Over the last five weeks of this series we have looked at the habits of healthy and happy families, and now we conclude with the most important habit of all: taking time to nurture our family relationships. The closer we are to the people we love, the more happy we feel and the greater our overall health and wellbeing. Doing fun activities together, sharing experiences and having good conversations all make for satisfying relationships between parents and children and between parents.
However, good family relationships don’t “just happen” and require frequent attention and nurturing if they are to remain healthy and positive.
Taking time for family relationships
Healthy families have routines which allow for daily times of chatting and talking between both parents and children, and between parents.
For children, these connecting times can be simple everyday events; such as reading a story before bed or chatting together on the walk to school.
For a couple, these times can include prioritising a daily “debriefing time” when you can chat through the stresses of the day or committing to keeping shared interests you both enjoy.
Each family is different and all that matters is that most days you have this connecting time with your partner and each of your children. If you are lucky, such connecting times can become habits that lasts through the years; in many families the nightly ritual of reading a story before bedtime with a younger child becomes a nightly chat and check in with a teenager. Though the specifics change, the habit of talking and connecting before bedtime continues.
Being present in the family
A major challenge in our busy lives is being truly present in our relationships with loved ones. People are often rushing on to the next thing or drifting through the day on autopilot, forgetting to appreciate the important people in their lives.
Technology and screens have further complicated family life, regularly taking people away from being present with each other. On an average evening in a family home, it is commonplace for the children and parents to be all using separate screens and devices – everyone is relating to social media and email and no one is relating to each other in the home.
We read so much these days about the importance of mindfulness and living in the present moment. In families this translates to making time to be fully present with those we love.
As discussed in previous articles, the key to managing technology is to have “unplugged” times during the day, when people listen to one another, face to face with full attention. If technology is used, try to ensure it sometimes enhances family relationships rather than diminishes them. This could be joining your partner to watch a TV series or learning to play a video game with your child.
Family relationships are nurtured by frequent displays of appreciation, affection and encouragement.
With small children this means creating a culture of constant encouragement and affection, and bringing this into daily habits such as keeping the routine of cuddling together during the bedtime story.
With a teenager it could be persisting with encouragement and pointing out what you admire in them (despite their rolling eyes as they give you the impression they don’t care). Teenagers continue to need affection and reassurance from their parents, but frequently parents stop reaching out to truculent or rebellious teenagers who don’t respond like they used to. However it is important is to keep affection going for as long as you can. Keep the ritual of hugs when you greet your teenagers (perhaps out of sight from friends!) and be there with a reassuring pat on the back when they need it.
In the couple relationship, it is so easy to get out of the habit of being affectionate and intimate, yet it it these habits that are central to the whole relationship and keep you close, even during the hard times. No matter how busy or tired you are try to finish the day with a kind word and some form of affection.
Unfortunately, it is easy to get into the habit of taking each other for granted, which pushes you down the road of neglect. Counteract this with a habit of daily appreciation. Frequently remind your partner of what you enjoy about them and how you value what they bring to your life. It is these small habits of kindness and affection that build closeness and intimacy.
Communicating well during conflict
Poorly handled conflict is detrimental to family relationships. Whether these are tantrums from small children, teenage rebellion or a couple constantly arguing, such conflicts can fester and damage relationships.
In resolving conflict, listening is by far the most important communication skill. Taking time to understand where your child or partner is coming from and to appreciate how they might see things differently, is the starting point to resolving any conflict.
It is then important to communicate your own needs and views in a calm, respectful way. Respectful and assertive communication is the way forward, whether dealing with a child’s tantrum in a firm but understanding manner or keeping calm and maintaining respect as you argue with your teenager or honestly expressing what you most deeply need to a partner.
Finally, all family relationships will involve disappointment and getting hurt at times. Being able to apologise and forgive are crucial to repairing relationships . Taking responsibility and apologising when you have hurt someone, and learning to move on and forgive when you have been hurt, are key to maintaining relationships through difficult times.
John Sharry is the co-founder of the Parents Plus Charity, and Adjunct Professor in the Dept of Psychology, UCD.
Originally published in The Irish Times Health Plus, 10th February 2019
To read other articles in this 6-part series on building a healthy family click here.
For information on John’s upcoming talks and courses for parents, click here.