No matter what they say, there’s no such thing as a “perfect family” or a “perfect childhood.” Regardless of where they come from or how they grew up, most people can identify moments or seasons of comedy and/or dysfunction in their childhood. Teenaged exploits. Awkward first dates. Embarrassing photos. Road trips that were more like a sequel of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” than a fun, relaxing time away.
For many people, the chance to spend time with family elicits positive emotions and is an opportunity to relive these often funny and memorable times. At the same time, though, various dysfunctional dynamics from childhood can cause many people to regard upcoming family gatherings with more mixed emotions, if not outright anger. In these cases, it’s not uncommon for a grown adult to feel as if being around their parents and family stirs up their inner child, making them feel and interact more like their teenaged self. This is especially common if parents or the family don’t respect your adult self.
Even so, there are ways to deal with and cope in these situations, without avoiding them entirely.
What follow are eight tips for when time with Mom, Dad, or other family members involves difficult dynamics and/or emotions.
Non-Judgmental Observing of the Dynamics
Without judgment, try to observe and acknowledge the reality that there are difficult family dynamics. Families are intricate social networks with all sorts of mores, taboos, and rules that people just grow up “knowing,” whether or not it was talked about. Think about the etiquette of the dinner table growing up. Everyone had their place, right? If one of the kids tried to sit in dad’s chair, there was hell to pay.
There are so many other dynamics, along with shared memories, that people often feel exposed to and embarrassed by when they’re with their family as grown adults. In some instances, those difficult dynamics can linger well into adulthood, whether it was a death, divorce, or other childhood trauma that would be preferable not to dig up at the holidays or when the family comes together.
Individuals also usually have roles in the family. Sadly, these can often seep back in when the family comes together. Nobody can change everyone or their perceived roles within this family system, but it is possible to act in a responsible and grown-up way that preserves one’s own sanity and self-esteem. (Learn how family therapy at FHE Health is helping people with addiction achieve better treatment outcomes.)
Mindfulness of Both the Present and the Past
Some people live in the present, and some people live in the past. As people age, perspectives can really change. Past hurts are forgotten by the aggressor but may remain as vivid as ever for the injured party. Some topics are not to be discussed at any cost, other things are glossed over, and there are things that are avoided to keep the peace or make interactions more “harmonious” at family gatherings.
Parents often want to relive the good days and reminisce about the past. Young adults have little interest in the past and are by far the most future-oriented members of the tribe. Someone who is in the middle might see the merits of both.
Awareness of Triggers
Being aware of triggers that historically set you off is a good way to prepare for time with family. Knowing where the bullets typically fly from can make it easier to steer a conversation with Aunt Fran away from the hot-button issues that don’t just include religion and politics. Most people are predictable, after all. While it would be a bit strange to get a question from a teenaged cousin about if you want to have kids or when you’re getting married— from an anxious mom? Not so much.
Awareness of triggers is about preparing for the more predictable family dynamics. (These people aren’t strangers, after all. Usually, their own triggers are very familiar.) Preparation can go a long way in helping to devise a plan, avoid conversational landmines, and not over-react. As a back-up, consider employing the always effective half smile and head tilt, with no words. Having a helper (a spouse, friend, or relative) who can help steer the conversation or pivot out of an awkward situation can be a godsend as well.
“Just” do not care so much. When returning to a high school reunion, is it really so necessary to impress someone who was the object of a sophomore-year crush? Is dredging up an experience that happened 20 years ago really worth all that extra emotional stress and effort? Sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it? Same with families. Why care so much? Same stories, same jabs— these things do not change. What does it matter now? What is enough is to be grateful for having grown up and been able to live one’s own life now according to one’s own rules and values. If anything, now is a great opportunity to take a deep breath and be proud of the life one has now, instead of getting bogged down in childhood resentments or petty disagreements.
Finding Real Satisfaction from Within
Whether it’s expecting someone to make the hurt go away with an apology or looking to a family member for validation and self-esteem, these efforts to feel better about oneself are unhealthy because they depend on an external source. But the healthiest and most effective way to feel good on the inside is to do it for oneself.
It’s never too late in adulthood to start practicing self-love, self-affirmation, and the gift of letting go. Looking for love in the wrong places—including in family members who are imperfect like the rest of us—is a set-up for disappointment. If being around family comes with implicit demands to make up for what they did or did not do in the past, disappointment will be inevitable.
Boundaries on Time and Keeping It Short but Sweet
Time with the family can be short, or if it needs to be short, it’s entirely fine to have an excuse and leave at a time that feels right. If the prospect of being around family seems so toxic that it’s not worth it, don’t go. Once again, the freedom to have a choice in the matter as an adult is worth being grateful for.
The brave, vulnerable, and grown-up question to ask is not so much why other family members don’t change, but— “What can I do to change or make things better?” How to make things better, feel better, let go of anger, hatred, or shame. How to move forward freer and more accepting of the situation. These are the considerations that spur self-growth and a sense of pride and maturity.
Acceptance is a cool tool to use in any situation. By accepting it, not personalizing it, a neat thing happens: Nothing. Right. There is no reaction, no preconceived expectation, no demand for things to be different then they always have been. It just is what it is, and life goes on. The concept is a bit like watching a TV show. When the program is over, the viewer turns off the set and gets back to life.
Surviving childhood takes strength. Reliving childhood as an adult hopefully shouldn’t be more intolerable than it was at age 5, 8, or 12. (If it is—maybe because of childhood trauma like sexual abuse—please don’t suffer in shame and silence. Seek the help of a therapist who can help.)
Yes, being an adult can be hard, but it’s also a liberating opportunity to be reminded there are plenty of options and choices. And, as an adult, you now can make your own choices and see things differently. You’re free.
As for that next family get-together, a few well-placed coping strategies can make it go so much smoother— even when the 6th grade school pictures come out and the guffaws start over you in that loud sweater. You got this: Be the person you need to be now and remember that it will pass. Good luck!
The article is provided by Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW, who is Chief Clinical Officer at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.