“There Is a Reason We Gather With Our Families Because At a Very Deep Level We Desire Connection” With Laura Petiford.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory? I grew up in the Midwest in a family where a significant secret was kept between my parents in their best intentioned, well-meaning effort to raise a family in that era. Looking back, the secret keeping, the shame behind it, and […]

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The distinction between a difficult family dynamic and an unhealthy one can be determined by the impact the family has on the individual.
The distinction between a difficult family dynamic and an unhealthy one can be determined by the impact the family has on the individual.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?

I grew up in the Midwest in a family where a significant secret was kept between my parents in their best intentioned, well-meaning effort to raise a family in that era. Looking back, the secret keeping, the shame behind it, and the social fabric that enfolded us, negatively impacted the relationships we had with one another. As a child, I felt the wrongness of the situation but had no ability to put words around it or understand it other than it was painful. It influenced me to become a questioner, seeker and problem solver from a very young age.

I married young, in my early 20’s, without having taken the time to get to know myself or understand the impact my family experiences could have on my choices. My marriage was an attempt to launch a life that would remedy the perceived deficits of my childhood and in many ways it did.

After a decade of staying home to raise my children, I began to experience a longing for something more in my life and decided to pursue training in marriage and family therapy. I concurrently sought my own therapy to address the malaise that seemed inexplicable to me from a place of little knowledge about what constituted healthy relationships. I naively misunderstood the absence of conflict as sufficient evidence to deem a relationship satisfying and wasn’t aware of the precarious scaffolding that supported this dynamic. The dual process of academic learning about relationships and my own self exploration exposed the deep chasms in the foundations of my marriage which unfortunately were not repairable. I also discovered aspects of myself that I needed to change to become the person I wanted to be.

I remain grateful for that relationship, the opportunities I had, the lessons I learned, and for the immeasurable gift of my unique and extraordinary daughters. After my divorce, I worked for a time in various mental health environments, eventually starting my own practice and then joining with a colleague to manage Collaborative Counseling Group, a small group practice in Fairfield, CT. I became interested in being able to prescribe medication to enhance the treatment I provided and embarked on a seven year program of study to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner. I’m proud to have achieved all these things since turning age 40.

My personal experiences with my own family, my training and ongoing work with individuals, couples and families have greatly influenced my understanding of the power our relationships hold in contributing to our well-being and ultimate experience of life. I’m passionate about raising awareness of relationship dynamics to help others create healthy connections for themselves and as a lasting legacy for those they love.

With the holiday season almost over, many people have been visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy?

The distinction between a difficult family dynamic and an unhealthy one can be determined by the impact the family has on the individual.

A difficult family dynamic is one in which there are challenges to keeping thoughts, feelings and behaviors healthfully aligned but nevertheless achievable. An unhealthy dynamic either prevents or presents sufficient obstacles to deteriorate one’s experience so dramatically that well-being is intolerably compromised for the individual.

Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. What advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?

No one wants to miss out on the opportunity to enjoy relatives who share similar values and the capacity for closeness. These are the folks that are easy to be around; conversation flows and feelings are attended to with care. Revel in these exchanges as they unfold naturally and seek them out.

If you find yourself emotionally reactive to a family member, it’s time to do some triage and figure out what you need. Do you need to excuse yourself for a little fresh air and some deep breaths to recalibrate? Or do you need to use a strategic pivoting maneuver to refocus conversation and reset the emotional tone? Playing a board game, suggesting an outdoor activity or jumping in to help with preparation or clean-up are ways to shift emotional gears.

Remember this tenet: it is your job to take care of yourself emotionally even if others cannot and everyone is doing the best they can.

We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?

This is a question of degree and scale and also of context. Some toxic substances, such as alcohol, in small quantities are considered by some to be enhancements to human experience. One toxic family member in small doses may be quite manageable, maybe even adding some texture to an otherwise healthy family experience. Do you have to see this person once a year, weekly, daily? Do they interact with your children or spouse in emotionally harmful ways? There really is no circumventing a deeper dive into what has earned a family member that label.

If the family is large enough and healthy enough, hopefully the toxicity of one person can be absorbed and buffered by the healthy herd, much like immunity. But ultimately, the only person in a position to know if this is doable is you. And if not, cordial avoidance is a reasonable tactic for brief exposure. Keep any unavoidable contact short and superficial.

Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?

I have a strict rule not to divulge information about my work with specific clients, but I cannot think of a single client who has not struggled with either a relationship with a significant person in their lives or the relationship they have with themselves that was informed by their relationship with family. And this relational friction has contributed significantly to either a diminished quality of life or a clinically diagnosable psychiatric illness. I’m convinced that knowing how to engage in relationship well is the cornerstone of individual well-being, which is the bedrock for familial stability — which is the manufacturing plant for relationally healthy individuals who populate our planet.

Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although holiday gatherings are only a few days a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?

More than the food, the gifts or even the treasured traditions, the holidays are about our relationships. There is a reason we gather with our families because at a very deep level we desire connection even if we don’t share all the same values and perspectives with our loved ones. But that’s not always easy to remember when in the midst of a difficult family dynamic. Here are 5 strategies to help maintain your mental well-being and promote a more peaceful holiday season while celebrating with extended family.

1)Don’t take the bait. We are living in highly divisive times and there’s usually at least one member of the family who will use the holiday gathering as an opportunity to grandstand regarding some highly charged topic. Decide in advance that your overall well-being and familial harmony is more important than engaging in an unwinnable argument. Instead, come up with some segues that will steer the conversation towards more unifying topics.

2) Know your limits. Do you have to travel with small children cross country to get to your destination? Are you hosting 25 people and working up until the day before company arrives? Be honest with yourself about what you are willing and able to offer and endure. Stay at a hotel instead of the in laws; order pre-made side dishes rather than cooking; set a budget and stick to it; ask for help from others. Don’t over extend in an effort to care for family members only to alienate yourself.

3) Do less, be more. There are so many sumptuous offerings to partake in over the holidays. Every moment could be filled with some activity or preparation. Make a conscious decision to scale your participation according to your own sense of wellbeing. If you start to feel overwhelmed or anxious, that’s a sign that you need to take some time to yourself to reflect upon what it is that is really needed.

4) Stoke the fires of what’s good. It’s incredibly easy to notice what goes wrong, what’s missing, what’s not quite right. We are wired to hang onto the negative, a trick of nature to promote survival. But our brains can’t distinguish emotional threats from the physical ones which doesn’t always serve us well. Decide to notice, nurture and promote the inevitable goodness that exists.

5) It’s just another day. Yes, there’s a ton of hype and there is the potential to have some wonderful experiences and create warm memories around the holidays. But if that just doesn’t happen for you, don’t let it be a soul crushing cataclysmic event. Right size the experience, engage someone with whom you have a strong connection, and remember how awesome the other 360 plus days were and move on.

What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?

I think the premise of this question, that supporting strong mental health in someone who is struggling has the potential to cause friction in other members of the family, is a strong commentary on the impact of relational dynamics to both promote and undermine good mental health. It also alludes to the notion that something divisive plays a part in the dynamic. It does not have to be a zero-sum game yet in some families to support someone who is struggling may unavoidably cause friction as it likely cuts at the heart of firmly held beliefs and values that may or may not be conscious. This reflects the largely binary world of yes or no; good or bad that we inhabit.

The bottom line is it may not be possible to avoid friction. However, demonstrating understanding for both the struggling family member and any family member who is having difficulty with acceptance, is the way through. Assuming there is no emotional violence being perpetrated, (i.e. name calling, humiliation) expressing support and care for the identified difficulties of both, is a real time experience of what it is to empathize with the varied facets of being human and a loving way to move the world towards a more tolerant existence, one family member at a time.

What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?

“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterly.”

This proverb captures the depth of despair I have found myself facing at times. It’s also a powerful reminder of the unfathomable outcomes I was yet to experience that I failed to imagine because I could not see beyond my own pain. To be alive is to encounter both struggle and joy. Remembering this inevitable cycle and fixing my gaze towards the goodness that is yet to come has taken me time and again from the unformed goo of the chrysalis to the exuberance of sprouted wings and flight!

If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?

During my graduate studies, I came across a body of research that has stirred me like no other. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study launched in the 1990’s revealed conclusively not only a link between psychological health and negative childhood experiences such as physical abuse, divorce, or living with a family member with mental illness, but also a deleterious effect on physical health. As ACEs increase, so does the incidence of medical illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes even the potential for early death. Additionally, increased ACEs also amplify the chance of future violent victimization as well as violence perpetration.

Nearly two thirds of the 17, 000 participants in the study had at least one adverse childhood event indicating how ubiquitous this issue is. The science is clear and has been replicated and expanded upon since that time. What we know unequivocally is that our childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have profound implications for our lifelong health and opportunity. And one of the most basic experiences of humanity is our interaction with family. We would benefit enormously from becoming relationally fluent.

We need to become intentional about understanding emotions and learn to prevent emotionally damaging interactions from occurring in childhood.

I join the voices of other health-care advocates in addressing childhood adversity as one of the most important public health issues of our time.

The best way to support this effort is to read about ACEs. This can help you to identify if you might be at risk for long-term negative health implications that could affect you as well as your children. Sometimes a difficult childhood is more defined by what didn’t occur. This is referred to as neglect and can be more challenging to recognize particularly as it relates to emotional issues. If you have been impacted by childhood adversity, let your primary care physician know and consider seeing a trauma informed therapist for an evaluation particularly if you or your children have been struggling emotionally. It’s never too late to learn to create healthy connections to enrich your life now and protect generations to come.

What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?




Thank you this was so inspiring!

Thank you so much for this opportunity. Best wishes for a relationally harmonious holiday season!

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