Even in the best of times, family harmony takes work. Often unintentionally, we set each other off. In times of stress, when our edges are frayed, our emotional reserves on backorder, no one has the bandwidth to do this work. With each of us struggling with losses, fears and frustrations happening in our different spheres, the challenges of harmony multiply exponentially with each nervous system in your house. Except for pets. Thank goodness for pets.
We don’t really want to fight. We need each other more than ever. What feels worst to humans is not feeling safe, connected, or understood. When those things get pulled out from under us we don’t say things in nice, calm, inviting packages that our loved ones could easily help us unpack. Instead, grabbing at the first thing we see we throw out a scrambled mess of feelings. Reactive, we break rules, we hurt, we use our outside voices inside, our emergency voices when it’s more of a felt urgency. The good words like: “I’m upset, can you help me?” are in the way, way back. The front row shouts out instead.
What we want more than winning a fight—especially these days—is having it end quickly. Our stress thresholds are reached just with the challenges of day-to-day life, it doesn’t take much for for us to boil over, and we can’t get up and go like in days of yore a couple months ago.
Yes, this is Family Harmony 101, but, there are shortcuts and we all could all use a review.
- Tone, Tone, Tone in interactions, tone is everything—it’s not what you say, but how you say it. So don’t bite your tongue, but if you can’t say something nicely, don’t say it at all.
- The Do-Over Rather than reacting strongly to a hastily/poorly worded comment or demand, send it back to the kitchen like it’s an undercooked meal, and give the person the chance to do it better the second time. Phrases for the do-over: Can you rephrase that, please? Can we rewind here? Let’s try that again, Is this really what you want to be saying/doing right now? Or, What do you think I’m going to say here? Rather than pushing play on a lecture, be a ventriloquist and let your child or partner tell you how you were going to respond. You’ll see they’ve been listening (mostly), and instead of over-explaining what’s wrong, you can thank them for what’s right. Well done, all.
- Put Up a Caution Sign, Use a Preface You know how when you mop the floor you put up a sign that says, “Caution: Wet Floor” to avoid people being unaware and slipping and getting hurt? Clearly displayed emotional caution signs help too. When you have something to say, hold up your caution sign, by using a preface: “I’m pretty frustrated so this may not come out well,” or “I’m having a hard day so I may not be very patient.” You could pretend to hold up a sign and say, “See? Caution,” or shorthand it with a text: “Caution, short-fuse today.” This prepares us all for what follows. If someone looks upset but isn’t flashing their “caution sign” ask them “Can you tell me your preface? Can I guess?” Make sure to match your tone with the spirit of this gesture—it’s to be protective and helpful, so no one gets hurt.
- Don’t Try to Fix Things, Empathize Instead As loving beings we don’t like it when someone is upset around us. It’s uncomfortable, especially since now more than ever we might not be able to just fix it and we just want the unhappiness to go away. If it doesn’t work in the best of times, it certainly won’t work now. Remember the empathy that really feels good to us is not necessarily someone fixing our problems or even understanding them right away, it’s knowing that someone wants to understand. Even kids know that parents can’t fix a lot of their problems. They just need to be heard and then they can move on. Adults work that way too. Take “fixing” off of your to-do list and be a compassionate listener instead.
- Fill Your Pockets with Mercy, Agreement and Apologies When you’re frustrated and at a loss for what to say or do, surprise those around you (and yourself) and reach into your pockets for free passes and infinite apologies. Agree when they say—“This isn’t fair.” When they say—“Parents are so annoying.” Just agree, agree, agree. Or say, “That’s highly possible.” This may sound counterproductive—aren’t you rewarding negative behavior if you give an unwarranted free pass or apologize when you don’t need to? Well, I’m going to say no. In a perfect world, your kid wouldn’t have thrown the toys on the floor, your partner wouldn’t have left the milk out. In a perfect world the other person would apologize for their behaviors, but I think we would all agree that we are lightyears from that perfect world. Or are we? Maybe the perfect world is where we are so flush with flexibility and using it has a positive domino effect: The surprise of your generosity and free flowing apologies for the distress in the moment inspire others to “round up” their behavior. Have your kids, partner, or other family member make their own free passes and apologies to use with you. If enough of us do this, watch as the world goes around a little more easily.
- The Blessing of a Group Time Out There are times when the best thing to do is nothing. Nervous systems need a little time to re-set and start again from a calmer perspective. Storming off won’t head things in a better direction, and sending your kids or partner to their “room” might not inspire the desired effect. Instead, opt out of conflict, together. Decide on a name for it “Group Time Out” or, “To the Bat Cave, Everyone.” If you can’t do it together, then yes, just excuse yourself: “I don’t think I’m going to do much good now, but I’ll be back when I can.”
- Say Thank You, Always In reality, there are no thankless jobs—showing appreciation and generosity softens edges that you might not even have known were there. Whether it’s your child or your partner saying a heart-felt thank you for something you always do, true appreciation goes a long way. Be generous with your thank yous and watch them come back to you.
- Do the Right Kind of Pretending: Overlook Whenever Possible Honoring the reality of one’s experience is paramount. But there are also some liberties only we can take with ourselves. Akin to “choosing your battles” but with other language, in this time where we can’t pretend that big things aren’t happening in the world—because they are—we can decide to pretend that whatever infraction just happened is smaller than it feels (within reason). “Hmmm,” you might say, “I didn’t just see anything, right there, right then, nope, I think it must have been my imagination.” Feel the breeze as you zigzag around the places that would have snagged you.
- Comic Relief Pretending works even better when paired with levity. If you’ve got a little rascal among you, or a big one, consider yourselves blessed. Turn to that person in a tough moment and ask them to do their thing. Hopefully—that reference from Toy Story, Parks and Rec, or, The Office that you were hoping for is already underway. And if not—turn to an inanimate object and ask them for advice- that cheese grater on your counter—it sees everything, hand it the microphone, it’s “perspective” could go a long way.
In the end, love is really what “wins” in a fight. With these ideas in hand, your family can decide how to kindly remind each other of these shortcuts back to love and harmony. Choose your favorite buzz words, make a collage of them to hang on your fridge for easy reference. Have your young children hand out apology and pretending coupons. The more your family gets involved in the process the better. This is hard work, but whether in “quaranteaming” or ordinary times, we get better at hard things when we work on them. Strength to us all.
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©2020 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. Previously posted on Psychology Today