Our older family members watched us grow up. They’ve seen our best (and not-so-pretty) moments, and we theirs. At times, this level of familiarity can create a unique tension, especially if you're living in the same space.
Our relationships with our older family members can, in this sense, differ greatly from those we maintain with others in our lives; we can choose our friends and SOs, but we can’t choose our family of origin.
Here’s some advice for getting along with your older family members at home:
1. Start by recognizing that you may not have a picture-perfect family
Reading about ideal familial relationships in my childhood planted in my mind many idyllic expectations of how families should get along.
However, when we step away from the fictional realm, we realize that we may not have “perfect” family members. We can’t insert our parents into AutoCAD, redesign them so they reflect our views and values, and 3D print revised versions of them. We have to live with this reality’s fixed state—and be okay with it.
If you have been finding it challenging to get along with your older family members (like your parents or grandparents), know that many of us share these feelings, myself included.
2. Communicate your personal boundaries
Building healthy boundaries isn’t restricted to just friendships and romantic relationships. Communicating your boundaries to your family, including what conversations you don’t want to participate in or what choices you don’t want to make, can help you feel respected as a grownup in your household, with the agency and autonomy you deserve.
Setting boundaries early with your parents and/or your grandparents will prevent relationships from snaking into grudge-holding territories down the road, where conflicts are likely to arise.
How to communicate boundaries with your older family members
If your parents or grandparents (among other family members) are presenting you with “here’s what’s best for you” information or showering you with unsolicited feedback, it might feel a little stuffy—perhaps especially so if you’ve lived away from home for a while.
As the independent adult you are, here are some tips you can try:
a) Keep your cool and respond when you feel ready
b) Express your appreciation of their good intentions—and show that you genuinely understand why they’re doing or saying such things
d) Discuss and agree upon specific actions you each will take if you overstep one another’s boundaries in the future (in a gentle, non-threatening tone—think Bambi); examples include exiting the conversation and going out for a walk
e) Follow through with your consequences when your boundaries go unheeded; if you overstep your family member’s boundaries, offer an apology
See if you and your family can find common ground: On your end, strive to listen more, to take an egoless approach when interacting with them, and, if they’re causing issues, to adjust some of your habits to accommodate their needs. If you disagree with a family member’s actions, respectfully let them know why you may think or feel differently from them.
Yes, your family raised you, fed you, clothed you—but that doesn’t mean you can’t say “No” to what they want for (or from) you. You deserve to make choices for yourself, and you aren’t “selfish” or “spoiled” when you do.
You are valid—you are entitled to your personal truths. So, know that speaking up doesn't make you a Cordelia (i.e. a “thankless child”), and you don’t have to feel guilty for voicing your comfort levels and being an adult.
However, make sure that when you’re communicating your feelings, you are taking on a compassionate perspective.
3. Give it time with (some) hope
It may take a while for you and your family to adjust to one another’s boundaries—none of you are superheroes or magical anime characters who can transform immediately, after all. Be content when you see your family giving their best effort and making progress, even if it takes more time than you’d hoped for.
It may also be possible that little to no change takes place. Although it can feel like a bummer, know that it’ll be okay. Knowing when to give up trying to get along with somebody (even a family member) is a skill that many of us have yet to master, because...
...sometimes you can’t have everyone’s support or respect, even when they’re the people closest to you. Even the strongest superhero or manga protagonist can’t always save everyone, especially those who don’t want to be saved.
Continue to treat these family members with respect—and, if it helps, to invest less emotionally in your relationships with them. It is okay to act neutrally around them, to stop feeling obligated to go out of your way to get along with them.
4. Know when to let things go, and when to stand up for yourself
If there are topics—like politics, for example—that you and your older family members have previously had heated discussions about, consider the following before starting the conversation anew:
- Is it really worth it to pursue the topic again?
- Is there evidence that this time around their views will change?
- What do you stand to “lose” if you allow them to be entitled to their opinions?
In the crevice created by generational gaps, there often dangle different, even opposing, views and choices of action. But remember that although letting other people off the hook can feel like a Herculean task, doing so is *letting yourself* off the hook.
However, there are situations where it’s really not that easy. In cases where a family member crosses a line—for example, by using derogatory language or verbalizing dinosaur-like views/stereotypes—here’s an approach you can try:
- Ask them why they think that way—and what makes them so certain they are justified in their views
- Be direct in communicating your own principles and—note here—budget a limited amount of time you’ll spend reasoning with them before exiting the conversation; this way, you can dodge a) the sunk cost fallacy and b) high blood pressure, and move on to doing something more worthwhile (and enjoyable)
- Get others in your family (and mutual friends) to help support you throughout your reasoning process—and inspire your one special family member to follow this sage saying and really consider mindset-tweaking
If you find your family hurtful and unaccepting of what you consider an integral part of your identity, and you really want to get some distance from your family, you are entitled to it. Just stay safe and communicate your plans to your family.
Spending time away can help relieve you of familial tension and improve your mental health. Try to surround yourself with people who you know care sincerely about you, and with whom you feel comfortable talking about your family. (If you’re looking to actually move out, be sure to follow COVID precautions where you live to minimize the risk of infection.)