No one can escape from today’s ever more complex, impersonal and overwhelming world, most of us turn to our families for comfort and a sense of belonging. But, all too often, we find ourselves frustrated instead of comforted by the contact we seek with those closest to us.

When we talk to family members, we sometimes are met with criticism and judgment rather than approval and acceptance. Searching for love, we find disapproval instead.

By studying the ways family members talk to each other, we can understand how these conflicts develop. We can learn how to work things out, rather than continue to work each other over.


When we talk to someone, our conversation echoes with meanings from our past experience with each other and with other people. Nowhere is this more true than within the family. We react not only to the meaning of the words spoken (the message), but also to what those words say about the relationship (the meta-message).

 Being social creatures, we are always sending out signals that others read, interpret and respond to while we are doing the same for their signals. Here, the problem is to understand each other’s code. However, communication keeps the social wheels moving.

Meta-messages ( communication beneath the surface – nonverbal cues – tone of voice, body language, gestures, facial expression- ) are unstated meanings we glean based on how someone spoke… tone of voice… phrasing… old associations we brought to the conversation. The message communicates word meaning, but the meta-message yields heart meaning. A crucial step in breaking the gridlock of frustrating conversations is separating messages from meta-messages.

One of the most powerful ways to improve conversations and the relationships they reflect is to re-frame the message — to interpret it in a different way


Being in a family means being closely connected with the other family members. When you are close to others, you care what they think, and so you have to act and speak in a way that considers their needs and desires. This controls your actions, limiting your independence.

The way we talk to each other reflects both of these constant struggles for connection and for control.

Within the family, our close feelings often allow us to relax the rules we apply when dealing with outsiders. This can lead to problems in communication.


As adults, we feel we should be free from our parents’ judgment. At the same time we still crave their approval. Meanwhile, parents often still feel impelled to judge their children’s behavior as adults the same way they did when they were young. Having children who grow up well puts a stamp of approval on their performance as parents

Flip side for parents: If their adult children have problems, parents feel that their life’s work of parenting has been a failure and fear that those around them will think the same way. This gives an extra intensity to parents’ desire to set their children straight, but it may blind them to the emotional impact their corrections and suggestions have on their children. When parents and their adult children live far apart, as they often do today, their brief visits often turn into replays of childhood or adolescent parent-child relationships. Common result: Explosive conflict.( avoid this situation).

How to defuse the adult parent-child conflict: Bite your tongue. An older woman I know enjoys an excellent relationship with her two married-with-children daughters. Her secret for success: “When my daughters tell me they plan to do something that I think is a bad idea, I don’t comment on it unless they ask my advice. And whenever I visit one of my daughters’ homes, I behave like a guest.” (Follow this in practice though not easy ).



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