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Wooden Alphabets

The Educational Series

This series aims to cover a range of topics relevant to the phenomena of estrangement.

Jen Maher  - May 15, 2024 - 12 min read

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Heal the Children Month (May)

Breaking the cycle - Family genogram mapping
Heal the
“Inner” Children Month (Article 2)

Together Estranged is introducing a new educational content series. This initial month will focus on how we, as individuals experiencing estrangement with our families, can work towards healing our inner child. 

Breaking the Cycle: What does that even mean?

 

Part of healing our inner child as individuals estranged from our families of origin means breaking away from what was harmful in our family dynamics and creating distance that allows that wounded inner child to start to feel safe again. The memes and themes around “breaking the cycle” abound throughout social media and especially among forums related to estrangement. Is breaking away from our families of origin the same as breaking the cycle? What is the “cycle”? How do we know what it is or what needs to be done to break it?

 

According to Wikipedia and Cambridge Dictionary respectively, breaking the cycle means “to act so as to end a repeating pattern of harmful or otherwise negative behavior” or “to manage to prevent a series of events, usually harmful ones, from being repeated.” (1)

For those of us who are estranged, implementing this is twofold: first, by preventing ourselves from continuing to be subject to those unchangingly harmful relationship patterns with our families of origin by removing ourselves from them; and then working to prevent those patterns from being repeated and replicated within our own families of choice and creation.

That second part is harder than just removing ourselves from the damaging dynamics that our families of origin refuse to acknowledge or change. We also have to deep dive into examining both ourselves and our families in order to identify what those unhealthy patterns are and how we see them evidenced in ourselves and our family members. Then, it is up to us to actively choose to find, evaluate and then implement different practices and philosophies that can guide us in an ongoing endeavor to create something new and nourishing and for which we have no foundation from which to draw.

So, where to start? Leveraging some of the framework and tools of family systems theory and family therapy may provide a jumping off point.

Family systems theory, developed as part of the family therapy movement, was founded in the 1950s and remains among the models utilized within it’s various interdisciplinary offshoots. (Additional information on Family Systems Theory versus other types of related psychotherapy models can be found here). According to this perspective, the family is viewed as an interconnected emotional unit that behaves in predictable ways via learned and ingrained patterns. These patterns are often shaped by the intergenerational behavioral norms that have been unconsciously passed down and which create ripple effects throughout subsequent family systems.

 

In this framework, the individual is seen as inseparable from their network of family relationships. Any one member’s functioning within that unit is based not only on their individual experiences, personality and traits, but is also subject to the dynamics of the other members, the system itself and its invisible rules between members and member subsets along with the intergenerational history that exerts influence upon it. And that is all before layering on community influences or cultural and religious expectations on family hierarchies, relationships and obligations. It is complex to say the least.

A key question that the estranged family member often faces is: why is it so difficult to change the family system? Why is there such resistance to break out of dysfunctional patterns that are clearly not serving it or its members? The answer is that any system, even a dysfunctional one, seeks to maintain its stability – it’s homeostasis. So even if that homeostasis is unproductive to healthy functioning or to the support of its members, it is what the system knows and will fight to maintain. Members of these dysfunctional systems often not only prefer inertia but will actively and steadfastly resist efforts to move out of that harmful homeostasis and into new ways of functioning.  When other members, whose well-being is most adversely impacted by the system’s dysfunction, try to change it and meet that sustained resistance, that is when they may eventually feel compelled to remove themselves from it, however heartbreaking that decision may be.

 

However, even those that have made the deliberate decision to engage in some level of estrangement, find that they wrestle with the oftentimes riptide-like pull of going back to it because that relationship ecosystem, even though consistently traumatic and harmful, is known and familiar. That attraction to the known and familiar is viscerally compelling even without considering the societal norms and pressures to maintain familial loyalty and obligation regardless of the health of those relationships. Hence, the cyclical nature of estrangement emerges where the initiator moves in and out of different levels of contact with family members - often finding that nothing had changed within the family system during occasions when contact resumes, and then re-asserting estrangement as a result.(2)

One way family systems theory offers to identify the patterns of dysfunction is through family genogram mapping. It is a process of diagramming at least three generations of a family tree, not just from a genealogical basis, but from a relational standpoint as well. It allows for the depiction of the emotional relationships between the family members as well as presence of factors within individuals such as mental illness or substance abuse. Visually mapping out these relationships provides a tangible way to identify key dynamics, influences, traumatic losses, generational patterns and histories of conflict, alliances, enmeshments and estrangements.

There are some resources available to use as a guide to mapping out your own family genome, such as this workbook which provides step by step instructions on both mapping and interpreting your genogram, or through other guides and diagramming tools that are available online (sometimes for a fee).

 

Below is an example of a family genome. Noted underneath that diagram is a key reflecting the select collection of symbols used to identify gender, emotional relationships and conditions. Beyond what is shown here, there are many more symbols that can be used to depict gender or sexual orientations, additional levels of emotional, kinship or romantic relationships, or physical/medical conditions. Besides the basic and select symbols represented below, additional sources can be found here and here to find what best fits your own family composition and dynamics.

 

By visually diagramming your own family system, you may be able to identify where there are recurring patterns of behaviors and relationship dynamics. There are elements that are definitive (a death in the family) and some that are subjective (a relational dynamic one member views as fused but another does not).  You and your family members could all draw the family genogram and have very different depictions. It is a tool for you to use to evaluate your lived experience in that system and identify the patterns - beneficial and harmful - that shaped and impacted it, and what it reveals as cycles to be broken.

The genome mapping process is meant to be contemplative and explorative. It is something to come back to and build upon or reassess as relationships evolve, devolve or change over time. It can be used as a discussion tool with your families of choice/creation about your family of origin, the learnings you have had as you move through exploration and healing, the history of how the estrangement came to be and your vision for the family systems in your life now. 

Another, simpler method of evaluation is a quick APGAR* assessment test around family function (see below). This can be used not only to gauge the family of origin from whom you are estranged, but also as an exercise with your families of creation and choice. Each member can complete the scorecard to see how you each assess it along the different areas and then use that as a basis for open discussion on viewpoints of current dynamics and where and how to make adjustments. It can be used as a recurring spot check and feedback loop tool to estimate progress along established and agreed upon goals for family relational health.

 

Just as we are each a product of the patchwork of what has cascaded down to us, so too can our healing journey be of the tools, modalities and systems from which we beg, borrow and steal to engineer into the new, ever evolving systems and cycles we create for ourselves. Give your inner child the freedom to play as you experiment and feel free to involve your families of choice and creation in the alpha, beta and theta testing as you go. Celebrate the mistakes as part of the process and build connections based on transparency and trust in shared goals. Open feedback loops are critical to the health of any relational system and the process of tinkering, trying, failing and evolving is all part of the journey. 

 

Feel free to share in the social media posts on the educational series your own experiences with these or other tools for preventing those cycles of dysfunction from impacting your own families of choice and creation. Let’s all support each other along the journey of breaking the cycle and all the different ways that can manifest. Be on the lookout as well for the next article in the May Heal the “Inner” Child month series on emotional neglect and abuse and how that plays a role in family estrangement.

“Pain travels through families 

until someone is ready 

to feel it”

“For many of us, our generational curse is 

avoidance.

We come from people who act like 

it didn’t happen.

But pain demands to be felt.

And somewhere along the line, 

a child will be born whose charge is 

to feel it all.

These are your shamans, your priests and priestesses.

Your healers.

You call them mental health patients

and label their power as depression,

anxiety

bipolar disorder, and the like.

But these are the ones who are born with the gift 

of feeling

And as we all know,

you can’t heal the pain that you refuse to feel."

“In everybody’s life, there is a point of no return

And in very few cases, a point where you can’t

go forward anymore.

And when we reach that point,

all we can do is quietly accept the fact. 

That’s how we survive.”

 

-Compilation of quotes from Stephi Wagner, Dionne Shannette Wood,  Haruki Murakami

[Please note: The educational columnist is not a licensed mental health professional. The articles under this series are written from a peer to peer perspective.]  

*APGAR stands for: Adaptation – the level of ability of a family to use and share inherent resources which can be intra- or extra-familial; Partnership – the sharing of decision making which measures the satisfaction of solving problems through communicating. Growth – pertains to both physical and emotional aspects and measures the satisfaction and freedom to change; Affection – emotions that are shared with and between family members and measure the satisfaction with the intimacy and emotional interaction that exist in the family; Resolve – refers to how time, money and space are shared – this measures the satisfaction with the commitment made by members of the family. (3)

Sources & resource references: 

1   https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/break_the_cycle, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/break-the-cycle

2.  Kylie Agllias (2015): Disconnection and Decision-making: Adult Children Explain Their Reasons for Estranging from Parents, Australian Social Work, DOI:
    10.1080/ 0312407X.2015.1004355

3.  Family APGAR assessment:  https://pmhealthnp.com/family-assessments-tools/

4.  Genogram guide: https://boardmix.com/examples/genogram-example/

5.  Genogram symbols and examples: https://genopro.com/genogram/Genogram-Basic-Symbols.pdf; https://boardmix.com/examples/genogram-example/

6.  Genogram workbook: Galindo,Israel. A family genogram workbook. 2016. Published by Educational Consultants. ISBN: 0-9715765-3-X

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Jen Maher  - May 6, 2024 - 8 min read

Illustrated Family

Heal the Children Month (May)

Estrangement: Healing the "Inner" Child

Together Estranged is introducing a new educational content series. This initial month will focus on how we, as individuals experiencing estrangement with our families, can work towards healing our inner child. 

The month of May is designated as Heal the Children month. It is an annual global observance focusing on creating awareness of children who have gone through or are undergoing serious medical or psychological issues or abuse. Estrangement is a journey that often starts with experiences in childhood of some level of maltreatment - be it physical, sexual, emotional or psychological or some combination thereof. The timing of the decision to estrange from family naturally varies and can take cyclical routes, but invariably has the commonality of a refusal on the part of parents or families to acknowledge or validate those experiences when brought to their attention by their adult child. Together Estranged will adapt the Heal the Children month theme to focus on pathways towards healing the inner child of those of us impacted by estrangement and recognizing the roots from where estrangement commonly grows.

Validation and understanding are often key components to the healing process. Throughout the month, TE will publish content to help provide both. Emotional abuse and neglect is the most prevalent form of maltreatment(1)- both its own, as well as a component of other forms of abuse as well. Yet, it tends to be not only one of the least recognized, there is resistance by some to acknowledge its existence, its impact and its role in family estrangement. Look for dedicated content this month illuminating emotional abuse and neglect, how it shows up in families and why it is so hard for society to recognize as valid.

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 “In terms of prevalence, a worldwide meta-analysis estimated rates of 12.7% for sexual abuse, 16.3% for physical neglect, 18.4% for emotional neglect, 22.6% for physical abuse, and 36.3% for emotional abuse” (1)

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

The theme of “breaking the cycle” is also commonly seen in articles and social media spaces concerned with toxic family systems and/or healing from being raised by emotionally immature parents. This month, TE will also provide background on family systems theory, the multigenerational transmission phenomenon and its role in shaping family dynamics, and the process of family relational mapping as a tool towards understanding our own individual stories.

Another tool in the toolbox of healing from our dysfunctional families and experiences is inner child work.  When we are estranged from our families, underneath that many times is the unfinished business of our childhood experiences and the refusal of our families to meaningfully engage with us as we process those experiences to make way for who we are today based on, or in spite of, what happened to us as children. Oftentimes we are estranged precisely because of that refusal and the defensive behaviors that emerge from our parents/families in effort to deflect from engaging with us in processing those experiences or discussing how we want things to change within the relationship in the here and now, so it falls to us to do the work of processing our childhoods ourselves.

Finding and acknowledging those parts of ourselves that were wounded as children and who still live inside our adult selves engaging in protective behaviors we may not be aware of and that impact how we interact in our daily lives can be a powerful part of that work. There are many types of therapy modalities that can be helpful for those estranged from their families, such as trauma informed therapy, EMDR and somatic therapy, and among those that specifically addresses the inner child is Internal Family Systems (IFS).

IFS is a recognized and proven therapeutic approach that can be done individually through the application of books or self-guided online programs or through working with an IFS-certified therapist. It is based on the idea that the psyche itself is a system composed of different parts and this system makes up our internal environment. The purpose of many of these parts within our psyche are for protection against pain. There can be “exiled” parts that are the young child still in pain from events and experiences of the past that still reside inside but have been banished by other “protector” parts that want to shield the conscious self from reliving those experiences. 

The process of IFS can allow us to find and reintroduce ourselves to those exiled parts with curiosity and openness rather than judgment or shame and then eventually to reintegrate what we may have lost of ourselves along the way. It can also help us recognize our “protector” parts that have developed in response to our experiences as children and which may be employing tactics that served us as children, but no longer serve us in our lives as adults in the same way. We can learn to adapt those protective practices - not losing them or rejecting them entirely, as they were and are valuable tools born out of necessity - but evolving them to better serve us in the here and now. IFS is not the only modality that can help uncover these exiles and protectors or allow us to access our wounded inner child, but may be one to explore if the idea is one that resonates. There is no one modality that will resonate with everyone or be appropriate for one’s specific experiences and needs. Don’t be afraid to explore or feel obligated to stay with a therapist or modality that isn’t working for you and your healing journey.

Ultimately, however we each decide to approach it, reclaiming and healing our inner child can be an important part of our individual journeys to heal ourselves as well as towards learning how to establish new practices and philosophies to guide the parenting of our own children and thus can be part of breaking the cycle of dysfunction. We are not defined by the dysfunction of our families but rather informed and supported by our resilience and courage to fully examine ourselves and our families of origin in the endeavor to be better for ourselves and our own families of choice and of creation. Our inner children and protectors - all the various manifestations of them - are proud of us.

Here are just a few of the resources available to help find your inner child/children, invite them to heal and welcome them home:

 

Be on the lookout this month for additional articles in this series around "Healing the [Inner] Child" on the topics of family systems and relationship mapping and on emotional maltreatment. New articles will be announced via Together Estranged's social media platforms. Feel free to engage there on the article topics. Share what has helped you in your journey to find and heal your inner child. The mission of Together Estranged is to provide support, empowerment and community among those estranged from their families as well as to help break the stigma around estrangement - so please add your voice! 

 

[Please note: The educational columnist is not a licensed mental health professional. The articles under this series are written from a peer to peer perspective.]  

Source: 

1: Gama, C.M.F., Portugal, L.C.L., Gonçalves, R.M. et al. “The invisible scars of emotional abuse: a common and highly harmful form of childhood maltreatment.” BMC Psychiatry 21, 156 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-021-03134-0

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