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Unpacking Family Drama

We all experience family drama at one time or another. Maybe we don’t get along with our siblings, or a parent disapproves of a choice we have made. Or maybe it’s something more significant, like a substance misuse issue, a divorce, or family members not approving of aspects of our identity. 

What’s more, family drama is often complicated by the natural power dynamics — parents versus children, parent versus parent, older child versus younger child — or power imbalances that come from financial dependence or cultural practices.

Growing up in a family with lots of drama, dysfunction, or unresolved issues can impact mental health, self-esteem, and your ability to form other healthy relationships. While every family situation is different, there are some basic tools you can use to manage conflict, recognize dysfunctional family behavior, and take care of yourself.

Tips for Resolving Family Conflicts

Family conflicts can be stressful and emotionally charged. In some families, issues can be worked through with open and honest communication. In a toxic or dysfunctional family, working through conflicts may seem impossible. If you are struggling with an unhealthy family dynamic, there are some techniques you and your family members can try to break your current cycles of conflict and find a way forward.

Reframe the Argument

One helpful strategy is to reframe the challenge in a way that allows for multiple perspectives to be expressed and understood. Understandably, each person wants to have their viewpoint validated, but it can lead to a focus on winning the argument rather than reaching a solution. Instead of viewing an argument as you versus your family, try to view it as you and your family versus the problem. The view that you’re all on the same side can help de-escalate tension and make it easier to find fair compromises.

For example, let’s say you and your mom fight over your curfew. If you frame a problem as “my mom is controlling me,” you might be less likely to hear her out during an argument. If you can reframe the problem as you and your mom versus staying out late, you may be able to better understand your mom’s perspective and work toward a solution.

Be Honest

You may feel like you shouldn’t fully express yourself during a conflict. Maybe you have been taught not to show your feelings, want to spare the feelings of others, or think if you keep quiet the fight will end faster. But if you aren’t honest about what is happening with you (which can take some time and self-awareness), you might experience more conflict down the line. When sharing your feelings, it is helpful to remain calm and respectful, and focus on the issue at hand.

Stay on Track

In families with lots of unresolved issues, sometimes one argument can bring up past feelings that have been bottled up.

For example, let’s say you are arguing about a family member’s spending habits because they purchased something they couldn’t afford. Taking time to understand other people’s perspectives and staying focused on the topic causing conflict, rather than letting the discord spread into other areas of your relationship, can really help. 

In this case, it means focusing on the impact of that specific purchase rather than bringing up every other time they managed money differently from you.

Take Breaks and Take Turns

One way to handle heated topics is to plan for each person to have a set amount of time to speak (say, three minutes each) and to go back and forth for that set amount of time. You can even set a timer to ensure the conversation remains structured and fair.

While someone is sharing, other participants should stay quiet and listen — which can be difficult to do when tensions are high. If you find yourself just waiting to respond instead of listening to understand the other person, take a moment to breathe and bring yourself back to the present and to the core question that needs to be addressed.

If you feel that a discussion or argument has strayed from its original point, or if you and the others involved are too upset to listen calmly, it may be best to step away and revisit the topic at another time.

Set and Maintain Boundaries

An important part of resolving a conflict is setting boundaries: limits you set to protect and respect your time, energy, emotions, and resources. This can look like:

  • If a family member comments on your weight or looks: “I don’t like it when you make comments about my appearance. If you say that again, I will need to step away and take time for myself.”
  • If your sibling frequently takes your things without asking: “I feel disrespected when you take my [item] without asking me first. I’m happy to share with you from time to time, but I would like you to ask first.”
  • If you are approaching a holiday with family members who are hurtful to you: “I understand you would like me to come to Thanksgiving dinner, but I feel like other family members are often unkind to me at these gatherings. I can come for a short time, but cannot stay long.” Or, “I appreciate the invitation but will pass on this now and visit you another day.”

Once a boundary is set, it’s important to follow through. This may require reminding others about your boundary when it is forgotten, questioned, or minimized. If you continue to feel like your needs and boundaries are overlooked, you may need to remove yourself from the situation and take time to consider how to best communicate and meet your needs.

Involve a Trusted Third Party

It’s often hard to remain objective about family drama. Every family member brings their own point of view, past experiences, and unresolved issues into conflicts. If you try these conflict resolution tips and the conversations stay unproductive or one-sided, or if they escalate to more harmful or potentially dangerous behavior, consider bringing in someone else who can mediate the conflict. 

This can be another family member or family friend, or even a therapist who specializes in working with families. Talking issues through with a third party can provide a neutral perspective and keep the conversation from escalating.

When You Are Struggling to Resolve Family Drama

Most advice for dealing with family drama often works in ideal scenarios. But real life can be a lot messier, and it’s important to recognize when a family dynamic becomes dysfunctional or toxic.

When there is dysfunction in families there are usually multiple conflicts that affect the basic needs of the family members or create unhealthy power imbalances, such as when a parent has a substance misuse issue or untreated mental illness or is neglectful or abusive.

If you feel sad, angry, or anxious about spending time with your family members, or you don’t feel comforted, supported, or accepted by your family, you may be in a toxic family environment. Sometimes there can be one family member who causes conflicts, and sometimes the whole family dynamic can feel unhealthy or stressful.

If you have a toxic or dysfunctional family, you may not feel safe enough to do things like express yourself honestly, bring in a mediator, or set healthy boundaries without negative consequences. If you identify with this, remember that you can’t control how another family member acts — you can only control how you respond. 

Here are some helpful reminders if you’re navigating a toxic family dynamic:

It’s OK to Redefine Relationships

If you are constantly arguing or defending yourself, or you’re not seeing any progress in how conflicts are resolved, you may need to redefine your relationships. 

To protect yourself from further conflict, you may choose to see a certain family member less or talk to them less, and learn to expect less from your relationship with them. Remember, putting distance between you and someone who causes you pain does not mean you are a bad or unforgiving person. Enforcing boundaries with people who are harmful to you is healthy.

You Are Not Alone

Family drama can feel very isolating. You may feel shame, guilt, or humiliation because of how your family handles challenges. Remember that there may be supportive people outside your family — such as a friend, a school counselor, or a coach — who can help you unpack what you’re going through. Don’t be afraid to lean on them for support.

Take Care of Yourself

We often look to our family members to help take care of our needs. If you are struggling with family drama, you may need to find other ways to take care of your own physical health and emotional well-being. Practicing self-care can help you lower stress, which in turn, may help you feel more prepared to handle difficult family situations.

One way of taking care of your mental health is by seeing a therapist or a counselor. Just like some therapists specialize in working with families, you can also find a therapist or another mental health professional who can help you process your feelings about family issues. 

If you want to talk to someone but don’t know where to start, you can text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free and confidential conversation at any time.

You can also learn more about how to get help, from finding a therapist or mental health care option that works for you to taking care of yourself while you’re waiting for support.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.