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 vs. children, parent vs. parent, older child vs. 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 our mental health. If we don’t learn how to deal with our family issues, they can impact our self-esteem and our abiity to form other healthy relationships later on in life. So it’s important to learn healthy skills for communication. While every family situation is going to be different, there are some basic tools you can use to manage conflict in a healthy way, recognize dysfunctional family behavior, and take care of yourself.

If you or someone you know is looking for help resolving family conflicts, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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 family or dysfunctional family, working through conflicts in a healthy way 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 healthier ways 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. While it is understandable that each person wants to have their viewpoint validated, this can lead to a focus on winning the argument rather than actually reaching a solution. Instead of viewing an argument as you vs. your family, try to view it as you and your family vs. the problem. The view that you’re all on the same side can help de-escalate tensions 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” or even just “I hate my mom,” you are viewing you and your mom on opposite sides and you’ll be less likely to hear her out during an argument. If you can reframe the problem so that it’s not you vs. your mom but you and your mom vs. staying out late, you may be able to find healthier solutions to conflict and better understand your mom’s perspective.

Be Honest

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

Pick Your Battles

In times of stress, or in families with unresolved issues, small disagreements can quickly snowball into full fights. Fighting can become a way for people to express anger about bigger issues without actually getting to the root of the problem. Learning when to argue and when to step away can keep the focus on the immediate conflict that needs solving and may prevent more issues from arising.

Stay on Track

In families with lots of unresolved issues, sometimes one argument can bring up past feelings that have been kept bottled up. Similar to learning how to pick your battles, learning to keep on track can help you stay on the issue that is relevant to the situation without getting sidetracked by other unresolved issues.

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 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 in the conversation to have a set amount of time to speak (say 3 minutes each) and to go back and forth for either that set amount of time or for as long as it is needed to get their feelings and perspectives out into the open. You can even set a timer to be sure everyone has structured time.

While someone is sharing, it is important that other participants stay quiet and listen. This can be difficult to do when tensions are high, but when the aim is not to win the argument, but to better understand one another and find solutions, having uninterrupted time to both share and really listen can really help. If you find yourself just waiting to respond instead of listening to understand the other person, take a moment to bring yourself back to the present and to the core question(s) that need to be addressed at the moment.

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 when tensions aren’t so high.

Set and Maintain Boundaries

An important part of resolving a conflict and preventing future conflicts is being as honest as you can and 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 feel hurt and self-conscious when you make comments about my appearance. If you say that again, I will need to step away and take time for myself.”
  • If a sibling or child stays out past curfew: “When you stay out past curfew, I worry that you are hurt or something bad has happened. If you know you are going to be late, I need you to text me so that I know you are safe.”
  • 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 period of time, but cannot stay long.” Or, “I appreciate the invitation but will pass on this now and visit you another day.”

Once a truth is spoken and 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 scenarios and conflicts stay unproductive or one-sided, or if they escalate to more harmful or potentially dangerous behavior, consider bringing in someone else who can mediate a 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 of the advice for dealing with family drama, like the advice listed here, 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.

Dysfunctional families often struggle with multiple family conflicts that affect the basic needs of the family members or create unhealthy power imbalances—for example, a parent with a substance misuse issue or untreated mental illness, or a parent who 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 find yourself in a space that’s calm or 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. With that in mind, here are some helpful reminders if you’re you’re struggling to unpack family drama and figure out your place in the family dynamic:

It’s Okay to Redefine Relationships

If you are constantly arguing or defending yourself, or you’re not seeing any progress in how conflicts are being resolved, you may need to redefine your relationship with the people who you have difficulty with. In order to protect both of you from further conflict, you may see them or talk to them less, and learn to expect less from your relationship with them. Remember, enforcing boundaries with people who are harmful to you is healthy. Putting distance between you and someone who causes you pain does not mean you are a bad or unforgiving person.

You Are Not Alone

Family drama can feel very isolating for everyone involved. Sometimes we may feel shame, guilt, or humiliation because of how our family handles big challenges. Remember that there may be supportive people outside your family —such as a friend group, a school counselor, or a coach—who can help you unpack what you’re going through and deal with how it’s impacting you. Others in your life can also help you reach personal goals when your family doesn’t offer you a supportive environment.

If you feel a lot of burdens or responsibilities when you’re at home, finding a friend group with whom you can relax and have fun can help alleviate some of the pressure you feel.

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 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 or uncomfortable emotions.

One way of taking care of your mental health is by seeing a therapist or a counselor. Just like there are therapists who specialize in working with families, you can also find a therapist or other 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.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

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.

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