How can we get back to a better family life after a tough year?

teens-tech-IT-07.01.14QUESTION: My wife and I have had a challenging and busy year. I was putting in crazy hours at work and then my wife was sick for a period, which became quite a health scare but thankfully she is through that now. We have three teenage children (13, 15 and 16) who are busy with their own lives and I feel I have sort of lost touch with them during the past year. Over Christmas I had hoped we would spend more time together but they were out with their friends and had their own plans. 

My wife and I had some good time together and we were both saying we wanted this year to be different – we want to get back to a better family life. What can we do to get things back on track? Have we left it too late with our teenagers?

A: The new year is a good time to review your priorities and make plans and resolutions. While many people do this for their work and for personal resolutions such as health and fitness, frequently people neglect to set goals for their relationships and family life.

This is despite the fact that most people rate their family relationships as the most important aspect of their lives and the source of greatest satisfaction for them. So you are right to take time out to think about your family life and to set priorities for what is important in the coming year.

Part of the difficulty in making plans or introducing resolutions for your family is that these always involve agreement with other people. Family goals and priorities are always shared ones. All are subject to negotiation, first with your spouse and then with your children. While some families readily talk about “how things are going” in their lives with one another, more often than not families avoid these conversations and can easily drift along.

It can be particularly hard to include teenagers who may be pushing for independence or may be at a stage of “rejecting” family life. However, even the most rebellious teenager benefits from being involved with their families and it is important to maintain the thread of a quality relationship with them – especially through difficult times.

Sit down and plan with your wife
Continue the good start you and your wife had over Christmas and make a commitment to talk a few times over the next few days to set priorities for you and your family in the coming year.

Take a moment to imagine what the coming year would look like if it went really well for you and then plan out what steps you could take towards this.

Committing to simple family rituals can make a big difference to family life whether this is arranging one of you is in the house when the children come in from school (to hear their news, and so on) or that you set aside a weekly family night when everyone stays in for a special meal or think of a family project that everyone can engage in (such as going on a family holiday or improving the home or garden in some way). Think of what might work for you and your family.

Involving the children in the planning
To make any family changes a success, you need to involve your teenagers in the planning. While they might initially appear uninterested, you can hook them into family meetings by making them relevant to them.

For example, use your first family evening to discuss something enjoyable such as holiday plans or visiting places or people everyone might be interested in.

Or if one of them raises an “issue” in the family (such as chores, coming in times, and so on), you can motivate them to be at the family evening by arranging to discuss their request after dinner when everyone is there.

It also helps to talk with each of your teens individually about their views and wishes. This is often best done informally when you are alone with them such as travelling somewhere together.

Ask them about their hopes for this year. What enjoyable things could you do as a family together? Depending on how the conversation goes, you could ask for feedback on how they think things are going in the family and if there are any changes they think would be important.

Often the best approach to these conversations is to keep them informal and lighthearted while making sure to listen carefully to any ideas they suggest.

Creating good family habits
In his book, The seven habits of highly effective families, international life coach Steven Covey suggests that it is easy for families to drift off course and indeed, he proposes, with the stress and strain of everyday life that most families are off course much of the time.

He argues that what matters is not being off course, but being clear about where you want to go. He argues that the first step to establishing a good family culture is to be first clear about what your family values are – you need to first decide what type of family you want to be and to involve the children in this process.

Just as leaders might do in a business, Covey recommends that parents take time to create a family mission statement that captures the aspiration and ideals of everyone. Not surprisingly, when given some time to think through the issues, teenagers usually want similar things to their parents from their family (such as security and support).

Whether you go as far as to come up with a family mission statement, it is certainly a good idea to think carefully about what important values you want to preserve in your family and then to let all priorities and decisions flow from this.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.