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September 2005
Highly Functional Families
Compassion Begins at Home

by Annie Fox, M.Ed.

"Reunions are great fun as well as fantastic opportunities to observe family dynamics. They can also cause otherwise mature adults to regress into dysfunctional patterns we thought we’d outgrown."
As our children’s most important teachers, we should do our best to help them appreciate and respect diversity in our community. From an early age we need to let our kids know how interesting it is that people have different ethnicities, enjoy different cultural heritages, and practice different traditions. And we also show them by the way we relate to others, that in spite of all the differences, we share a common humanity that entitles each of us to compassion and respect. By teaching these lessons directly and indirectly we help our children get along with others, promote cooperation, and on a very basic level, support world peace.

But how far does respect for differences go when it comes to one’s own family? Even when we share identical ethnic, cultural, and genetic legacies, some of us clash strongly with family members due to contrasting personalities, attitudes, and temperaments.

My husband, my son and I recently returned from a family reunion. Reunions are great fun as well as fantastic opportunities to observe family dynamics. They can also cause otherwise mature adults to regress into dysfunctional patterns we assumed were no longer part of our repertoire. If you’ve got friends who drive you up the wall, you can let the friendship fade, but in a family, we’re “stuck” with each other, so what’s the healthiest way to live with our differences?

How do you usually respond when a spouse, an in-law, your own parent, child, or sibling pushes your button? What do you do when your aunt drones on about her allergies or when your brother–in–law asks you a question and then interrupts before you can answer? Few of us have the patience and self-control not to overreact when our switch gets flipped. Few of us readily forgive when someone is rude or insensitive to us.

Instead of exploding or self-righteously enduring these moments, there are better ways to respond. There are also at least two good reasons to explore those other ways. First, you take care of yourself emotionally and physically when you trade resentment and irritation for compassion and forgiveness. You also do the right thing as your kids’ most important teacher.

Tips for becoming more Compassionate and Forgiving

When a family member does or says something that grates on your nerves, ask yourself:

  1. What’s going on with me right now? Irritation? Embarrassment? Frustration? Boredom? Resentment? Jealousy? Identifying what you’re feeling is the first step to understanding yourself and your reactions and taking those reactions off automatic pilot.
  2. Why is this bothering me so much? I believe we are most intolerant of those whose behavior reflect traits that we least like in ourselves. That’s something worth thinking about when a family member starts to drive you crazy.
  3. What’s my usual way of responding? What’s the usual consequence of my response? How does that help/aggravate the situation? Thinking clearly about your usual reactions can encourage you to explore other options.
  4. What does this person need? That’s not often asked when people push your buttons, but if you can ask it and consider the possible answers, negative family dynamics may start to shift. For example, do they just need someone to listen to and acknowledge their troubles? Sounds like what most of us want and need at different times. So the problem may not be what they want, but rather their inability to ask for it directly. If you can figure out what the other person really wants from you and you can provide some or all of it, you might find that a) they quit some of their irritating behaviors, b) you feel more compassion and love towards them, and c) you’ll feel good about having freed yourself from an unworkable behavior. Win-win.

Talk honestly with your teens about the challenges of expressing our needs and responding to family members in new, more conscious and compassionate ways. Share with them what you’ve learned about being part of a family. Let them know that families are forever, but that doesn’t mean that family dynamics are carved in stone. Just because two people have always interacted in a certain way doesn’t mean they can’t change. With compassion and a willingness to be honest about what you feel and what you need, you teach your children that healthy adults can continue growing in positive directions.

In friendship,



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