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Extended Family Conflict in Multiracial Families

family gathers around kitchen island full of food

Conflict. Everyone hates it, but it’s a reality of being in relationships with other people.

Multiracial families experience the same sources of conflict as everyone else - money, sibling rivalries, negotiating time spent together, and more. And there are also sources of conflict that are unique to the multiracial family experience.

One challenging area for multiracial families is dealing with conflict with extended family members. A few examples of what conflict in this arena can look are:

  • Disagreements about what language to use when talking about your child’s identity

  • Disagreements about what religious traditions to expose your child to

  • Differences in child rearing practices

  • Differences in how elders are treated and spoken to

Here are three tips for navigating conflict with extended family members:

ONE: Respect that different cultures and families have different approaches to conflict

Some prefer to fight things out and are comfortable with yelling. Others tend to push conflict under the rug, letting it fester. Some people lead from the heart with compassion. Others take a defensive stance.

Talk with your partner or your child’s other parent about how conflict is handled in their family. Try to come to an agreement about how the two of you will handle conflict with extended family members.

TWO: Seek to understand

Conflict naturally polarizes us and elicits defensiveness. As long as you feel safe enough to engage with the other person or people, be curious about their point of view. Drop your agenda temporarily and ask questions. Make them feel understood and they are more likely to be open to hearing your point of view.

Be curious about what the conflict brings up in you. This is a practice from Internal Family Systems Therapy called the You-Turn. Notice what parts of you come to the surface to protect your child and family. Notice if there are parts of you who feel hurt and sad. Notice if there are parts who are angry or parts who are confused. Try to respond to these parts with the same compassion you’d extend to your child. You need love too!

THREE: Set Boundaries

Being clear about your boundaries is important. I like the Non-Violent Communication model which maps out what to say in a conflict:

First, state your observations. Just describe what you’re noticing about what’s being said or done. Here are a couple examples:

“I see that we both have really different perspectives on how I should raise my child.”

“I can tell you’re really angry that I asked you not to call my child XYZ.”

Next, explain how what’s happening is making you feel. This could look like:

“I feel like you don’t trust my parenting.”

“I feel disconnected from you”

“It makes me feel like I have to defend every decision I make.”

Then, explain what you need in order to move forward with the conversation or the relationship. Some examples include:

“I need you to trust that I’m making decisions from an informed place.”

“In order to feel comfortable coming over, I need you to respect my child’s identity.”

“I want to look forward to our time together.”

And finally, make an ask. Here are some examples:

“Could you give me the benefit of the doubt here?”

“Can you please refer to my child the way she prefers?”

“Please make an effort to make my partner feel welcome here.”

The ask is the boundary. You are stating what you need in order to move forward with the relationship. The tough part is you have to wait and see how they respond. Their response and their behavior will give you the information to know if your boundaries are respected.

Based on that information you can make informed decisions about how you want to continue your relationship with them. In the end, it’s up to you to hold the boundary.

Take a moment and consider what conflicts you anticipate might arise, what you’ll do to self-soothe, and what boundaries you might need to set with your extended family.

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