The question: My daughter and I are close, but we can't seem to communicate well. She's in her 30s, but as long as I can remember we lose our temper or snap at each other over the smallest or biggest things. This starts to get embarrassing when we're among family or friends and can't seem to talk politely. I've tried to talk to her about it but usually the changes are short-lived. Is it just too late and are we too set in our ways to change the behaviour?
The answer: None of us are ever too set in our ways to change our behaviour – we have free will over our actions and full control over the way that we choose to conduct ourselves with others.
Now, does this mean that changing the patterns of communication you and your daughter have will be easy or happen overnight? Of course not.
Family interactions are often the toughest to change. The dynamics that exist in families are long-standing, and the communication that we adopt is often established at a very young age. The more time that passes, the more resistant to change these patterns become.
Interestingly enough, we also tend to feel most helpless or give up the easiest when it comes to changing our family relationships. Strange, isn't it, when most of us consider these to be among the most important and defining relationships in our life?
Start by stepping back and get a big-picture perspective on the reasons your communication is so poor. Is the way you communicate with each other similar to how you interact with others in your life? Does your communication represent a more pervasive style each of you has with others or is it limited to your relationship only? What types of issues trigger conflict? Do you each react to in-the-moment situations, or are there bigger underlying issues that have remained unsaid or unaddressed between the two of you?
Keep in mind that there is only one person's behaviour you have control over – yours. You cannot, no matter how much you wish, force your daughter to act or react in a different manner. Be brutally honest with yourself about the elements you are contributing the situation. Ask a family member or friend whom you trust to weigh in objectively. What nonverbal behaviours (tone, posture, facial expressions) change for you when you are around your daughter? Are there hot-topic buttons that you purposely or inadvertently push? How do you respond when she gets snappy?
Once you have identified the verbal and nonverbal behaviours you bring to the mix, have a discussion with your daughter. Express to her that you want your style of communication to change. Let her know what you will work on adjusting (be specific and detailed). Ask her what else you can do that would make things better for her (there are likely things you do or say that trigger her that you may be unaware of). Be mindful of not reinforcing her behaviour. For example, if she gets short with you, do not engage or escalate your response – simply stay silent or walk away (assuming the behaviour does not violate a personal boundary or become abusive – in which case you would need to establish parameters).
Even if your daughter is unwilling to take a look at her contribution, it is almost impossible for her behaviour to not naturally start to change once you truly commit to changing yours. After all, communication is inherently bidirectional, and our responses are shaped significantly by the responses of those we are interacting with.