This blog was written by Dr. Vivien Lee and originally posted on the official blog for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

In 2007, Ontario declared the third Monday in February to be Family Day. The intention is to spend more time with loved ones. Many people will be opting to spend the day with their children, spouses, and parents.

But what happens if you have lost family members? What if you don’t have a positive or even any relationship with family? What happens if family members are abusive or toxic? Constantly criticizing or making you feel guilty?

Even worse, what happens when you’ve been rejected by family simply for being you? There are instances in which an individual has been rejected by their families for various reasons – for example, coming out as LGBTQ, marrying someone of a different ethnicity or religion, or struggling with mental health issues.

Thus, Family Day can bring up feelings of loss, hurt, isolation, alienation, and rejection for many people. Yet there is increasing recognition that one can experience the benefits of social support from a different type of family. Family that we choose to let into our lives, rather than being biologically-driven. Friendships that we have cultivated over the years and chosen to let into our inner circles. We can nurture and gather strength from our family relationships, whether they are related to us or not.

Impact of social support

Research has consistently shown positive effects of social support on both physical and emotional health (It’s one of the social determinants of health). For example, social support can help mitigate against the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the onset and relapse of depression. When people report low levels of social support, they are more likely to suffer from a host of physical diseases. There are a variety of ways that social support can help to buffer against stress and promote good mental health, including:

  • Validation and acceptance of who we are
  • Emotional support
  • Helping us to process issues and make sense of them
  • A sense of security
  • Reducing stress can decrease the reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis (which is activated in response to stress)

Using Family Day as a reminder to reach out or reconnect

With both our biological and chosen families, we tend to neglect our relationships when we get busy. Amidst the daily hassles and major life events, we may lose sight of what we value in our family relationships and get bogged down in what we don’t like.

Family Day (and other holidays that celebrate the importance of connecting with others) provides a good opportunity to revisit our relationships: what we value in each other, whether we’ve neglected our relationships, and how we can reconnect. Here are some tips to cultivate those important relationships:

  • Have you been easily annoyed or reactive whenever a certain someone opens his or her mouth? As difficult as it can be, try to figure out what their intention is in what they say. In their own way, are they trying to be helpful (even if it’s not)?
  • Look at the overall picture. No one is perfect. There may be things someone does or says that is upsetting, but try to complete the picture. Perhaps they are often late or don’t always respond the way you would like. But they drop everything to be there if you need them, attend all your important events, and tell you on a regular basis how much they care for you.
  • In a similar vein, put things into context by balancing the negatives with the positives. Yes, they forget to take out the trash or spend a little too much time on their phone, but they check in to see how you’re doing, bring your favourite coffee, and are there for you when things get rough.
  • Are there ways in which your communication with each other can improve? Do either of you frequently cut off the other person when he or she is talking? Do you find that you “yeah, but” a lot, which in a sense invalidates what they’re trying to tell you? Family or couples therapy can help improve communication. Helpful strategies to begin to improve communication include:
    • Pause. The world will not end if you take a few extra seconds to think before you speak! Take a deep breath if you are upset.
    • Think. What could the other person have meant to say? What we think and how it comes out can sometimes be very different. In their mind, could they have been trying to be helpful, even if it didn’t come out that way?
    • “I” statements. This is a big one for many people. You may feel that the other person is criticizing you. If you say it like that (e.g., “you’re always telling me what to do!”), he or she may go on the defensive. Try to focus on how you feel when you hear it (e.g., “I feel hurt when you dismiss what I tried to do”).
  • We all get busy with all the various family, work, social, and recreational parts of lives. Scheduling catch-up and/or fun time makes us prioritize time with the people who matter to us, even if takes some of the spontaneity out of our relationships. Whether it’s over coffee, a play date with children, playing basketball, or a Skype session, scheduling a time to catch up on our lives or just have some fun is crucial.
  • This one is hard for many people. Be vulnerable, try to open yourself up to others. This doesn’t mean confiding every single thing that goes through your mind. And this can be risky with some individuals who act toxic at times. Let them know how you really feel about something. Show them that you feel scared, or anxious, or angry. It can be scary to open up, but it can go a long way to deepening your bond with that person.

However you spend this Family Day, let’s all spend a minute to think about who we consider to be in our family, what we love and appreciate about them, and how we can make our relationships stronger. Now, get off the computer and go give them a call or a hug!