Seven Tips for Supporting a Friend who is Estranged from Their Family

There are many things that make family estrangement challenging. I’ve detailed three reasons here to provide a bit of context before we dive into ways that you can support your friend.

  1. The reason for the estrangement itself: Generally, people do not choose estrangement lightly, and estrangement is often reflective of long-term conflict or traumatic events that have unfolded, such as sexual or physical abuse, neglect, familial mental health issues, emotional abuse etc.

  1. Stigma and Guilt: In a 2015 report Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood, 68% of adults estranged from one or more members in their families believe that there is stigma around family estrangement. They cited fears or judgement and assumptions of fault or blame as a source of shame. Sometimes, even when people know without question that estrangement was the most healthy choice, they cite feeling guilt that they’re estranged from their families. We’re wired for connection - and often, our families are the people we’re physically closest to growing up - which means we often turn to them for connection. While just one example, when youth grow up in an abusive home, they internalize their maltreatment as reflective of an internal flaw and a truth that they may be unloveable - rather than recognizing their parent as abusive. Later, if estranged, it may be challenging to shake some of those deeply ingrained internal beliefs, even if they’ve come to intellectually understand them as untrue.

  1. Family estrangement is not recognized as a loss: Though research around family estrangement is not extensive at this point, many specialists consider estrangement a “silent epidemic,” as it is often not discussed openly. There is often significant loss and grief associated with family estrangement. However, this is often not recognized by those who don’t have personal experience with estrangement.

So, what can you do?  Great question!  Here are seven tips!

  1. Remember them during holiday seasons: Birthdays and holidays can often be a challenging time for people who are estranged from their families. Holiday seasons often emphasize family togetherness and connections, which can serve as a painful reminder for those who don’t have those connections. If you can, send your friends a message on holidays to let them know that you’re thinking about them, coordinate a friends holiday party, or invite them to celebrate with you.

  2. Remind them that they’re loved: Sometimes, those who are estranged from their families struggle with shame and stigma around not having family - which can lead to feelings around being unloveable. While they may intellectually know they’re loveable - they may feel deep pain around not having love from family members in the ways that they want/need. We all like to know that we’re loved and seen by those who we care about - and your friend who is estranged from their family is no exception!

  3. Don’t push reconciliation/Respect Their Reasons: Estrangement is not a decision that is easily made, and there is almost definitely more to the story that you may be aware of. Whether or not you fully understand why someone is estranged from their family is not important. It is, however, important that you don’t push your own ideas on your friend about what “should” happen with their family. If they want to reconcile with their family members - they may choose to do that. But, pushing reconciliation will likely just lead them to feel unheard, dismissed, or shamed. Often, people push reconciliation due to their own distress. They imagine how sad they’d be to not have contact with their family - and they want their friend to have that same type of love and support. However, the estrangement is an indication that their family does not function that same way. Your friend would also likely love to have healthy family connections. But, their family is not likely able to provide that - or they’d be in contact with them. While likely well intended, pushing for reconciliation is strongly discouraged and not helpful.

  4. Listen to their grief: Listen to your friend talk about their sad feelings about being disconnected from their family. Remember that sadness about the disconnect does not indicate that they should try to reconnect. Reflect back what you hear, and just try to listen: “That sounds so hard.” Or “Im so sorry that you’re hurting, I’m happy to listen.”

  5. Don’t walk on eggshells about your own family: You’re allowed to have a happy family, even if your friend doesn’t! Chances are good that they don’t want you to censor sharing that with them. You’re allowed to be annoyed with your family members, and allowed to be happy with them! You don’t have to censor with your friend who is estranged. Just try to avoid statements that imply that the estranged friend is “lucky” to not have to deal with family. (See #7)

  6. Relieve yourself of feeling responsible for solving the issue: Sometimes, when people listen to others talk about estrangement, they feel sadness for their friend, as they find great joy and comfort in their own family. Sometimes, this sadness can lead people to feel like they want to try to “solve” the issue by either pushing reconciliation or trying to problem-solve the issue with their friend who is estranged. Unless your friend specifically asks you to engage in problem-solving with them, go ahead and relieve yourself of the responsibility of fixing their estrangement. They’ve likely been dealing with their family struggles for a while, and it is important that your friend doesn’t feel like they need to manage your sad feelings about their family situation - as they’re already managing plenty with their family.

  7. Avoid “if it makes you feel better” or “at least you…” Often, well meaning friends might remark that the friend who is estranged from their family is “lucky” because they don’t have to deal with family drama. Or, they may remark “If it makes you feel better, my mom/uncle/grandma…” However, these types of statements are rarely helpful. Chances are almost guaranteed that it does not make the person who is estranged feel any better. Instead, try to acknowledge their grief. And sit with your own discomfort that you may feel in knowing that your friend is suffering. Often, “holding space” for someone can be challenging, and many people are quick to try to say/do things to alleviate someone’s feelings. While it isn’t inherently bad to think about reducing someone’s suffering, some of our most common ways of trying to do this aren’t as helpful as we’d like. It is often more helpful to sit with your friend and give them a supportive space to process their emotions/thoughts.

Finally, thank you for your interest in supporting your friends who are navigating challenging family situations! Questions? Reach out!

The Important Conversation No One Wants to Have: Handling your Neurodivergent Teen's Burgeoning Sexuality

Parents, teachers, and caregivers frequently ask me for advice about managing the burgeoning sexuality of their pre-teen or teen, particularly when these teens are neurodivergent or have an intellectual disability.

Adults are (understandably) particularly concerned when this blossoming sexuality includes inappropriate behaviors, or concerns about the teen being taken advantage of.  This blog will break down four key aspects to keep in mind, and a useful framework to bring it altogether as you navigate this period with your teen or pre-teen!

Four Key Things to Keep in Mind:

1.Normalize this phase/our bodies: Adults often panic when their teen starts demonstrating sexual development. It is important to remember that this is normal.  Very normal.  If you’re like most adults, you’re likely not all that comfortable talking to teens about sex and sexuality. However, it is incredibly important that you are able to be clear and specific with your teen as they navigate this life phase. Biologically, most of us are wired to go through puberty, experience sexual arousal, and to feel attraction.  Regardless of whether your child is neurodivergent or has a cognitive disability, it is very normal that they’re experiencing puberty and the developing sexuality that goes along with it.  As you think about your teen and how to address this - keep this in mind.  

While you don’t necessarily need to discuss it with your teen - you likely went through some of these things yourself, and you’re a great resource of information!  As you’re navigating this with your teen, it may be important for you to assess your own thoughts and perspectives about sexuality and sex, particularly as it relates to teenagers.  Often, the messages that we have around sex/sexuality are the things we were taught by our own parents.  Consider whether the messages you learned growing up are the same messages that you want to pass along to the teens in your life.  (i.e. If you were never comfortable talking about sexuality with your parents, and you understood that it was a taboo subject for them - do you want your child to feel that same way?)

2. Teach Clear Boundaries Without Shame: Often, well-meaning adults end up inadvertently shaming their teens for their sexuality, which can create long-term issues for the teen, and teach the child that the adult is not a safe resource to seek out when they need support.  Our goal should be to provide clear directions without shame. As we’re helping our teens to know what is normal - be mindful about communicating these elements to the teen without judgement.  Even if you need to set limits with your teen, be sure that you’re communicating to them that a behavior may not be welcome at a specific time, or in a specific place…but that this does not mean they are “bad.”

3. Pro-actively talk about puberty and sexuality:  Having conversations *before* a big issue arises is important.  Yes, your teen may stare at the floor and pretend the conversations aren’t happening.  But, I promise they’re listening.  You may be here because an issue has arisen, and you’re trying to figure out what to do.  And, don’t panic - it is never too late!  But, it may be a good idea to make a list of what you want your teen to know about sex/sexuality/puberty, and then identify what you need to teach them in order for them to know each of those things. 

4. Shrink their world as necessary: If a teen is at-risk, either of acting out towards someone else, or being taken advantage of - it is our job to ensure that our kids stay safe.  We may need to “shrink their worlds” until we can guarantee safety.  

Okay - you may agree that these things make sense, but be wondering what to do if you run into any challenges (inappropriately timed self-stimulation, for example).  We’ll get into that now! A useful framework that we can use when considering issues around sexuality is the What-Why-What-How Model, which includes asking the four questions below:

  1. What happened? (Just the facts)

  2. Why did it happen? (Try to understand the youth’s perspective/worldview)

  3. What do we want to have happen?

  4. How can we encourage that to happen? (What do you need to teach? What skills does your child need to learn?)

This model help us identify how we need to handle an issue that we might be encountering. Imagine that a teenager is engaging in self-stimulation of their genitals in a classroom setting.  

Your instinct may be to quickly tell them that that isn’t okay, and that they need to stop.  And, you’re not wrong - that behavior isn’t okay in that specific setting, and setting a boundary around that is important.  And, yes, acting quickly makes sense. 

 But, if we actually want to address the deeper needs and engage in teaching what *is* okay (and when it is okay), we need to drive deeper, and be sure that we’re understanding and addressing the actual elements that need our attention in this situation.

  1. What happened: The teen was engaging in self-stimulation in a classroom setting.

  2. Why did it happen: We may not entirely know. In short, likely because it felt good, and the teen either thought they could be sneaky, or doesn’t understand the full ramifications of engaging in self-stimulation in a public setting. (They may not understand that it could be considered predatory, or that it should be a private activity)

  3. What do we want to have happen? Ideally, the teen understands that self-stimulation is an activity that is done in a private space, at an appropriate time.

  4. How can we encourage that to happen? Many ways! There are several things that may need to happen here:

      1. The teen may need education about what they’re doing (they may not fully understand, depending on the teen)

      2. The teen may need information around when/where the appropriate place is to engage in self-stimulation (“Johnny, it is normal to be interested in exploring your body. However, touching your private areas/penis/genitals is something that should only happen when you’re alone in a private space, such as a bathroom or your bedroom at home.”

      3. Depending on the teen’s cognitive functioning, this conversation may vary. It may be a back-and-forth conversational exchange. Or, it may be a conversation where you express a limit/boundary to your child, and shape their behavior like you would for any other behavior.

      4. For a while, it may mean keeping the teen’s world “smaller” while they learn and master the skill of “right time, right place.”

Lets try another one.  Imagine that you have a teenage boy who is routinely approaching peers and making sexual remarks at school.

  1. What happened: Johnny approached several peers at school and made remarks about their bodies, and made comments about what he would sexually like to do with them, when they had clearly not consented in these types of remarks or this type of dialogue.

  2. Why did it happen: It is important to sort this out. Perhaps Johnny finds these peers attractive, but isn’t quite sure how to navigate that. Perhaps he needs some help understanding how to appropriate build connections with peers of all genders. Perhaps he needs some education around consent, and genuinely doesn’t understand that what he is doing/saying is inappropriate. Maybe has has difficulty managing his impulses and knowing which thoughts to keep to himself. Maybe he is trying to copy behaviors/words he has seen others deliver - but isn’t understanding the nuance of what has has seen others do. Each of these challenges require a different approach, so it is important that we understand what skills might be missing for Johnny.

  3. What do we want to have happen? We want Johnny to understand what is/isn’t appropriate, and to discontinue making inappropriate and unwanted remarks towards his peers. But, even more deeply, we want Johnny to know how to appropriately build the relationships that he wants to have in a way that works for everyone involved.

  4. How do we do this? First, we need to assess what Johnny does/doesn’t have in the way of skills to more appropriately navigate his sexuality, conversations with peers, or to express his interest in others. From there, we want to provide him with teaching to help him find mastery in navigating puberty and his growing sexuality. Does Johnny need to know that this behavior isn’t okay? Absolutely - 100%. And also, we need to help Johnny know how he *can* actually work towards expressing himself in an appropriate way and building connections he is interested in having, and we need to help him learn to manage his impulses around this.

Navigating puberty/teenagehood is a complicated time!  While teenagers often pull away from us during this time (which is quite normal!) - we need to be sure to provide continued problem solving and support for them during this important time!

This ensures that we’re helping to teach our teens to become adults we want to share the world with!

Questions? Reach out!

Your Origin Story: How Past Experiences Shape Who You Are & How You Connect

Even if you’re not a comic book buff, you are likely familiar with the idea of origin stories - the backstories that inform the motivations and actions of both heroes and villains.  While you aren’t likely an alien on this planet, a “chosen one,” or the victim of a lucky accident that left you with superhero powers, the life that you have lived has informed who you are now, and how you connect with the world around you. Understanding a bit more about your own origin story - and how your brain has made sense of it - will serve you as you move forward.

Our brains do a lot of work behind the scenes, and they’re often collecting and sorting data that we soak in as we move through the world - even when we’re not cognitively aware of it.  Our brains look for patterns and assemble this information in a way that is useful for our daily functioning.  For example, if you walk into a room and see a chair that you’ve never seen before, chances are still pretty good that your brain will recognize it as a chair, and consequently, you’ll know how to interact with it. 

While this seems simple, this function of “schematic sorting” serves us greatly.  Mostly, it saves us from having to re-explore everything in our surroundings every time that we encounter it - which is a huge time saver.  Outside of concrete objects, our brains perform this same schematic sorting process as we make sense of our relationships and place in the world.  

This is how our schemas - or core beliefs - are created.  

Imagine for a moment that there is a child named Bailey who is told repeatedly by an abusive parent that they aren’t worth much. Over time, Bailey will come to believe that to be true, and this belief will influence the way that Bailey moves through the world.  

Once we have a belief like this, another function of our brain kicks in and enacts confirmation bias.  This is the part of our brain that seeks to find corollary evidence that reinforces the facts that we already know.  This means that Bailey is going to pay more attention to situations that reinforce the idea that he isn’t worth much, rather than situations that challenge that belief.

It isn’t hard to see how a child who is told they’re worthless would likely come to believe it.  But, it isn’t just the explicit messages that become internal beliefs, and it isn’t just kids who have abusive parents who are impacted by the past they’ve lived.

Imagine a student named Aiden who is on the honor roll and well-liked by their peers and teachers.  Their parents praise them when they do well, and they take them to celebratory dinners after they bring home each A+ report card.  They star on their soccer team, and are often praised for their good behavior and attentiveness to others. 

So, what did Aiden learn about themselves and the world?  Maybe that hard work pays off? That they need to perform well in order to be liked and receive attention?  That paying attention to other people’s feelings is useful or important?  It is hard to definitively say - and only Aiden would be able to tell us. There is not one set of blueprints that spells out the learned belief for each situation that someone might encounter.

But, regardless of what Aiden learned, we can guarantee that it impacts the way that they move through the world now and connect with others.  

Your mind may be reeling at this point trying to assess your own internal beliefs (or what beliefs you may be passing on to your children).  Working with a therapist can be a great way to help you sort through these beliefs and to make sense of your experiences.

In the meantime, a few things to consider:

  • Do you believe that others see and value you?

  • Do you have a natural “default” way that you interact with others? (i.e. being a people pleaser, a bully, or a pushover etc.)

  • Do you have beliefs about what you deserve

  • What do you believe you need to do to keep other people connected to you?

  • Do you feel like you’re too much? Not enough?

However you answer these questions, you can be sure that the answers impact the way you connect with others.  While you’re not likely heading out to save the world, your own origin story holds a wealth of information about who you are today.  Bringing awareness to your history and your  core beliefs is a great first step to better understanding yourself and your relationships - and I’d argue that self-work and intentional relationships are pretty heroic in their own right.

Questions? Thoughts? Reach out!

Lacy Alana, LCSW

One Bump Away: The Legacy of Trauma

As a child, I spent many afternoons replaying the same two vinyl records on the dusty gramophone that sat shoved into the corner of my first home's den. There weren’t many options, so I switched back and forth between One Eyed One Horned Flying Purple People Eater and Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, the songs with the catchiest tunes on their respective records.  Recently, when preparing a training about what happens in the brain when we experience trauma, I reflected on how apt of a metaphor records are for the way that we develop patterns and recall experiences in our brains and bodies.

Like a 45 played over and over again, repeated experiences wear a metaphoric groove into the brain.  This groove signifies the same thing that it does on the record —that this song (pattern) has been visited and re-visited frequently. If a record player is bumped or jostled, the needle is likely to skip from wherever it currently is into the deeper groove, jumping to play that most-played song.  Even if you pick a different song - when it ends - the needle is likely to hop back over to the deepest groove to again replay that most-played song.

For people who’ve had a lot of good experiences, this is great news!  The deepest grooves reflect “songs” of safety, support, and security.  If the needle jumps over to play the song with the deepest groove, it will likely be a pleasant one.  And, though bumps may come along, the positive songs are likely to prevail and dominate the soundtrack.

On the other hand, if you’ve experienced sustained trauma, your most familiar song may be one of deep pain.  It may be linked to the mobilization pattern of “fight, flight, or freeze,” and it may be connected to sadness, anger, shame, hurt, or abuse.  Being unexpectedly and repeatedly “bumped” into these familiar songs is far from ideal. 

If you've ever been with someone who has a complex trauma history (or perhaps you yourself do), you may be familiar with the seemingly sudden shifts in mood and affect that can pop up unannounced.  This may be reflective of the person having slid into an old “trauma song.”  This may elicit a variety of responses, including  flashbacks or dissociation, moods shifts, or changes in thinking patterns that influence the way that someone perceives and understands themselves and the world around them.

As we experience the world, especially as children, we develop schemas -  internalized beliefs about ourselves, the world, and our place in it.  Our brains are excellent at making meaning and creating frameworks to help us understand what we experience.  When those experiences are good - we learn that the world is a good and safe place.  We learn that we have inherent value, and are loved, and deserve love.  

When those experiences are full of abuse or neglect, we learn that the world is unpredictable,  that people don't mean what they say, that something bad could happen any moment, or that we don't have any inherent value.  Sometimes, it may be obvious when these schemas have been activated (such as when having a flashback).    Other times, your schemas may have been activated, but it may be more subtle. 

So, what do we do with this information?  Great question!  Here are four things to keep in mind:

  1. Stabilize and shore up: If you put a record player in the back of a truck and drive down a bumpy dirt road, it is highly likely that your needle won’t stay put. Similarly, if you know you’re going to be in a highly stressful environment, or dealing with something that is tough - be prepared that your needle may skip to your trauma song. Be gentle with yourself, take care of yourself, and be compassionate. Consider the things that you might be able to do in order to stabilize your system in advance. For people with complex trauma histories, it can sometimes feel like they’re driving down a bumpy dirt road all the time. The more that we’re emotionally regulated and taking care of ourselves, the more likely we’re able to recover, prepare, and make choices that support consistency and stability. Sometimes, we need to use a bumpy road to get where we’re going, but consider whether there may be ways to drive more slowly, blaze a new path, or to take care of yourself along the way.

  2. Identify triggers: Work to identify and recognize situations that will be hard for you. This may sometimes be easy and obvious, and other times, you may have to do some sleuthing to get to the bottom of how you ended up with your trauma song stuck on repeat. Just because you associate something with a negative experience now doesn't mean it has to stay that way forever, especially once you understand what is cuing up the trauma song and are able to tackle it head on. A good therapist can help you sort through these patterns so that you can build new ones.

  3. Recognize when your needle has skipped: Sometimes, this will be obvious (hello, flashback), and other times it won’t be as clear. Learn to identify the signs that you’ve entered a replaying of your trauma song. This will help you identify causes and risk-factors, and will help you develop a game plan for getting back to the other music.

  4. Celebrate new patterns: As you experience new patterns and different outcomes, it means that you’re playing new songs on your personal record. As you continue to have non-traumatic experiences, healthy connections, and successful moments of coping - those grooves get deeper and deeper, and will eventually overtake the trauma song as the deepest groove. Celebrate the wins and victories, and don’t forget that change doesn’t happen overnight. The trauma song got there through hundreds of repetitions, and sometimes years of experience. Even when you understand this cycle, it takes time for the positive experiences to catch up. Whenever you can, take time to enjoy the other music.

Want to learn more about developing new patterns? Or supporting folks who are working on that?  Reach out!