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Dealing with Family Estrangement: Teens May Be Caught in the Middle

Perhaps you and your sister have not communicated since the most recent presidential election. She no longer wants to visit you. Your teens are very disappointed that their only aunt won’t be there for Thanksgiving again.  And nothing seems to be improving. What if your sister wants a relationship with your kids, so long as you’re not involved?

Broken family relationships are painful and complicated.

4 Tips for When You’re Estranged from a Relative:

1. Model strong relationships.

One of the most important tasks you have as a parent is to teach your child how to build lasting relationships. “You do this partly by modeling good relationships and partly by talking about good and bad choices,” says Christy Monson, M.S., retired marriage and family therapist.

Parent modeling will impact the way kids look at the world. In some cases, estrangement from a family member can be a way for parents to model healthy boundaries and the importance of keeping oneself safe. For example, if the estranged family member is violent, abusive, or has an addiction, a parent may impose some measure of estrangement in order to keep their child safe, Monson says.

2. Be honest.

What if Mom or Dad is estranged from the relative, but the teen wants to pursue a relationship?

Be honest about the cause of the estrangement and communicate that to your teen. Richard Horowitz, Ph.D., founder of Growing Great Relationships, a relationship coaching practice advises parents to share, as fairly as possible, what events created the problem and explain why those issues prevent your reconciliation. “Parents must be clear about whether or not their estrangement issues are sufficient to prevent their teen from pursuing the relationship,” says Horowitz.

Monson says that teenagers are old enough for a nuanced discussion about the strained relationship. At the least it will assist in coping with family estrangement.

3. Put safety first.

Arguments and disagreements among the adults are less important than safety when considering whether to allow a relationship with the relative. “If the estranged family member has a decent life and is doing the best they can, use your best judgment about whether to allow your child a relationship,” says Monson.

Horowitz recommends that if the relationship is not unsafe, assure your teen that you will not sabotage their relationship with the family member.

4. Respect your teen’s choices.

Keep in mind that teens are growing in independence and will soon be making these decisions on their own. Parents’ ability to allow or not allow certain relationships is waning. Discuss your concerns with your teenager.  “Help the child have enough information to make choices that will be good for them.”

Horowitz agrees that parents should try to step back from their own issues with the family member. Accept that your own estrangement is not a sufficient reason to prevent your teen from engaging in a relationship with the family member. “If the issues are not sufficiently compelling to block the relationship, they should allow their teen to pursue the relationship. Try to be respectful of your teen’s choices and don’t interfere with the progress of the relationship,” he says.

Looking for more articles on family conflict?

Horowitz also offers some practical advice. If your teen does decide to pursue a relationship with the person from whom you are estranged, negotiate how you will manage the logistics of the contact between the teen and the estranged individual. For example, will you drive the teen to the relative’s home? Your willingness to support your teen speaks volumes, even if you can’t speak with your family member.

Erin Jay

Erin Jay has been a writer and publicist for authors, non-profits, and small businesses since 2001 (www.flynnmedia.com). She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two children.