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In-laws, Outlaws, or No laws When Establishing Family Parameters

Jay M. Greenfeld, Ph.D., C. Psych.

The winter holidays have come and gone and the part of the year where there is often an abundance of time spent with family has slowly passed as we welcome 2020. One theme that continues to emerge when reflecting on holiday time, is how different dynamics can influence relationships between family members. In particular, how parents of grown adult children cope with new family members (e.g., partners, husbands, wives, and blended families) can create its own series of challenges. Moreover, how new family members respond to their partners' parents, relatives and family dynamics can have a significant influence on many holidays throughout the year. In an ideal world, families (whatever they may look like) can all spend varying degrees of seamless time together throughout the holidays, but the reality is with so many people living in so many different parts of the country or far from home, it often becomes extremely difficult to get everyone together.

Therefore, whether it is in-laws, outlaws, or the changing dynamics of a generation as your family expands, the truth is there are no laws to what family gatherings need to look like. However, as you move through 2020 it may be helpful both as parents of young children and parents of adult children to establish some parameters. Establishing your own set of considerations can at least limit feelings of hurt, frustration, and discomfort that many often experience when trying to coordinate events to accommodate for everyone's needs.

From the outset, it is important to focus on why you are getting together throughout the year. Are you hosting gatherings for birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays? Are you having gatherings solely for the functionality of the event, because of history, or because you want to get together with the people you are related to? Decide at the beginning of this year which events you want to have with extended family and which events are more than sufficient with your own immediate family. If you are able to decide the parameters at the beginning of the year (with a degree of flexibility), it can eliminate the stress of who to include, what to do, and any affiliated Anxiety that can emerge with the unknown (i.e., mental preparation). It is also important to recognize your own thoughts, feelings and expectations about life events throughout the year. With new family members being added (e.g., partners, grandchildren) it is important to embrace the idea that just because you did things a certain way in your family, that does not mean other families do it that way and therefore, traditions can and will look different. Thinking of very specific expectations can create unnecessary stress and inevitable disappointments leading others to shoulder your emotions. The differences that emerge are not better or worse, they are just different between families and generations, so ask yourself that question of why you are getting together, in an effort to increase your comfort with these moments.

One of the more common themes that continues to emerge in sessions when I am working with clients is the tendency to feel more comfortable with your own family over in-laws or older parents feeling more comfortable with their own children rather than their newly added partners because of what they are used to. We tend to be creatures of habit and it is often hard to embrace and accept change, especially when it is surrounding those closest to you. However, it is important to take the time throughout this year, to stop, reflect, and be more mindful of what and who you have in your life rather than highlighting the faults of those around you and what is absent from your life. The next step in adjusting to changing family roles and dynamics, is to make as much of an effort as possible to see how we can all learn from new family members brought into our lives. Different generations will contribute to diverse ways of doing things. Therefore, it is essential that communication continues to lead the charge when creating a set of unwritten figurative laws for your family to help solidify a level of comfort for all involved.

The final unwritten law one can establish in the ever changing world of your family picture as you embrace 2020 is acceptance and letting go of the way you may have thought things were going to go and embrace the way things are. We cannot change the people that come in and out of our lives or the lives of our children. However, learning to embrace who these people are, the core values they stand for, and what they add to the overall life painting is what will help decrease your stress, Anxiety, and frustrations throughout the year. Accepting that the past history cannot be changed including what others have said to you, how others have treated you, but your present reactions to these family members can be. Read Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors by Albert Ellis.

Placing extreme rigid beliefs on what should happen often eliminates what could happen and that includes the growth, enhancement, and appreciation for the people that help shape our families and the values we aim to raise our children with. As you start taking early steps into 2020, focus less on the negative aspects that can consume you and your families, communicate your preferences, and embrace the people that reach out to you within your family.

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