Can We Talk About Family Estrangement?

Grandparents Should be Careful About Choosing Confidants

grandparents need to talk about family estrangement
Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Being estranged from family members can make you miserable, especially when you are a grandparent who doesn't get to see your grandchildren. But sometimes talking about it doesn't make you feel any less miserable. Sometimes it makes you feel even worse.

Deciding to confide in someone is difficult and stressful, but if you make the leap, you want the outcome to be positive. Read on to learn more about the safest places to tell your story.

Why It's Risky to Confide

In Hidden Voices, a recent study of estrangement, 68% of those responding said that there is a stigma around estrangement that makes talking to others difficult. "I think people are really afraid of the idea of estrangement," one participant wrote. Another reported, " ... if I said anything about my kids not talking to me or that I don't see my grandkids, it usually killed the conversation ..."

Another participant said, "I think people are also afraid that they may lose contact with children and grandchildren. They don't want to imagine it ..."

Learn more about the Hidden Voices study in A Breakdown of Family Breakdown.

Sharing With Friends, Acquaintances and Colleagues

Not surprisingly, those surveyed were most likely to share their stories with close friends. Also, they found sharing with close friends most beneficial, with 89% labeling it as "very helpful" or "somewhat helpful." A very different profile is revealed in regard to acquaintances and colleagues. About half said that sharing with these less-close contacts was "somewhat helpful," but only 10-13% said sharing was "very helpful," and 36-38% said it was "not helpful."

Although respondents were appreciative of a listening ear, the responses they craved included two other categories: emotional and practical support, and reassurance and understanding.

Sometimes those confided in responded by ignoring the information or distancing themselves from the person, responses that those surveyed found unhelpful and hurtful. Other negative responses included dismissal or disbelief and blame or judgment.

Seeking Help From Professionals

Those enduring family breakdowns sometimes seek professional help. In the Hidden Voices survey, seeing a counselor or therapist was reported to be very helpful by 54% and somewhat helpful by 34%, whereas only 12% reported that it was not helpful. The picture was more complex for general practitioners and religious leaders, for whom the most prevalent response was that they were "somewhat helpful." The police and social workers were also found to be somewhat helpful by many — 42% — but an almost equal percentage found them unhelpful — 37% for social workers and 41% for police officers.

Although reviews for family practitioners were mixed, seeing a family doctor can be a valuable first step if you have a good relationship with your physician. Pastoral counseling can also be helpful, but much depends upon the personality of the pastor, priest or rabbi and any existing relationship that the two of you may have.

When estranged family members come into contact with social workers and police officers, it's usually because those individuals have an official role to play. Depending upon the circumstances, this may place them in a supportive role or in an adversarial role, which will affect the way they are perceived.

Looking for Support Online

Online help can be a godsend, but it also carries risks, especially if you seek support in an online forum. Online sites tend to be plagued with trolls — commenters who say things with the intention of hurting and stirring up controversy. Other forum participants may not fall into the category of trolls, but they may feel freer to say hurtful things than they would in a face-to-face conversation.

Another hazard of online groups is participants taking sides. In a forum designed for talking about estrangement from adult children, for example, the participants may side with the parents or with the adult children, and the posts may become very heated. 

Some online groups are public — anyone can participate — and some are private. The private ones can be safer, but only if they have diligent moderators. It's always a good idea to read lots of posts before you decide to leap in. If you find posts that are combative, hate-filled and generally unhelpful, get out and don't go back. And, of course, never share private information on any site.