Family dysfunction isn’t new, but when family hurts you, the home front becomes a battle front that erodes the foundation we hoped family would be. In this article Laurie Davies shares 7 practical ways we can stand strong and move forward on the solid ground of God’s promises in the face of difficult family dynamics.
Honest show of hands, when family hurts you, how many of you respond with the perfect suspension of boundaries, self-control, and grace?
Yeah, me neither.
When family hurts you—when there’s toxicity, deception, betrayal, or damaging patterns like manipulation, harsh comments, and chronic blaming—the home front becomes a battle front that erodes the foundation we hoped family would be.
Family dysfunction isn’t new. In fact, it’s been on full display since the very first book of the Bible:
- Cain killed Abel.
- Abraham put his wife’s life in danger.
- Jacob deceived in order to steal his brother’s blessing.
- Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery.
- Lot offered his daughters to be ravaged by a sex-craving mob.
- Sarai hatched a plan for Hagar to bear her children—and then abused her in jealous anger when she did.
Talk about toxic.
But There is Good News
The good news is, there’s Good News. Jesus came to heal places that have been hemorrhaging for too long now. He does more than stop the bleeding. He understands how to establish peace in our tired, tattered hearts.
To stand on His promise, we may need to answer His piercing question: “Do you want to be made well” (John 5:6, NKJV)? I love the New King James translation of this verse because it speaks of our role and Jesus’ role. We have to want it. And we have to trust that He can do it.
This process requires courage, strength, self-control, and humility. But if you’re committed to it, you know what you’ll find?
It will take time. And it will take a whole lot more than a seven-point blog post. But here are seven steps I’ve gathered through years of ministry, lay counseling, and my own experience. I hope they’ll encourage you—literally, place courage into you—too.
1. NAME THE FAMILY HURTS
I sat with a counselor years ago and made alibi after alibi for a family member who’d hurt me badly.
“My family member is just lashing out in pain.”
“There’s so much trauma in their past.”
“My family member is lonely and needs people.”
My counselor leaned forward and said, “You don’t have to find two dozen different ways to delegitimize your hurt. Why don’t you give yourself permission to say, ‘[This family member] hurts me?’”
I didn’t know what to say. I was dumbfounded. Could I do that? Was that even legal? I was sure that articulating such an idea made me ungodly or that Heaven would crash down on me.
As simple as it sounds, the idea that I could say the hurt out loud helped me begin to deal with the fears it was wrapped in.
2. BRACE FOR IMPACT
Next up is name it and claim it. You named the hurt, now claim new ground. It may be time to initiate a one-on-one conversation to reveal your hurt to your family member.
The family member may respond in a reconciliatory way, and that would be amazing. Reconciliation is of highest value to God. He “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” too (2 Corinthians 5:18, NIV).
But the family member may respond with indignation, invalidation, or punishment. If so, the questions may already be racing in your mind.
Face the Fears with Truth
- Will there be an angry outburst? I love what Dr. Henry Cloud says about keeping this in perspective: “Anger is only a feeling inside the other person. It cannot jump across the room and hurt you.”
- Will the family member deny my feelings or blame me? Raw fatigue over this kind of emotional response can trigger a strong disincentive to try. Jeremiah 12:5a has something to say about this: “If you have raced with men on foot and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses” (NIV)? We don’t have to let people wear us out. God has bigger races for us to run!
- Will the person pull away from me? This idea is especially painful with a child or a parent. Recent research cited in “Psychology Today” suggests that parent-child estrangement may be as common as divorce. Often, it’s initiated by an adult child. When it’s initiated by a parent, it’s typically the mother. (It may soothe your heart to read Jacob and Esau’s reunion in Genesis 33 and Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers in Genesis 45.)
- Will I be disowned? If you’re wearing golden handcuffs—you know, shiny incentives designed to get you to behave a certain way or else—they’re still just pretty chains. Taking them off could invite years of freedom.
No matter what response awaits, Jesus stands on the other side of it, more than able to stop the hemorrhaging in your heart.
3. EXAMINE YOUR HEART
Of course, before entering into any heartfelt (or heart-hurt) conversation, it’s necessary to aim questions at ourselves:
- Is there any harshness in me toward this family member that I should repent of?
- Have I acted out badly due to my own hurts? (Verses like I Corinthians 13:11, Isaiah 3:10-11, and Galatians 6:7-8 are important and helpful.)
- Could I extend grace to my family member? Grace doesn’t nullify the need to set up boundaries. It’s a commitment in your heart to show kindness and let your family member be a work in progress.
- Have I slipped into a victim mindset?
Ask the Lord to offer us the generosity of heart to pray blessings for our family member. Then we won’t feel the sting of James’ rebuke, which says: “With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).
4. ESTABLISH BOUNDARIES
The psalmist once prayed for relief from a foe. “I am for peace,” he wrote, “but when I speak, they are for war” (Psalm 120:7)!
If your family member would prefer to fight, a little gem tucked into the Proverbs offers a wise path forward: “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases” (Proverbs 26:20). This wisdom may dial down the drama for now. But what about the next time you’re together?
If the family member is unrepentant, unwilling to acknowledge they’ve hurt you, or unwilling or unable (sometimes mental health is in decline) to move forward in a productive way, it’s wise to evaluate how much influence you allow them to have in your life. It’s okay to set boundaries that make it clear that certain behaviors aren’t going to work in your relationship anymore.
Setting boundaries is hard. You may get pushback, especially when you apply new behaviors to old patterns. But Scripture poses a great question: “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned” (Proverbs 6:27, NIV)? We are called to love and forgive. But we aren’t called to keep inviting encounters that leave us howling in pain.
If you need help setting boundaries, the insight of a mentor, ministry leader, or Christian counselor can be a great place to start. Having a core group of friends around you when implementing boundaries can also help you stick to them.
To gauge how you’re doing in the area of boundary setting, check out my boundaries quiz.
5. MAKE A DECISION
Many of us have stood in church on Sunday and earnestly sung “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand,” a refrain rooted in Matthew 7:24-27. In that passage, Jesus says everyone who hears His words (the Sermon on the Mount) is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. However, everyone who hears His words but doesn’t do what they say is like a foolish man, who built his house on sand.
Relational dynamics may sift and shift. God wants you to plant your weight on the solid ground of His Son and His teachings. All other ground is sinking sand.
Yes, but I should be able to count on my family.
All other ground.
But is it so much to ask that my mom/dad/sibling would accept me?
All other ground.
But family is supposed to fight for me, not against me.
All other ground.
This, friend, is a decision point. It’s time to decide where to plant our feet. The root of the word “decide” is the same root of homicide and herbicide. It means to cut off. Something has to go. The healing you wanted with your family member; your hopes that they would see your point of view; your desire for that person to stop knocking you down—as painful as it is, you may not get the outcome you long for.
In this tender place may come a realization that the cracked foundation of a broken family never was strong enough to hold your weight. Only God is that strong.
6. STAND ON HIS PROMISES
If you’re like me, when I’m nudged to do something intangible like stand on God, it helps me to understand the ‘why’. The Old Testament is overflowing with language about God as our Rock. In almost every instance, there is a blessing or a benefit that comes to us when we shift our weight onto Him.
Here are three:
“For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me” (Psalm 31:3). When we stand on God’s sure foundation, His direction becomes clear.
“On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God” (Psalm 62:7). Some of us need this one. There is a nobility about being a citizen of God’s kingdom. He offers dignity that cannot be stripped by ugly words or deeds.
When God delivered David from the hand of Saul, David found seven different ways to describe the Lord as His rock in just two verses:
“I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:1-2).
God is in the deliverance business. He delivered Moses from a ruthless decree at birth and used that same Moses to deliver His people through the Red Sea. God delivered the woman who’d been hemorrhaging for 12 years from pain into peace. He delivered us from our sins through the death of His Son.
And he can deliver us from our hurts, too. As long as we’re not clinging to them.
7. CAPTURE A HIGHER VIEW
Standing on Christ offers rock-solid stability. It also offers a better view.
Ask God to show you how He sees your family member. Pray that He would show you how to love that person whether she meant to hurt you or not, whether she is repentant or not, or whether she’s retaliating or not.
This isn’t optional. If we don’t love others, sobering words in 1 John tell us we’re not even God’s children. “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister” (1 John 3:10, emphasis mine).
I want to prove I am God’s child. I want to demonstrate His radical love. This doesn’t mean I must let a family member repeatedly hurt me, but it does mean I must ask God to transform my hurting heart. From this place of transformation, I can pray for my family member. I can love with peace in my heart even if I’m maligned or misunderstood. I can interact without toxic emotion.
TAKING A STEP
I know all of this is risky. Sometimes, the ground we’re standing on—as unstable as it is—is familiar, so we stay there.
I witnessed a scene in an airport recently that might inspire you to take a step—even when family hurts you. A little boy and his dad were going up the escalator. The little boy planted his feet on his step and gripped the handrail for dear life. His dad went ahead, climbing the moving steps like a staircase. He motioned for his son to follow, but the little boy—much closer to the dangerous, interlocking metal teeth—shook his head no. Only when the dad returned to take his hand did the little boy have the courage to take a step.
Sometimes family relationships feel like dangerous, interlocking metal teeth. It can be scary to let go of the patterns we cling to. But God came down to earth to get us, through Jesus. And He extends His hand, saying, “Come. You’re safe with Me. You can let go now. Take a step.”
And then like the little boy, we can climb.
If you’re navigating a difficult or toxic family relationship, which of these steps speak the most to you in your current situation? Do you have any wisdom or encouragement to share from your own experiences of navigating family dysfunction?
How Healthy are Your Boundaries, Actually?
Does the way you say “yes” and “no” in your relationships leave you feeling understood and respected… or unfulfilled and resentful? Take Laurie’s boundaries quiz to find out how you’re doing.
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