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Going Home Again: Family Communication Tips for Adults

» Mental Health Library » Treatment Approaches » Family Therapy » Featured Article

By: Karen Wulfson, LMFT

Karen Wulfson, LMFT

You're an adult now - really you are! Your employer thinks you're an adult. Your friends have no doubts about your age and adulthood. You pay your bills, maintain a busy calendar, negotiate your rent or mortgage, and accomplish other "adult" tasks. And - most of the time - you actually believe you are an adult...

Then the phone rings, there's a knock at the door or you are in the process of honorably fulfilling that adult responsibility - a visit to your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or other extended family members - and suddenly you seem to shrink to small-child stature. While the law says you officially became an adult at a specific age, you may not really feel "grown up" until several years later. But, someone forgot to tell your family! Your parents (and others who saw you grow up) still see you as a child. You are still, to your family, a kid. No matter how successful you are, your family may have a tough time forging a new relationship - with the adult you now are. That's normal and happens to most of us. 

But, another thing happens in families. Over the years, family members develop and rehearse - over and over - a family script. Each person has a role and is expected by others to be consistent in acting out the lines dictated by that role. You might have had the experience of predicting what your parent will say before the words actually can be heard. However, when one person significantly changes the script, everyone else is likely to be surprised and to try mightily to get the offender back on track.

For example, maybe you were always considered the shy, quiet one - the one who would just go along, rather than make waves. But, that's not the adult you now are. You've learned how to be assertive and have (mostly) overcome that shyness. So - you go home and try that new assertive you on your family. You've now tweaked that script and changed the rules - without telling anyone. You probably won't much like your family's response, as they try to get back the child they once knew - the one who doesn't cause such problems. 

The harder your family works at getting back the old you, the more likely it is that they will be successful. That is, unless you know how to educate your family about the person you've become. If you don't, you will probably leave each of these interactions feeling, once again, like the child you thought you'd left behind. You might feel guilty at having contributed to the family discord, angry at being discounted, frustrated at "failing" one more time with your family or just sad that the progress you thought you'd made seems to have disappeared - at least, for now.  

The bottom line may be that what could have been a pleasant, non-conflicted interaction has now turned into the "same old thing" you went through as a child. And you may end up (no matter what age you now are) needing some time and help to feel, once again, like the competent adult you really are.  

Keep reading if you'd like some tips for dealing with those family communication challenges.

12 TIPS FOR MORE EFFECTIVE ADULT FAMILY COMMUNICATION 

  1. Remind yourself (often!) that it's normal for your family to forget that you are an adult!

  2. Prepare for phone calls and visits, so that you don't have to improvise on the spot.

  3. Make a list of the positive characteristics of the mature person you now are. Include the tasks of adulthood - especially those you think your family doesn't recognize in you. For example, a list might include items such as these: financially responsible, good parent, successful at living independently, stable friends, able to speak up when necessary, etc.

  4. Include on your list, even the small positives in your life, such as paying off a small debt, telling a friend something difficult, etc.

  5. Write each item on a small card, to review when you need reminders of who you've become.

  6. Take some alone time (before a phone call or visit) to remember your successes - and how good that feels. Notice your body probably feels different and less tense, when you stay in touch with the competent, confident you. Remember that feeling - you'll need it later.

  7. Practice using positive self-talk, using your cards if necessary, to get back the good feeling that comes from remembering your successes.

  8. Before each interaction with a potentially problematic family member, use that self-talk and then remind yourself of how confident and competent you really are in most of your life. If anything happens in a conversation to cause you to revert to that child-like feeling, excuse yourself for a minute (bathroom visit, urgent phone call, etc.), and use that time to read those cards! Then return to the conversation.

  9. Don't change the rules, alter the script, without telling the other person. If they don't expect something different, they'll work even harder to get things back to "normal."

  10. You might want to try this format for explaining your changes to your family: First, acknowledge what is happening. Then explain what you want or plan on doing.

  11. Include some version of appreciation for their efforts in each statement.

  12. Try something like this to announce a rules change: "I know I'm sounding a little different (acknowledgement), but I'd really appreciate it if you'd hear me out on this (what you want)." Or, "I know you're concerned about me (acknowledgement) and I really appreciate that. I promise to let you know if I need some help (what you plan on doing)."  

These are only a few strategies for more effectively communicate with your family. If you'd like some help figuring out why you're having such a tough time with your family, and if you would like to develop a more extended "tool-box" of strategies for more effective communication with family members, this might be the time to seek out some professional help. I offer consultation and counseling - and a free phone consultation to help you figure out what your next step should be.

About the Author...

Karen Wulfson, LMFT, has a private practice in Beverly Hills. She has a special interest in helping adults, adolescents, and families communicate effectively and without conflict, both professionally and personally. Karen also has developed strategies designed to help parents and school personnel to find more effective ways to communicate with each other. Visit Karen's website: http://www.karenwulfson.com for more information.

Click here to contact or learn more about Karen Wulfson

Last Update: 5/26/2009



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