The Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center is one of the most quintessential holiday experiences there is. My friend and I went to see the tree on a recent trip to New York and I expected to feel some sort of magic or excitement but instead, I felt…nothing.

The holidays have always been a mixed bag of emotions for me. I was raised Jewish, with a Dad who celebrated Christmas. My relationship with my Dad has always been strained to say the least. When I was younger, seeing him during Christmas filled me with anxiety — and as I got older and had a say in how I spent the holidays, this time instead became filled with a sort of emptiness and grief. I was simultaneously grateful that I wasn’t forced to see him and also yearned for the joyful, family-centered celebrations that many of my friends seemed to have.

While my relationship with my Jewish mom is a bit easier, it’s still complicated. I often find myself unsure of what to do with my time while everyone else celebrates Christmas with their families, and wishing that I could do the same. But as I gain more acceptance about my relationship with my parents, I see that the holidays can be a time for rest, recuperation, and reflection on what family and community mean to me.

“I know I’m not alone in my complicated holiday feelings.”

I know I’m not alone in my complicated holiday feelings. Being estranged from a parent or family can be incredibly painful. The holidays exacerbate this by creating a complex web of memories, expectations, and emotions — one that’s not talked about enough. So many people are left feeling lonely, confused, frustrated, angry, or grieving, while also wanting to find some joy and rest during their time off. 

If you have complicated feelings around the holidays, you’re not alone. We’re here to examine why estrangement is so hard during this season and how to support yourself through it.

What emotions can come up during the holidays?

Every person is unique, and so are their relationships with their families. The way the winter holidays combine and resonate will be different for each of us as well. But for many estranged from their family or a parent, there is a particular set of emotions that surfaces during this time of year.

“Estrangement contains a painful paradox at its very core.”

Mary Beth Somich, LCMHC, is a licensed therapist in private practice in Raleigh, NC. She specializes in family dynamic work and boundary-setting. Her Instagram is full of practical mental health tools, especially around family dynamics and relationships. She often works with clients on the many challenges that can come up during this time of year, and we’ve asked her to shed some light on the topic for us.

Somich explained, “A complicated mix of emotions can arise for those who have complicated relationship dynamics or are estranged from their families. These may range from grief and sadness to relief, depending on the specific circumstances surrounding the estrangement.” She emphasized that estrangement contains a painful paradox at its very core. “Ultimately, no one ‘wants’ to be estranged from those who are supposed to be their primary attachment figures, and when this decision is made, it is typically not an easy one and has been a process of failed attempts at a successful relationship. Thus, frustration, hopelessness, guilt, and loneliness can also play a role.”

“No matter how much pain a parent or family member has put you through, no one wants to cut them out of their life or have a difficult relationship with them.”

No matter how much pain a parent or family member has put you through, no one wants to cut them out of their life or have a difficult relationship with them. Unfortunately, this estrangement often comes from a place of needing to set boundaries for your well-being. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain or emptiness that relationship has caused. As a result, many will feel some combination of relief and mourning.

Why is estrangement so hard during this time?

In our normal day-to-day, it can be easy to block out the impact of these relationships. Then come the holidays, with their accompanying wave of sticky emotions. You may feel jealous seeing close-knit families, frustrated with your own family, or a sort of yearning and loneliness from not having connection and support.

As Somich puts it, “[T]he holidays are typically depicted through images of loved ones gathering, sharing special moments, and making memories. When you are estranged from your family, you may feel a void or absence of this possibility.”

“Between holiday movies, people asking about holiday plans, and giant trees set up in very public places, we live amongst constant reminders of warm holiday embrace.”

Between holiday movies, people asking about holiday plans, and giant trees set up in very public places, we live amongst constant reminders of warm holiday embrace. While those with positive relationships with their families may sink into that love and celebration, those with estranged relationships feel an intensification of their pre-existing feelings.

These emotions can be big and overwhelming but there are ways to make this season a little easier.

Tips and tools for getting through the holiday season

The holidays can be hard but they can also be a time for healing and reflection. As difficult as it can be, when big emotions or painful memories come up, they are more available for us to start to examine them and decrease their hold.

Somich shared some helpful tips on how to prepare for and get through the holiday season:

  • When difficult feelings arise, it’s important to focus on self-compassion. Know that what you’re feeling is valid, and there’s no need to correct your feelings.
  • Take some time to evaluate how you will feel supported, included, and loved this holiday season. Consider making a list of those who provide positive experiences in your life.
  • Seek out meaningful connection and companionship. This could be a Friendsgiving-style gathering or a special vacation with another friend over the holidays. Don’t assume that everyone is already occupied.
  • Finally, it is vital to process your feelings (particularly grief) as they arise. Ideally, this would be with a therapist or trained professional who can support you. Other forms of emotional release such as journaling and exercise often have a supportive impact when it comes to managing emotions, as well.

If you need a little more guidance, try reflecting on these journal prompts either with yourself, with a therapist, or with your chosen family:

  • What does family mean to me?
  • What patterns am I ready to stop repeating?
  • What traditions or rituals can I start to create my own experience of the holidays?

No matter what you’re experiencing or processing this holiday season, know that you’re not alone. This is a complicated time, but it can get easier, especially with additional foresight. As a result of working through your emotions, you may even start to look forward to the holidays as time you’ve reclaimed for yourself. Remember who your people are and know that they are there to support you even through the winter holidays.

Natasha Weiss is a Pacific Northwest-based health and wellness copywriter and full-spectrum doula. When she’s not typing away, she loves immersing herself in bodies of water, wandering through ancient forests, and anything and everything to do with food. You can learn more about her work on or connect on Instagram.