We’ve all been there: Families can be difficult, and family problems can be excruciating. There are, however, ways to resolve family issues and restore harmony to the dynamic. Life is too short to waste time being negative toward the people you care about. What you say and how you approach the family member can make a big difference.
Beginning the Discussion
1. Wait until you’re not angry to bring up this issue. Family problems can be excruciatingly painful, especially during family-centered occasions such as holidays. If your family members are arguing, wait until everyone is calm to prevent the conflict from escalating into a full-fledged feud.
Don’t bring up the family issue if you’re still upset or emotional. Even if you wait just one night, the intensity of the emotion is likely to lessen, even if you remain unhappy.
Waiting gives you the opportunity to approach the problem logically rather than emotionally. You will deal with the issue less reactively if you take a step back and give yourself some time to think before dealing with it.
Approaching someone when you are angry will exacerbate an already difficult situation. There’s no reason you can’t make your point tomorrow, so resist the urge to act right away.
2. Handle family issues in person. We’ve all been there; we’ve all sent a text or email we wish we could undo. Attempting to resolve an argument or family problem via instant messenger or email is the worst option. In-person conversations improve your ability, awareness, and proclivity to filter.
This is due to the fact that tone can be easily misinterpreted by electronic communication. You may not think you sound angry, but you may sound angry to the person receiving the text.
Instead of sending a text, pick up the phone or, better yet, arrange a face-to-face meeting. People lose the touchstones of body language, which can convey empathy and lessen the sting of a painful conversation, as a result of electronic communication.
Another reason to avoid electronic communication is that people say things they would never say to another person’s face.
3. Accept everyone’s flaws, even your own. They say blood is thicker than water and that you can pick your friends but not your family. You may be able to cut people out, but doing so may cause you more pain in the long run.
Understanding that family members have flaws but can still be loved is the first step toward resolving long-standing issues. Try to understand why they act or think the way they do, as it could be a reflection of them rather than you.
Accept your own flaws as well. Accept responsibility when you deserve it. Try not to think of family issues as all or nothing situations in which someone is wrong and someone else (perhaps you) is correct. Instead, focus on the grey areas. Nuances are fascinating!
Being the first to apologise can work wonders, even if you don’t believe you did anything wrong. Say something like, “I see you’re upset, and although this has been difficult for me as well, I apologise.” I really want to fix this, so please let me know how I can help.” That way, even if the family member continues the feud, you can claim to have taken the high road.
4. Avoid playing the blame game. When speaking to your family, use positive language. Avoid using language that places blame on any of your family members or has a negative connotation. Negativity is a never-ending cycle.
This includes refraining from using judgmental language or referring to the family member by name. It entails avoiding accusatory words spoken in an angry tone. Blaming others will make them defensive and more likely to counterattack, exacerbating the situation.
Avoid the need to “win” the family problem debate. Instead, try to accept that there are two, or more, possible interpretations of the point. Make a plan to solve the problem together. Then, concentrate on planning activities that will allow you to have fun together while avoiding anything that could serve as a “trigger,” reigniting the problem. Investigate new aspects of your family members and new ways to interact with them.
Maintain a calm and modulated tone and voice, rather than a raised and upset tone and voice. Explain your points calmly and methodically, but with empathy for the other person. Always try to put yourself in the shoes of a family member. Make an attempt to defuse the situation by making conciliatory remarks such as, “I see your point.”
5. Forgive any family members who have done you wrong. This can be a difficult task to complete. It is extremely difficult to forgive someone, whether a family member or not, who we believe has wronged us. Such feelings can run even deeper when dealing with family members.
However, in the end, forgiveness is about liberating yourself from the corrosive nature of the dispute. Forgiving a family member entails letting go of the past in order to build a healthier future free of tension and stress.
If the family member has readily admitted fault for whatever is causing the problem, tell him or her that you forgive him or her. Say this with compassion. It’ll get you a long way.
Remember that every human being is flawed and in need of forgiveness at some point in their lives. That probably includes you at some point.
Getting at the Root of the Problem
1. Determine the true cause of the problem. Try to figure out what’s going on. Perhaps you are dealing with health issues or personal issues that you have been keeping hidden from your family. Perhaps you are all in mourning for a loved one who has died. Consider the real issue at hand, as this will allow you to address it more effectively.
You might need to do some self-analysis here. Why am I keeping my problem from my family? Why am I so agitated about this family issue? For example, perhaps you have financial concerns about how your mother spends her money. You may then realise that you are worried because you do not want her to be unable to support herself financially because you do not have the means to do so.
Don’t make assumptions about what other people are thinking. You must speak with them in order to learn what they truly believe. Avoid gossiping about other members of the family because it will most likely come back to haunt you. Concentrate on the causes rather than the symptoms.
However, a trusted family member, such as a parent or another sibling, may be able to help you figure out what is really going on, so it is OK to talk to them in a heartfelt and problem-solving manner.
2. In order to elicit a response from a family member, pose questions. Instead of making statements, asking questions is a good way to get to the bottom of family problems. People may perceive statements as judging, putting them on the defensive.
In contrast, asking questions softens the conversation and can elicit what the person is really upset about. Questions give the family member the impression that he or she is not being condemned. Inquire about the other family member’s suggestions for improving the situation.
For example, suppose your sister has become increasingly distant from you and hasn’t invited you out for coffee as frequently as she used to. You might say, “I’ve noticed that we haven’t seen each other as frequently as we used to. What makes you think that?” Alternatively, you could try to address your mother’s spending habits by saying, “I’ve noticed that you’ve recently spent more money on clothing. Are you a good steward of your money?”
Make sure your questions are open-ended so that the other person can elaborate. Then, pay close attention to what the family member has to say.
3. Create a channel of communication. Many, if not most, family problems are caused by a breakdown in communication. Shutting out or shutting down the family member in question can be a major issue. It’s difficult to solve a family problem if no one speaks up. Regardless of how difficult it is, be the person who reaches out first.
Perhaps an older, wiser family member can be asked to step in and arrange a meeting or talk to the other family member first, acting as a sort of mediator. You must set aside your pride in order to open the lines of communication. Remember that it takes a big person to be the first to address a problem.
Ignoring the problem while it grows will almost certainly make it worse in the long run as the coldness between you grows. It is preferable to express how you feel, but do so at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner. It might be a bad idea, for example, to bring up a family problem at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Avoid drinking before having a difficult family discussion. Even when used in moderation, alcohol can exacerbate emotions in many people, which is usually not a good thing when trying to have a difficult family conversation.
4. Recognize when it is necessary to discuss family issues. When did a family problem become serious enough that it needed to be addressed? Frequent arguing, disagreements, angry outbursts, avoidance of others, ostracization of some family members, and, in the worst cases, physical conflicts are all clear signs of family and relationship problems that need to be addressed.
Disagreements of opinion, such as differing cultural values or beliefs, can cause some family problems. Parents and children may be unable to reach an agreement on lifestyle choices, personal preferences, or beliefs.
Substance abuse, mental health issues, bullying, a lack of trust, a change in family circumstances, financial issues, stress, sexuality-related issues, and jealousy are all causes of family problems.
Addressing the Family Problem
1. Make an effort to reach an agreement. Compromise means coming up with a solution that both parties can agree on, even if neither gets exactly what he or she wants. A compromise is an effective way to resolve a disagreement or address a family issue.
The first step is to determine whether the problem is solvable. That is determined by the nature of the problem and what has already been done to solve it. If you’ve tried and tried and still get the same result, something is wrong.
However, consider what points of common ground you share with the other person and what points you are willing to compromise on. You’re less likely to make progress in the dispute if you don’t give in on anything.
One technique for reaching a compromise is for both parties to sit down and draw two circles that relate to the family problem. Write down everything you are unwilling to compromise on in the first circle. Write down the areas where you are willing to bend in the outer circle. Then, distribute the circles.
2. Engage in one-on-one conversations with family members. There are some families that do not work well as a unit. We’ve all been in dysfunctional groups with a negative dynamic at work. This sometimes comes out when everyone is together.
Instead of bringing up painful family issues during holiday gatherings or large family dinners, try to figure out who the conflict is really between. If it’s just you and one other family member, the rest of the family may feel very uncomfortable being dragged into it, because no one likes being forced to take a side.
Instead, invite the offending family member to join you for lunch or coffee. Speaking one-on-one in a neutral setting can be a much better way to address any grievances you or they may have. Individuals will say things they would be hesitant to say in a group.
Don’t try to talk to a family member if you’re distracted, working on a big work project, taking a lot of phone calls, doing the dishes, or something similar. Instead, put everything down to concentrate on the problem and them.
3. Call a family meeting. Although many disputes can be resolved one-on-one, there may be times when you need to gather the entire family to address a problem. This approach is best if the problem affects the entire family and is not the result of an interpersonal conflict between a few family members.
For example, the family problem could be a job loss, disability, or financial difficulties. Calling the family together to brainstorm solutions to the problem makes everyone feel as if they are contributing to a positive outcome.
Use the family council to develop a strategy for moving the family forward in a positive direction. A problem is usually solved better by a group of minds than by a single mind.
Make sure no one family member dominates the conversation, and explain that any anger or name-calling should be left at the door.
4. Send a letter to a family member. Although electronic communication can appear terse and impersonal at times, a heartfelt, handwritten letter can go a long way when dealing with difficult situations.
Handwriting is preferable because it is more personal. It demonstrates that you put thought and care into the letter, and it appears warmer. That will make the other family members realise you are making an effort.
Some people communicate better in writing but conceal their thoughts and emotions more when speaking in person or over the phone. If you are one of those people, writing a letter may be the best option.
You should explain how you feel and why you want to address the family issue in the letter. In the letter, use the word “I” more than the word “you” to express your point of view rather than blaming or speaking for others. Explain how the problem is affecting you, but also how and why you want the problem resolved.
5. Discuss a family issue with a child. When your children act disrespectfully, argue with siblings, or fail to complete their chores, they can become the source of family problems. If the child is very young, you may want to approach the situation differently.
Put the issue in front of the child. Explain the issue in detail. You could say something along the lines of, “We’ve noticed that you have a difficult time getting out of bed, which causes you to be frequently late for school. This is a problem that must be addressed.”
Don’t act irritated. Instead, ask the child for assistance in resolving the issue. Suggest that the child devise a plan to solve the problem with your assistance.
If the child makes progress toward solving the problem, give him or her positive reinforcement. Investigate the root causes of the problem. Is the child difficult to wake up because, for example, he or she spends too much time on social media?
Don’t pick favourites when it comes to children. Let the child know you love him or her and want to solve the problem because you care about the child and want things to be better for him or her.
Letting Go of Family Problems
1. Set some boundaries. If toxic family members are causing you harm or constant drama in your life, there is nothing wrong with drawing boundaries and setting limits. In fact, doing so can be beneficial.
The question is whether the family member has brought negativity into your life by draining you emotionally, stealing from you financially, undermining you, or engaging in any number of bad behaviours.
You have the right to set boundaries in order to protect yourself. For example, perhaps you still see the negative family member at family gatherings and treat them with dignity. However, you may have resolved never to meet with them one-on-one or lend them money. You have the legal right to do so.
Explain the boundaries in a warm and loving manner to the family member. Be firm, however. Maybe you won’t be able to stay at a family member’s house because fights always happen when you visit, so you’ll stay at a nearby hotel instead.
2. Recognize when it’s time to take a step back. There are some family issues that simply cannot be resolved. Some family issues take time to resolve as well. You may realise, as difficult as it is to admit, that it is truly healthier for you to cut the family member out of your life for the time being.
Some family issues, such as grief over a loved one or a parent’s inability to accept you for who you are, may have no solutions. Instead, you may have to accept that you have done everything possible to communicate and connect with your family, but to no avail. You may then need to move on from the problem and try to live your life as fully as possible.
Although such situations are intensely personal, if the family problem involves abuse, either physical or sexual, you should generally consider removing the family member from your life. Abuse, whether of yourself or others, should not be tolerated. Abuse should be reported to law enforcement or child protective services.
Another reason could be serious substance abuse issues that continue to have an impact on your life. You can try to persuade someone to help you, but if they continue to refuse, you may have to cut them out for your own peace of mind.
3. Seek professional help. It’s not for everyone, but some family problems are so deeply felt and toxic that only a professional can solve them. If nothing else has worked, it’s worth a shot, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of in seeking help.
If the family member in question refuses to attend counselling, you may be able to go on your own. A professional therapist can assist you in determining how to deal with the family member and how to mend the schism. Reading relationship books or joining a support group can also help some people.
If the family problem is rooted in issues such as mental illness or substance abuse by you or another family member, seeking professional help may be the only way for the family to begin healing. Some issues may be too difficult for you to solve on your own.
A counsellor can assist by simply listening to the problem with a neutral, objective ear. The expert may make suggestions that you did not consider or perceive aspects of the conflict that you would not because you are too close to it.
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