On Fostering Healthy Relationships Between Your Children and Extended Family Members When Your Own Relationships with Those Family Members are Difficult

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Relationships with members of our families of origin, e.g. our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc., can be tricky to navigate at any stage of life. When you begin to form your own family, your family of creation, with a partner and children, things can get trickier, especially when navigating the grandparent/grandchild relationship or the aunt or uncle/ niece or nephew relationship. It’s common to want your child to have great relationships with their extended family members, even if you don’t have great relationships with your own family of origin. It’s also common, and healthy, to hesitate to foster those relationships when you feel protective of your own child, especially if some of the difficulties are rooted in your own childhood experiences.

I learned early in my training that trauma survivors often experience a flare-up of their trauma symptoms when their own children reach the age they were when the trauma occurred. For example, if I had lost my mother at ten years old, I may re-experience some of the trauma and grief when my own child reaches age ten. This is not unusual and it’s the brain’s way to help us protect ourselves, and our children (extensions of ourselves), from further harm.

All that is to say: our hesitation to encourage relationships between our children and people who have hurt us is likely rooted in our own trauma. Trying to protect our children from, say, our overbearing elder brother, is likely rooted in our negative experiences with him. And, this is key, these negative experiences are likely unresolved. There has been little if any individual or relational healing. Those experiences still define the protective parent and the relationship between siblings. They have been unaddressed and therefore manifest as symptoms of distress: anxiety, depression, fear, control, and hypervigilance, among others.

The first step in navigating tricky relationships between your child and their extended family members is to first address the trickiness between you and those extended family members. This looks differently person to person but often involves gathering information (It Didn’t Start With You is phenomenal) and therapy (start here or here to find a great therapist near you). Once you’ve addressed any latent trauma and developed a foundation of healing, you’ll better understand yourself. And once you better understand yourself, you’ll recognize how you contribute to the problematic relationships, because whether we like it or not, it takes two to create a relationship and our response to the other person helps build the relationship as it is today.

Now, let’s address something vital before moving on: true abuse. When I use the word “trauma,” I’m referring to any and all trauma: “Big T traumas” (such as assault or abuse, loss of a loved one or terrible accidents, neglect or abandonment) as well as “little t traumas” (shame-based parenting, family secrets, sibling rivalry, absentee parents or caretakers, etc.). When it comes to the Big T traumas, it probably doesn’t feel right to be told you contribute to the relationship as it is; it’s natural to want to protest any idea that you are somehow responsible for what happened. Hear me out: You’re right that you are not responsible for the abusive behaviors of someone else. That will never be your fault or yours to take ownership of. What is yours to own is how you respond now, and how you have habitually responded in adulthood, to the person who abused (or neglected, abandoned, etc.) you. This isn’t about blame: this is about ownership. With ownership comes empowerment, and with empowerment comes the ability to assess the choices presented to you and make the right choice for you given the circumstances. There’s a lot more to say on all of this, but let’s move into what to do next if you’ve decided the right choice for you is to help nurture a healthy relationship between your child and their extended family member. (One last thing to keep in mind: What’s right for you is what’s right for your kid, because what’s right for your kid is a parent who’s healthy and has healthy relationships with everyone in their life.)

After you’ve addressed whatever is tricky between you and your family member, you’ll be in a much better position to foster a good relationship between your child and their loved one. The first step is to wipe the slate clean in terms of obligations or ideas of what a good relationship between them “should be.” Just eliminate any preconceptions about how often they “should” see each other or be in touch, how much time they “should” spend together, what they “should” do together, or what a good grandparent/aunt/uncle “should” say or do or be. All those “shoulds” really get in the way of what is, and one of your best allies in this process is reality.

Once you’ve accepted that all of those preconceptions are just that (conceptions), it’s time to get real. Start with yourself: What do I really want for my child and this loved one’s relationship? Then reality check it: Is that honestly feasible given what I know about myself and this family member? If it is, great! Start mapping it out. If it isn’t, work for more acceptance. Everyone has their limits, even grandmas and grandpas who love their grandkids, even aunties and uncles who love their nieces and nephews, even moms and dads who would give their kids everything in the world if they could. This – this specific version of the relationship in question – might be something you cannot give them.

So, what’s another version? Let yourself simultaneously accept what cannot be, grieve what may never be, and face what is possible. Once you recognize what is possible and have an idea of what this relationship can look like, communication is next. Let your parent or sibling know what is okay and not okay moving forward. Keep in mind this is not a debate or negotiation, this is simply you letting the people in your life know what you need and to plan accordingly. An example: Write a letter to your overbearing older brother letting him know it’s important to you that he gets to spend time with his nieces and nephews. Your hope, and goal, is to foster this special relationship. There are things he could teach them and offer them that other people in their lives cannot so this really matters to you. Then outline what’s okay and not okay: “We’d love to have you over to spend time with the kids on Saturdays. Those are the days we’re most flexible and able to host extended family. The other days of the week don’t work for us. I know you love our kids so much that you’d come over every day if you could. It’s really important to me that you respect the time my kids, my partner and I need together, just the six of us. I’m working hard to build close relationships with my kids and time together is a top priority. I hope you understand and I do really appreciate how much you care about my kids.”

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The last step is to let your child know what to expect: “Uncle Jon is coming over on Saturdays from now on! Let’s plan something fun to do while he’s here this weekend.” If your child has questions about any changes or doesn’t like the new arrangements, be honest and open about your goal: you want to help them have great relationships with all of their family members, and right now, this is the best way you know how to do it.

I hestitate to make this a how-to or a step-by-step article because it is so complicated, so gray: there’s never any black and white in relationships or parenting. My hope is these three tasks will give you something to work with, somewhere to go if you’re navigating tricky aspects of your transition from family-of-origin to family-of-creation.

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