely experience for you. Know that you are never alone.

Image by PeopleImages/Getty Images

Kendra: “I surrounded myself with friends, and they turned into my family. I have a nice group of them. Thanksgiving, I go to a few houses, eat, drink, socialize, and I'm truly happy. My 'real family' isn't even a thought. Christmas, however, was ruined for me early on, so I don't celebrate in a traditional way. I don't do presents. I think it’s a tradition that should be broken. I will bake sometimes and give them to people. Mostly, I do the same thing as Thanksgiving.”

With all this in mind, I want to say the holidays do not have to be a painful and/or lonely experience for you. But I wholeheartedly understand that if you are still in the process of making peace within yourself surrounding an estranged family.

There is no doubt you are going to feel all the things. It is more than okay. And it takes time. Your truth is your truth. Your experiences are valid.

Please do not let anyone tell you differently. You do not have to feel obligated to do anything or go anywhere. This includes forcing yourself to be around family and responding to texts and calls from estranged family if you do not want to. You can choose to hold space for estranged family in a different way.

By doing so, you are choosing to protect your mental health and choosing not to relive unpleasant memories. Ultimately, you are choosing not to repeat an unhealthy cycle. Instead, you are creating new moments and memories for yourself.

When asked what advice Krystal, V., and Kendra would give to other women who are struggling with estranged family dynamics during the holidays, this is what they had to say.

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"Life throws us so many things, especially us. We can choose to dwell, be pissed or we can choose to find the little good things."

Image by JulPo/Getty Images

Krystal: “Remember that it's okay to grieve what you do not have but to focus and stay in the present. You have made it this far, and no one should shame you for establishing boundaries and taking care of yourself. Above all else, therapy is something that even if you have dismissed in the past, give it a second chance.”

V.: “Tend to yourself – love on your inner child/inner teen, whatever part of you that may be feeling the most affected. Figure out what you need – whether that’s to attend or host a Friendsgiving because you want to celebrate with others, or making your own dinner and having a movie night because you want to feel comfort. Know that you are never alone no matter how lonely a moment may feel.”

Kendra: One of my favorite quotes from Viktor Frankl is, 'Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.' Life throws us so many things, especially us. We can choose to dwell, be pissed, or we can choose to find the little good things. Pick yourself up and do whatever it is you are wanting.

"Yes, it's better with people who love you and you love back. So love yourself first because everyone is worth self-love, then go out and find the people that love you and you love. Whoever it is. We are born into a family, but we choose who ends up being that family.”

The key takeaway here is to always remember you deserve to feel a sense of happiness, peace, and joy – holidays or not. This holiday season, I encourage you to partake in all the things that fill your heart with love, warmth, and goodness.

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