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How to Fix Big Family Problems

The Problems that cause the Most Pain are Often Perpetual
by Carolyn Rosenblatt

I bet you've felt the pain.

Maybe you're feeling it now. Family fights about Mom or Dad can hurt. Sometimes it's not just about the parent, sometimes the fight is actually with the parent them self.

In the United States, there are over 50 million of us caring for an aging parent. 50 million people all dealing with the same fundamental problems - no matter who they are or where they're from. It doesn't matter if you have a billion dollars, when it comes to aging parents everybody's problems are the same.

The big problems in your family relationships, the ones that cause the most pain, are often perpetual. And perpetual problems often follow a pattern.

Here is what we often see.

The 5 common stages of perpetual family problems:

  1. Disagreement
  2. Taking Positions
  3. Refusing Influence
  4. Vilification
  5. Emotional Disengagement

After emotional disengagement happens, distance occurs. And it could have been caused by money, power, control, responsibility, or anything else.

Let's be honest. Even when we love them dearly, having to care for aging parents in their 80's, 90's or even over 100 years old is almost always a burden. One you can't ignore.

Dementia, loss of hearing or vision, or even just small changes in otherwise normal behavior can eventually become crushing problems if you don't take action when you should.

And to make matters worse, our society just doesn't do a great job preparing us. No one ever teaches us how to take care of our parents when they get old. It's not until we find ourselves there, trying to figure out what to do. So how do we fend off the family fights and save ourselves and everyone else from the pain?

Families fight. And most people struggle with this, no matter who you are. That's true for just about everyone we know. But that doesn't mean you have to just accept it. There are many things you can do to help. Here are three of the most important ones that my husband and I use with the families we work with every day.

3 steps to calming family conflict:
  1. Understanding
    Our emotional reactions often take over when conflicts rise up. This never goes anywhere that helps, as we've all experienced. If we seek to understand first and then respond more mindfully to the conflict, the heat will decrease. (Think: "what can I do to keep this from escalating?" Speak only after you have this thought in mind).
  2. Discussion
    If we are able to let the other family member speak, try hard to listen without interrupting, and encourage dialog. We'll do much better if we try this than we will by telling any other family member how it's supposed to be. Just this single effort to listen without interrupting can have an amazing effect on calming conflict.
  3. Compromise
    In my field, mediation of conflicts, there's a saying: a conflict settles when everyone is a little unhappy. That is the nature of compromise. Each side gives something and in turn everyone gets peace. In the end, resolve is often what brings everyone the most happiness.

By working at these 3 steps, understanding, discussion and compromise, you will give everybody involved an opportunity to find meaning and even growth in conflict, instead of fighting and getting nasty.

The key is to explore your own wishes underneath the conflict, those hopes and aspirations that underlie each person's position. Without that, those who find themselves opposite you will only see your position, not you.

Instead, calm the conflict, and move your family a major step toward peace.

Thanks for reading.

Until next time,

Carolyn Rosenblatt


Published April 26, 2011

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