How to manage obnoxious, unkind, unfair and disrespectful kin.
As the season for family get togethers approaches, numerous clients reach out to their therapists for an inoculation of protection, meant to shield them from the verbal and emotional land mines they will encounter when stepping into their extended family zones. A therapist can assure a client that if it isn’t safe, for whatever reason, it is perfectly OK not to go at all, but few back away and insist on running into the burning house anyway.
“I will never hear the end of it if I don’t go,” they insist. “And I can’t see the relatives I do like without seeing the ones I don’t.
Excellent boundaries will take care of all of it, but only a small percentage of clients practice them. Instead, justifications for electing to endure holiday family torture are many. People go, and what happens inside will most likely be as it usually is, a bombardment of unwanted questions, comments, actions and judgments that send the visitor’s autonomic nervous system on high alert. Here’s a few of the most common scenarios, and what to do about them:
1. Problem: Parents of adult children deem that everything their child does is their business and theirs to comment on, critique, control and correct. All advice is binding and if it isn’t taken, they will punish said child with a negative outcome such as the silent treatment, open disapproval, threat of disinheritance or criticism.
Healthy reality: Parents of adult children should stay out of a grown child’s business unless requested to enter into it. The only healthy stance for parents of adults is to love, accept, support, cheerlead and stand by as a wise consultant if asked. Here is how the math works when it goes the other way — the more the elder parents meddle, the more their adult child will dread seeing them, and the more the concept of estrangement becomes likely.
Appropriate Response: Let your family know that you are grown up now and therefore it is inappropriate to offer unsolicited advice. Request that they not offer up observations or critiques unless asked. If they don’t respect that request, it’s time to minimize the time you spend with them. Then, when they complain that they don’t see you as often, tell them it is because they did not respect your boundary. When it comes to inheritance, don’t sell yourself out to get family money. Live and prepare as if you will never get anything, as many families blow their fortunes or don’t leave what you think they will. Adopt a stance of, “If I get some money or property, great, but I’m not going to lose myself to get it.” Banking on inheritance and allowing abuse because of it is terrible self-care.
2. Problem: Adult child arrives with a friend, partner, spouse or child, and certain family members engage in a cruel form of entertainment by telling shameful and embarrassing stories from the family repertoire about the adult child, who played the starring role in a wide array of foolish debacles best forgotten. The family may laugh, but the embarrassed adult feels exposed and violated, because they are.
Healthy reality: Families should never tell stories about other family members when the theme is not uplifting, loving and/or kind. Throwing such a person under the story-telling bus is verbal and emotional abuse, and a form of bullying. If you even think of doing such a thing, ask your family member’s permission to tell the story first, in private, and if they say no, don’t do it.
Response: If your family is not diplomatic and political, meaning they are not kind and don’t consider the long-term ramifications of their actions, and they choose to abuse and control you, there is only one solution, spend your holidays elsewhere. If that is too harsh, you can first tell them if they ever do something like that again you will disappear for a very long time, then if they repeat the shaming stories, do that.
3. Problem: “They like other family members better than me.” Mom forms an alliance with her grown daughter against her second daughter, etc.
Healthy reality: I hear about this one every year, always from the excluded person. Most of us favor one parent over another, or one sibling or child over another, and that is just being human. The fact is some people are more likable or have more interests in common with us than others. Healthy people don’t make their preferences obvious in the interest of family well-being and harmony. In dysfunctional families, especially ones where at least one parent is a narcissist, there will be a golden child, and a black sheep or neglected child. They make it blatantly obvious which child is which, and they will rally gangs of family members to try and negatively control the errant sheep, a concept beloved by narcissists known as Divide and Conquer.
Response: Don’t give in to the attempts to control. These people are not trainable, it is what it is, and if it happens to you find people who treat you as the precious human you are.
4. Problem: Grandparents undermine young parents with the grandchildren.
Healthy reality. Young families are the rulers of their own domain, and the beliefs and values they follow are the law in their family unit, so young families get to choose how they raise their children. Grandparents in functional families respect these values and have conversations with their children about what boundaries they should follow regarding visits, roles, indulgences, and what they share.
Response: If you haven’t set clear understandings and boundaries with your parents about what you need regarding their relationship with your children, don’t delay in doing it. Each spouse should be the one who does this with their own parents. Breaches of these values or rules moving forward should be pointed out, and requests to respect them reiterated. If Grandparents don’t respect the young family’s wishes, it should not be ignored. Instead, a harsh reprimand and warning of losing access to the grandchildren should be put on the table. If they continue to do as they choose, minimize access or cut them off. Note: It is perfectly healthy and normal to allow some Grandparent indulgence and rule-breaking, that is part of the fun of Grandparents, but you get a say in what that is. For example: No TV at your house, but the kids can watch a couple of shows when with your parents.
One thing that is vitally important is to understand how important it is to speak out when someone crosses the line, whether family, friend, or co-worker. So many people feel the emotional pain of being breached, the raising of the heart rate and rising steam, but end up absorbing the negative energy and saying nothing. This is extremely damaging. Our souls need us to say something, to have a voice. This will allow us to discharge the negative energy of the moment instead of absorbing and storing it. This does not mean being unkind, disrespectful, or going on the attack, it means a calm response, like, “Wow, I’m sorry you feel that way,” or “That really hurts when you say or do things like that,” or “I wish you would respect my wishes.” If you find it difficult to do it in the moment, your soul will be OK with a response later, but make sure you do it. This is excellent self-care.