Family Counseling

Reducing Family Arguments, Conflict, and Debate: 5 Tips to Keep Friction to a Minimum

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By Lauren Thomas Hale, MA

A family is a complicated thing.  Gathered around a holiday meal or celebrating a mutual milestone, your family may experience a host of highs and lows as you navigate a myriad of emotions and perspectives about each other’s respective lives.

Family members are usually the people who love us, support us, and encourage us. However, they can also be the people with whom we fight the most.

Why are family arguments often more stressful than other arguments? To start with, it can feel terrible to fight with the people who know us the best. Moreover, your conflicts may be rooted in long-standing, unresolved issues that can bubble to the surface during family gatherings and sudden close, daily interaction.

Even if you aren’t actually discussing those old issues, they can play a role in how you feel about each other. Most of us don’t want to feel resentful or angry with those closest to us. Therefore, it is beneficial to learn how to keep friction to a minimum. Here are five helpful tips for the holidays and beyond:

1. Simply Don’t Engage

It takes two people to argue. If you refuse to participate in the argument, it can’t go anywhere. By not responding or reacting, you diffuse the situation.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. Your family members know exactly how to get under your skin. If they are used to arguing with you in a certain way, then they will be uncomfortable when you don’t engage. Therefore, they may try even harder to pull you into the argument.

If at all possible, disengage. Options include:

  • Taking slow, deep breaths until you can respond calmly

  • Counting backward from ten (or one hundred!)

  • Doing a body scan to notice tension and release it

  • Telling your family member that you need time to think about what they’ve said

  • Respectfully stating that you don’t want to have a disagreement, and calmly walking away

2. Ask Questions

Arguments happen because both people believe they are right. You are each locked into your own positions. Moreover, you are trying to change the other person’s mind. Instead, try becoming curious about the other person’s position. You don’t have to agree with them, but you can work to understand them without trying to change their opinion. As you soften your position by getting to know theirs, they may do the same for you.

3. Use “I” Statements

Speak from a place of your own truth. State what you think, feel, and believe. However, make it clear that you know that this is just your experience. Express an interest in sharing your experience without blaming, shaming, or arguing. Use the following framework:

  • I feel (blank)

  • When (blank happens)

  • This makes me want to (blank)

  • I’d like to do (blank) instead

For example, “I feel anxious when people start raising their voices. This makes me want to run away. I’d like to be able to have a quiet conversation instead.” This is more effective than, “You are so mean, and if you yell at me again, I’m leaving.”

4. Use “Yes, and” Statements

Another effective way to reduce family arguments is to agree with everyone. Acknowledge that they have a valid point of view. Use, “yes, and” statements to convey that you are on their side. At the same time, these statements allow you to speak your truth.

For example, let’s say that your brother-in-law calls you selfish. You can argue until your blue in the face about how unselfish you are. However, he will probably not agree. Instead, try saying, “yes, sometimes I can be a little bit selfish, and I do that because I am scared that if I don’t stand up for myself, then no one else will.”

5. Open Up Communication Slowly and Steadily

The midst of an argument is not the time to resolve big family issues. It takes time and hard work to solve family arguments. Therefore, start slowly. Begin by just opening up to your family members in small ways. Share more of yourself. Over time, it will become easier for everyone to calmly share their truths.

There are many underlying issues that lead to family arguments. Therapy can help you identify the issues, work toward resolution and understanding, and learn how to make family gatherings the joy you know they can be.

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Lauren Thomas Hale, MA, LPC Intern, works with couples and individuals at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. Lauren’s use of mindfulness practices in her therapeutic approach helps her clients enter a state of mind which is calm, receptive, and balanced. To schedule your appointment with Lauren, you can reach her at (512) 270-4883, ext. 114, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

How Healthy Boundaries Provide Just the Right Amount of Distance to Connect You

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Navigating close relationships can be tricky.

Especially close relationships with family members.  Often, you come together for winter holidays, graduations, baby showers or other milestones. And all you want is to gather for some low-conflict, person-to-person bonding. One big happy family. But before long, you may find that your family experiences what many others do.

Your father inevitably crosses a line at the Labor Day barbecue, your sister betrays a confidence at Christmas dinner, or your mother-in-law becomes a critic at your daughter’s June wedding. And eventually, your family’s gatherings become an experiment in all the ways you can get on each other’s nerves.

Why?

What’s blocking the path to family harmony?

Honestly, lots of personalities exist in families. Everyone has a shared history but there are also many individual hang-ups, opinions, issues, and backstories at play.

Sometimes the lack of boundaries creates enmeshed family units that have a hard time dealing with each other, unless they are all thinking the same way and deeply connected to the status quo. Other families guilt and blame each other (or certain members) for the trials of the entire group. Still, others maintain a hostile or disrespectful environment despite attempts to come together.

You don’t really need to manage all of that. However, a strong grasp on healthy boundaries could help you manage your own expectations and enjoy your family as much as possible.

Healthy Boundaries: what they are and how they can make your relationships better

Healthy boundaries? No doubt you’ve heard of them. They sound really good to most people.

Limits and parameters seem just the thing to help keep the peace and to promote the harmony you long for, especially in some of your more trying relationships.

“So, great,” you think, let’s “set some boundaries.” Easy, right?

Maybe. But if you’re like so many people who’ve grown up in families that made do without them, then setting firm boundaries may be a foreign concept.

That’s okay. With some loving persistence and knowledgeable guidance, boundaries can help you and yours relate confidently with ongoing connection rather than conflict as the primary goal.

  • What do healthy boundaries do exactly?

The beauty of setting boundaries is that they help you maintain personal values, respect, and emotional safety.

Sometimes families think the blood connection means anything goes. No punches are pulled. Too much is said. But that perspective can lead to families that become more and more toxic, damaged, or distant as time goes on.

Healthy boundaries can be relationship life preservers, keeping you safe in a flood of family upset, drama, or undue influence. Holding to your heathy boundaries will still allow you to reach out and maintain those relationships that are important to you.

  • What healthy boundaries are not

Keep in mind, too, healthy boundaries are not about making demands, power struggles, punishment, or shaming each other into compliance or silence. Limits in relationships aren’t concrete walls meant to stop you from connecting. They are more like hedges or picket fences that invite conversation and interaction, with just enough separation between you to make you think about whether it’s wise to enter another person’s space and prevent trampling each other’s values.

If the boundaries are respected, the hedges can stay low. If not, boundaries afford you a safe point of negotiation. You can clearly decide the nature of your relationship and interaction going forward.

Many couples, siblings, blended families, and groups of in-laws discover that scheduling some time with an objective, experienced family therapist or counselor is advantageous as you work to become more aware of the parameters you want to set in your relationships. Learning to recognize and honor the limits of relationships makes the entire family feel safe with their histories honored and their needs respected.

Healthy boundaries work if you remain curious, compassionate, and cooperative

In addition to tuning into what respectful, comfortable boundaries look like, you’ll become more capable of recognizing boundary breeches addressing them, and handling relationship repair without creating a lot of drama in your family. This holds true in your other relationships, as well. 

How? Healthy boundaries require promotion, protection, and encouragement of the individual, as well as the collective. Why have a family reunion if uniting feels emotionally exhausting or unsafe?

  • Stay curious. Ask questions and listen to each other. Does everyone feel valued and accepted? Is there manipulation, aggression, or resentment among you? Who has a voice and who doesn’t?
  • Setting healthy boundaries takes some courage and awareness. You’ll need to be brave enough to change the status quo and vulnerable enough to ask for cooperation.
  • Setting boundaries is tough work sometimes. You may have to bite your tongue at times to honor each other’s choices. Boundaries may need to allow for less family tradition and more individuality. Negotiated guidelines may need to address how to best deal with unacceptable behavior in the most loving way possible.

Most of all, boundaries allow everyone to take care of themselves and to be themselves, without pressure to accept behaviors or situations that are personally intolerable or becoming part of a mind-meld that doesn’t meet your needs. 
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Are you ready to put healthy boundaries in place in your relationships? Are there other changes you would like to make in your relationships? Linda Ramsey, MA, is a licensed professional counselor intern and licensed marriage and family therapist associate with the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. She works with couples and families to help them building and maintain healthy connections. If you are seeking support and guidance as you establish healthy boundaries for yourself, contact Linda at 512-270-4883, ext. 106, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling Page.

Social Media Stress: The Stunning Growth of A Teen Epidemic

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By Mirela Bitkowski, MA

Social media has become an ever-present force in our modern lives and this is especially true for teens.

However, this new technology, which was intended to provide greater connectivity between people, has also created a new set of problems for teens.

Social Media Stress: Sleep Problems

Many teenagers struggle with sleep issues, especially with today’s demands of school, extra-curricular activities, sports, and even work. Teens should be receiving between 9 and 9 ½ hours of sleep each night, yet they often fall short of this mark at around seven hours.

Social media, though, has injected yet another distraction into the equation. Why?

  • The desire to check for incoming messages.

  • Wanting to respond to those messages.

When we have less sleep and poor sleep quality we are less able to adequately cope with stress and are more likely to experience mental health problems such as depression. Sleep isn’t a convenience, it is a necessity!

Social Media Stress: Cyber-bullying

Unfortunately, bullying has been a common experience for many students. Yet, those bullies have now moved from the school hallways to the online world, and they are attacking their victims mercilessly. There have even been stories in the news of teens who were the subject of cruel bullying and later committed suicide.

The effect of bullying online is amplified, as it can seem as if everyone believes in what the bully is saying. On top of that, everyone else has the ability to see those hateful words.

Social Media Stress: Shaming

One part of the bullying that occurs online is the shaming of a teen by their peers.

This can be because of:

  • The way they look.

  • Actions they did offline, such as doing something embarrassing at school.

  • Content that they themselves have posted and then the content was used against them.

  • Rumors being spread both online and off.

The effects of shaming on girls:

The effects of social media stress on girls are especially troubling. Sadly, according to the Pew Research Center older teen girls between 15-17 are 41% more likely to experience cyber-bullying than other groups. One study found that while cyber-bullying for boys increased 3% from 2006 to 2012, the rate for girls was 10% over the same period of time.

Problems that girls face daily are only amplified online with terrible consequences. “Slut-shaming,” for example, has crept into the lexicon to describe shaming girls and women who either intentionally, or not, post sexual content online.

What Can Parents Do About Social Media Stress for Teens?

As with so many issues negatively affecting teens—such as drugs, alcohol use, or having sex—parents need to have frank conversations with their teens about social media. Don’t wait until they are 17! If they are on social media, then the discussion needs to happen now.

Some things to remember for a discussion include:

  • Refrain from being reactionary or dramatic.

  • Be open and empathic to your teen.

  • Ask your teen to share with you why social media is important to them, how they use it, and what benefits it has for them.

  • Continue to ask questions about what they perceive as dangers in social media (what they already know may surprise you).

  • Encourage them to have a healthy balance of online and off-line time.

  • Role-model handling social media stress to your teen by having your own boundaries around its use.

No question, social media will continue to be a driving force for today’s teens, especially as they mature into adults. It is important for parents to be aware of the potential risks of social media and to have frank discussions with their teens about the topic.

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Mirela Bitkowski, MA, LPC Intern, works with parents, teens, and families at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. To schedule your session with Mirela, call her at 512-270-4883, ext. 103, or request an appointment on the RCC Austin Scheduling Page.

Topsy-Turvy Teen? 7 Healthy Habits That Can Make a Big Difference

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By Mirela Bitkowski, MA

The teenage years can be pretty chaotic.

Lots of changes, lots of new experiences, lots of learning and struggles.

Making the transition from carefree child to responsible adult isn’t a walk in the park. Though, for some, it comes easier than for others.

Cultivating healthy habits is crucial for navigating this turbulent phase of life.

How can your teen develop good habits? Habits that not only help them stay more balanced and focused but that will serve them a lifetime?

Developing Healthy Habits That Make a Difference

Sound habits can help teens during the exciting yet challenging time of adolescence while they still live with their family, but even more so when they move away from home. Often, it’s only then when they confront the baggage of bad habits they may have racked up. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Consider these 7 helpful habits that can stabilize your teen:

1. A Good Sleeping Routine

A lack of sleep can affect a teen’s overall health. Research shows that a lack of sleep can increase mental and emotional challenges, lead to poor academic performance, and even put your child at risk for obesity. Teens who get serious about sleep are usually much more balanced emotionally and physically.

A good sleeping routine that will help your teen relax would include going to bed at about the same time each night, turning off the electronics 30 minutes before retiring, and perhaps listening to soothing music or taking a warm bath.

2. Healthy Eating Practices

Healthy eating includes various aspects, such as making the choice to eat sufficient nutrient-rich food, drinking plenty of water during the day, eating timely and regularly, and not eating in a hurry. A body fueled with healthy food will help your teen stay energetic, focused, and calm.

Paying special attention to snack habits is also crucial. Often teenagers have a need to unwind after coming home from a long day of school. They may habitually grab for anything that’s in reach—a bag of chips or cookies—and go zone out on the couch watching TV. However, to encourage healthy eating habits, it’s highly important that teens learn to detach eating from decompressing.

3. Daily Physical Activity

Regular exercise or physical activity has a ton of benefits—especially when you get into the habit while young. It helps to maintain a healthy weight, boosting energy and mood, prevent diseases, and lowers stress throughout one’s lifetime.

Encourage your teen to incorporate activities such as walking (perhaps the family dog), jumping on a trampoline, jogging, or playing outdoor games into their daily routine. Being active will help them to stay fresh—mentally and physically—and prevent them from spending too much time in front of the TV, the computer, or playing video games for too long.

4. Concern for Bodily Health and Hygiene

Seeing the importance of a regular physical checkup isn’t automatic for teens. But early prevention will decrease future regrets. Bad habits such as smoking, consuming too much sugar, and drinking alcohol can increase their risk of illness, diseases, and other life-threatening health problems.

Moreover, taking care of personal hygiene may seem an annoyance for some teens. Yet, regular baths or showers, brushing and flossing teeth, and keeping their surroundings and clothing clean are habits that contribute to their overall well-being. Showing concern for these matters should not be underestimated.

5. Attending to Mental and Emotional Health

The teen years are full of stressful situations—tons of changes, tons of new experiences, tons of struggles. It’s good to get into the habit of knowing how to handle stress and worry. Too much can not only zap the joy out of their life but also harm their health. And chronic anxiety can lead to depression, insomnia, physical ailments, and more.

It’s important that teens learn how to take time out and refresh themselves. Practicing meditation, deep breathing, or mindfulness can help them handle stress better. What is more, taking time to really get to know your thoughts, feelings, and responses to various trying situations can help teens to be more confident, content, and self-assured.

6. Strong Boundaries and Support Systems

To make their health and well-being a priority, teens must learn to set healthy boundaries. Saying “no” to a demanding friend, not giving in to peer pressure, developing a sound and healthy body image, or choosing to reduce their busy schedule is not being selfish—it’s good sense.

Developing a reliable support system and strong relationships will serve your teen a lifetime. People who can assist them, accept them for who they are, and encourage them to embrace their flaws and grow are one of the best things for all aspects of their health.

7. Wise Time Management

Using time wisely isn’t a strength of most teenagers. Helping them to establish good study habits and overcoming procrastination is imperative for their future. Time management comes even more into play when your teen graduates high school. If your teen moves on to college, or decides to work immediately after high school, they will not have anyone to look over their shoulder telling them what they need to do. Developing good time management skills during the teen years is an important part of managing life when your child leaves home and launches into the next phase of their life and development.

Part of managing time has to do with not spending endless hours online. Not only does it waste precious opportunities, but it can cause a lot of stress, negatively affect a teen’s eyes, and even lead to internet addiction.

Clearly, if you assist your teen with developing these healthy habits now, you’ll be able to make a big difference in their life. They’ll be able to maneuver those confusing adolescent years with much more grace and balance.
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Mirela Bitkowski, MA, LPC Intern, works with parents, teens, and families at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. For parents needing guidance through the pitfalls of their child’s teenage years, call Mirela at 512-270-4883, ext. 103, or go to the RCC Austin Scheduling page to request an appointment with her.

Personal Boundaries When Your Parent is Addicted: Why They Matter

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Personal boundaries are the limits and rules you establish for yourself in relationships. Whether or not you’ve heard of or engaged in personal boundary work before, you’ve probably unintentionally set a few at some point in your life. For instance, when you were younger, you and your sibling may have had an unspoken rule where the two of you take a few minutes apart after a big fight. Or, maybe you and your college roommate didn’t borrow one another’s personal items without asking first. Some of these personal boundaries may have been established through discussion, while others may have just developed on their own.

When dealing with a parent who struggles with addiction, personal boundary setting is far more difficult than small arguments or borrowing an article of clothing. When you set personal boundaries in this situation, they need to be very intentional and considered thoughtfully and thoroughly. Small boundaries can be hard enough to implement, so bigger boundaries are even more difficult. But it’s vital for your health, safety, and well-being, as well as that of your parent, to enforce and maintain strong limits and personal boundaries.

Here are some effective tips for setting personal boundaries:

Know your limits

Addictions take a toll on not only the addicted but their loved ones as well. Consider how much your parent’s addiction or problem is affecting you. How are you being impacted emotionally, physically, mentally, etc.? Acknowledge what exactly the most stressful part of their addiction, and perhaps their legal situation, is for you, and set your personal boundaries accordingly. Remember that your well-being is at stake when you don’t make yourself a priority.

Be assertive

The only way for your parent to take you seriously is if you follow through with the limits that you set. Don’t let them play the victim or get in your head by manipulating you or making you feel guilty. Be firm. Let them know the personal boundaries you have set, and what the consequence will be if they don’t honor it.

This is not harsh; it’s necessary. Practice makes perfect and the more you maintain your personal boundaries, the more they’ll take them seriously.

Remember that personal boundaries are fluid

If a certain boundary isn’t working for you, change it. Nothing is set in stone. You can loosen or tighten the reins based on what works. Addiction is a disease with varying stages. As your parent seeks help, give yourself permission to change the personal boundaries you’ve established. If what you’ve asked for isn’t being maintained, set stricter guidelines. Likewise, if your parent is improving, allow yourself to release some boundaries you have set for yourself.

Examples of healthy and productive personal boundaries to set with an addicted parent:

  • No drug or alcohol use in my house or around me and my family
  • You will no longer be able to see my children (your grandchildren) if you’re using
  • I won’t give you any more money
  • I will not bail you out of jail
  • You will have to find a different way to pay your attorney fees
  • I won’t lie for you any longer

Setting such strong limits might seem like you’re being too tough on them, but without appropriate personal boundaries, you may be enabling their addiction. By continuing to give them money or by lying for and protecting them, you are giving them an inch, which will allow them to take a mile.

Personal boundary setting is difficult, especially when your role switches from child to caregiver. You may be having trouble maintaining or establishing healthy limits and that’s okay. But you are not alone, and this isn’t something you must go through by yourself. The sooner you ask for help, the sooner you can work toward establishing a healthier relationship with your addicted parent.
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Call 512-270-4883 to schedule an appointment with one of the counselors at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin). Or, request an appointment on the RCC Austin Scheduling Page.