One of my clients, Ron* told me, “Our family never talked about problems we were having. We pretended everything was fine, even if it wasn’t. I think my parent’s believed that if we didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t really happening.”
He was recalling his childhood where he saw his mom change from a vibrant healthy person to an emaciated shell of a woman who spent hours in bed. He and his sister had no idea what was wrong. “My mom never talked about it and neither did my dad,” Ron said. As a child, Ron feared his mom was dying. He sister thought she was crazy. As adults they both realized that she struggled with major depression.
“No one ever explained it to us.” Ron said. “I don’t think my dad ever got her any help. We were so scared.”
Talking about problems instead of avoiding them
In every family there are occasions when we need to initiate difficult discussions. It might be around a job loss, a health problem, a relationship difficulty, a financial crisis, or a family member’s sin or secret. Healthy families live in reality, even when that reality is hard. Avoiding talking about hard things doesn’t make them go away. It only teaches people to fear them.
When my two children were 11 and six years old, my husband and I went through a serious financial crisis. Tensions mounted as we weren’t sure we were going to be able to pay all of our bills. I found myself edgy and weepy much of the time. The kids, especially my oldest, sensed something was wrong.
My husband and I learned early in our marriage how important it was to talk together about problems. While pregnant with our first child, Howard faced a scary health crisis. Neither one of us wanted to upset the other by talking about our fear that he might die. But we soon discovered that we felt more alone and sacred when we didn’t share our feelings with each other. So, even though it was uncomfortable, we started talking about what we were facing. Years later, that practice helped us in our financial crisis. Although we didn’t want to frighten our children, we needed to include them in some of our discussions about our money problems. We told them the facts and that we might have to make some significant changes to our lifestyle. When I started crying, my son hugged me and told me not to worry, that God would take care of us.
Talking honestly about problems in the family naturally opens the door for praying together as a family. Instead of feeling all alone and getting stuck in worry or self pity, talking with others and God empowers you to think about and work toward a solution. It creates an open atmosphere in which people learn to share their problems, their feelings, as well as answers to their prayers.
Dinner time is a great opportunity to talk together about these things. Remember to acknowledge and celebrate together when you observe godly character muscles like patience or forbearance developing. The Bible tells us that God uses adversity to build our character (Romans 5:3, 4).
Hard times create opportunities to deepen our relationships with one another and with God. Not talking about things with one another robs family members of the chance to show they care about each other, to help carry each other’s burdens, and to express love and understanding. Of course, talking about problems doesn’t guarantee these things will happen, but not talking about them is an excellent way of cutting off that opportunity.
Allow Emotions to Be Expressed without Shame
Instead of overprotecting your loved one’s from life’s bumps or feeling powerless or angry when strong emotions are expressed, help your loved one cope with their feelings and disappointment in a healthy, God-honoring way.
At seven years old, Jason* faced his first big disappointment in life. He wasn’t chosen to participate in the elite gymnastics team like his best friend, Timmy. Jason sobbed while he told his parents how upset he felt. His mom, Janet*, felt guilty. “I can’t bear to see him hurting,” she said. “I shouldn’t have put him in that competitive situation.”
Before she could help her son, Janet needed to remind herself that rejection and disappointment are a normal part of growing up. Instead of feeling guilty, she needed to teach her son how to handle his pain.
Encourage family members to honestly express their emotions and to grieve their losses. Even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, it is to them. As they express themselves, listen empathically, but also pay attention to their internal dialogue. We may find that much of our pain is created by the story we tell ourselves.
For example, while her son was crying, Janet heard Jason say he felt hurt and rejected because he didn’t get picked for the team. But as Janet invited her son to talk further about his feelings, she also heard him say, “I guess I’m no good at gymnastics. They don’t like me, and I’ll never be able to play with Timmy anymore.”
These moments provide opportunities for parents or spouses to observe how their loved ones process external events and how they add to their pain by creating a story that isn’t always accurate. It wasn’t true that Jason was disliked. In fact he was a very popular child. It wasn’t true that he would never play with Timmy again, although their time together at the gym would not be as it was.
As Janet listened and provided comfort for her son, she also began to gently correct his thinking. For example, as she was drying his tears, she told him that not everyone is good at everything. Tim was especially gifted in gymnastics. Jason had other gifts like drawing and making things. Later on, when Jason was drawing a picture, she reminded him that God made him unique and that as he got older, his special talents and abilities would be one of the ways he would choose the direction God planned for his life.
Jason’s rejection from the gymnastic team became a special time for mother and son to grow closer to each other and to God. Through it, Janet helped her son grieve his disappointment and accept that things don’t always go the way we want them to. She not only helped him express his hurt and disappointment, but to move beyond it.
Learning how to express feelings, talk about problems and work through the lies we tell ourselves are all important skills that enable us to handle the larger problems in life with greater resiliency. Adversity is painful but it can also be a tremendous time for growth and maturity.
*Names changed for confidentiality purposes.
Learn more about how we should talk about adversity as a family and handle the emotional fallout in the next part of this series.