Building Better Family Relationships
October 20, 2020 6:34 AM   Subscribe

You are someone with strong family ties. I would like to know how you did so and how to emulate that.

As I’d imagine many others have experienced, the pandemic has made me very introspective. As a result of that, I’ve come to realize how much I’ve taken for granted the various relationships in my life, family especially. I’ll be visiting family for the holidays, and I’m intent on at least starting the process of connecting more with them. I’m kind of stumped as to how, though.

Background: I’ve been busy with grad school for the past decade-plus, so while I’ve taken as read my family’s love and support, that’s a lot of time I was out to lunch. Even before that, though, we didn’t really talk much. I’m the oldest of seven, and the three youngest still live at home, plus my dad’s had some major health complications over the past few years, so the household has almost always felt like a whirlwind. When time together was easier to come by, I didn’t bother taking advantage; now that I want it, it’s a rare luxury.

I guess because I’ve been geographically and mentally away, I’m not sure how to cross the distance. When to express this desire, what to talk about, how to spend quality time with them. With friends, I can talk for hours. With family, there only seem to be pockets of time, and I’m not sure what to talk about. I’m open to other ways of connecting, of course.

So if you’ve made strides toward being closer with siblings and parents later in life, especially if there are significant age gaps (15-20 years), how did you do it?
posted by xenization to Human Relations (14 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Contact breeds connection, I find. I really like if I can check in with loved ones frequently, so that we can share smaller updates and start to reveal more about our daily experience (e.g., "Oh I made a great new Fall soup this week! Look, I finished knitting that baby blanket for my friend Jane"). I am currently loving the Marco Polo app for this. It's video messages where the recipient(s) can watch and respond at their leisure. I would suggest creating a family channel on there (or maybe just one amongst your siblings?). Not everyone will engage but some will and you can get a nice window into their lives.
posted by Bebo at 6:47 AM on October 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Being pro-active about contact is everything. You could start easy with more regular messages (on Whatsapp, or whatever you use most commonly) and just say hi, ask how they and their loved ones are and how their jobs/pets/hobbies etc are going. Keep it light. Totally agree with Bebo that by doing smaller updates and sharing daily life experiences you're not under pressure to do big 'catch-ups' all the time.

I think the onus does fall to you to keep it regular/semi-regular though. I have siblings in other parts of the world and we have a Whatsapp group and sometimes I'm the only one bouncing it along every week/fortnight or so with a quick message, but now it's been established for so long sometimes one of the others will pick up the slack. And it really is just a picture of a cat or a tree or one of us saying 'I just saw this movie, it sucked!'. But it works. It's easier than phone calls and it does create deep connections; you just have to keep it light and supportive, don't overwhelm them and stick at it. Good luck!
posted by Ella_Bella at 6:56 AM on October 20, 2020 [7 favorites]

I have a pretty big family - my mom is the oldest of 9 and so I have 26 first cousins on that side. We are all very close. Most of them live in the same small city and I live 3 hours away and see them about once a month (during normal times). Here's some of the things we do:

- A family group chat for news and birthday wishes. Everyone shares pictures when good things happen (someone got a new puppy, lots of the boys got together for a golf outing, someone's picture was in the local paper). All positive stuff, doesn't get into politics, just keeps everyone connected.

- Smaller group texts for things we are interested in. The people that are happy to talk about politics have one that's been super busy lately.

- Books. My mom, sister, and I have similar taste in books and almost every time I see them we are giving each other books we just read. That also gives us something to talk about when we're together.

- Random one-on-one calls or texts. I live alone and quarantine has been a challenge. I know everyone is aware of this because the check-ins have increased. My cousin with a 3-year-old little girl facetimes pretty regularly, and my mom called me out of the blue last night (we usually only talk on the phone on Sundays). My sister texts me occasionally to see if she can come pick me up and bring me home, mostly because I think she needs help with her kids.

The little daily and weekly communications make the times we are together better.
posted by elvissa at 7:10 AM on October 20, 2020

One of the big AHA! moments I've had in understanding good adult-adult relationships with parents as an adult child is to step out of resenting them and being angry with them when they disapprove of me and my choices.

Young children need affirmations and validations from parents, we need to be mirrored by our parents when we are children. We grow up craving to be seen and understood by our parents. That's appropriate.

In the next developmental stage, children grow into teenagers who strongly reject the parent's rules and preferences to make rebellious choices. And then by the time young adulthood arrives, we are calmer and back to looking for parents' support, affirmation, and approval again... But we find that everything has changed. The parent-child relationship which used to be one sided - with the child on stage in the limelight and the parents the cheering clapping audience - no longer exists. The separation and individuation that happens in adolescence also has the effect of freeing up parents to become more human, more equal to the (former) child. Now, suddenly, they demand to be heard by us and cheered by us just as much as we wish to be heard and cheered by them! And that's appropriate too.

This is what feels deeply unsettling about young adulthood. The safe cocoon that used to be "our parents" is gone. They're just *people* now, albeit people we have the deepest emotional and psychological ties with (and therefore capable of causing us the deepest distress). It has been a struggle for me: what might happen if I stopped holding a grudge against my parents for refusing to wholeheartedly affirm my adult self? Acknowledge openly and without resentment that they can't accept me, sometimes. Okay. It happens. Maybe their parental anxiety gets the best of them and they freak out about me as if I'm still a child, or throw a tantrum of frustration because I'm no longer that easily-controlled child. It's taken a lot of work for me to start saying: this is fine, and I can be the protector of the new adult relationship between us while they are freaking out. They might sigh and become melodramatic and try to guilt trip me... But I can choose to smile and say, "Ma, I love it when you worry about me, it's a gift to know you still love me like I'm your baby."

We're taking on a new role here: WE are affirming THEM, we are validating and supporting them, we are letting them take the stage and limelight while we clap and cheer for them. Whether their performance failed to meet our childlike needs is irrelevant, just like it was irrelevant to our parents whether our performances when we were a child met their adult need for quality entertainment. They clapped and cheered for us selflessly, just for doing what a child does, and we can now clap and cheer for them for doing what a parent does.

When we are fully settled into adulthood and are interested in building good relationships with parents, we will offer up equal time in the limelight on stage for our parents (and siblings). We take our turn too and we give them theirs. We don't feel like the disagreement of the parents is something we need to fix, let alone something we need to fear! Instead we approach their feelings with curiosity and compassion, safe in the knowledge that we don't need their approval anymore for our own survival. Their disapproval doesn't have to be taken personally. It won't hurt us unless we allow it to hurt us. As adults, we can grant parents the freedom to be fellow adults who may or may not agree with choices we're making, instead of needing parents to forever affirm and agree with us -- i.e. treat us as if we are a young child. We can develop a new relationship of mutual supportiveness.
posted by MiraK at 8:18 AM on October 20, 2020 [28 favorites]

Best answer: I make a conscious effort to call my siblings and my parents regularly now that I'm older. I know if I didn't call my younger sister, I probably wouldn't hear from her, but I don't mind being the one to keep things up. We used to have a contentious relationship, and my mother told me many years ago that she regretted losing touch with her own younger sister for most of her adult life (they are back in touch by email now).

In terms of age differences, a couple of years ago, my niece and I started doing the NYT crossword over the phone once a week after doing it together in person at Christmas. We have plenty to talk about now, but when we started doing it, the crossword was the main reason for the call. It's been a great way to build our relationship.
posted by pangolin party at 8:26 AM on October 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

Calling people regularly and knowing what they're up to individually does a lot to cultivate the family as a whole, I've found. My family is large and if I had to tackle them as one unit I'd have to run away in despair because they're such a bunch of (sometimes even lovely) chaos.
posted by ipsative at 8:39 AM on October 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

So, this is something very small and simple but really had bred a lot of connection between me, my parents, and my siblings.
We have a group Facebook messenger group that we text to on a regular basis. We sent funny videos, jokes, articles, and make family get together plans all together. It's really a very small thing but it helps us stay connected on a regular basis.
posted by Sara_NOT_Sarah at 8:56 AM on October 20, 2020

In your situation in particular, I think breaking down “family” into smaller units might be helpful. My wife is one of five, and whenever all five try to communicate with each other, either in person or by WhatsApp, it’s a nightmare. (And that’s not even including parents or partners.) But if they hang out one-on-one, or do individual texts, it generally works out magnificently. From there, you can build smaller groups (she has a group text with her brother and youngest sister because we all live in the same general area, and we have another group text with my wife, her sister, and me so that I can puppet-master her sister’s fantasy football team. I would imagine this is even more necessary with seven, especially with health problems that I assume are taking up a lot of the group’s focus. Start by texting each of your siblings individually, and maybe a group text with the still-at-home siblings (no parents).
posted by kevinbelt at 9:48 AM on October 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

My siblings and I are several years apart in age, and they and my parents live about 1500 miles away. We text or email on a daily basis, both individually and via group messages. Usually small, silly stuff, but sometimes longer messages. Phone calls happen once or twice a week, and video chats a few times a month. I keep a stack of cards and stamps around so it's easy to drop them a line and say hi because we all like the snail mail.

It's not a chore because we all really like each other a lot, but for awhile I was out of practice staying in contact. It was easy to get sucked into events in my immediate vicinity. I made an effort to develop the habit, and now it just happens. It's been so rewarding. Plus as my nieces start their own families it keeps me in contact with the next generation.

If you can swing it financially and logistically, one of the best things we were able to do in the last several years was travel together. Not just visit each other, but visit other relatives and explore new cities. My parents' travelling days are probably over at this point, and we're all grateful we had the opportunity to create those memories while we could.
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 10:46 AM on October 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cultivate a sense of curiosity about your family members. What are they into? What appeals to them? Why? I live fair away from my siblings and their children. I am the one who drives contact and we still have contact in part because I try to nurture my sense of curiosity and connect with what interests them even if it doesn't interest me. We love each other but we are not as close as we once were. Still, we are closer than we would be if I had simply given up. Also, we can reconnect kind of instantly once we are together in person again. Your mileage may vary; that is simply my experience in my particular family. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:13 PM on October 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

I just reinitiated contact with my college-age biological son after a silence of a few years (his desire at the time). We have to get to know each other again... and he's coming into his own as an adult so he's changed a lot. I'm thrilled that now I know where he wound up going to school and what he's thinking of doing for his livelihood.

What @EllaBella said is exactly what a good friend of mine advised me to do:

you just have to keep it light and supportive, don't overwhelm them and stick at it.

I am not particularly social or good at relationships, so I suspect I'll be in touch with him via Messenger every several weeks at most. Maybe a Zoom chat every now and then. When I visit the northeast US, where he lives, I'll reach out and see if he wants to grab coffee or lunch.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:59 PM on October 20, 2020

Best answer: Me and my sister weren't that close in our early 20s--for no particular reason, but once we were both out of the house we were busy and there wasn't much in common to build on. Somehow we ended up talking about it one day, and realized we had radically different ideas of what "close" meant. We rarely talked or texted and didn't know much about each other's lives, so I had us in the "not that close" column. She thought of me as someone she didn't need to talk to regularly because in a crisis I'd be one of her first calls, so she had me in the "very close" column.

So we came to an agreement that we'd start with daily texts--I think we sent a photo back and forth every day, just something small to show where we were and what we were doing--and though we didn't keep it up forever, it legit helped and now we keep much more in touch just because we're more a part of each other's lives and routines (and crises.)

Part of it was definitely just getting settled into our adult lives, and we still don't have a ton in common, but I agree with others that a habit of regular, casual contact laid the groundwork for the deeper stuff. And being open about that as a shared and intentional goal, since otherwise I think we could've gone for years longer on our wildly different assumptions about each other.
posted by jameaterblues at 3:11 PM on October 20, 2020

Asking others for help in things that they have expertise in and offering to help others.

One part of being close is to always have a helping hand and I have found that it is truly enjoyable to work together. I love to help my siblings if there is any way I can and they have saved my ass numerous times.
posted by readery at 6:09 PM on October 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yes to family Whatsapp with life minutia updates! (eg cat updates, the safest topic to connect with my mom about)

To contribute another idea, recently I've hung out with my sister via Zoom - we each work or study, punctuated by little social breaks and comments. I think it helped us feel much closer (going about our domestic rhythms in a kind of virtual shared space, just having Zoom on in the background) and bonus points for alleviating pandemic isolation/loneliness.

In my experience yes the light, positive, supportive tone helps strengthen the bond (and it helps to have a lot of goodwill in store already for when serious topics come up). I've found there are certain sore points to navigate around for family, but the other side is the comfort of people who know you well where you don't have to have formal conversations to be around each other. I think time and consistency, where the parties come to look forward to positive interactions.

As far as having explicit conversations about connecting, with my sister we didn't have a direct conversation beforehand but after hanging out we both acknowledged we were glad to be spending more time together. I liked this approach, because there's no pressure to "be closer" but rather an acknowledgment after pleasant interactions that something valuable had happened.
posted by pengwings at 11:32 AM on October 21, 2020

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