Our resident therapist answers your queries about life and relationships
Q: I am so angry with my sister-in-law. I have two children aged eight and five, and she has a son who’s seven. They came to visit recently and my kids said to me their cousin had told them that a certain seasonal tradition was a fantasy dreamed up by parents. I don’t want to spell it out for obvious reasons. I reassured my children that my nephew was mistaken but I am not sure if the eldest believed me. She has previously said that religion was a lie believed by gullible people, but I let that one go. I really want to confront my sister-in-law about this — why do people have to ruin things? How I should proceed?
Allison replies: The joy of childhood is innocence, a beautiful world full of possibility, hope and a freedom of being able to be in the moment. When these ‘fantasies’ are taken away, it steals from your child all the magic that encompasses a family at such a special time of year. Magic is real for believers.
There are two separate and distinct belief issues here. Children believe and the hope is that belief can stay as long as possible. Most parents do their best to protect that. If I asked you, can you remember when that changed for you? I’m sure you’d remember — I certainly can.
Staying with this for a moment, what happened or who said it to you? What age were you and what were your thoughts or feelings following that revelation? Was it untimely, was it from someone you trusted or a kid at school or from home? Close your eyes and meet your inner child with a big hug, go back and gently acknowledge how it was for you. What did you need to hear at that time, and let the adult ‘you’ soothe that inner child wound.
I often notice that adults who can access their inner child and have a playful aspect still intact are very lucky. Life can knock that childlike awe out of you. There are no holidays that celebrate cynicism. Traditions are often about warmth, connection, and a belief in something bigger than us. It’s easy to tear them down, but what good does it serve? Are they right? Yes, they are, but like all arguments, being right doesn’t make necessarily ok.
What do you want to say to your sister-in-law? Write out the uncensored version first. Now, take a moment to pause and reflect. What emotion is present? You mention anger, it sounds also like frustration and exasperation. There’s a feeling of something being taken or robbed from you, that was outside of your control.
Before you can access a sense of calm, listen to what the anger is saying. I hear a sense of unfairness also, that something has happened that you feel needn’t have happened and under that layer some sadness and loss. Would you add anything else?
The purpose of anger is to create a determined drive to do something about it. Tuning into yourself, what would that look like? From the age of eight up, it is a precious time when you know you are on the cusp of a child becoming a non-believer, and even if there are doubts everyone plays along for a few years to keep the magic intact for them and the younger child.
The anger you feel may be old and new, this is why it is hard to let it dissipate as it has been building. Drop back to your childhood and visit that with validation for any sadness or loss that you feel. Bring yourself back to the present moment and let’s address what is going on with you and your sister-in-law.
You mention that you let the comment about religion go, but I think you didn’t. That was a personal attack on your belief and value system, and if that doesn’t sting, nothing will. There’s an added insult that generalised you to be part of a cohort of ‘gullible’ people.
Having your religious beliefs commented on crossed a boundary. Perhaps that is where you start, by acknowledging the first trespass was personal to you and your religious beliefs and the second impacted your children. How can you assertively and honestly express your feelings? Get to know them specifically first, what upset you and why. Pause and reflect on that and check as always if this is an old trigger. Even if it is, you can establish healthy boundaries about important beliefs for you and your family. It can be a bonus to heal any hurts from the past at the same time.
For your children, one possibility is to say that you are a believer and talk about special times from your childhood that elicited awe and wonder from those beliefs. For your sister-in-law, put on paper all the times you have felt your beliefs have been diminished or dismissed. Check in if this is a trigger for you and why.
Attend to the wound. Write down what you would like her to know and put parameters around what you don’t want shared with your children. You can say respectfully you know everyone has their own beliefs, but you would like to keep these intact in your family for the short period of time that is left.
When you ask, ‘Why do people ruin things like this?’ sometimes it can be to assert superiority, sometimes it can be a black and white idea of the world, however you are allowed to draw out very clearly what the boundary is and for it to be respected. Boundaries that are concise and clear are the order of the day.
Allison regrets that she cannot enter into correspondence. If you have a query you would like addressed in this column email firstname.lastname@example.org