How Do Adult Children Stay Close To Their Parents?
December 5, 2010 7:47 PM   Subscribe

When I lived at home before college, I had a close bond with my parents and sibling. Over the years we have grown apart. How do you maintain close connections with family that lives far away?

There are very few problems in my relationship with my nuclear family. We all have similar interests, similar values, make each other laugh. The time that we do spend together we enjoy. But I live in a city fairly far away from my parents & sibling, and can only visit every few months. So I have two questions: how can I maintain a close relationship even when I'm far away, and how can I make the most of the time we are together?

My parents don't use email much and I have a phobia of talking on phones. We all try to push ourselves on these fronts, but the results are generally unsatisfying. I want to have a close relationship. So many people have dysfunctional relationships with their family - my parents did a great job, I love them, and I know I won't have them forever. I mean, hopefully I'll have them for a while (I am only 24) but that's no reason to take them for granted.

What are some things - methods of communication, activities, habits - that work for you?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
My mom figured out how to use ichat/gchat, as well as skype and facebook chat, several years ago, and I set my accounts to log me in whenever I turn on my computer. That way, it'll sit there running quietly in the background, and if my parents want to talk to me, they can, and it doesn't cost me anything in terms of conscious effort. I've found that it's a great way just to give quick updates on my day, what my assignments are like, how much we love each other, etc.

I hate phones as well, so the chatting option works well for casual conversations that don't require my parents to figure out how to send long emails or anything and I don't have to freak out about talking on the phone. I know a few of my friends have taught their parents to text a little bit, so they can send short messages to each other that way as well. It's honestly the little notes throughout the day that demonstrate how much you are loved, I think, and I applaud your desire to stay close with your family.

Another thing that I think has really helped (besides the weekly snail mail letters my mom sends me, without fail) is that we both have an open access policy in terms of contacting each other. I know I can call or skype my dad whenever, and my parents and sibling know they can do the same to me and I'll respond quickly to chat for a few minutes. Once long periods of time start going by, it's easier to get into a habit of not talking to each other, so it's good to just have short updates a lot.
posted by pecknpah at 8:03 PM on December 5, 2010

My entire family is on a different continent, so I totally know how you feel. I helped my parents install Skype and a webcam many years ago, and we communicate that way all the time - sometimes with my brother (and nephew) conferenced in. Being able to watch them while we chat is very beneficial to making the connection feel real, despite bad quality video. I talk to them at least once a week - if not more - and we spend a lot of time just doing stuff like sending links back and forth, sending each other photos and talking about them, etc. It's nice to spend time just chatting with them, and it's how I'm keeping up with what they are up to, what's going on in my extended family, etc. I don't talk to my brother as often, but we email instead, and interact on Facebook a lot.

As for when I see them (which is once a year, normally), I just try very hard to not let things spoil the time I have with them. I give in on some arguments rather than getting pissy about stuff that would normally annoy me. I disconnect from the internet and try to not let TV or other things distract from hanging out with them. I do things I wouldn't normally do (tag along when they golf, sit around the table drinking wine after dinner, go fishing, etc.) in order to spend time with them.

But really, the only way to stay close is to talk often and to take an interest in their lives. The people in my extended family that I don't interact with have drifted away from me too, even my much loved cousins, since I don't talk to them very often at all.
posted by gemmy at 8:04 PM on December 5, 2010

I know it sounds a little old-ladyish, but I started sending my parents articles I read that made me think of them that I've cut out of magazines and newspapers that they might not have seen, snail-mail style. About once a week I'll put them all in a card envelope and send it their way. I also travel a lot, so postcards make it to them and whenever I'm back at their house I always catch a peek of a postcard or two on the fridge and some of the articles tacked up above the sewing machine or workbench in the garage.

Sending the articles has helped me not only understand my parent's hobbies more (train collecting for my father and quilting for my mother), which garners more conversation starters when I'm with them, but also an appreciation for some of my parent's passions that have now developed my own love of baking and old houses.
posted by banannafish at 8:05 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had to make myself more proactive in terms of communicating. Everyone in my family does their own thing, and we all get pretty bad at staying in touch, even though we all want to.

I don't like phones either, but I've gotten used to having long conversations with immediate family. It started with me just venting to them, but as I've gotten older and developed my own opinions, we have actual conversations. This makes it more fulfilling than a general report on things, and it also makes me more likely to initiate phone calls. Its quicker to dial up a parent, than to wait for them to text back.

Sometimes I'll email things they might like. My mom gets a lot of cat related links. Its quick, and it feels like a connection even it there's only a a click of a button.
posted by shinyshiny at 8:28 PM on December 5, 2010

Living far away from my parents and two sisters, it can be very easy to lose touch unless the given birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, so I understand where you are coming from. I despise speaking on the phone, probably as much as you do, so I have taught my Mom how to use Gmail Chat so that (since she is a stay-at-home business woman part-time) we could chat while I am on the computer. I have also included my parents on email forwards of anything awesome I find, such as crafts, news articles, and DIY home ideas. I also have a Facebook. I know many people despise or fear the thought of having an online doppelganger, however, I have one created purely for family and very, very close friends. On my Facebook, I am able to share pictures with my parents (which you could also just send via email, if you prefer), but I also enjoy their input, as well as my sisters', on any status updates. I think that there are so many outlets to keep in contact with those afar, there are many options for you to try out if both sides are willing!
posted by penguingrl at 8:30 PM on December 5, 2010

I'm basically in the exact same situation you are - parents and sibling live in a relatively distant city and I only see them every couple of months.

You might consider trying to set up a "standing conversation date". For example, each and every Sunday, at some point you and your parents could get on some communication system and catch up.

My parents have called me every Sunday since I left for (out of state) college. I'm 24. Everyone's situation is different, but I appreciate this on many levels.

I'm actually a little worried because now my sibling is moving to another distant city and we don't have this sort of communication system set up.

If you are not one of those people who can naturally set up great support systems and relationships in unfamiliar environments, I strongly encourage you to try to get over your "phone phobia". That 1 AM phone call to a parent when you have nowhere else to turn is a priceless, priceless thing.
posted by 3FLryan at 8:48 PM on December 5, 2010

I find that using a speakerphone makes conversations with my parents and my sister seem more "normal."
posted by ocherdraco at 9:19 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

My mom is basically a luddite but I think getting her set up with skype and a webcam may have saved our relationship. Especially for holidays (which is great, because now I feel less guilt for not actually being there).
posted by hermitosis at 9:38 PM on December 5, 2010

get over your phone phobia. You're young, it's easier for you to get over the dislike of phone than your older parents to learn to use email.
posted by Neekee at 9:39 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

I keep a personal blog and my best friend who lives out of state and my parents who live hours away have always liked being able to read little snippets of my day to day life. Ditto for keeping a flickr account that you update regularly.

My best friend says the blog and flickr keep her in touch with my day-to-day goings on enough that when we finally get to hang out in person we don't have to spend the first several hours "playing catch up." She can ask about particular people, events or parties that I might not bother to send her an e-mail about.

When my blog sounds sad I also often get a call from my Mom. "I read your blog. You seem blue."

I almost never talk on the phone and yet between the blog, my flickr and instant messaging I feel very close to my family and friends, even those I don't see often.
posted by Saminal at 9:57 PM on December 5, 2010

I deal with two different families on two different continents, while living on a third. For my siblings, a combination of things has become the way we keep in touch: Facebook, email, phone, internet chat. With my mom, it's almost always the phone (since phone rates are prohibitively expensive, this means that I am much less in contact with her than I would like). My parents used to be better about chat and email when my dad was alive, but my mom doesn't seem to have gotten the hang of it, so far.

For my in-laws, frequent text messaging tends to be our normal way to stay in touch with each other, although Facebook, email, and phone (in that order) are also methods we use. Text messaging is very comfortable for my sister-in-law and mother-in-law in particular, neither of whom really likes chatting on the phone, and neither of whom really likes drafting long emails. So you might find that a good middle ground between phone and email. I know that's why it works so well for this set of family.

In general, I know a lot of people consider Facebook the scourge of the earth, but I have found it invaluable in keeping in contact with my scattered family. It allows us to interact as a group, rather than in disparate one-on-one connections, so it feels more like a family interaction.

tl:dr Text messaging (SMS) and Facebook
posted by bardophile at 1:18 AM on December 6, 2010

I Skype my parents and IM my brother. It works out great, because Skype is about the limit of my parents' technical ability and my brother and I are both technophiles who used to talk on MSN even when we were at home sitting three metres from each other. YMMV of course but it's definitely possible.

(I too have a mildish phone phobia, but I find that video-chatting gets rid of all the "I am talking to myself" paranoia so it's alright.)
posted by Xany at 3:39 AM on December 6, 2010

Oh- I also randomly send them stuff for no reason other than I saw something I thought they might like or get a kick out of. Last month I sent my brother a sheepskin cushion cover shaped like a sheep, and my mother a hollow book.
posted by Xany at 3:41 AM on December 6, 2010

I'm in the same position - I'm 24, living in a big city far away from my parents, sister, and grandmother. I feel just like you do: every year I'm more and more aware of how rare and special it is not to have such a positive relationship with my family, and I'm grateful to my parents for focusing on building great relationships between all of us.

-I taught my parents how to use GChat. It took a loooooong time - years really - before it "took", but now my mom LOVES to pop in and say hi or send me a funny link, and my Dad, who swore up and down that instant messaging was a terrible way to communicate, is in to it. They're both really respectful of my time, always worried that they're disturbing me, so it's never been any sort of problem.

-When they needed new computers a while back, I ordered them Macs with built-in webcams via my academic discount. Now we can communicate via Google Video or Skype without them having to do anything technical. We don't do it a lot, but it's really fun to see them both on a weekend, see the house and the dog, and show them what I'm up to.

-My sister and I do little text conversations and send links back and forth. We call each other with questions in the area the other is expert in (I mean, we go out of our way to do this, because it's nice to have a sister turn to you for help).

-We still send silly cards and little letters snail-mail. No matter how great emailing is, nothing beats snail mail.

-When I'm home, every 4 or 5 months for a few days, I am VERY aware of doing things as a family that we all enjoy. My family plays word and logic games, hikes a lot, plays/sings music and goes to concerts, and cooks. I make sure to get as many of these things in as possible. I also make sure to ask my parents and sister about their work/school lives, and show them what I'm up to (even though neuroscience is reaaaaaally not their thing, they're interested because I am).

-My apartment is full of paintings by my mother - that's her profession. Their house is full of pictures of my sister and I. It helps!

-This is kind of a long shot... but when my Dad was going through a particularly hard time, I had just received some money due to my Grandfather passing away. I ended up taking my dad (Mom doesn't like to travel, or else she would have come) on a week-long trip to a place he really wanted to go. We stayed with family and did all kinds of fun stuff. It was an amazing trip, one of the most fun things I've ever done. I certainly can't afford to do it again - I just happened to have the gift of some extra money during that time - but I've thought about doing something similar. For example, planning out a few days just for my parents near where they live and taking them on a "vacation" where they don't need to do any planning or spend any money. It's a nice way to say "thank you" as an adult. And what can I say, they still make me a stocking full of treats at Christmas... so I get to be a kid and an adult now.
posted by Cygnet at 4:59 AM on December 6, 2010

Um. I mean "how rare and special it is to HAVE a positive relationship with my family". Gah.
posted by Cygnet at 5:03 AM on December 6, 2010

What are some things - methods of communication, activities, habits - that work for you?

I also live far away from my parents. As a family we send each other little emails about 3 or 4 times a day and always use the reply-all button. these could be along the lines of "I saw this article and it reminded me of you", "I can't believe how cold it is today" "Look at this cute picture of a panda" etc. Never anything very heavy. This works for all of us because we all have desk-jobs and constant access to email. We also text each other at random points: "I saw a guy who looked like you at the gym" etc.

We are a close family but geographically scattered and this works very well for us.

Your parents may grow to use email more. My father has evolved into a comfortable user of internet and email throughout the years.
posted by Ziggy500 at 7:04 AM on December 6, 2010

My sister and I IM almost every day (it helps to work at a place with *no* internet policy).

We keep everything loosey goosey. If I suddenly get busy and have to leave in the middle of a conversation to, well, actually do work, she's not offended, and vice versa.

Sometimes, if it's *really* dead at work, we'll watch online shows together and do a running commentary.

My son, who's 9, and his cousin (my sister's daughter) will Skype while playing on Club Penguin.
posted by Lucinda at 7:13 AM on December 6, 2010

My kids are in college, in the US and Europe and we keep in touch on Skype, FB, and emails. Once in a while the one in the US sends a text. Skype is talking on the phone, for all intents and purposes, but you can IM with it as well. I think you just have to make little mental notes to include them--if you see something in your daily travels that would make your father smile, send him a photo.

Push your parents to email or FB (they can set everything private) so that you can participate in sharing your lives (you don't have to play Mafia Wars) in a way that will become a habit. The easier it is, the more you'll use it. I'm on the computer all day, so it's easy for me to hear from my kids. My own 87 yr old mother likes letters, so every couple of weeks I cut and paste from kids' emails and send her a big long archive of what we've been doing.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:51 AM on December 6, 2010

The key is to meet each other on the ground that is best for each person. I have some friends with whom I have a terrible time on the phone or in letter form, but we get together great in person; I have others who are awesome on IM and sucky in real life. The best things for me are often LiveJournal and Facebook, simply because I like the back-and-forth nature and the immediacy helps me remember what's important to me at any particular time.

Find out what communication style your family prefers, and encourage them to come to your turf, too (whatever that might be). As for your parents not e-mailing... well, you'd be surprised what they'd get up to if given the right motivation. The principle is still the same as it would be with handwritten letters: "You have to send a letter to get a letter," as my grandma would say. My mom is verrrrry old-fashioned when it comes to communicating and communication etiquette, but she's all about Gmail. That's probably the best option for them; it's very easy to use.

If you've got a phone phobia, would that still apply to using Skype or another video chat service? I haven't used it in a while, but I know some people who aren't super tech savvy who use it fairly successfully. Also, if your sibling is more comfortable with technology than your parents, have them all get together for a standing phone date at a particular time so your sibling can help out.

Another option for getting around phone phobia: why not record yourself in an audio letter? We used to do this at Christmas all the time. You can write it ahead of time, or you can make an outline of things to talk about ("work is great but my cubemate smells like chicken all the time; I am thinking about getting a cat...")

I suppose I've actually come at this from the opposite angle, in that my relationship with my brother actually got much better when he was living far away. He lived three hours away for five years, then two time zones away, then back to Chicago a few months ago with his girlfriend, whom we'd never met until that time. He's not estranged or anything; far from it. (Apparently, it's not Christmas without him around. Hmph.)

Our immediate and extended family has always been very close (physically and in other ways), but the whole emotional growth thing has stalled horribly at various age levels. In some ways, I see him as the smart one, because although he moved away partially to escape, he also was able to build his own life.

Living far apart was a chance to really pick and choose what was meaningful to our relationship as adults. Most importantly, we did that for OUR relationship, not the family relationship as a whole. We do a lot of texting and Facebooking, and a lot of that is stupid stuff like posting YouTube links or making snarky in-jokes that absolutely nobody else would understand. (And, really, nobody DOES understand them *giggle*) That's a way for us to say, "Hey, this is something I can't share with anybody else, or that nobody else values, so I'm glad I have you in my life to share it." We work hard to focus on our own bond, not just the history we share as kids of the same parents.

This is a very important time for your whole family because it gives you a chance to establish relationships as fellow adults, not as a larger version of the person you were when you were 10 or 17. Figure out what you want from them and then turn it around to ask what they might want from you in the same situation.
posted by Madamina at 9:14 AM on December 6, 2010

I'm in the same situation. It takes effort but what I've found is that its easier if you don't make it such a big deal.

I have a blog (which I rarely update anymore) and am on Facebook where my dad also has an account. He rarely posts or comments there (though he did burn me quite good once!) but he reads the updates religiously. I'd even say that half of the updates I make are just to keep my parents involved in what's going on on a daily basis (sorry to my friends who get epic boredone overspray!). Sometimes he'll email but mostly he just forwards me photos of my nephew (pretty much weekly since my parents babysit him three days a week and dad finally figured out how to work the digital camera). Sometimes I'll email him things I find online, etc. He passes along these things to my mom who doesn't have anything to do with computers at all.

My hatred of the phone is legendary but what I do is call more, rather than less. It sounds counter-intuitive but it's much easier to call for 2 minutes or have a short chat about something small that's just occurred to me than it is to psyche myself up for a 2 hour complete life debrief every Sunday. My grandmother went into the hospital a couple of months ago and now we talk on a near daily basis just for a few minutes to at least update me on that situation - and sometimes that organically turns into a bigger conversation. It's made us much closer.

Every so often we set up a Skype call when the whole family's around - mostly so my nephew and I can make kissy faces at each other but that also helps to get the real facetime in and brings in other relatives who I wouldn't normally call or email.

I still struggle with maintaining the kind of relationship with my brother - who doesn't do email really or Facebook or anything like that except strictly for work - but I find that when I call him he's totally receptive and we can talk for a good hour or more.
posted by marylynn at 1:35 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm currently living on the other side of the planet from my family, with whom I am also very close. I feel your pain.

I talk fortnightly with my parents (individually, for about an hour each) on Skype. My little brother sent me an xbox so we could play online (and chat while doing so), and that's been great. I email or gchat or Skype with my sister on a non-scheduled basis. All in all, I communicate more with my family now, living 8,000 miles away, than when I was living in the same country 800 miles away. It can be done.

My parents aren't especially low-tech, but it took 5 months and a major holiday (Christmas)for them to actually install and try Skype out, even though I gave them detailed instructions. If you can set it up for them, or have your sibling or a family friend do it in your absence, that will help things. Once they actually try it, I'm sure it will catch on - it's a user-friendly program. It really is amazing how much different a video chat is to a phone call.

I've found that it really helps to intentionally do thoughtful things for them. Send them a hand-written letter every now and then. Forward a link or copy-paste an article in an email, with a note about why it reminded you of them. Arrange for some kind of thoughtful gift to make its way to them in your absence. You love each other of course, and distance won't change that, but these are ways that you can show you love them when geography makes it more difficult.
posted by hootenatty at 4:31 PM on December 6, 2010

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