The Lowdown
30 June 2022 • 8 min read

Whānau

For some of us, our whānau is defined by our whakapapa and the connections we hold. For others, your whānau is the people and the place that you feel that you belong to, a part of your life that is deeply connected to your identity. Whānau relationships are different for everyone because they’re made up of unique individuals with different needs, personalities, opinions and ways of doing things.

A whānau of 3 together in the shape of a heart with Māori designs.

What does a positive whānau relationship look like?

In an ideal whānau relationship, your whānau would be your foundation of happiness and success, as a lot of your mental and physical well-being is based on these relationships. When you have strong, healthy whānau relationships you are able to experience feelings of connection, security and safety and they can ultimately lift you up.

Remember that it’s not a one-sided relationship either – try to make sure that you interact with your whānau with the same aroha, respect and acceptance that you need from them.

If you have a healthy, positive relationship with your whānau, they might:

  • Openly accept you for who you are and celebrate what makes you special
  • Have a positive impact on you, helping you to feel loved, respected, safe, secure and supported.
  • Keep open and honest communication between whānau members and continue to work on having good communication skills
  • Set clear and consistent boundaries that uphold respect and prioritise your safety
  • Spend regular time together
  • Seek healthy outlets for frustrations, conflict and worries, and communicate with each other if something is wrong
  • Solve problems together
  • Celebrate your culture together in ways that enrich your life

What if we’re not like that?

It’s very common for whānau to struggle in some or even all of these areas. Struggling to do these things does not automatically make your whānau bad people or a toxic environment for you, but it is important to know what a positive relationship is and what’s not ok.

If your whānau goes through a big change, things might get really tough at times. Your relationships with whānau members may be a bit rocky or you may find yourself under pressure or struggling to communicate how you’re feeling or what you need from your loved ones. Most of these things are part of the ups and downs of whānau life, and it’s completely normal to have struggles, disagreements and arguments, and to go through times where your whānau make you feel a bit down. No whānau is perfect and that’s okay.

It’s important to remember that while your whānau are a central part of your life and deserve respect, you also deserve to have your voice heard. You are the expert on your own cultural values & upbringing and you know your whānau well.

Make sure that you look after your individual happiness by doing the things you love and taking time to care for yourself, and this will give you strength so that as you go about communicating and interacting with your whānau, you can make the right choices to protect everyone (including you), and help ensure that every word and thought you share is cloaked in aroha and grace.

What’s not ok?

In some cases, you may realise that the way your whānau is treating you is not ok. It can be incredibly hard to accept that the people you love are not being good to you, so it may help you to understand some of the red flags you should look out for.

A whānau member who is treating you in a way that’s not ok might do some of these things:

  • Tries to guilt trip, manipulate or control you
  • Does not make you feel safe
  • Hurts you or someone else physically, or touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • Doesn’t respect your boundaries or what you have to say
  • Tells you that you’re not good enough or says hurtful and unkind things to you
  • Constantly fights or is in conflict with you or other whānau members

It’s important to know that all of these things are never ok and it’s not your fault.

If someone in your whānau is treating you in any of the above ways, it’s really important that you talk to someone about it. If you can, it might be a good choice to talk to your parents or caregivers but if they are the ones acting in this way or they don’t listen to you, talk to someone you trust outside of your whānau and ask them for help. If you haven’t got anyone to talk to, you can text, call or dm Youthline or What’s Up to talk with someone who cares and can offer you support and advice.

If your whānau need to make some changes, it can be a pretty tough thing to work through and that’s ok. You don’t have to address this until you’re ready and you can take as much time as you need.

If things are really bad and you feel worried for your safety, contact Women's Refuge or one of the support services listed at Are You OK – they have support systems that can help you leave an unsafe situation.

To learn more about your rights and find rangatahi-specific support to leave home if you’re living in an unsafe situation, check out https://youthlaw.co.nz/rights/home-family/leaving-home/.

If someone is hurting you and you’re able to call the police, you need to call 111. If you’re scared to go to the police, call one of the support services listed above as soon as you can and ask them for help – most of the numbers are free to call and they will do everything they can to make sure you’re safe.

We’re just not getting along right now..

Even if what you’re facing isn’t that bad, dealing with rocky whānau relationships can be extremely hard. While you can’t control the way your whānau choose to behave toward you, you can choose how you support your own wellbeing moving forward.

This might include talking to your parents or caregivers about what you’re struggling with, asking the whānau group to strengthen communications and work together on resolutions, regularly catching up with someone you trust or a mental health professional to talk about what’s going on, or choosing to put some space between you and your whānau and spend less time with them.

If you want to talk to your whānau about what’s bothering you but you don’t know how or what to say, here are some tips to help you prepare:

  • Write it down – work out what you need to say and what the outcome you want is. This will help you figure out your key points. You can even bring your notes with you to the conversation if you think it will help you keep the conversation on track.
  • Practice what you’re going to say - If you have a trusted friend you can talk to about what’s going on, ask them to rehearse the conversation with you and work out answers to how they might respond – otherwise going over it by yourself will help too!
  • Find the best time – don’t approach them while you’re feeling super emotional about what you’re addressing, instead wait until you’ve had some time to process it and both you and them are not too tired, stressed or grumpy. It might take a while to figure out the perfect moment and that’s ok – you don’t need to rush it.
  • If you’re feeling anxious embarrassed or scared of upsetting them, let them know that – it gives them a heads up that you need them to go easy on you in their response. You could say “I’ve got something I want to talk to you about, but I’m worried you might be upset with me. Is this a good time to talk about it?”
  • Use your words in a way that doesn’t start with “You did this” but instead starts with “I feel this”, so that they aren’t immediately feeling defensive.

For example, instead of saying “Lately you’ve really been talking down to me and it’s making me feel bad about myself” you could say “I’m really struggling at the moment with how I feel about myself, and when you said I was being an idiot the other day, it really impacted how I was feeling.”

  • Let them know what you need from them. Do you need them to give you support, or to communicate more with them? Are you asking for a change in the whānau relationship, or do you need them to stop doing something that you think is not ok? Once you’ve told them how you’re feeling, be clear and honest with them about what the outcome is that you need.
  • Have a support person. If you have a trusted whānau member who can come into the conversation with you, that’s a really good idea, but if not, ask a trusted friend to be available for you to talk to and vent out any frustrations after the conversation is over.
  • Remember the conversation may not go well, but it’s a start. You’ve identified that something is wrong and you’ve let them know that it’s not ok or that you need a change. If they don’t react well, give it some time, see how things go and reassess whether you need to try addressing it again in a different way.

Whānau can mean different things for different people. Sometimes if things don’t get better and you have to make that choice to distance yourself from your whānau, you may find that over time you can create a new chosen whānau of people who genuinely love and support you. Whatever happens, you are worthy of love and respect and you have the right to feel safe in your whānau situation.

Whatever choices you make and struggles you face, just know that you’ve got this, that communication and a willingness to work together fixes many problems and that you are worthy of love and respect.

Where to get help:

If you’re thinking about harming yourself or are having suicidal thoughts, call Lifeline on 0508 82 88 65 now to talk to someone who cares and can support you.

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