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Family Estrangements: What You Need From Therapy

When coping with family estrangement, here's what to look for in therapy.

Key points

  • Family estrangements can be extremely painful, prompting many to seek therapy.
  • There are very few studies on what is helpful and unhelpful for individuals coping with estrangement.
  • Researchers have identified three helpful (and three unhelpful) therapeutic approaches with clients dealing with family estrangement.

Family bonds are believed to be unbreakable and permanent — even sacred. Yet in recent years, it has become apparent that both adult children and parents are choosing with increasing frequency to have minimal or no contact with family.

Since family estrangements go against our core assumptions of what we expect from those with whom we are supposed to be most close, they can give rise to feelings of loss, sadness, grief, and stigma.

Unsurprisingly, many estranged individuals seek therapy in order to cope with their distress. But what is most helpful and unhelpful for estranged people in counseling?

This question was the focus of a study led by psychologist Lucy Blake of the University of the West of England. In order to pursue this line of inquiry, she and her team recruited participants who belong to Stand Alone, a UK organization that provides support to those who are estranged from at least one key family member. The team gave respondents a survey that posed two open-ended questions:

  1. What kind of external help and support have you found particularly useful or helpful?
  2. What kind of reactions from external help and support have you found unhelpful and/or hurtful?

Once these questionnaires were completed, Blake and her team conducted a thematic analysis of the data.

So what did the researchers find?

The results were striking. An overview of helpful and unhelpful experiences in counseling is broken down below.

Helpful Experiences in Counseling

1. Feeling supported

Participants most commonly felt that their therapists were supportive. In particular, they felt supported in their decisions surrounding the estrangement as opposed to suggesting that they take some other course of action. This was especially true when it came to choices around initiating or continuing an estrangement or an attempt to reconcile with their estranged family members.

2. Developing insight and understanding

Participants also felt that counseling gave them much-needed insight into and understanding of family patterns. Respondents reported “making sense of” and “coming to terms” with their family situations through the process of therapy. It allowed for a greater understanding of their personal histories, and the nature and quality of familial relationships.

3. Moving forward

The participants also felt that learning tools and strategies in therapy was beneficial. Most salient was finding effective ways to uphold healthy and appropriate boundaries with others, increase self-esteem and self-worth, increase assertiveness, express personal needs and ensure that they are met, increase relationships skills, and cope with grief and loss.

Unhelpful Experiences in Counseling

1. Feeling unsupported

Respondents felt that therapists who pushed them to arrive at a specific conclusion or feel a specific way were unhelpful. More specifically, respondents encountered therapists who gave them specific advice to forgive before they felt ready or capable, to go on medication, to accept that a relationship couldn’t change, to initiate estrangement, and to move forward before feeling ready.

2. Experiencing barriers and blocks

Many participants cited the difficulty in finding a therapist who was a “good fit” for them. It was lengthy, challenging, and a process of trial and error.

One participant shared: “a good [counselor] helped me in becoming stronger mentally and physically and in focusing better whereas a couple of poor ones made me feel worthless and a burden to them—I found these quite damaging and they set me back.”

3. Stagnation

Respondents felt that if therapy didn’t encourage movement toward a solution or resolution, it was unhelpful. Many felt the same as when they had started therapy, and focused too heavily on the past and not enough on the future.

As one participant put it, having "endless discussions with no concrete suggestions” was not helpful.

Concluding Thoughts

Family estrangements can be emotionally wrenching. In addition to the findings described above, respondents appreciated therapists who had specific expertise about family estrangement. Clinicians who embraced myths and ideas about family, such as mothers are always loving and being close with family is always best, were described as unhelpful. As is often said in the therapy world, these clients want their therapists to meet them where they are. For them, it made a positive and vital difference.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

The Counseling Experiences of Individuals Who Are Estranged From a Family Member. Lucy Blake, Becca Bland, Susan Imrie. Family Relations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Science. Volume 69, Issue 4. October 2020. Pages 820-831.

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