Joe Biden, his ignored grandchild and the pain of family estrangement
President Joe Biden still won’t publicly acknowledge his seventh grandchild − and it’s struck a nerve among his supporters and detractors alike.
Several Biden supporters in Philadelphia recently told USA TODAY the president’s refusal to publicly mention his 4-year-old granddaughter in Arkansas, whom his son Hunter Biden fathered out of wedlock, while still talking about his other six grandchildren doesn’t sit right with them.
Unfortunately, family fractures, including estrangement and disownment, are not uncommon experiences, and they can have debilitating effects on one’s mental health and wellbeing, experts say. Chelsey Cole, a psychotherapist and author, estimates over half her therapy clients have experienced a break in their families − a pain that she says can be extraordinary for all those involved.
“Research suggests that the same parts of the brain that process physical pain also process emotional pain, so being cut off or isolated or betrayed or rejected or disowned by your family physically hurts,” she says, adding that isolation and loneliness brought on by family estrangement put people at higher risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease and cognitive decline.
The mental health toll of family estrangement
A family can fracture for a lot of reasons; a marriage that some members don’t approve of, a feud that went unresolved, substance abuse that hurt those in its wake.
Therapist Gregorio Lozano III says the pain of family abandonment is a primal one, originating from humanity’s earliest ancestors. It’s stressful and upsetting both for the person who has decided to end contact with a certain family, but especially for the person on the receiving end of that behavior.
“When we experienced a rejection from the tribe, that meant a life or death situation,” he says. “Now, we don’t have that aspect, but we still have the emotional trauma that can result from that.”
For many, family is a core part of one’s identity. When someone is disowned or kept from having a relationship with their family, it can undermine their sense of self and self-worth.
“A lot of our identity is tied up into our family: ‘Who are my parents? What kind of family do I come from? What do we believe?’ ” Cole says. “When there is this discord or disconnection or fracture in the family, it affects people to their core.”
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Family estrangement can also lead someone to believe that something is “fundamentally wrong with them,” Cole says, which can impact the other relationships they have throughout their life.
“You just never feel like you fit in. You don’t know where you belong,” she says. “In relationships, you consistently wonder, ‘What did they mean by that? Are they mad at me? Why did they say that? Did I do something wrong?’ You’re constantly wondering, ‘Is this relationship OK?’ You’re constantly taking the emotional temperature of the relationship.”
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How to heal from a fractured family
If you’re struggling with the pain of your family being estranged, therapists offer the following advice:
- Seek therapy: Family fractures can bring on all kinds of mental health concerns that are best treated by professionals.
- Feel your feelings: Allowing yourself to acknowledge a feeling can be healthier than repressing it, Lozano says. “It’s more of what we do with those feelings that matters.”
- Build an identity outside your family: Finding passions, hobbies, community and values outside of family can help build self-worth and self-efficacy, Cole says.
- Reflect on how your family fracture may be affecting your other relationships: It’s important to take stock of how feelings brought on by a fractured familial relationship may be impacting your other relationships, says psychiatrist Dr. Dion Metzger. “When there’s an issue within our family and we feel estranged, it does affect how we approach our relationships, our romantic relationships and our friendships,” she says.
- Find healthy relationships: For people with fractured families, Cole stresses the importance of “finding other healthy relationships where you do feel seen or you feel appreciated and supported and connected.”
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