How to Get Through Christmas Estranged from Your Adult Child(ren)

Do you prefer listening to reading? There’s a Reconnection Club Podcast on this topic. Click here to listen now:

RC Podcast Episode 161: Getting Through Christmas

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For millions of people this year, the holiday season will not be filled with joy. In addition to those who are currently estranged from family, many others are struggling with depression, grief, loneliness, anxiety, poor health, and/or poverty.

If you’re estranged from your adult child(ren) and feeling out of step with holiday festivities, try not to compare yourself to an imaginary “everybody else” who’s enjoying the season. In reality, you’re not as alone as you may feel.

Still, there are steps you can take to address the very real challenge of facing Christmas* during an unwanted estrangement. Here are six:

1. Accept the reality of the situation. That doesn’t mean you’re fine with estrangement. It only means that as long as you’re estranged from someone you love, it’s not realistic to expect to get through Christmas without feeling some unwanted emotions. You’re probably going to feel bad if the estrangement continues through Christmas, as many estrangements do. So….

2. Embrace your emotions. Although not everyone will have exactly the same feelings, every unwillingly estranged parent who celebrates Christmas will be susceptible to negative emotions at Christmastime.

To cut down on extra suffering, expect the sadness, loneliness, disappointment, embarrassment, or whatever else is whispering to you. It hurts, but it’s not wrong. If a holiday is meaningful to you — and let’s face it, Christmas is a major holiday that’s hard to ignore — and you can’t be with someone important to you, you will have feelings about it. Nothing is wrong with having painful feelings about a situation that’s painful.

The more you allow yourself to feel bad while comforting and caring for yourself, the more room you’ll have in your heart for other spontaneous feelings. Like peacefulness. Contentment. Or even the surprise of enjoyment. Practice Constructive Wallowing.

3. Let yourself off the hook. You may be preoccupied with questions like, Should I send a card? What about gifts? Should I issue an open invitation? What if I’m blocked, how do I reach out? Should I stay home in case they decide to come? Most such questions are unanswerable in the vacuum created by estrangement.

Even though you’re a parent, you’re not required to answer impossible questions or solve unsolvable puzzles to reconnect with your adult child(ren). In fact, you don’t have to do anything about estrangement just because the holidays have come. Christmas is not necessarily the ideal time anyway, to approach the complex task of reconciliation.

Estrangement was not your decision. And unfortunately it has a timeline that doesn’t typically respect special occasions. Give yourself the grace to let go and focus on self-care right now. It says nothing about you as a parent — except that you understand the importance of self-care for parenting.

If you were hoping for an end to estrangement because of Christmas, that’s understandable. Review #2 above.

4. Remove uncertainty, as much as possible. There’s a lot of it, and it’s hard to take: Not knowing what’s going to happen for Christmas; not knowing the “right” thing to do as a rejected parent; not knowing which plans to make or accept; not knowing what an estranged adult child expects from you, if anything. 

To overcome all that painful uncertainty, make a plan you can follow, for getting through Christmas. Wondering and worrying and hoping and waiting is not a good plan, even though it’s sadly what many parents end up doing.

Make a plan that doesn’t ignore your experience of estrangement, but also doesn’t depend on nailing down answers to unanswerable questions, or on receiving responses from adult children who are estranged. Make decisions about what you want to do vis-a-vis an estranged adult child, then turn your attention to your own experience of the season, and keep it there. 

5. Understand what this means (and what it doesn’t). Some parents believe that if an estrangement continues through Christmas, it must be really bad. E.g., “If she won’t respond at Christmas, she never will.” “He used to love family Christmases. I thought for sure we’d hear from him.”

It’s easy to understand why parents may think that way; the holidays are monolithic in our culture, with most other activities slowing or pausing to make room for them. The fact that an estrangement could last right through Christmas seems ominous.

But estrangement itself is a juggernaut. Holidays, including Christmas, are collateral damage more often than not. The depth or severity of estrangement should not be measured by whether it affects Christmas or any other special occasion. Even estrangements lasting a short time and motivated purely by a need for independence may roll right over a family’s fondest Christmas plans.

Being estranged during Christmas means only that you’re currently estranged — nothing more, and nothing less.

6. Focus on yourself. If you’re worried that your estranged adult child might think you don’t love them if you plan on Christmas without them, review the evidence: Does that adult child have a history of complaining that you don’t love them?

If the answer is No, then proceed in peace with your self-focused intentions for Christmas, whatever they may be (see below for an article on planning). Adult children know how to reach out if they want to connect.

If you know for a fact that your adult child doesn’t believe you love them, that problem is too big to tackle with a Christmas greeting. Do your best to express your love, then delve into the problem deeply in the new year — preferably with your individual counselor or therapist first. 

The choices you make before and during the holiday season can affect the quality, level, and duration of any unavoidable pain. You don’t have a choice about this estrangement, but you do have choices within it. No matter how others treat you, you can treat yourself with care and respect. But only if you pay attention to yourself.

Find ways to remind yourself daily this holiday season that you matter. Whenever you think of your estranged adult child(ren), use that as a cue to call yourself to mind. Remember your inherent worth and dignity. Getting through Christmas with a plan for self-compassion, self-kindness and maybe a treat or two, is a good way to show yourself how much you genuinely matter.

*Christmas is the holiday I’m most familiar with personally, but I acknowledge that there are other, equally difficult holidays toward the end of the year for many parents estranged from their adult children. If you would like to contribute an article about another holiday, please see our instructions for guest posts. I’d love to hear from you.

More Holiday Resources

Here are a few more holiday-related resources:

Make a Detailed Plan to Get Through Special Days

RC Podcast Episode 107: Staying Present In Their Absence

Inviting Estranged Adult Children Home For the Holidays

Healthy Giving

It’s Okay to Enjoy Yourself When Your Adult Child Is Estranged

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