Family stories – part 2…Conflict. Where the stakes are high, and opinions differ.

Conflict. And what happens in family life when our ‘truths’ both entwine and collide.

As I write I am thinking about conflict. And what happens in family life when our ‘truths’ both entwine and collide.

As COVID inquiries get underway in different countries, and the inheritance tracks of that collective global trauma get laid down, tracked, and researched we are seeing how, for instance, babies born in that period of time often struggle more with speech and language development because of the way their socialisation was forced to be confined to immediate family.

As a parent coach during that time, I worked with numerous new parents, and particularly parents of under 5s who felt bereft and isolated. The normal structures of family life that they had hoped for or come to rely on, were forcibly removed – with grandparents particularly often feeling the necessity of drawing strict boundaries with social isolation.

The lines of childcare support, but also the sense of that parental presence in the lives of their adult children were cut. And through cognitively, that could be understood as a measure necessary for the preservation of life and health, relationally it landed for many as a withholding of affection, a rejection, and even a trauma.

Equally different attitudes to social isolation and masking measures for instance divided families and created rifts. Where clinically vulnerable siblings found their understandable anxiety compounded by conflict that might be from an ideological standpoint…but also brought out some of the less palatable truths of family life into sharp focus – where self-oriented siblings or relatives trampled over the rules, and expected their more cautious counterparts to fit in with that– no matter what the personal risk. Or become the focus of blame – a killjoy enemy of their personal freedoms.

Now that COVID is further back in our memories, and the masks and PPE buried in landfill – a blue seam in the land waiting to be dug, scanned and analysed by archaologists of the future…there are the family stories that will fossilise, or be unravelled as time passes. Stories of how we coped, how we prevailed, how we hurt, how we struggled. Who was there for us. And who was not.

And it is those stories – of connection and disconnection that shape us, and shape our relational futures. They also shape the futures of our children. To be in secure attachment is the thing that we are all made for. It is to be in relationship, to be both together and in connection, but also simultaneously to be separate as individuals. Bonded but not fused.

Two nervous systems that operate separately but that can find greater safety in co-regulation. Being present to each other, noticing, giving each other the sense that our being in life resonates with someone else. That we can be seen, heard, soothed. That we can speak to our needs, and expect to have our needs met in that relationship, when we are in distress, or when things are not OK with us.

So that societal process we have had over the past few years of realising that in some of those relationships where we thought other people who mattered to us had our backs…we found that they didn’t. Suddenly not having our needs recognised and met by those key people who shaped our sense of self hitherto came like a body blow to our resilience.

This was not only true in a family relationship sense – as parents, as grandparents, aunts, uncles. It was also true for the massive collective experience for instance of furlough or job loss which happened to so many. At first glance furlough sounds gorgeous…What’s not to like about being paid to not do your job? However, the meaning of that experience landed much more heavily for some than others. Like it or not, in our adult lives, many of us define ourselves by our work. After you leave university or finish training, your identity becomes fundamentally fused with ‘what you do’…So what it means to be selected for furlough, to not be needed, to be felt as surplus to requirements for some was experienced as a kind of bereavement…

“Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone”…as the General’s inner narrative of military glory, royal heritage, his sense of personal worth, that he is loveable and loved by Desdemona is over-written by the insidious internalisation of Iago’s envious and spoiling narrative of Desdemona’s duplicity in replacing him with a Venetian… ‘Haply because I am black’…Equally, the meanings made by the loss of occupation, for many individuals created a fundamental re-evaluation. Some found renewed purpose, in childcare and home-based education. Some learned languages, or honed expertise in baking, crafting, yoga, and found a new direction.

But anyone who has been made redundant or fired, or been present to that with a partner or close family member, knows that it can be as though the shelf on which your loved one’s identity had stably rested – their secure base – has quite simply dropped away. And putting life back together again can be very hard, needing to draw on deep reserves of love and compassion to get through it.

How we live with these stories of suffering, struggling, and hopefully overcoming, matter profoundly. The extent to which they facilitate or interrupt our capacity to be there for our children. This is gradually becoming better understood, for instance in the field of study looking at intergenerational trauma. For instance, arising from experiences of being a minority group. Whether experiences of oppression – such as racial violence or prejudice – may or may not have certain triggering effects on parents or grandparents can shape or determine the young person’s ability to be open about their own experiences, vulnerabilities and needs.

This means as a result of the culture surrounding the family, the trauma of racism has an inter-generational aspect because it means the young person may feel they need to deal with the situation of their suffering in the present day by themselves – as a result of their awareness of their parents’ history. This compounds the traumatic impact – where a person experiences some thing overwhelming, and they don’t know what to do with it. And just to be clear – this is not to blame the families – but the culture of prejudice they are subjected to. It’s replicated in lack of trust in certain sections of society eg who are not privileged and white for instance – concerning societal institutions that are meant to be protective – ie the assumption that the police will not help.

I am very aware as I write this that I do so from a position of cultural ignorance, having had the privilege of being born white, for instance. But a teen who comes home battered and bruised from race-based violence and sees what that does to their parents may get the notion that they need to protect their parents from their experiences.

Equally a girl who lives in a family where there have been traumatic experiences of sexual violence comes home from an encounter where things have gone horribly wrong, will have some anticipation of how her experience will land. She may choose the parentifying response – where she is so sensitive to the pain she knows her situation will cause her parents, that she may feel out of her own sense of love and compassion, that she can’t tell, she can’t do that to them. Or she may feel that having been aware of this family experience, having been warned about sexual trauma from her parents or siblings’ experiences, that she should have known better and therefore it is easier to turn on herself, and blame herself, than cause distress.

A child who grows up with a volatile parent who has mental health problems, quickly learns that they are not the full emotional support package, and that, for instance, keeping that parent on an even keel is more important than the child’s own emotional needs. The child or teen can’t afford to be angry, upset, naughty, challenging etc in their presence and learns to suppress those more problematic sides of themselves. They have to maybe present a version of perfection that meets that parents’ expectations…Equally that child learns not to expect to have their emotional needs met by others in later life…UNLESS they have experiences that provide a sense of safety in doing so. They become an expert in reading other people and empathically catering to them and being disconnected from themselves…Alice Miller wrote about this in ‘The Drama of Being a Child’ from her own experiences as a psychotherapist, and as a child of a holocaust survivor.

And this is the thing…our stories are ours – we can’t change what happened to us. The past was there, it happened, and it left its mark. But we do need to be careful about how we live out our stories, and how we overlay our stories on other people and our relationships. This is nuanced and very difficult. How do I separate me from my story as a parent…from the story our daughter is living and processing with – or without- my help. That ability to bring in some separation – that our stuff is ours, other people’s stuff is theirs…can be very hard to disentangle.

It comes in part from doing some of our own inside work…it helps to bring in greater awareness of our stories, and the way that some of those narratives of the past may drive us, and drive the direction of our operations in relationships that ought naturally to have more open-ended futures. That awareness of our stories and the triggers of fear, rage, pain, distress, avoidance, or aggression that get ignited – is helpful to know.

As an educator, I can write with some certainty, that every year, in every school throughout the land, there are young people who are making their choices for their Higher Education application, that are in fact not choices. They make ‘their’ decisions from the standpoint of having marinaded so long in their parents yearning that despite the grain of their personality and talents lying elsewhere, they choose the path their father or mother had been unable to take, or did take…

The stories of family life quite often differ – with or without collective traumas of pandemics, wars, or with or without more individual twists and turns of fate.

Resentments big and small can gather weight and momentum when they go without repair. And once that sense of security is compromised in our relationships, our negativity bias goes to work – we become vigilant for further signs of threat or untrustworthiness. And the compounder is the confirmation bias which is the cheerleader for fuelling the narrative and closing off the options and other outcomes…

What are the family stories that are driving you and the dynamics with your family? It can be conflict with parents, ‘good’ parents, ‘bad’ parents…Looking at relationships with the older generation, it can be emerging narratives as parents age…Inter-generational culture clashes in the less binary, (hopefully) more racially conscious era come to the fore as our children reach their teens…We can make assumptions that once scarred by an argument that becomes heated and defensive, that the ‘Granny or Grandad is a ….’ (fill in the blanks) narrative can make it harder to unwind the tension and assume that they won’t be more sensitive next time…

Sibling conflicts equally have their toxic and distancing effects. It’s really painful and can be incredibly destabilising to feel that those close ties of affection and support that you relied on as a young person have become damaged and frayed. It’s the stories we can tell ourselves around those that can collapse our empathy and capacity to be more open and present to what’s going on. Our nervous system is on high alert on the phone or at family gatherings…ready to hear the edge in the tone of voice, to hear insistence in opinion, to feel anger and outrage at unsolicited advice…and leap to the defence or to attack. Once a sibling or a friend has turned the tap of love and supportiveness off, it’s hard to revert to the same trusting, easy-going fluidity.

Parents can also feel rejected and exploited by their children, and increasingly since the pandemic, there have been searches for diagnoses, difficulty with behaviour in the home. Some safeguard leads I work with report of heightened family conflict, and the use of physical chastisement when parents are at their wits’ end and whose limits are pushed to breaking-point. Sometimes the search via psychologists, neurodiversity specialists for a cause, for a diagnosis, can be compulsive, and provide a welcome distraction from the reality of what is a floundering parent-child relationship.

The teen who is unreliable around curfew or meeting arrangements rapidly becomes the selfish, careless one. The teen who may be overwhelmed and in need of some space, or struggling with life’s challenges and expresses this by being catatonic, on sofas or in their bed, readily becomes lazy and feckless…Suddenly we cast them in a role, and they can get trapped in it…without calm, honest reflection, clean and clear communication, empathy, and good boundaries…Once we start moving from complaint to criticism, we are othering and alienating their whole person rather than the behaviour.

Thus begins the story of difficulty, defiance, difference…distance. And the often unacknowledged difficulty of making repair, being able to authentically make repair, once your child has said the unsayable and done deliberately hurtful things. Once you yourself feel hurt and damaged by your child, it is hard – very hard to find a helpful way to frame things in order to start to make repair. It is even harder to persist and stay with the long, slow process of healing and restoring reciprocity and co-operation.

I’ve been reading Gabor Mate’s and Gordon Neufeld’s book ‘Hold on to your kids – why parents need to matter more than peers’ – written in 2004, looking at family dynamics and what happens when children and teens become more peer oriented and replace their attachment to their parents with peers. It’s an interesting and very challenging read. And I recommend it for anyone who is experiencing distance, friction, rejection, entitlement with their children, teens, young adults.

The psychologist and physician write extremely eloquently on the struggle, pain, and dangers of the breakdown of the parent child attachment. Specifically how that rejection compounds the situation. In the absence of attachment behaviours- recognition of dependency, reaching out to the parent, reciprocal affection – that the ‘story’ for the parent changes. The child becomes a stranger, and the relationship can collapse into anger, criticism, defensiveness, contempt and attempts at control prevail over any possible connection.

‘Hold onto your kids’ is also a very comforting read for parents who are going through the extremely painful process of supporting a child through loneliness, social isolation. It challenges the assumption that is often made that teens should be separating, and makes very clear the importance and value of the parent child relationship having primacy even through adolescence. This is potentially a very helpful reframe of the story for those parents who feel the loss of that peer support network for their child so keenly. It may also bring some much-needed strength and consolation, to the rightness and power of the love, support, safe harbour, and closeness parents and family can provide in the temporary friendship void.

Signs you may be caught up in a narrative…Conflict – whether with parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, teens, children…how to know when the story is driving you…

  1. You rehearse the wrongs you’ve experienced. You find yourself telling the same stories – and wanting to retell the same stories about the falling out over and again.
  2. You have a long list of the other person’s wrong-doing ready to hand.
  3. You are easily revved up when you think about this person…your heart might start racing when you receive a text or notification, you feel a little leap or a muscular girding up – this is the sympathetic system being activated, and a sign that you’re not in the ‘safe and social’ (Steven Porges – Polyvagal Theory) zone with the other person…
  4. You are bringing negative attributions to their intentions and motivations…you are mind-reading this…eg I am late for justifiable reasons like bad traffic, and childcare crises…they are late because they are selfish and don’t care about other people…In other words give-and-take collapses. My bad is circumstantial…THEIR BAD is EVIDENTIAL!
  5. You feel avoidance or even a touch of dread about interacting with them…your stomach may give a little churn, you feel an aversion, you put it off until absolutely necessary or that it would cause greater embarrassment…
  6. Things get out of hand in your interactions very quickly, leading to ready conflict cycles of criticism and defensiveness, stonewalling, or contemptuous exchanges (The Gottman Institute). You might find it hard to see clearly what actually happened to get the interaction from 0 to 60…because the backdrop scenery for conflict was already in place, and the stories you tell each other have primed you for your cue.
  7. You have an interpretation, a frame for the tale, a specific lens through which you look at and see the action.
  8. In the aftermath of the conflict, you feel headachy, have an upset stomach, feel wired, or tired to the point of exhaustion, need a drink or a smoke. These can be signs that you’re not just in the moment in that conversation – fraught though it may have been – it can be a sign that other backstories and hurts are present also…

What you can do to edit the narrative, re-write the story, change the script…

  1. Create a firebreak. Some distance, proper self-care…good sleep, calm your routine…space to take stock from a stiller place.
  2. Mindfully notice, in a non-judgmental way, the physical sensations, feelings, reactions you have when you direct your mind to rest on the person or the hurts that exist. Feel these, notice where you feel them, see your struggle as clearly and compassionately as you can.
  3. Think about journalling as a tool for ‘clearing’ out – expressing, and unpacking things and feeling your feelings more fully. Quite often we don’t get to say exactly how we feel – have our feelings acknowledged – or even acknowledge them ourselves. We get caught up in the story. In our heads – who did what, who said what and how and why it’s so offensive, outrageous etc…It might be a nice piece of catharsis to have a go at expressive writing. Writing it out in a completely unfiltered way and doing so more than once, can be helpful to reduce stress, rumination, increase resilience and depressive symptoms.
  4. Something I have worked on with my own amazing therapist, has been to go through the ‘No send letter’ protocol. Writing a letter to the other person – again with no planning and no filtering. Then reading it aloud, and seeing how you respond – again noticing the feelings that are coming up and acknowledging them. Once you get the anger out there, there are other quieter and more painful, difficult feelings that also come out from underneath…pain, sadness, grief. This is productive because it starts to provide clues about what the hurt really is, and what it is you really want and need in order to heal…I have found it can pave the way for a cleaner communication which has the scope to be more forward looking – as opposed to ruminatory, or a return to rage tennis…
  5. If you like frameworks – try and plot out where you’re all at on the Drama Triangle…are you doing the Drama Triangle? If so where are you in the dynamic…Victim, Rescuer, Persecutor…Check out the link and the unpacking on YouTube…it can be a really helpful way of thinking about family defaults, and the parts we tend to gravitate towards – especially where there is conflict…It’s Lauren Kress explaining Steven Karpman’s Transactional Analysis framework called The Drama Triangle…Just being able to label where you’re at, or where you’re headed in the pattern, can help reduce your reactivity…
  6. Once you have identified more cleanly and clearly what’s really at stake for you. Why it matters. What you need to say, and show a pathway for the other person to understand your needs and come to a less defensive point of choice around whether or not they want to meet your needs…As Professor Marc Brackett of Yale’s Emotional Intelligence Centre says…if you name it, you can tame it…and the better we are at naming it, the better the chance we have of getting our needs met.
  7. Change your aim…maybe try lowering your sights from being right, to simply being heard and feeling understood.

Disconnection, conflict, and the stories that drive us are very much in my mind as I write. No – or very few – families are immune. Mine included. Conflict, power struggles, empathic hits and misses, colliding and competing narratives – where the stakes are high, and options differ. I wonder how this resonates with you?

Some reflective questions in closing…

  • Where do you see certain stories shared in your family life helping? Or hindering?
  • What about the ‘I’m this, or that’ or ‘I can or can’t’ stories that we tell ourselves, and sometimes, we tell our kids too…
  • What are the stories that drive you in connection and disconnection in your core relationships?
  • When do you feel trapped in the ‘macarena’ of conflict… where theme begins…and you can’t help but dance to the same old tune…? What’s there for you? Where does the feeling come in your body? What past hurts does it connect with? Maybe even from childhood?
  • If you could edit things, and change the narrative of your relationship or family stories, what would you want?
  • Where do you go to vent? What sort of sounding boards for your story are you seeking and wanting? Are you venting to rehearse the same scripts and get affirmation from them? Where do you feel both supported, AND able to look at things from different perspectives?
  • What can you do to take stock, rest up and take a fresher look, from a less embattled standpoint…?
  • One of my specialisations as a trainer is delivering workshops on how to have difficult conversations…maybe think about ways of resourcing yourself up to have the conversation you need to have in order to elevate the discussion, rather than repeat the debate…

With love and gratitude,


Further reading:

  1. Hold onto Your Kids – Gabor Mate, Gordon Neufeld.
  2. Parenting from the Inside Out – Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell
  3. Tell Yourself a Better Lie – Marisa Peer
  4. Being Well podcast with Forrest Hanson and Dr Rick Hanson – Navigating Estrangement Situations!&&p=c02355f680bd33abJmltdHM9MTY5MDkzNDQwMCZpZ3VpZD0yNjMxNzU1Ny02M2MwLTY1ZjMtMTRlNy02NTA1NjI3YjY0MzYmaW5zaWQ9NTIwMQ&ptn=3&hsh=3&fclid=26317557-63c0-65f3-14e7-6505627b6436&psq=Navigating+estrangement+situations&u=a1aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cueW91dHViZS5jb20vd2F0Y2g_dj1OOVlHQUJPQ3dIOA&ntb=1
  5. Lauren Kress – The Drama Triangle:
  6. The Drama of Being a Child – Alice Miller

Ways to work with me:

  • Private 1:1 coaching (hourly sessions via Zoom). Providing parent-centred support when family life gets tough.
  • A one-off consultation. A strategy session to get to the heart of a topic of your choosing, and to explore and create practical plans of action that resonate with your sense of purpose.
  • Parent webinars for schools, carers, parent groups, on a variety of parenting and wellbeing topics.
  • Small group consultations – on a topic of choice – for groups of parents who want to explore common issues of concern – eg approaches to improving sleep, homework routines, boundaries and consequences, digital parenting, talking about sex and sexuality to your child…
  • Professional Training – for teachers, educators, specialists in wellbeing and pastoral care in schools.

More to explore