Making peace with your family

How to build bridges

Healing rifts with relatives and building bridges over past hurts is the best way to free yourself from childhood pain and ongoing family tensions, writes Stephanie Osfield.

Is your family dynamic a little edgy, like Modern Family, or completely dog-eat-dog, like the family in The Godfather movies? Did your parents have an inflexible approach that made your teen years feel like an odyssey of survival? Have they been disrespectful and judgemental of your adult choices – from partner to career? Or is your sibling the sticking point because they are a stirrer or self-centred and always creating constant conflict (think Cameron Diaz making life hell for Toni Collette’s character throughout In her Shoes?)

When you’ve been hurt by a family member, the wound can cut very deep. Give in to those ancient aches and resentment and you could be locked in an emotional holding pattern of forever churning over your painful past. Meanwhile, after family celebrations for Christmas or birthdays, you will waste precious hours debriefing about old insecurities, angers and irritations and feel them anew as family contact stirs up old, familiar feelings.

“The longer you cling to these old hurts, the more they continue to generate thoughts, emotions and actions that are not healthy or helpful for you,” says Sydney-based cross-cultural psychologist and mediator Jasmine Sliger. “By consciously choosing to forgive family members for what is past, you can break the cycle of anger and resentment and start letting that pain go.”

That doesn’t mean forgetting or wiping the slate clean. In some cases – such as child abuse – making a clean break from your parents may be the best way to heal yourself. However, in most families, enduring tension arises from one or two pivotal upsetting past events or a history of arguments/situations where you felt judged or unsupported. If so, making peace is not about denying you’ve been wronged. It involves putting that event into perspective and putting a lid on it so you can move on. Here’s how to foster family harmony:

Parent Problems

Understand their motivations

Imagine what you would have done in your parents’ shoes (and bear in mind their upbringing). “Parents do the best they can at the time; and sometimes their acts are out of protectiveness, love and a desire to guide their children on the right path,” Sliger says. “But if they were not well loved themselves, or are not very open-minded, it may be hard for them to show their feelings and develop healthy child-parent relationships or be open to changing with the times.”

Spotlight your own behaviour

Sometimes family dynamics arise because several members are pushing each other’s buttons. Recognising this pattern can help you prevent it from playing out at every family get-together. To break that cycle:

Shrug off family jibes: If the family joke is that you’re the rebel or the black sheep, instead of seething and railing against the label, say something like, ‘I know – I’m a one off and it’s impressive isn’t it? I’ve always insisted on thinking about things deeply and making up my own mind so that my choices help me live an authentic life.’ Even if they don’t get what you’re driving at they will probably avoid another comment to skip more rebuttal from you.

Zip your lip on some topics: If you have polar opposite views about asylum seekers, politics or climate, avoid defending them in family debates. You will rarely change anyone’s mind, so exercise some verbal willpower – even if it almost physically hurts to remain quiet – then have a little rave about your true feelings with your partner or flatmate when you get home.

Lose the blame

Stop trying to prove you are/were right

Pushing your parents to apologise for their 10pm curfews when you were 17 or their ridiculous carry-on when you moved in with your partner will just make them feel unappreciated and defensive and may cause further alienation. Tell your parents, if you must, how upsetting you found those hard times – preferably in a letter so you don’t say something you regret. Then say, ‘But it’s not healthy for me to dwell on it so I’m finding ways to move on.’

Don’t expect perfection

Remind yourself of things you have said or done to friends or partners that you later came to regret. No-one is perfect. “If you always demand ‘perfect’ behaviour from those close to you, they may resent the unrealistic high standards you hold, which you don’t always meet yourself,” warns Melbourne-based psychologist Meredith Fuller.

Offer the olive branch

Be involved with your parents in a way that says, ‘I want to get closer to you’, suggests Fuller. Make a family tree, or get their life story on tape. “Write a speech for your parents’ birthdays or anniversary and include anecdotes about the most valued aspects of your upbringing. Suggest you get together once a fortnight for a family picnic or a coffee or brunch. Ring them regularly to update them with what’s going on in your life. “When talking with them, don’t forget to ask how they are, so they realise you regard them as people who have needs and feelings, too,” says Fuller.

Sibling rivalry

Clever sibling, responsible sibling, sporty sibling, successful sibling – was your sister or brother favoured as the ‘golden child’ by your parents? Did they rub salt into the wound by being ever competitive or condescending with you?

“Unless you overcome it, this sibling resentment can spill over into all aspects of your life,” Fuller warns. “It may later trigger you to resent your partner or boss if their behaviour mirrors that of your troublesome sister or brother.”

In light of this, resolving old hurts and issues is important, so make an effort to:

Come clean

Arrange an Oprah-style luncheon with your sibling to share feelings, listen and wipe the slate clean. Explain that you don’t want these old wounds to stand in the way of your relationship any longer. “Just be careful not to be drawn into a tit-for-tat slanging match,” says Sliger. “If things start to heat up, agree to disagree and move on to another subject.”

Avoid comparisons

“Trust in and be proud of your life choices,” says Fuller. “This will help you to avoid comparing your talents and successes with siblings then feeling inferior.” If your sibling makes little putdowns, call them on it – without losing your temper. “Use ‘I’ statements,” says Fuller. “So say, ‘When you make comments like that I feel hurt and then it is hard to be close to you.’

Forgiving and building bridges with family members nourishes your own emotional and physical wellbeing. Putting previous family pain to rest without denying or underplaying its impact gives you strength. The process empowers you to let go of deep emotions like disappointment, bitterness and anger. Once you no longer feel like a fragile victim, you’re able to learn from the past and thrive in the future. 

NEXT: Are you in a controlling relationship? 


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