Sadly, as well as changing, our relationships with others can sometimes stagnate or completely fall to the wayside. So how can you work to maintain and improve your family relationships as you age?
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The foundation for great family relationships—support
Family support is essential, perhaps crucially so. Whether you get it from your biological family or "adopted tribe" is less critical. What's important is social support from close members of whoever you label as "family."
So what does family support really mean? And how can you work to improve it and thereby create a healthy family?
In the Handbook of Family Communication, editor Anita Vangelisti puts down five different forms of support:
- Emotional support: “Making us feel better, sharing in happy moments together,” she says.
- Esteem support: “Making us feel good about ourselves, validating when we’re doing well, helping out when we’re not doing as well.”
- Network support: “That sense of belonging. That’s really important with families, so you kind of have a home base, a place where you feel accepted and you belong, no matter what.”
- Informational support: How to do things that others may have done in another family setting.
- Tangible support: Things like financial support and care packages from home.
As the above forms the basis of good relationships, consider it when communicating with other family members or creating family time. Are you:
- Setting things up so that you share happy moments with other family members?
- Making your extended family feel good about themselves by praising their achievements—even small ones, such as doing the dishes?
- Making it clear that everyone in the family is welcome and belongs there—from your ageing parents to young children?
- Offering guidance and support in areas you’re knowledgeable in (but not forcing it on people)?
- Sending care packages, offering financial support, or getting your hands dirty by helping someone in your family out—be it with housekeeping or accounting?
Now, let's look at some communication tips to help you maintain good relationships with those around you.
Manage communication and interaction times
When your children leave the nest, or your niece and nephew grow up, they get busier. Further studies, friends, and work all take up time. Likewise, you may have a busy work schedule or use retirement to set up a business and attend all the social events you didn't have time for before. Other family members need to respect this.
Constantly bombarding someone to ensure they will talk to you and spend time with you won't work. A healthy family recognises everyone has their own life, actively supports that life, and keeps communication streams open.
Set up communication times and avenues
Everyone’s different. Find out how often your family members are comfortable communicating and appreciate that it may vary slightly from one week to the next.
Do set up those communication avenues, however. Maybe a WhatsApp group for certain family members would be a good idea. However, having all your cousins in one group may not work if you have 35 cousins, and they all like sending fifty messages a week. If you set up such a group, make the intentions clear—people participate when and if they have the time and try not to bombard the group daily with inspirational cat videos.
A WhatsApp group allows everyone to interact without the pressure of responding to every message. And make it clear you don't always require a response, too, even in smaller groups such as your immediate family. That way, it becomes an easy, no-pressure conversation.
One on one conversations
As for one-on-one conversations, you can ask your children if they're comfortable that you call once a week when they leave home. Ask your ageing parents if they'd prefer you to call more often or if they'd rather you give them some space.
When it comes to others contacting you, set boundaries if you need to. Yes, it's nice to talk to Agda, but not for one hour at a time when you're simultaneously babysitting the grandchildren. Let her know you appreciate her calls and will make an effort to call more often, but that you prefer shorter calls. That does not negate how much you love speaking with her; it's just you'd prefer if she called more often and kept the calls shorter.
Also, be spontaneous. Send a random message when you come across something you think a family member would appreciate, like a new book or a funny video. That way, you show they're always in your thoughts. But, again, this is appropriate once a week or month, not necessarily every day, unless you have that kind of daily communication set up and know the other party enjoys it.
Should someone talkative suddenly disappear, make a note to check-in. Maybe their well-being is suffering, or they need help with something.
Set aside time for family time
It's not just communication you need to sort out; time spent together is just as important. While it may sound silly to create routines around family time, it helps ensure it happens regularly.
If your daughter is off to university, ask how often she plans on coming home and how often she'd like a visit? Would you visiting her twice a year be okay with her? And would she be okay coming home another two to four times? Perhaps she's someone who wants to come home more often?
You don't have to visit your parents or niece every Sunday, but if you have it down in your calendar to visit twice a month and set it up in advance, you know it'll happen. It will also give someone anxiously waiting for a visit peace of mind.
And don't stop at your immediate family. You can also set up more significant family gatherings to help improve family ties.
Is your extended family the kind that would enjoy a good family gathering? Setting up a couple of family gatherings that people would enjoy (and not feel guilted into attending) can work a charm. Maybe a yearly summer picnic, winter ice skating trip, or spring visit to some local attraction would be just the ticket.
Don’t feel like doing this with your extended family? Do it with your friends, instead. Arranging a couple of get-togethers every year can help improve your social life and bring different sets of friends together. And while it may cost to host a party, picnics are free!
Do activities that engage everyone
Joining grandma's sewing circle may excite Eliza and horrify Jane. Likewise, having coffee with the entire family bores Joshua, but a family gaming day that would excite Joshua makes Jane frown.
Try, at least when one-on-one with family members, to do things you both enjoy. For example, maybe you don't like your grandchild's Playstation games, but how about finding a game you could both enjoy? If his violent games aren't to your liking, maybe something more strategic would please you and open his eyes to something more fulfilling.
Creating happy memories together will make you more likely to stay in touch and get together more often.
Want some ideas for things to do with your grandchildren and improve your relationship with them at large? Read this article I wrote some time ago.
Avoid communication mishaps
You can read a million things into a text or Facebook post. While these avenues of communication and connection can be great, social media and texting tend to lead to misunderstandings. Face-to-face conversations, or at least a regular call, is better than written conversations nine times out of ten.
We spoke to Talya Stone from Motherhood: The Real Deal, who told Age Times: "From the perspective of someone who is looking after both young children and older parents, I think it's important to keep the lines of communication going, but also set realistic expectations for how much time and connection you can give to each other when your lives may now look and feel very differently.
"I think this can be hard for ageing parents to understand, as afterall you were their whole world at one point! But this is something for both parties to be very mindful of - to understand where each is coming from. I try to find ways that our family can spend time together intergenerationally - this might be a weekend away or a theatre trip, or a walk out in nature or a catch up dinner, to help nurture those relationships when life feels very busy - especially post pandemic.
"Also it's important to keep in touch by phone or video inbetween so that ageing parents don't feel isolated."
This ties into the above about setting up communication and meeting times that work for all of you. Saying things like, “I can see you don’t care about your old grandma anymore now that you have a boyfriend,” will do nothing for your relationship with your grandchild.
Congratulating your granddaughter on having a boyfriend and encouraging her to share about the most beautiful aspects of the relationship, on the other hand, may help. Maybe offer up some of your own dating or love stories. You can also invite your granddaughter and her boyfriend to come for a coffee or do something with you. Or take your granddaughter shopping for a new dress for their next date.
Remember, you'll be much more enthusiastic about them having a life of their own if you create one for yourself. Try out new activities, foster friendships outside of your family, and set up a support network that extends far and wide. Yes, that can take time, and you'll likely meet some not so exciting people along the way. Still, eventually, you will build a social circle that supports and nurtures you.
Do thank family members profoundly
When your family calls or visit, thank them. Make sure they know it means a lot to you. This is a surefire way of making them come back for more!
You know that Sam tends to overspend just a little bit, Anita is prone to overeating, and you wish that Peter would see sense and come back to England from Bali. Everyone has flaws, but they also have good sides. So yes, you must have a serious talk with family members about their weaknesses at times, especially if those family members happen to be your children. However, the focus of most conversations should be on what they are doing that they enjoy, what’s going right in their lives, and what they want to achieve next.
When people feel chastised or nagged, they tend to walk away. No one wants to call the sourpuss that always comments on "how you still haven't gotten your life together." There's nothing worse for your confidence than hearing that, and it's unlikely to help you create a better life. As mentioned, serious conversations need to be had from time to time, but not all the time. And when you have serious discussions, be sure to focus on how the problem can be solved and not on what a nasty big old problem it is and how horrible the person is for having created it.
Do celebrate your family members’ successes
Instead of nagging, celebrate your family members' successes. That could be going from a C- to a B or studying for ten minutes more per day. It could be getting a new job or overcoming a bad habit. It could even be something as simple as going to the gym once a week.
Don’t be shy to praise people.
Make them feel loved
In healthy relationships, people feel loved. Yet, you keep buying your in-laws lovely gifts and taking them for weekend outings, but they never seem to appreciate it. It's like they just can't see your love for them. When your son one day decides to help them renovate the bathroom, on the other hand, it seems they can't stop telling everyone how amazing he is.
It may be as simple as your in-laws' love language being acts of service—they feel loved when people do things for them. On the other hand, you may feel loved when you receive gifts or spend quality time with someone. Yet others feel loved when offered words of affirmation (praise) or when they are physically touched.
Gary Chapman, a marriage counsellor, sussed out that people use five main love languages. Look at his website to figure out your love language and how to best love those around you.
Not everyone asks for help, and not everyone wants help
If you want to boost your neighbourhood, you can hand out cookies for Christmas, arrange a couple of yearly get-togethers, and set up a project here and there. You can also perform random acts of kindness. These can be things like offering to cut your neighbour's hedge when cutting yours or insisting your older neighbour call you next time she has flu as you make the best chicken soup ever. The issue? She may be too embarrassed to call, so you may be better off handing her a "sample" to put in the freezer and pop by her place regularly to "get rid of excess cookies" that you've baked. That way, you can offer her some social interaction while also ensuring she isn't ill and without assistance.
You can apply the same tactics to improve family relationships. For example, say Aunt Greta needs help but is too proud to ask for it. Popping by once a month with some freshly baked cakes and because "you are dying for a cuppa and a nice natter" means you can help her screw in new lightbulbs and do other odd jobs while you’re there.
On the other hand, Aunt Cecile is dying for some help but is too shy to ask. When you ask if she needs help, she will happily tell you she does. Therefore, asking if someone needs help is the best starting point. If you discover that someone is too embarrassed to confess to needing it, this is when you have to invent some excuses to help them.
There's also the polar opposite of this–family members who genuinely don't need help.
Aunt Helga may be highly competent and doesn't like people offering assistance to go to the shops when she runs five miles a day. It makes her feel like you don't truly pay attention as you don't. You'd have known that she didn't need the help if you had. So instead, offer to come round for coffee regularly or invite her over to yours!
In short, don't suffocate someone—encourage and support their independence—but also don't feel scared to pop by to check in on things and offer a kind word. Of course, you can always offer to do some odd jobs while there. Even if they don't need help, they do need social interaction. Many older adults feel lonely. Their mental health is suffering because of a lack of support and communication.
It’s not all on you
While considering all the above about offering assistance, remember that it's not your job alone to look after your ageing parents or aunt. Help them get interested in activities that will support their physical health, social life, and mental health. Assist them in setting up a support network that goes beyond family relations.
Even if you spend a lot of time with someone, helping them help themselves to more social support can be very valuable. It will add something to their life.
If they resist your efforts to help them help themselves, know that it’s their life. You can’t be solely responsible for how they live.
Asking for help for yourself
If you’re the one in need of help and lack the confidence to ask your extended family for help, step outside your comfort zone. If you support them, they should be willing to support you. Good communication at large should make it easier for them to ask for something from time to time. If you refrain from nagging them and do your best to be there for them, chances are they'll want to help you.
That said, be mindful of their lives. Try bundling things together, so you don't call every other day. Don't pressure them to do something right away unless essential.
If, on the other hand, something is important, be clear about it. Don't mince your words. For example, if you need help getting to the doctor today, don't tell them it's okay to go next week.
And when someone helps you out, show your gratitude. Thank them verbally and when an opportunity presents itself, make little gestures. Such as baking a cake for them if they came round to fix your leaky faucet.