Grieving on Mother’s and Father’s Day, When You Don’t Have a Normal Family Relationship

Grieving on Mother's or Father's Day When You Don't Have a Normal Family Relationship. Art Therapy Guelph
Mixed media art by Art Therapy Guelph.

On Mother’s and Father’s Day, people often honor their living or deceased parent with a social media post. However, those with absent, estranged, or dysfunctional family dynamics may find these celebrations triggering. It is difficult when people do not have a normal family relationship. These people are grieving on Mother's and Father's Day. They compare and recount their painful experiences and feel a sense of loss due to their lack of a healthy and nurturing family connection. It is isolating to have a mother or father wound and long for the feeling of parental nurturing and acceptance.

People experiencing this family wound tend to avoid sharing their difficulties openly because the general population (GP) do not get it.[1] There are cultural expectations surrounding honouring one’s parents. However, familial estrangement is often necessary and usually the last resort. The GP may not know the history of the now broken relationship and be invalidating. Typical assumptions are that the decision to limit contact with a family member was hasty, emotional, or based on a single event or quarrel. The GP may think people have similar familial experiences to theirs and families can work every issue out. Typical dismissive things said are that you only have one father or mother, to get over it, it could be worse, you are ungrateful, they did the best they could, there will be regrets if they die and/or they will not be around forever.[2] Sometimes, people do act in haste and have regrets for their actions. Their parents legitimately tried their best with what they had.

However, in dysfunctional families repeated behaviors cause damage to others. There are legitimate reasons to not have contact. Here are examples of reasons people break contact with a family member:

  • Parents have abandoned their child.
  • Parental neglect during childhood, for example, failure to provide food, shelter, safety, emotional nurturing, and warmth.
  • Parents with mental health issues, like antisocial or narcissistic personality disorder.
  • A history of parentification of the child. This is where a child has taken on the role of the parent, which often happens with parents who have addictions, illness, and/or mental health issues.
  • Addictions of either the child or the parent.
  • Physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse.
  • Harmful behaviours such as excessive criticism, lack of boundaries, being disrespectful, and malicious.
  • Engaging in illegal activities, stealing, drug dealing, violence, fraud, and human trafficking.
  • Clashes over values.
  • Fundamental differences and clashes in beliefs around sexuality, religion, and marriage.
  • Lack of caring and support, emotional and physical neglect during childhood.

According to a 2015 research study by the University of Cambridge, past parental behavior can be just as triggering for adult children as parent’s current behavior. People do not tend to judge someone’s choice to sever ties with a physically or sexually abusive parent. However, researchers in this study found that the most widespread reason participants distanced themselves was emotional abuse. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed stated that emotional abuse during childhood was the reason they ceased contact with their mother, and fifty nine percent with their father.[3]

Each person has a unique situation and differing emotional responses. For example, some reconcile and repair their familial relationships and others do not. Some are at peace with the decision to go no contact and others may mourn the loss of a healthy relationship and normal childhood. Some hold on to anger and hurt. People can develop certain attachment styles. For example, people may only trust themselves and not others. They avoid becoming close and attached to others. Some people feel vulnerable and trust connections with others, more than with themselves. They tend to hang on to others. Some develop a disorganized attachment style where they do not trust themselves or others.

Adult children of narcissistic parents develop certain characteristics and coping strategies. These strategies were adaptive at one time. If they do not develop narcissism themselves, they may be able to read the room for threats to be safe. They may become empathic and be able to intuitively sense others’ emotions without speaking. Dr Ramani, a leading expert on narcissistic abuse says that adult children of narcissists tend to have certain traits like being empathic, having PTSD, anxiety, depression, low self esteem, addictions, and lack of self care such as exercise and healthy eating.[4]

In general, childhood abuse can cause PTSD. The greater the number of adverse childhood events, the greater the likelihood a person will have addictions, overeating, lack of self care, health issues like diabetes, heart and liver disease and/or mental health issues.[5] However, healing is possible, but it is hard to do alone.

At Art Therapy Guelph, I use a combination of creative artmaking and other psychotherapy techniques such as mindfulness, internal family systems, CBT, DBT, trauma counselling. I collaborate with clients to help them achieve their goals. Some techniques may be:

  • To teach clients mindfulness and body-based grounding tools.
  • To bring understanding, compassion, and kindness to the parts of them that struggle, contain stored trauma and/or experienced negative life events.
  • To process difficult life experiences in the present and past.
  • To learn how to have healthy boundaries and use assertive communication.
  • To help clients develop a calm curiosity about themselves.

Although I am a psychotherapist, my focus in sessions on blending various psychotherapy approaches with creative artmaking. The art helps with self discovery, exploration, expression, understanding and soothing. It enhances creative expression, discussion and supports people in a way that is gentle, effective, and fun. I have personally experienced and continues to witness art therapy's gentle transformational powers. Art therapy is liberating and healing. My hope is that together, her clients they will process the darkness of their past and paint a brighter future.

For more information about Art Therapy Guelph's services, Heather Caruso's background or to book a free get acquainted chat, go to https://arttherapyguelph.com 

[1] Braithewaite, D (April 2022), When Family Estrangement Can Be the Healthiest Choice... and research on the best way to communicate it. Psychology Today, URL When Family Estrangement Can Be the Healthiest Choice | Psychology Today

[2] Streep, P (May 2021), 8 Things Not to Say to Someone Who's Estranged from a Parent, Psychology Today, URL 8 Things Not to Say to Someone Who's Estranged from a Parent | Psychology Today

[3] Blake, L, Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood - Stand Alone, University of Cambridge, URL HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf (standalone.org.uk)

[4] Durvasula, R, (Jan 2022) Certified Narcissistic Abuse Treatment Clinician (NATC) Training with Dr. Ramani Durvasula. Publisher, PESI

[5] Wisner, W (Feb 2022) What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?, Very Well Mind, URL What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)? (verywellmind.com)

When You Don’t Have a Normal Family Relationship