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Common Unhealthy Family Dynamics

In my own experience, I have become aware that I spend a lot of time avoiding a normal and healthy human experience – having emotions. As a therapist, I encourage my clients to connect to their emotions. I am a firm believer that you cannot give away what you do not have. With that being said, I am on my own journey to connect with myself and others more deeply. Learning to manage emotions, vulnerability, and honesty are essential skills learned at home. Growing up, I was not taught these skills. I have spent my adult years learning how to experience and process emotions with healthy expression. There are many different ways one can learn to manage emotions and identify feelings.

Family therapy is an excellent approach. It is common for families to fall into dysfunctional communication patterns with each other. Typically, people fall into these traps to avoid feeling. This can feel more comfortable in the moment; however, it is not beneficial to the person or the family in the long run. Facing emotions and connecting with others can feel scary and uncomfortable. It does not always look pretty and can be messy. Having a therapist guide the process can make it more tolerable and give family members greater insight into what is not working and to what is working in the family system. 

Below are examples of dysfunctional communication techniques that families fall into instead of being honest with one another. All of these communication techniques are ways to avoid emotions and confrontation. When I learned to identify these patterns, I discovered I was also missing out on connection, love, and intimacy with my family members and other loved ones. This awareness has helped improve my relationship with myself and others. As you read through these examples, I encourage you to ask yourself if you identify with any of these patterns. If so, then ask yourself, “what am I missing out on in my relationships?”. When a therapist asked me these questions, it struck a chord within me, and I realized some things needed to change. I hope this can be a good start for whoever needs to read this, as it was to me.  

  1. The Blame Game   

Failure to take accountability for one’s actions and emotions leading to the inability to validate another person’s experience. 

Example:

Sister: “My feelings were hurt when you yelled at me”  

Brother: “I reacted like that because you egged me on”

  1. Being Right

 Defending oneself instead of finding a middle ground.

Example:

Partner (1): “I do not like the way you made our bed. It needs to be done this way.”

Partner (2): “I was trying to help; I knew you would be busy this morning”.

Partner (1): “Thanks, but it’s not done the way I like it.” 

  1. Changing the Game  

Deflecting from the issue or question.

Caregiver: “I told you that your room needs to be cleaned before you can go to the movies with your friends”

 Child: “Jane hasn’t cleaned her room and she is out with her friends”

  1. Playing the nice guy

Making other people feel comfortable at the risk of your own beliefs, values, and/or needs.

Example:

An example of this would be a mom that confided her young adult child about her fight with his dad. The child listens and comforts his mom even though he feels uncomfortable and now feels pressured to take sides. 

  1. Gossip 

Talking about someone when they are not present instead of direct confrontation.

Example:

Brother: “Mary is always fighting with mom and getting her way because mom is scared of her”.

Sister: “Yeah, it’s annoying and mom just lets it slide”.

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Teaching Kids Emotional Intelligence

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Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions effectively and positively.  Kids who understand their emotions, can name them, and can manage them are better able to cope with stress, manage relationships with others, and communicate more effectively.
There are four main characteristics of emotional intelligence.
  • Emotionally intelligent people are self aware.  They recognize their own emotions.
  • Emotionally intelligent people can self-regulate.  They can control how they react to their emotions instead of letting their emotions control them.
  • Emotionally intelligent people are empathetic.  They understand other people’s emotions.
  • Emotionally intelligent people have social skills. They can build connections with others.
The best way to teach children emotional intelligence is through modeling.  Parents who take time to develop these characteristics in themselves will gain the benefits of emotional intelligence in their own lives, but will also pass these traits on to their children.  To help learn these skills AND pass them on to your child here are some activities to do together:
1.  In order to be aware of emotions children need to be able to name them.  Younger children can look at flash cards depicting various feelings and copy the faces as parents tell them the name for that emotion.  Older children can identify times they felt that emotion and what they did about it. (Flash cards can be found by googling “emotion flash cards”, or you can make your own.)
2.  Using an emotion thermometer (again, google is your friend), you can teach children how to recognize what it feels like when they are experiencing strong emotions, and provide them tools for “cooling down the thermometer”.  These skills can include: talking to a friend or adult, asking for help, counting to ten, taking five deep breaths, or practicing some mindfulness.  There are lots of mindfulness for kids clips on youtube or available as apps on a smart phone.
3.  One great way to instill empathy in children is to get them involved in regular acts of service.  Afterward, listen to your child share with you how the act of service made them feel?  Discuss how the service made the recipient feel.
4.  Social skills are best developed by lots of practice.  Create plenty of opportunities for your child to interact with other children.  Go to parks or children’s museums, set up play dates, get to know the kids in the neighborhood.  Give your child space to explore and interact with other children.  Give them opportunities to work out problems themselves, and step in with guidance when they need it. If your child needs extra help developing social skills, contact our office at  (801) 944-4555 for information on the next available social skills group for kids.
There are lots of ways to develop theses characteristics, the important thing is to regularly incorporate these kinds of activities into your child’s life.  Doing so will help them (and you) manage stress and anxiety, communicate more effectively, and build stronger relationships with those around them.

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