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How to Tackle Difficult Conversations With Your Family

by
author image Kate Cummins, PsyD
Kate Cummins, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in health and neuropsychology. She works with brain injury in the acute hospital setting. She also has two private practice locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, working with athletes in sports psychology, as well as women’s issues: infertility, depression, anxiety and life transitions.
How to Tackle Difficult Conversations With Your Family
Difficult conversations don't have to be awkward. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/Photographee.eu

It’s human nature to want to avoid having difficult or uncomfortable conversations, especially with family. But more often than not, those conversations can help avoid future conflict and bring people closer together.

Typically, people have a challenging time discussing important topics with their family because they’re afraid of how to approach the topic or what the outcome will be. Here is a list of five important and tough discussions you might need to have with your family members, as well as how to approach the topics.

1. Adulthood, Independence and Life Choices

The transition from childhood to adulthood can be a rocky one, as you gain more independence from your parents, but still rely on them for emotional and financial support. You may be planning to change your major, move to a different city for a new job or reveal your sexuality to your parents.

These developmental shifts, termed “early adult transition” (17 to 22 years) and “entering the adult world” (22 to 28 years) by psychologist Daniel Levinson, come with a ton of important life choices.

As you make more and more decisions for yourself, how do you bring up topics to your parents without miscommunication? The more boundaries that are established prior to a big discussion like this, the stronger you’ll feel.

  • Schedule a time with your parents to FaceTime or meet in person with you.
  • Write a list of the important points you want to make, and practice them in your head.
  • Tell your parents ahead of time that you’d like the first 10 minutes to share your news without interruption.
  • If you feel like your parents aren’t going to listen or support you, have a friend waiting for you after the meeting is over. That way you have some outside support.

By providing boundaries and support for yourself, you’re loving yourself through whatever the outcome of their responses are.

Don't let a death in the family tear relationships apart.
Don't let a death in the family tear relationships apart. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/mdennah

2. Death and Other Tragedies

Do you remember the first time you saw your parents cry over the death of a loved one? You thought, “This isn’t supposed to happen!” Or maybe you watched them go through divorce, struggle with a cross-country moves or deal with national tragedies like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina?

Every family goes through tough times together. There are many events that affect families, and it can be difficult to discuss them. However, it’s important to bond over challenges rather than letting them drive you apart.

But how do you all come together when something is tearing everyone apart? There has to be one family member who’ll take the lead. If that person is you, gather your family together.

  • Discuss happy events that have happened when you’ve been together in the past.
  • Ask your family members to reflect on things they’ve learned or began to appreciate through the sad events.
  • If there’s been a death in the family, reflect on your favorite memories of that person.

This type of communication promotes coming together and helping each other get through the difficult times.

Read more: 10 Things to Never Say to a Person Who’s Grieving

3. Breakups, Mental Health and Addiction

No one has a perfect life. We all have ups and downs, but most people try to hide the rough patches and disengage when times get tough. This can often leave them with depressive or anxious thoughts and may keep them socially isolated from the support they need from their family and friends.

Difficult challenges, such as breakups, divorce, substance abuse or mental health issues, are difficult to discuss because people don’t want to overstep relationship boundaries. However, most of the time, someone who’s going through these types of challenges needs a verbal push from a loved one in order to make changes.

When you see someone you love struggling with personal issues, come up with a game plan on how to approach him or her. It may be helpful to include another family member to help problem-solve or come up with resources for professional help.

  • You can call a treatment center to get a better sense of whether the signs you’re seeing are worrisome enough to act on right away.
  • When you feel like the time is right, tell the person you’re worried about him or her.
  • Send him or her the resources you’ve gathered (websites, treatment centers, therapists, etc.).

You never know when someone is ready for change, so offering assistance is the best way to help him or her with this process.

Read more: 10 Things to Never Say to Someone With Depression

Address tension before it gets out of hand.
Address tension before it gets out of hand. Photo Credit: Constantinis/iStock/Getty Images

4. Family Conflict

Relationships are hard work. And relationships with family members can be exceptionally so. As much as you try to love someone and do good things for him or her, you’ve also probably been in a position of hurting or being hurt by someone.

Have you fought with a sibling or called them mean names? Did one of your parents tell you things to intentionally exclude the other parent? Did you ever feel like your family was stressed all the time — and that the anxiety or stress was always dumped on you?

These behavioral patterns coincide with psychologist Murray Bowen’s patterns govern run a family system:

  • Emotional cutoff: completely cutting ties/communication with someone
  • Communication triangles: spreading tension of a relationship between two people to include a third without resolving anything
  • Family projection processes: parents passing on their own emotional problems to their children

These types of emotional patterns happen over and over again in most families, but you have the power to change them. When you get back with certain family members, pay attention to how you communicate and interact.

If you notice negative communication styles, bring it up to those family members and tell them you want to create change. Family systems psychotherapists can help you out if everyone is ready and willing to work on making your family unit a little healthier.

Read more: 7 Ways to Set Clear Boundaries With People in Your Life

5. Finances, Living Wills and Advanced Directives

The aging process and death is undoubtedly the most difficult discussion to have with an aging parent. In an adult child-parent relationship there’s a shift in duties as parents begin to get older and the reality of them not being around forever starts to set in.

Most children and parents put off having this discussion. But medical and financial realities must be addressed. For example, most aging parents have property, family heirlooms and finances that they have no idea of where and how they’ll be distributed when they’re gone.

In addition, many older adults know exactly what they want in regards to hospital care and termination of life, but they won’t talk about it. That leaves adult children trying to make difficult decisions on their own.

Treat both aging and finances like a business meeting. Sit down with your parents in the next 30 days, hire an attorney to help with legal necessities and begin with responsible choices. If you’re an older adult and your children are having a hard time discussing these issues, get all legal matters taken care of and send them an email with bulleted points on everything you’ve done.

What Do YOU Think?

Have you had to have difficult conversations with family members? What did you do? Or are there conversations on the table that you still haven’t had? Do any of these tips help make the conversation any easier? What else would you recommend from previous experiences? Share your suggestions and stories in the comments section below.

Read more: 10 Toughest Health Topics to Discuss With Your Significant Other

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