You don’t have to live with family tension year after year. It's possible to break old patterns of relating and forge new relationships within your family by getting support for yourself, taking the time to listen to your family members, and shining your love on them.
Changing family dynamics is not often easy, but it is a good and worthwhile endeavor.
Take Time for Yourself
First, start with yourself. You know you need to take care of yourself first so you’re in better shape to help care for others, and yet, it’s so hard to put into practice. Just remember: you’re not going to get very far in your quest to nurture your family connections on an empty tank, so get some listening time before the next visit with your family.
Ask someone you know, who knows how to listen without giving advice, if they’re willing to exchange listening time with you. [There's more on why Listening Partnerships are so helpful here.] Divide up however much time you have so your turns are equal, so, if you have about an hour, take 30 minutes each. You might focus on what it was like for you growing up and how things are now with your family. Notice what feelings come up as you talk. Taking this listening time before your family visit can help diffuse the tension you feel and clarify how you want to be with your family.
You’ll also need to nurture yourself a little each day during your visit. Taking walks in nature, reading inspirational books, making time for play, and other activities that feel good to you, help keep you in good emotional shape so you can flow with the ups-and-downs of family life.
Because it’s hard to think and remember these simple things when triggered, make a list of your self-care plan before you go. What do you need each day to feel good? It’s also helpful to have a list of people you can call or text during the visit for support. You might also bookmark the Hand in Hand online groups so you have places to reach out to for additional support.
Small Steps to Closer Connections
During your visit you can work to create a sense of safety within your family by warming up your relationships.
Many parents start to feel family tensions mount as they have children. Sometimes it’s between siblings who have very different ideas on child-rearing, or it’s with parents who wonder why you are doing things so differently than they did.
If you have tension with your family around different parenting styles, it’s helpful to voice what you do love about how they parent. Sometimes this can be a stretch, but if you look hard enough, you can often see the love and caring that is fueling their parenting, even if the way they respond is not how you would handle it.
If it feels safe enough you could even try opening dialogues with them about what they love about parenting/grandparenting and what they worry about. Remember to stay a listener! Your goal here is to build safety and trust in your relationship, not to teach or correct them in their thinking. Remember you are all doing your best and all the kids will benefit the most from their family members feeling good about each other.
Often, by warming up the relationship in this way it starts to lessen the tension so everyone can feel more relaxed. Once the connection is restored, they might be open to hearing your views, but right now you’ll find the most success by keeping your focus on relationship building only.
One way to do this is by offering unannounced “Special Time”. Special Time is the Hand in Hand listening tool we use as parents to give our children some one-on-one undivided attention. When you feel well-resourced, take some time (you might mentally give yourself a 5 or 10 minute time limit) to really shine the love you have for your family on them, one at a time.
You could take this time to really listen well to them, offer affection, or do what they want to do. If you know your mom loves going through the family photo albums, make time to do that with her. If your brother loves showing off his latest gadget, join in his enthusiasm with him. We all want to be seen and heard in a way that feels good, try offering that to your family and see how they light up!
Prepare to be “Tested”
As you move toward building closer, warmer connections, this can kick up fears in them (and you!) and they may do little things to “test” whether you are sincere in your desire to connect or protest the change in dynamics. This could look like your sister commenting on what you feed your children right after you share some appreciations about her as a mother. Or, maybe your dad critiques your new car purchase after your heartfelt gratitude for how hard he worked to provide for you growing up.
Don’t let these tests get you down! (But do reach out to a friend who can hear your frustration while still holding out the thought that it’s worthwhile to keep reaching for connection with your family.) Imagine they are saying instead, “I don’t know what to do with all this love you’re showing!” or “I don’t know how to relate in this new way with you.”
The more you work on your side of things the more spaciousness you’ll have inside to meet these tests with grace, humor and patience. So when your sister critiques you, instead of feeling defensive you might say with a wink, “I know! I shock myself sometimes!” and then have a good laugh, or if your dad challenges your choices, you might give him a spontaneous hug and say with complete sincerity, “Thanks for caring so much about me, Dad.” You’ll be amazed at how much family members can learn to respond differently too when you take steps to change how you respond.
Overcoming Long-standing Hurts
When family relationships have been racked with tension for years, decades, or even generations, it can feel too vulnerable to share openly and express caring. If you have family tensions that have been running rampant for longer than you can remember, take it slow and remember your self-care is top priority.
Change is possible, especially within yourself. As you focus on building support for yourself, and making slow, gentle steps in forging warmer connections, you'll be doing good work creating greater trust and safety within your family that will benefit your children and future generations.
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