I am writing this a few days before Christmas. This is the time we are supposed to spend time with loved ones. Typically that means our family and our friends.
But what do you do about contact with family if your parents or other family members maltreated you?
For many people this is a complex issue. Often, you’ll have lots of mixed feelings about it.
One the one hand, you may have lots of reasons why you want to spend time with your family.
You may crave that close family feeling— especially if you didn’t have it growing up.
You have probably also been told you need to forgive to move on. To you, that may mean spending time with those who maltreated you.
You may care deeply about the person who maltreated you, or the person who didn’t protect you. You may want to show them the kindness you didn’t receive.
There are probably also other family members who you want to spend time with, and you may feel that you have to “take the bad with the good”.
On the other hand, there may be other reasons why you want to stay away.
It is easy to fall into a family pattern of silence and denial. You may be invited to pretend the abuse didn’t happen, or wasn’t “very serious”. That kind of minimizing can be very hurtful to you.
You may also feel very hurt and angry, and have a hard time tolerating being around denial, and perhaps even ongoing abusive behaviours.
It is also likely that spending any prolonged time in an unhealthy family system triggers you back into earlier behaviours. You may start to act in ways you don’t like and say things you’ll regret.
Many adult survivors of childhood abuse talk about how long it takes to recover from family visits.
So, how do you balance all these conflicting feelings and thoughts? How do you decide what kind of family interaction is best for you?
Deciding How Much Contact to Have
Ultimately, no one can decide how much contact you should have. That choice is yours to make. Here are some questions that can help you sort it out.
First, is it safe?
Is your family free of abuse now? If you bring your children to see their extended family, are you sure they are safe? Do you get belittled, put down, or demeaned when you are with family? Do others get treated poorly?
Do you start to engage in harmful behaviours, such as alcohol or substance misuse?
If it doesn’t seem safe—for you or others— then it is almost always best to not go. The harm to you will likely overshadow any benefit.
Second, do you feel good after the visit?
Do you feel refreshed and relaxed, reflecting back on the enjoyable time you had? Or, do you feel tense and irritable? Or maybe you feel tired, spaced out, depressed or anxious?
If the visit is causes you distress, it may be a good idea to at least minimize the time you spend with your family. Instead of going for a three-day visit, maybe a short lunch or dinner will suffice.
Third, how is your family climate?
Have the people who maltreated you taken full and genuine responsibility for their behaviour? Have they made amends? Have they begun their own healing journey? Are you able to have honest discussions about your feelings and experiences now?
If you are fortunate enough to have this kind of family, visits are likely to be positive, supportive, and helpful. All of us make mistakes. The main things are to take responsibility and do the hard work to change.
If your family is no longer overtly abusive, but there are all kinds of under-currents about blame and denial, you may want to consider avoiding or minimizing contact.
Please know that is totally ok to choose to not spend time with your family. It is also ok to limit the time to what works for you. When you were little, you didn’t have choice in what happened to you. Now, you can reclaim that control.
Also, planning time for self-care afterwards is important. This may include therapy, time with supportive friends, time in nature, or something else that reinforces who you are today.
If you are struggling with making good decisions about your family relationships, I’m here to help. Please call me or use the pop-up box to book a free consult. I look forward to hearing from you!