It has been an emotional month for many in the UK. After the sadness and anger that followed the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox, many people now feel fearful and apprehensive as the consequences of the EU referendum begin to reveal themselves.
It has also been a divisive time, and the number of racist incidents reported to the police has risen in the days since the vote. Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with an outpouring of anger, shock and shame from those who voted Remain, and celebration and pride from those who voted Leave.
These feelings of anger, fear and division may well be resonating in our families. Polling data suggests that while messages of internationalism and inclusiveness struck a chord with young voters, their mothers, fathers and grandparents may have been swayed by the Leave campaign’s pledge to “take back control”.
A difference in values can be a major stumbling block for family relationships. In my own recent research in collaboration with the charity Stand Alone, a clash in personality or values was cited as a common cause of relationship breakdown between parents and their adult children, as well as relationships between siblings.
A number of different factors and experiences typically contribute to family rifts. But a difference in values may be particularly significant. In a US study of mothers estranged from adult sons and daughters, the estrangement was more likely to be attributed to a difference in values rather than their child’s engagement in socially unacceptable behaviour – such as engaging in criminal activity or substance abuse.
Seven steps to help healing
Division between “leavers” and “remainers” is already having significant impact on some families. So what practical steps can people take to help heal rifts that may have been caused or exacerbated by the EU referendum?
The following is not a recipe for achieving the “perfect” post-Brexit family, but rather is a list of suggestions, informed by research on family relationship breakdown and well-being, that might be helpful.
Improve communication skills There is a vast literature on how to develop and learn effective communication skills, which could be helpful to explore if you are looking to enhance your abilities or try to begin to change deeply ingrained family patterns.
Take a break from social media Some people who are struggling with their family relationships take breaks from social media during particularly challenging times such as the holiday season. Stepping back from emotional Facebook or WhatsApp feeds or the intense coverage of Brexit on the 24-hour news cycle might likewise provide some relief.
Positive engagement and action Volunteering and being part of a cause can be beneficial for our mental health and sense of well-being. Being actively engaged in making the changes you want to see in the world, whether they are Brexit-related or not, may be a positive way to funnel feelings of frustration and dismay.
Acknowledge stigma Those who are experiencing family relationship breakdown often describe it as a silent issue that they cannot discuss openly for fear of being judged and blamed. Feelings of shame have been identified as having the potential to lead to feelings of disconnection and isolation. So it may be helpful to recognise that family relationships are often difficult and experiencing conflict and strain are common.
Appreciate that you are not alone If you fear your family relationships may break down, or if they are beginning to do so, it may be helpful to know that you are not alone in this experience. It has been estimated that one in five UK families will be touched by family estrangement and its consequences.
Nothing is permanent Just as the political reality of Brexit is changing daily, our relationships with our family members shift and change. Estrangements are rarely static and cycling in and out of estrangement is common. If you are struggling in your family relationships right now, it does not necessarily mean that you will feel the same way in 12 months’ time.
Seek support Those who are estranged typically wish that their relationships with their family members was more loving, kind and accepting. If your family members do not meet our needs or expectations, it might be helpful to seek emotional and practical support from friends, colleagues or professionals who are able and willing to listen to your experiences and perspectives, and offer reassurance and understanding.
Jo Cox’s compassion has been praised by her family, friends, colleagues, community, and politicians and leaders around the world. It may be challenging to extend tolerance and compassion to “Brexiters” and “Remainers” alike when discussing the EU referendum and its consequences, but as Jo reminded us in her maiden speech in parliament: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.