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5 tips for surviving your family

by Carolyne Whelan

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Summer vacation and holiday weekends mean one thing: a lot of family time. That can range from an extra hour on the phone with mom to back-to-back barbecues with the whole crew. It can also be a time rife with miscommunication and conflict.

For all the traits we share with our family, we view the world and interact with it from our own unique perspectives. So, naturally, what we say and how we say it is sometimes misinterpreted. But all’s not lost for those who struggle to have happy and healthy relationships with the people closest to them. Here are five tips to get you through the heat.

  1. Stop and listen

So much of our verbal conflict comes from a place of defensiveness, which is a response to not feeling heard. A great first step in helping someone calm their tone is to take a moment and truly listen to what they have to say. According to family therapist Nanci Brown of Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington, mirroring a person’s words back to them helps show you are listening and have heard what they said without immediately projecting or placing blame. “Rather than trying to look away or deflect, look back at what the person is saying and how they feel,” Brown says.

  1. Respond with kindness

In her book, “How to Communicate Like a Buddhist,” Cynthia Kane describes her unhealthy relationship with her mother. “I love my mom, I just always thought she was judging me, second guessing me, and I couldn’t stand it when she gave me advice that I didn’t ask for,” she says. “It made me feel like she didn’t trust me or know what I was doing.” But after taking the time to assess the situation and respond in a way that is helpful and kind, their whole dynamic changed.

“Most of us come to our adult relationships with baggage from childhood: wasn’t seen, wasn’t heard, wasn’t validated or acknowledged,” Brown says. By validating “you tell the person you see how their argument makes sense from their perspective”; by empathizing, you “make the person know that you respect their emotions and understand.”

  1. Give yourself space

It is difficult for most of us to reach a point of non-self-judgment, but it’s worth the effort to look in the mirror and truly see yourself—without judging looks or success—and respect yourself as you are. “It’s from this place of self-compassion that I can communicate with people from a place of non-judgment, and that’s where happiness comes from,” says Kane. “How I communicate with myself is how I communicate with you. The point of communication is to help each other.”

  1. Step outside

Many adult children share the experience of feeling undermined by their parents and not respected as adults. But all the blame isn’t to be placed on our parents.

“It’s so often that you can be a completely other person outside of your family, but the minute you come back into your family, you turn back into your 12-year-old self,” says Brown. “If there is a yearning to be known differently, take them out of that dynamic so that you act more like the self you see yourself as.”

Brown suggests creating a routine of family meetings where people can express themselves and their needs from a young age in a safe space where everyone has a voice.

  1. Call for backup

Brown says that outside help can often be the key to a healthy relationship: “[I]f you really desire change in the family dynamic then I do recommend a professional. If not a therapist, then maybe a religious leader [or] someone outside the family who can offer perspective.”

Carolyne Whelan

Carolyne Whelan is a freelance writer who covers mental and physical health, as well as adventure travel. She loves mountain biking, blueberry pancakes, and the desert. She can be found at