How to cope with the highs and lows of family life

By Tilly Langford, a proud Gumbaynggir woman who grew up on Murramarang land in Yuin Country. Tilly is a student ambassador and Gadigal Centre Assistant at the University of Sydney, a TikTok creator, an activist and the eldest of 10 siblings.

All families are different, with their own unique mix of strengths and problems. I grew up in a big family, with heaps of siblings and cousins. Lots of family friends were always hanging around, too. As the eldest daughter, I felt from a young age that I had lots of responsibilities.

One thing many people don’t realise is how time consuming a big family can be – especially with younger siblings. On top of school, my cultural obligations, work and a social life, my family could sometimes make me feel pretty overwhelmed. When I was younger, if I got frustrated, I would sometimes lash out at my family. I had a pretty hard time expressing how I felt. Looking back now, I wish I had equipped myself with some better ways to communicate. So, here’s my tips for dealing with the highs and lows of family life.

Get your communication right

It can be really hard when you’re feeling misunderstood or upset with your family, but try not to lash out, especially when you feel hurt. Instead, try waiting until you’re calm and have had time to think about what you want to say before bringing something up that’s troubling you.

I would try writing down what you’re feeling about an issue and what solutions you hope for. This can help to clear your mind and make it easier to express yourself calmly. A good place to start would be to think about the following:

  • From your perspective, what happened?

  • How do you feel about it?

  • How do you think the other person is feeling?

  • What solution do you hope to come to?

For example: ‘When you were playing your drums really loudly this afternoon, even after I had mentioned that I was stressed about my assignment, I felt really overwhelmed and a bit disrespected, because I was having a lot of trouble concentrating. I’m sorry for yelling at you. Maybe next time you can practise later, so I can do my homework first?’

Remember that people might sometimes need a moment to process new information, so don’t expect an answer straight away. You might even want to ask if they’d like to think about what you’ve said and come back to you.

It might feel a bit annoying at first to have to stay calm, to plan what you want to say and then to write things down, especially when you’re angry about something, but communicating clearly in this way helps everyone feel they’re being heard and stop more conflicts coming up.

Remember that everyone has their own truth

There are always going to be times when you disagree with someone about something but you’re both convinced you’re right. You might think it makes you look weak to be the first one to ‘give up’, but in fact it can be a sign of strength to empathise with the other person and not insist that your view is the only correct one. Taking the time to try to see a situation from the perspective of the other person can remind you that two people can experience different ‘truths’ at the same time, and it doesn't necessarily mean that either one of you is right or wrong.

When I was younger, I was really worried about adding stress to my mum’s life, so I would often ask my siblings to clean up around the house or I would get mad at them if they did something wrong. I often acted like another parent to try and keep things running at home as smoothly as possible. But even though I thought I was doing the right thing, my younger brother didn’t think it was fair that I got to boss him around since I wasn’t actually his parent even though I acted like it.

It turns out that both of our experiences were valid. And maybe if we had both taken a moment to look at the situation from the other person’s perspective, we could have avoided a lot of conflict. I could have done this by thinking about how I might have felt if our roles were reversed and he had suddenly started acting like he was in charge.

I also think it’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, the only person’s mental health that you have responsibility for is your own. If you need to cut a conversation short or take a break, do that. Have something to eat, go for a walk, listen to some music. But if you can, try and communicate to the other person or people that you just need a moment to re-set and get into a better headspace before the conversation continues.

Keep up with the good

All relationships in your life take effort. Sometimes we find ourselves putting a lot of effort into things like friendships or romantic relationships, and we can sometimes forget our families because we just assume that they’ll be there for us anyway, no matter what. But it’s important to remember to give your family the attention they deserve, especially as you grow up. That way, those bonds can adapt and grow in a healthy and supportive way, and if times do get tough, it can be easier for you to lean on your family for support, and vice versa.

I reckon your teenage years are the best time to start thinking about who you would like to be within your family and community. What role would you like to have? You don’t need to perfect it now, but it’s a good time to start working on the skills you might need to become that person. For me, I always knew I wanted to be someone that people in my family and community could go to when they needed help and support – but in order to do that, I had to keep those connections strong.

Right after I finished high school, I moved 3.5 hours away for university. At first, I didn’t understand how much that might change the relationships I had with my family, especially with my younger siblings. Soon, though, I realised that I couldn't just eat dinner with them now, and watch a movie together, to spend time with them. Instead, I had to make sure I called them most days, sent them photos and videos, and organised my weekends so that I could come and visit. It took a bit more effort, but it was definitely worth making sure that I could maintain these relationships with the people I love.

Some ways you could spend more meaningful time with your family members might include:

  • organising game nights (these can work well on Zoom, too!)

  • going for a walk together

  • asking for their advice on something

  • letting them know when you’ve had a good day or are celebrating something

  • planning ‘no-phone’ evenings with them.

Everyone’s family looks different, and all families come with their own triumphs and challenges. As we grow up, our position in our family can change, so it's important to evaluate who you are and who you want to be within your family. Learning how to communicate effectively and how to share the good things in life with your family members can help you be a positive and supportive family member for others.