Tag Archives: family relationships

The importance of Uncles and Aunts

Photo: Hanging with Uncle Q, Washington, DC, 2018

My uncle taught me how to salsa and dance the Latin hustle, took me to my first rock concert, taught me how to drive stick though I turned his hair gray and ground his gears, provided a shoulder for heartbreak tears when my parents divorced, listened to to my romantic travails, watched my favorite television shows with me, did not rat me out when he caught me in childish lies (but certainly let me know that it wasn’t OK), was warm and affectionate even when I pounced on him in the morning because he’s not a morning person, taught me how to take real photographs on a Nikon and use a dark room to develop them, pushed me on the highest swing on the playground at my insistence till I tumbled out and bloodied my nose, patiently taught me how to ski even though I repeatedly fell down, played tennis with me without criticizing my game, shelled summer peas with me on a Karachi rooftop, taught me how to go deep sea fishing and use bait properly (I had terrible sea sickness and threw up on him the first time), kayaked with me peacefully on beautiful rivers, let me read out loud to him as a child from a myriad of comic books and sci-fi novels which probably bored him out of his mind, and much more.

The clinical psychology research on aunts/uncles indicates that they can provide a buffer against mental health problems and promote attachment during times of trouble or absence of other caregivers/adults.

In addition:
1. Aunts and Uncles can serve as that “cool” adult.
As a kid, you sometimes saw your parents as the opposition. You would try to get around doing things without them knowing about it. They set plenty of rules and limitations for you. And that’s where you always felt like you could just turn to your aunt and uncle. They served as that adult figure you can actually just be cool and let loose with but feel protected.

2. They offer an alternative viewpoint.
Your parents’ sibling can, at times, be more accepting and nonjudgmental. Since they’re not usually the ones who discipline you, you might feel more comfortable talking to them than your parents. Especially if it’s about something you did that you’re embarrassed or ashamed of. Whether it’s grades, relationships, trouble at school, substance use, or a mental health issue, your aunt or uncle will probably listen without the judgmental attitude, raised eyebrows, or reflexive reactions your mom or dad might demonstrate when you bring up sensitive subjects. This allows you to open up to them in ways you may not have always considered with parents.

3. They can act as a surrogate parent figure.
Anything from a summertime visit or school break, to aunts and uncles who live in the same town, they can provide a safe place to go for a change of pace.

4. They offer valuable wisdom and knowledge.
Aunts and uncles are always going to be able to offer some really valuable wisdom and knowledge. They can expose you to things that your parents may not know about. Aunts and uncles can show you a different knowledge base or adventures.

5. They lower the pressure in tense situations.
If there is something that you want to express to an adult figure but you are uncomfortable with talking to your parents about it, you can often go to aunts and uncles instead.

6. They are patient.
An aunt and uncle are going to spend time with you in ways that your parents wouldn’t. Because they don’t see you every single day, they are able to tolerate your interests and conversation in a different way.

7. They observe you with fresh eyes.
Your parents are around you a lot and that means they can become somewhat desensitized to your habits, interests, and moods. However, your aunts and uncles may notice you in a different way.

8. They genuinely enjoy spending time with nieces and nephews.
Aunts and uncles may not consider spending time with kids as a “duty”. This lack of pressure can make the relationship lighter and fun even when providing a learning experience.

Also see Why Grandmothers Rock.


Families and Holidays – How to Navigate.

While holidays and family get togethers, virtual or in real life, can be very joyful, may have treasured rituals and traditions, and bring people together from their busy lives, they can also be pitfalls for potential hurt.

Have realistic expectations
As refreshing as it would be if your father didn’t criticize your outfit this year, or your mother didn’t mention your weight, they probably will. Don’t expect people to change when they have behaved in the same way for years. Having expectations can lead to feelings of upset.

Keep potentially upsetting topics off-limits
Politics and religion are obvious, but people also bring up sensitive subjects without thinking about how they might affect others. “Are you ever going to get married?” Or “ when are you going to have a baby?” may seem harmless, but more likely than not, it will strike a nerve. Plan to keep conversation conflict-free by avoiding potentially sensitive topics, or simply ask what’s new and take it from there.

Set your emotions aside. Except empathy.
Put your emotions aside when talking to older family members about racism or current policy/events – remember that you are changing the worldview they have been surviving by. Without them, we would not be having the discussion.

Relatives who rehash old arguments or bring up past mistakes.
Unfortunately, there’s something about families coming together around the holidays that sometimes seems to make people eager to bring up old hurts, arguments, and mistakes. Try to move to another topic, but if they continue, you can firmly say, “I’m not talking about that, there are so many things to talk about.“

Become a Participant Observer
Psychologists use a research technique called participant observation, meaning that they join groups of people in order to watch and report on whatever those people do. Observe family members as if you’re collecting data for a research study. Almost any group activity is interesting when you’re planning to describe it later as an observer.
Accept that the only thing you can control is your reaction
You can’t stop people from bringing up controversial or hurtful subjects or asking rude questions, but you can monitor and modify your own reactions. No one can force you to engage in a negative conversation.

Don’t drink too much
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Some people become aggressive or argumentative when they’ve had too much to drink. Avoid people who have had too much to drink, and don’t engage in arguments.

Be active
It’s difficult to be drawn into an argument when engrossed in an activity that requires concentration, physical activity, or laughter. Play a game, go for a walk, or watch an engrossing holiday movie.

Practice gratitude
Take a time-out and think about all you have to be grateful for: a delicious meal, a warm home, good health, a close friend, your sweet companion animals, or a sunny day. Anxiety can be diminished by focusing on the things we enjoy and value.

Bring or have a happy reminder
Looking at a favorite photograph, a funny or encouraging text from a friend, or anything else that makes you smile can go a long way toward relieving stress.

Take a deep breath, or ten
Can’t physically leave a stressful situation? You can always focus on your breathing. Take ten slow, deep breaths, focusing on breathing in and out. Deep belly breathing has been shown to be a powerful stress reliever.

It’s helpful to follow up on family events by debriefing with someone you love. If your brother really “gets” you, call him after a family dinner you’ve both survived. If you don’t trust anyone who shares a shred of your DNA, report to a friend or therapist. When you are able to discuss hurtful, awkward, or just plain awful exchanges with another person who loves and accepts you, it helps to take the sting out.

How mental flexibility helps romantic and family relationships

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy wrote famously in the opening paragraph of Anna Karenina, one of my favorite novels.

Cohesive families seem to share a few critical traits, as most family psychologists agree. Being emotionally flexible may be one of the most important factors when it comes to longevity and overall health of romantic and familial relationships.

That’s the finding of a recent University of Rochester meta-analysis (which is defined as a comprehensive study of studies), published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, which statistically combined the results of 174 separate studies that looked at acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness, and emotion regulation in relationships. The research goal was to clarify how mental flexibility, on one hand, and rigid inflexibility on the other, were linked to the dynamics within families and romantic relationships.

Overall, the psychologists found that rigid and inflexible responses to difficult or challenging interpersonal experiences to be dysfunctional, ultimately contributing to and exacerbating a person’s psychopathology, leading to poor overall life adjustment, less satisfactory relationships, and impoverished romantic relationships.

Mental flexibility versus inflexibility
In my practice, I define psychological flexibility as a set of skills that people use when they’re presented with difficult or challenging thoughts, feelings, emotions, or experiences. Such skills encompass:
-Being open to experiences, both good and bad, and accepting them no matter how challenging or difficult they might be
-Having a mindful awareness of the present moment throughout day-to-day life
-Experiencing thoughts and feelings without rigidly clinging to them
-Maintaining a big picture perspective even in the midst of difficult thoughts and feelings
-Paying attention to small moments of joy throughout the day, which I call “stones across the river” in my practice
-Learning to actively maintain contact with deeper values, spiritual or personal, no matter how stressful or chaotic each day is
-Continuing to take steps toward a goal, even in the face of difficult experiences and setbacks
-Learning how to forgive the flaws or mistakes of others, rather than using them as a tool for conflict or blame
-Using spirituality, personal rituals, social support, service to others, and psychotherapy in the face of difficulties

The opposite: mental inflexibility, also has specific behaviors that I discuss with patients, including:
-Actively avoiding difficult or painful thoughts, feelings, and experiences
-Going through daily life in a distracted and inattentive manner
-Having rigidly set ideas, and not listening to others
-Getting stuck in negative thoughts and feelings
-Seeing difficult thoughts and feelings as a personal reflection and feeling judged or shameful for having them, or shaming others
-Losing track of deeper priorities within the stress, chores, and chaos of day-to-day life
-Getting derailed easily by setbacks or difficult experiences, resulting in being unable to take steps toward deeper goals.
-Not being able to handle small changes, such as fluid schedules, timing, or the mistakes of self or others.

In the Rochester study, researchers found the following, regarding individuals and families who are mentally flexible versus inflexible.

Greater use of adaptive parenting strategies
Fewer incidents of punitive, harsh, and negative parenting strategies
Positive regard or opinions of family members
Lower perceived parenting stress or burden
Greater family cohesion
Lower child distress

Within romantic relationships, higher levels of various forms of psychological inflexibility were linked to:
Lower relationship satisfaction for themselves and their partners
Lower sexual satisfaction
Lower emotional supportiveness
Greater negative conflict, physical aggression, poor communication, attachment anxiety, and attachment avoidance

Mental flexibility is an executive function that can be taught through coaching and therapy. Clearly, the benefits for the mental health of families and couples are penultimate.

Embolden Psychology

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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