Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How to Disclose Family Estrangement or Difficulties

A few of my readers have asked me to address this topic. In my book, the first chapter is devoted to three estranged families. The other families have repaired relationships, but they went through some period of difficulties.

Before you talk with anyone about your situation, consider the reasons for disclosing any information, and that will help you determine what you want to say and which people you can trust, which ones you should avoid.

What would be the reasons to talk about your family situation? One reason for me was that it was more helpful to lead an honest and open life than to keep my pain hidden. I learned that when I shared selective information honestly, I received help and support and kindness through what has been a challenging time. If you live in a small town or have a certain network of friends and family, they may have observed your problems and have been worried about your family.

The most important lesson for me was that I could be honest, protect details of the situation, receive support and learn that I was not alone. That’s a big thing, knowing you’re not alone. It’s helpful no matter what you’re going through in life.

If you decide to talk with others about your family difficulties, be prepared for a wide range of responses. Some people will be sympathetic and share their own stories. Others will want to be your therapist/coach. We all dread those who may judge you harshly, even though your situation may be extreme and may include violence in your family. The truth is, it’s hard to know with some people how they’ll react, but for the most part, you know your family and friends.

The chosen confidants would be people you know are supportive, good listeners, and respectful people. They have to be people you can trust.

The people to avoid are fairly easy to pick: the ones who are usually judgmental, gossipy and/or critical. You know who that is, don’t you?

Because this is information you’re volunteering, you can also pick the time and place in which to share. It should be private – don’t put yourself in a position where people can eavesdrop. And if you find you’re not ready to share yet, don’t do it. This is your information, your pain, and you are not obligated to share anything.

You should be comfortable and ready to share, and that means being prepared for questions. Some people have a lot of questions, others just listen. For those who have questions, consider what kinds of questions they may ask so you’re ready to respond. It’s helpful to provide some resources such as books or websites. This helps demonstrate you’re not alone and gives others additional insights.

If they ask what they can do to help, let them know. Sometimes all you need is someone to talk with, someone to say “I understand” or someone to just say “I’m thinking of you.”

If you’ve been in a difficult family situation and decided to share this with others, what was your experience?


  1. The worst responses I received in sharing difficult family information was when the others responded with a highly anxious, catastrophic reaction. "OMG!! That's horrible. How can you live with that??" The best responses were ones that offered calm hope and allowed me to process the hardest parts. "Difficult, but you'll find a way through this. What is the hardest part about it for you?"

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Joan. The response you created is a thoughtful and helpful response. Next week's blog post is about how to listen with empathy.