It is actually not difficult to foster a family culture fueled by inspiration and mutual support.
It is usually only the hidden blind-spots, the things we don't even realize we don't know about the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, that stump us and create barriers to love and support within our families.
This is incredibly hopeful because we always have to the potential to see something we couldn't before.
With that, every person on this planet gets into bad moods and says or does things that other family members don't agree with. Instead of using this against one another, why not…
1. Create a culture of permission.
It is incredibly useful to start to separate the people in our lives from their behaviors. Who someone is at his or her core is not the same as his or her behavior. Human beings are nouns, not verbs.
One phenomenon called the fundamental attribution error is the thinking trap all of us get stuck in from time to time. We secretly (or not so secretly) think that if only everyone was more like me, this family would function better as a unit, the world would be a better place, etc.
The fundamental attribution error is the human propensity to give meaning to another person's behavior and then equate that with their inherent personality. For example, if someone cuts us off while driving, we are quick to label him a jerk. But what if he is driving his wife to the hospital or is feeling incredibly sick-to-his stomach? Does that make him less of a jerk?
Or if little Susie starts crying right in the middle her mother's skype job interview, Susie's mother may throw her hands up and think: “Oh my god Susie. You are such an attention seeker. What a self-centered kid.”
What is most interesting about this phenomena is that although we judge others by their actions harshly, we are quick to give ourselves a break.
“When we do things, we always have a good reason. It’s other people we see as defective.” – Dr. Mark Sherman, Ph.D.
We rationalize why we do what we do, but are quick to dismiss the situational factors that others are faced with.
And we are blind to the fact that others are doing exactly the same thing. They think our behaviors are indicative of our personality and downplay the real-world situational factors we are faced with. No wonder conflict among families abounds!
2. Acknowledge the illusion of control.
Ok, this is a big one for parents. Of course, there are many things parents do have control over: how they parent, what the children will eat for dinner, whether or not their daughter can sleep over her friend’s house this weekend, or what activities the parents will pay for the children to join.
But there is one thing parents can't control. And the attempt to constantly control it drives parents and their children crazy: moods.
We can't even control our own moods. We can't even control how we think about ourselves sometimes, yet time and time again we forget this.
Because no one. I repeat no one can control the moods of other people or predict with 100% accuracy how other people will interpret our own moods and actions.
We could think we are doing the nicest thing in the world by cleaning up Joe's room, but if Joe knows exactly where his important papers are in the mess, he could get frustrated by this “nice” gesture.
3. Address the empathy gap.
It is tricky for people, especially parents, to not want to get in there and “fix” the moods of their children. One reason for this is that all people tend to project what they feeling onto others (often referred to as the empathy gap).
This creates a gap between what we think about what is going on and what is really going on.
For example, how a parent assesses a child's level of anxiety is often mirrored from what the parent’s level of anxiety is. (1)
If a parent's state-of-mind is upbeat and positive, it will be more difficult for that parent to realistically assess the amount of distress or anxiety a child or teen could be feeling.
And vice versa. If a parent is particularly worried or anxious, it will be difficult for the parent to understand and see that the child is actually quite calm. This could be why constantly asking “What's wrong?” sometimes gets an angry response from children. At times, the kids truly feel nothing is wrong.
4. Give recognition, freely and frequently.
This is so incredibly simple, yet can be very easy to flub up. Human beings thrive on feedback and recognition.
We all want to feel like what we do and who we are is valued.
Therefore, just taking the time to put the mobile device down and give your full attention to little Johnny when he comes in the room to show you what a good grade he got on a test today is an immense leap towards cultivating an uplifting, safe environment which children can thrive in.
Giving positive reinforcement, support, and feedback does not take long, yet the impacts are tremendous. Low rates of supportive-positive parenting behaviors are correlated with high rates of depressive symptoms in children (2).
And it's not just children who benefit from more support and recognition. Adults do too (3).
The bottom line
You don't have to memorize all the potential ways you and your family members are cognitively biased. The biggest factor is just knowing that you all are biased…not from only an intellectual level, but that you actually live as if it's true (because it is).
The irony is that us humans are often even biased about their biases. We truly can't see the truth that we are just human, like everybody else on this planet. This is one reason why being intentional is so important!
For, when we see the deep truth of our nature, it opens the door for more humility, respect, and genuine connection between families. And it only takes one person in the family to see this deeply for himself or herself.
This explains why smart, kind people still make errors of judgement. Cognitive biases are built into the psychological human system. No one is perfectly neutral and unbiased. It is impossible. The fact that you are a physical being with your own body and brain makes you biased.
Therefore, the more you can see these biases at work. The less you blame other family members for your own reactions…and the less other family members blame you for theirs, the more freedom you will all have to communicate from a place of emotional stability. And from emotional stability, where no one feels the need to constantly defend their actions because they aren't being blamed or judged harshly, a space of connection, understanding, and support can take its place.
What is your intention for your family? After reading this article, what new possibilities have emerged for your family unit?
(Read this next: Loving What Is)