Can You Change Unhealthy Family Patterns?

From the WebMD Archives

By Carrie Sloan

The Rumor: Family patterns are almost impossible to change, whether they're healthy or not

You and your family members have been doing a certain dance for decades, and everyone knows their footwork. The minute you try to change it up, you’re going to step on toes. This is especially true around the holidays, when we tend to revert to our 12-year-old selves. “You go back to your original dynamics,” says Karen Sherman, Ph.D., a psychologist and relationship specialist in Long Island, New York. “They get recreated because the family is together, and it’s stressful. In times of stress, we revert to old patterns.”

Changing those old patterns is harder than getting a Belieber to love opera. Is it even possible?

The Verdict: Creating new patterns isn't easy, but you can work on not slipping into the role you usually play

“The thing about family dynamics is that they’re very resilient,” says Guy Winch, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice and the author of Emotional First Aid. “When one person tries to change their role, the family will try to snap them back into it. There’s an active resistance.”


Say you have a “bad” sibling who gets all the attention, while you never feel heard. “Your family is used to organizing around that theme,” explains Winch. And you usually have a part in it.

“After all those years, you’re not going to speak up about things that are going on with you,” he says. “We become complicit with the dynamics even in ways we’re not aware -- or fond -- of.”

How to revise an unwanted role? Here are two steps to try:

  1. Watch for familiar cues. One common dynamic Winch sees is tension between parents and adult kids who tiptoe home for the holidays. For example, maybe you’re so used to your parents' bickering that you hesitate to start a real conversation because you’re already braced for them to start arguing.
  2. Ask yourself, "If I were in a different environment, how would I be behaving?" Then behave that way. "If you were at a friend’s house, what would you be talking about?" says Winch. "It might not be comfortable to go into your parents' house when you’re waiting for a fight to erupt and say, 'Guess what happened to me on the plane?' But you should."


Sherman cites the meddling-mom example. "Say she starts asking a million intrusive questions," she says. "Instead of giving her attitude, try, 'Mom, you’re so sweet that you always worry about me. Thank you for asking. I promise that as soon as I know, you’re going to be the first person I tell."

Resisting your usual family dynamic is going to create fallout. “It’s going to feel funny,” says Winch. “It can feel tense, uncomfortable, even unsafe. Those are all [common] responses when you’re changing behavior.”

Truth be told, your family pattern may not change right away, even if you radically revise your own behavior. But keep at it. While you may not be able to change your family, you can definitely control your own reaction to them. And that's a positive change in itself.

WebMD Feature from Turner Broadcasting System


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