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Seven Ways To Navigate Challenging Family Relationships

When you think of your family, this may convey feelings of warmth, support, and comfort. Alternatively, it may incite feelings of frustration, hurt or numbness. You may value and appreciate the connection you share with your family, or you might have complex or challenging relationships with your family. Disagreements and conflict between family members are common and to be expected, although some conflict between family members can be deep-rooted and impact your physical and mental well-being. If this is the case for you, you are not alone. Below are some suggestions of how you can navigate challenging family relationships.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

First off, it can be helpful to recognise and accept the range of emotions you may be experiencing, such as sadness, loneliness, anger, or confusion. Try to sit with these feelings and self-soothe rather than trying to suppress or get rid of these feelings.  Remember, it’s okay to feel negative or conflicting emotions, even about family members. Understandably, these feelings may intensify during holiday periods, birthdays or major life events such as getting married or having a child.

Prioritise Self-Care

It is important to take care of your own emotional and mental well-being. Try and engage in self-care activities that make you feel calm or bring you joy. This could be reading a book, walking, practising mindfulness, going to a yoga class or doing one of your favourite hobbies. By focusing on your own needs, you build up your capacity to cope with any difficult emotions that might be coming up for you, or any challenging situations that arise with family members.

Set Boundaries and Follow Through with Them

Another way to manage difficult family dynamics is to clearly define and communicate your boundaries.  This may involve limiting time spent with certain family members, specifying the off-limits topics or meeting in a place where you feel most comfortable. You should establish what level of contact, if any, feels possible for you. It can be hard to remove family members from our lives completely but sometimes this can be necessary. If a family member attempts to cross your boundaries, maintain a calm composure, and be clear as well as direct about what will happen if they continue. An example of setting a boundary might be: “I understand that you would like to host me at your house but I would feel most comfortable if we met up at a restaurant”.

Create a Supportive Network

It can be beneficial to reach out to supportive and understanding friends. Friends can become chosen family through shared experiences, mutual support, and emotional closeness. It can also be helpful to get support from a professional such as a psychologist who can provide guidance and understanding. Our team of psychologists can offer a different perspective, help you process your difficult emotions and give you strategies to navigate difficult dynamics with family members.

Communicate Your Feelings

If you feel ready, you could engage in open and honest communication with your family members. You could ask them for the opportunity to meet to address your concerns, express your feelings, and listen to their perspective. When discussing difficult topics with your family, use “I” statements to express your feelings without blaming or accusing them. If this is done with understanding and respect, it can be a step towards repair. However, despite your best efforts sometimes family members may not be receptive to such conversations or have the capacity to understand your view. If this is the case for you, you might find these tips on how to deal with difficult people helpful.

Practice Gratitude and Empathy

It’s easy to focus on what isn’t going well in your relationship with your family, but this can lead to low mood and rumination. To help with this, you can shift your attention to gratitude. You can do this by reflecting on the positive aspects of your life as a whole, the relationships you have that are thriving, the personal growth you’ve experienced and small moments of appreciation, such as appreciating nature. Practicing gratitude can bring a sense of peace and balance to your life.

When there’s conflict in relationships, it’s also easy to lose context. It might help to try to understand where your family member is coming from and what might be causing their difficult behaviour. Empathising with them doesn’t mean condoning or excusing their behaviour, but it can help you respond with more patience and compassion. Sometimes it can even help you work out a more effective solution to the source of the conflict.

Understand Your Unique Dynamics

It is essential to acknowledge that navigating family relationships is a deeply personal journey, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and is very dependent on individual family dynamics. Every family is unique with individual personalities, histories, and past experiences. Conflict may arise due to unresolved trauma, differing values or expectations, or simple miscommunication. Taking the time to reflect on these dynamics can provide valuable insights into the root causes of tension within your family.

If you’d like to read more about navigating relationships, you can read our blog on learning to say ‘no’, responding to passive-aggression, or what makes a healthy relationship.