Family Visits Can Be Like Time Travel
I often joke with patients that I always want them to consult with me before planning a family visit. Although I joke, I am also very serious. I’m a firm believer that the strategic planning of a family visit can really dictate how the visit goes for everyone involved. One reason is family visits have a way of being a sort of time travel. They have the power to turn the most accomplished attorney into a rebellious, angry teenager, a hedge fund president into a placating 6-year-old, and a competent mother of three into a guilt-ridden 13-year-old. Adults who function quite well in their jobs and life can revert to behaviors connected to a much earlier time.
When we re-enter our family system, something seems to happen to us. Old feelings and behaviors can get triggered when visiting family, especially for extended periods of time like over the holidays. Lots of feelings get kicked up during visits home, and the reactions we have are so important to pay attention to.
When Visiting Family, Have A Few Tricks Up Your Sleeve Including Knowing How Your Family Operates And Your Role
When I work with patients who are planning to spend time with family, how it’s done depends on many factors. There’s such a range with families. There are folks who have tried to connect safely with family and the most realistic way is coffee at a diner, or in very painful situations, letter writing can be the only way to “visit.” No matter if staying long-term or grabbing a coffee, it’s absolutely okay to have a few tricks up your sleeve to make the most of your time with family, from deciding in advance the length of your visit to being thoughtful about where you’ll be staying.
In addition to these logistical considerations, your plan for your family visit should also include a basic understanding of how your family operates and your role in it. Are you the family angel? Devil? Therapist? Favorite son? Having a sense of your role (and you may play multiple roles) helps with understanding the ways in which you participate in the usually very predictable family functioning, or for many families, dysfunction.
Take On The Role Of Scientist/Observer During Family Visits
I often ask patients to take on the role of a scientist/observer when on a family visit, or even, just on a phone call with a family member. By taking on this perspective, you can get a better sense of how the family operates, how you contribute to these dynamics, and what you can change if need be.
For example, what happens when you ask your mom about her childhood? Does she not remember much, or get annoyed? Maybe it’s too painful for her to talk about it. In this case, it might be good to choose to talk about something you’re both more comfortable with, and ask another family member about the family history. Having an awareness about how you impact others in your family is useful, and taking on the observer role helps to keep you less reactive.
As We Change And Grow, So Too Should Our Family Relationships
Why is understanding the family dynamics and your place in it key for a family visit? Because it’s hard for families to change–a system tends to stay the same. This is part of why people can regress back into old roles on family visits.
But, as we change throughout our lives, our family relationships need to shift and change too. Feeling positive about how you perform your role(s) within the family, and also how you protect your own wellbeing is a balance that can take continual work and development. Part of fully developing is having a sense of what your values and beliefs are, and being able to be authentic wherever you are, including with family. What this ultimately means is being able to be your own grownup person with thoughts and feelings perhaps different from your family of origin, while still being able to have a relationship with them.