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Dr. Miller's Secrets (and Tools!) for Family Communication

Do you dream of a perfect household, where everyone gets along and family communication is on point? The truth is, these relationships take work. This is the rule rather than the exception. Change within a family system takes intentional effort and does not simply happen on its own. This is where our family therapists at Aspire Neuropsych right here in Walnut Creek, CA step in! Family therapy may be the helpful resource a family needs to support more constructive family communication and teach the tools necessary to maintain it. Healthy communication tools help family members build trust, resiliency, and strengthen their family’s culture.

If you are interested in learning better family communication tools for yourself or your family, continue reading.

Tools for Family Communication

Below are some ways to improve communication with yourself as well as with your family.

1. Eliminate unhelpful patterns

There are times when we might say something we don’t mean, or our words land in a way that we didn’t intend. This happens for all people. We are only human. However, when these misses become an ingrained pattern, they risk becoming harmful to the relationship. For example, experts in relationship research and counseling, John and Julie Gottman found that there are four patterns that people engage in, which will deteriorate a relationship. They refer to these patterns as “The Four Horsemen”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Criticism: using blame to get our point across
Contempt: talking down to someone, mocking them with sarcasm and disgust
Defensiveness: not taking accountability and withholding understanding, usually because we are feeling wounded
Stonewalling: using the silent treatment as a way to cope with stressful conflict
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2. Focus on the behavior, not the person

When we are children, we use information from our peers and parents to understand who we are. We aren’t able to develop a self-concept without other people. So then, when we hear language (both positive and negative) such as, “you are so athletic,” or “you are so sensitive,” we easily internalize these statements as fixed parts of our identity. This is why focusing on the behavior of others is often a kinder and more empowering way to communicate. When we explain that we are disappointed by the way a family member behaved, we have a better chance of being heard and for that behavior to be corrected.

For example, if a parent and son are arguing and the father tells the son, “You are always whining. Don’t be a brat,” neither the parent or son is being heard. Labels rarely help in communication. A more helpful way to communicate might look like, “I want to understand you, and I can’t hear you when you are crying. Take a moment, and when you are ready to tell me how you’re feeling, I will be here to listen.” This important tool will help make family communication much more productive.

3. Get comfortable with naming your emotions

Empathy is a skill we can never have too little of. We get a sense of connection—a feeling that we are not alone and that we make sense—when someone else in the family (or your family therapist) can name what we are feeling and offer compassion. Yet, empathy is difficult to practice if we haven’t allowed ourselves to feel our own emotions. Some ways you can practice this is by:

1. Explore the physical sensations in your body. Do this with curiosity and withhold judgment of yourself.
2. Notice if you can describe these sensations with a name for the emotion you are experiencing.

4. Model positively stating your needs

The better we are at naming our own emotions, the better we become at understanding the emotional worlds of the people around us. Paying attention to the way we feel will also help with positively stating our needs. Modeling this behavior for our children is an important nonverbal family communication tool that we don’t often take advantage of. We are generally more apt at recognizing and sharing the negative emotions we are feeling. Take the example of someone forgetting to take out the trash though you’ve asked them multiple times. One might say, “I feel so frustrated and inconvenienced when you don’t follow-through with taking out the trash. I feel like you don’t care about me or my time.”

You can state your positive need by considering the following:

1. What do you want to feel instead of your negative emotion? Do you want to feel supported, respected, or important?
2. What would feeling this positive emotion provide for you? Would it give you a sense of peace, help you better manage your stress, or help you enjoy your personal time?
3. What do you need in order to access more of those positive feelings? Do you need help in sharing the responsibility of chores so that you can feel more relaxed after work? Do you need to take a chore off your plate because you are feeling overwhelmed, and another person’s help will give you more time to focus on something that gives you joy?
4. Can you ask for your need to be met by using positive emotions? “I want to feel more peace and joy after work. Can you help me by taking out the trash so that I don’t have to do it myself when I get home from work?

Even if some of this communication is directed at your partner rather than the little ones in your family, trust that they will take note of how you speak to one another and ask for what you need.

These small instances of positive communication about the trash will help when bigger challenges arise and the family has practice using these tools already.

If these family communication tools resonate with you, contact our team today to get started with family therapy. We are here to help you learn how to tap into these simple tools, which have big impacts on your daily family life.