NEWS Mental Health News Estrangement Hurts, But Chosen Family Can Help By John Loeppky John Loeppky LinkedIn Twitter John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds. Learn about our editorial process Updated on January 31, 2023 Fact checked Verywell Mind content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication. Learn more. by Zerah Isaacs Fact checked by Zerah Isaacs Zerah Isaacs is a biomedical research associate with experience in both academia and industry. While attending SUNY Albany Zerah investigated the behavioral mechanisms of PTSD. Zerah is currently a research associate at a biotechnology company providing client-based technical assistance on various research projects. Learn about our editorial process Share Tweet Email Print Maskot / Getty Images Key Takeaways Estrangement is a common occurrence in American families.Spending time with chosen family and creating space for new definitions of family can help alleviate those challenges. Estrangement, as it is most often referred to, is when family members cut off contact with their close relatives. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including discrimination (such as homophobia and transphobia), trauma, and a radical disconnect when it comes to someone's values. For many who are estranged, this disconnect means leaning on members of their chosen family, a group of self-selected people (often friends) who fill those more familial roles. A 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that chosen family dynamics have a significant impact on the healthcare experiences of queer and transgender adults. The authors found that this was an area where more education and research can and should be done so that practitioners can better understand chosen family connections. Having a Broken Family: What It Means and How to Cope Estrangement Is More Common Than You Think Estrangement isn't a rare phenomenon. A 2022 series of YouGov polls found that over a quarter of the Americans they surveyed were estranged from a member of their immediate family (most often understood as parents, children, spouses, siblings, and grandparents/grandchildren). Jennifer Thompson, MSW, spends her work hours as executive director of two National Association of Social Workers chapters supporting her colleagues in Delaware and New Jersey to provide care to those in need. She is also, like many Americans, has chosen to limit the time she spends around much of her family of origin. Thompson discusses her experience with estrangement over the winter holidays, a time when family dynamics for those who are estranged tend to come into focus. “When we were sort of just, like, conservative versus liberal we could come together, but when relatives are actively supporting harmful policies that take away the rights of my children, my husband, my daughters. I find it very difficult to go and share space because I don't feel safe. We fundamentally disagree on individuals' human worth,” says Thompson. Jennifer Thompson, MSW When you're actively supporting harmful policies that take away the rights of my children, my husband, my daughters. I find it very difficult to go and share space, because I don't feel safe. We fundamentally disagree on individuals' human worth. — Jennifer Thompson, MSW A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that adult children are four times more likely to be estranged from their fathers than their mothers. The same study found that instances of estrangement were not only heavily gendered but also heavily racialized. In their results, Black and Latino adult children were more likely to be estranged from their fathers than their white counterparts. With so many facing difficult decisions and turning to chosen family and support networks for help, mental health practitioners are keen to share that there are strategies you can use to make these situations more comforting. The Holidays Are Especially Hard One common hurdle those who are navigating estrangement have to clear, particularly when it comes to family gatherings is society’s expectations of the holidays—and not just the ones that happen in wintertime. Dr. Candice Tate, MD, of Magellan Health, says that holidays are a tender time for those facing a host of traumatic experiences that can lead to estrangement. “On one spectrum we could just say, estrangement comes from family disagreement, family discord, and toxic family environments. But on the other end of that spectrum we're talking about abuse and neglect, substance problems, we're talking about grief and loss,” says Tate. Tiffany Chang, PhD There is the societal expectation that the holidays are supposed to be the happiest time of the year and you're supposed to spend them with family. And oftentimes, when, from a societal expectation, we're talking about family it is talking about biological family. — Tiffany Chang, PhD That pain can become even more acute as someone who chose estrangement as a form of survival–for one of a multitude of reasons–has to listen to the dominant messages of the holidays. As Dr. Tiffany Chang, PhD, clinical strategy lead of mental health equity at Modern Health puts it, it can be hard to manage your own comfort when the world is telling you to want something you can’t or don’t want to have. “There is the societal expectation that the holidays are supposed to be the happiest time of the year and you're supposed to spend them with family. And oftentimes, when, from a societal expectation, we're talking about family it is [focused on] talking about biological family.” Experts agree you shouldn't be limited by narrow definitions of family. Spending time with chosen family can be just as valuable as time with biological family, but it's important to recognize some potential hurdles. The Importance of Family Love Chosen Family Can Offer Support Part of the dynamics at play within chosen family systems, especially when boundaries are new, can be confusing for both the person being supported and the support system. Dr. Devin Dunatov, MD, who works primarily as an addictions psychiatrist with those in recovery at Burning Tree, says that members of a chosen family structure shouldn't put too much pressure on themselves. For him, this is especially true when someone’s addictions may have complicated their relationship(s) with their biological family. “For the chosen family to just be a support, a listening ear, and really that open, non-judgmental availability is one of the best kind of postures that I think to bring to a relationship like that.” Thompson, for her part, says that building new traditions, whether they’re around food or otherwise, can help bolster relationships at the holidays that exist outside of more typical structures. For Chang, another possibility is volunteering or finding a way to give back to your community which allows you to feel an additional sense of purpose. One concern of some who find themselves as part of a chosen family is that they’ll say something wrong. Dunatov says one of the areas supportive members need to think about is the societal pressure to want estranged friends to reconnect with their family of origin. He says that estrangement often follows the typical grief cycle, including stages of sadness and anger, and that it’s important to hold space for the fact that reconciliation may never come. “If you are a chosen family member or a support, I think it's also important to recognize that encouraging reconciliation, connection, may not be best for everyone…while it may come from a good place, I think it can also potentially lead to more harm than good.” Says Dunatov Thompson says that there are a number of questions you can ask your new chosen family member to help them feel more comfortable. “Really being open to one another and having an initial conversation about, like, ‘We want you here, we want you to feel supported. What can we do to make this a meaningful, and good, and supportive space for you? How can we make it better? Are there things that you have loved about your family traditions that maybe we could bring into our space? Could we do something that would make this feel meaningful to you?” says Thompson She also says that giving chosen family members the lay of the land when it comes to a celebration–like sharing when a typical meal time will be–can help relieve anxiety at a time of year when things like therapy appointments can easily get disrupted. “There's no right or wrong answer. Not everybody is going to look and feel the same, but that dialogue can really be beautiful and make sure that the person is as supported as they possibly can.” What This Means For You If you are estranged from your family of origin, whether that's because of politics, abuse, addictions, COVID precautions, or some other complicating factor, you are far from alone. If you're part of a chosen family structure that is supporting someone who is estranged there are tools and strategies you can use to create the safest space possible for your new family member. 'I Hate My Family:' What to Do If You Feel This Way 3 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. YouGov America. All on family: ties, proximity, and estrangement. Jackson Levin N, Kattari SK, Piellusch EK, Watson E. "We Just Take Care of Each Other": Navigating 'Chosen Family' in the Context of Health, Illness, and the Mutual Provision of Care amongst Queer and Transgender Young Adults. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(19):7346. Published 2020 Oct 8. doi:10.3390/ijerph17197346 Reczek R, Stacey L, Thomeer MB. Parent–adult child estrangement in the United States by gender, race/ethnicity, and sexuality. J of Marriage and Family. Published online December 2022:jomf.12898. By John Loeppky John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist Online Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.