Subject: Can People Change?

Written by Rorri Geller-Mohamed, LCSW

July 20, 2019

The struggle is real in many multiracial families who have extended family members who are prejudice, “colorblind”, ignorant, and racist. The frustration and pain that this causes on parents is enormous especially when it’s your parent or in-law aka often your child’s grandparent that acts that way. It not only takes a toll on the individual whose relative it is but can also impact the partner in multiple ways. It can show up as the partner being directly affected and/or the partner having to deal with the second hand effects of their partner being under stress. They might be more irritable, often distracted, and short in conversation. It can add tension to the family that of course can trickle down to the kids even if they aren’t in direct contact with the grandparents.

Parents often describe themselves faced with a difficult decision about whether to cut ties, add boundaries to the relationship, and/or ignore the behavior and suffer with the consequences. These often feel like the only options for parents and are by no means is that an easy decision.

When working with parents, I like to expand the conversation and the way we approach the situation. Of course, the available options are unique to each family and their situation.

Here are some of the responses that I hear from parents when we start this process:



Can people really change?

Yes. I have seen this in my experience as well as hearing about the experiences of others. People can change and they do. It’s not always easy and it’s often a process but it can definitely happen. In the process that I teach to parents, we use different strategies to engage the person while working to maintain our own self-care and helping them see how it is also personally beneficial for them.

It’s a hopeless situation, what’s the point of working on it.

My first answer is for your kids. If no one works on it then this family member is out in the world treating people a certain way and will continue as your child and their generation gets older and that’s not ok. We are here because we want to create a better world for our kids to live in where they can be fully themselves. The other part is that it’s not actually hopeless but it can feel that way. Hearing people’s experiences who have had success in opening up the minds of others and watching their behaviors change can help you feel more hopeful and optimistic about it.

I already tried that approach and it didn’t work.

I’m sure you tried a lot of things and I’m sure you feel exhausted. It can be tiring, frustrating, and emotionally draining when dealing with family in these situations. I get that and it often may feel easier to cut ties. But I also encourage people to not give up even when it seems really hard. There is always another way to try. It doesn’t need to consume your life but there are a myriad of ways to get people to see things from different perspectives, use their own history to better understand the situation, as well as connect it to the importance of family relationships to them.

I’m too hurt and emotionally drained.

Yes, I hear that. It’s honest and it’s true. This is one of the reasons it is so important to build a supportive community of other people doing this work as well and make sure that you prioritize self-care. It’s also important to figure out the best way to fit this into your life so it doesn’t take a toll on your parenting or present relationships. The flip side is imagined if things improved and that relationship changed, how might that give you more energy and support.
When you are in the situation it can often feel easier to avoid it and try to push it away. I invite you to try a new approach and not give up. Try something different that you haven’t tried before. Connect with a supportive community of other parents doing this as well. Get guidance from a therapist, coach, and/or someone who has been in your shoes. The desire to build a better world for our kids is our motivation and we need to do everything we can to create change. To not giving up.
Do you have a situation like this or something similar where you are feeling emotionally drained or stuck on how to move forward?

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