Father with young adult son committed to making family work

Making family work

Navigating your relatives in your teens and beyond

When you were little (assuming you were lucky!) your parents or carers doted on you. They hugged you and told you how special you were. They played in the park or the pool with you and they drove you to sport or music. Perhaps they paid for your schooling or took you on great holidays. Family was central to your world. But making family work once you’re older comes with its challenges. Can you do it – and even do it well?

There’s all kinds of families. Some are traditional two parent varieties, some are mixed and some only have one caregiver. Often they’re juggled. Sometimes the carers are your birth ones, and sometimes they’re not. For the sake of this post, it really doesn’t matter what shape your ‘family’ took. The key tribe(s) you grew up in’s what we’re talking about here. And whether those relationships hold once you’re older.

Parents (in all their possible variations) play a vital role in our lives. If we don’t get appropriate feedback in the form of words, hugs and eye contact as babies, the relational parts of our brain don’t develop strong neural connections. Our bodies can go into distress and make us unwell. Not only are our carers giving necessary food and shelter to us helpless beings, they’re also making us humans. As we grow, parents are our cheerleaders, role models and world definers. Parents are our earliest significant relationships. You didn’t get here without them.

Goodbye olds?

As you grow you develop enough skills to start coping on your own – at least sometimes. Life expands to include school and other people. Friends become important, parents less so. Each step on the long journey from helpless baby to capable adult brings a bit more independence.

Is your teens the time to let go? We live in a culture which yells yes. The appeal of friends leads us to wanting to belong in our own tribe. As we define ourselves as separate from them (the parentals), a clash of cultures often happens.

Assuming I’m talking to both generations here, I’d say far too many parents allow this separation without making enough effort to stay close or control the process. I’m sorry if that happened to you. Making family work at this stage takes challenging amounts of determination, pivoting and creativity. But youth still need significance relationships with their parents.

The thing about youth is that, well, you’re young. You don’t know everything. You haven’t experienced as much of life as adults. And even though you may have lots of arrogance and confidence, in other ways you’re entirely sensitised to your own shortcomings. And the world is very big…

What you gain by staying in touch

There’s no doubt that moving from reliant schoolkid to interdependent adult’s fraught with challenges, but I’d like to argue there’s a lot to be gained by retaining (and even improving) relationships within your family at this stage. I started watching family journeys as a youth worker in my 20’s, and a lot of observation’s led me to the opinion that around a third of kids sail through that difficult period with parental relationships adjusted but intact. Another 40% or so have some clashes but then recover. That gives you three in four odds of being able to make this work, so chin up!

What are the possible benefits? The first is extra support as you navigate the adult, ‘nobody pays you any more attention’ world. Sometimes this is in the form of free or cheap board, borrowed cars and the like. But it can also be in the mode of little chats as you work new ideas or challenges through. Several of my friends (I asked their opinions before I wrote this post!) mentioned coffee catch ups and family dinners as being places where issues can be raised in a safe environment with some expectation of being heard, cared for and helped. That’s worth having!

A second reason you might not appreciate as a youth’s the stability and longevity provided by your family. Having been round them the previous few decades, chances are good you won’t be thrown too many surprises by what goes on. You know what’s likely to happen when you say X or do Y. When your circle of friends can change completely between school and uni and your next job (and your boy/girlfriend too), it’s grounding for some relationships to remain constant. Change is good and exciting but remember, too much of it and you’re in distress!

It’s a relationship of significance

The final reason it’s worth making family work is the significance factor. Significant relationships are the ones where somebody cares for you just because they do, where they gift you attention and affirmation through their behaviour and words. You can be shown care simply because, and not because of something valuable you’re doing or bringing to the relationship.

These number of these relationships you have is always small, as they’re relatively energy intensive. Yet although you might be transferring the key one of these to a significant other, you really want at least a handful (literally!) of these people in your life. Your parents were the first to offer a significant relationship to you and they’ve been round a long time – is it really worth leaving them completely behind?

Flip the situation around, too. Would you want your parents to wash their hands of you? Most likely not. For all their flaws, family are most often the most likely to be there for you when your world falls apart.

Approaching the line vs crossing the line

There’s a particular issue I haven’t addressed yet and that’s the relative health or otherwise of some families. What if you’ve grown up in a less than perfect situation? When should you give up? Do you ever have reason to walk away and never come back?

Well, yes you do. When your (supposed) adults are addicted to unhealthy substances, deliberately trying to lead you into harm (or harming you themselves), or otherwise so broken as to be never present or on your side, that may be your only safe choice. If they give up on you and kick you out that’s another point your lives may separate.

But don’t be rushing to cut ties. If you’re over your parents cos you think they’re old-fashioned, boring or have different interests to you, you’re possibly doing yourself a disservice. That you didn’t like some aspect of their parenting’s not a reason to walk away from the relationships. There’s a point beyond which it’s truly not healthy for you to stay round and a whole bigger grey area where its about perceptions and disappointments and ‘can you make it work?’

Just remember no parents are perfect, so nobody’s had it easy. And at the end of the day you aren’t so perfect either. There’s no doubt ways you could contribute to relationships better yourself!

Adult up!

Which brings us to an interesting point. It’s a choice on both sides to make these parent-child now adult-adult relationships good. It’s no longer reasonable for what happens with your parents to be all about them giving to you. As an adult you ought to start giving back. That’s what mature and healthy significant relationships look like.

Alongside getting to do what you want, grown means you start taking responsibility for stuff. This includes the money you have, the things you do and the relationships you’re part of. Making family work is part of that.

It’s unlikely your parents put all that time into you and now want you to be unappreciative and unavailable. Sure, they probably don’t want you in their pockets like you were when you were 10. But they would like to see you, to know something of what your life looks like and for you to be interested in theirs.

This holds true even if you know your lifestyle choices are different from what they’d prefer. I’ve seen plenty of parents choose to hold relationships over what they believe’s right with their children. And while you may claim it’s your right to live how you want, try to recognise it’s not easy for them. I could go on about the fact that rights are always balanced by responsibilities, but at the very least understand the cost of that choice to your parents.

Yes, but how?

Here’s a few other things you can (and probably should) do as part of making family work now you’re adult:

  • Say thank you. At least once, for all they’ve given up to make your life possible. You should probably say it more often, especially when they do something nice once you’re grown. They don’t have to do that any more, you know! One of my friends just shouted her kids a decent holiday away. She really appreciated the fact her son couldn’t stop saying how grateful he was. Expressing your gratitude truly has an impact!
  • Stay in touch. Yes, you’re busy living your life. So are they. Make a point to call them or share a meal together (even if you never used to) at least fortnightly. And you take the initiative of organising that sometimes!
  • Support them on occasions. You’re not the only one with dreams and challenges. Your parents are humans trying to live their lives too, and sometimes it’s hard. One mum told me how her son had come and given her a hug when she broke down over something another child was doing. Excellent! Make the switch to seeing your parents as people, then give them the same backing you’d offer your friends.
  • Finally, turn up to the big family events. Even when they’re not your style of entertainment!! You’ll likely only understand the value of these once you’re a parent yourself (should you even have/take that opportunity up), but your presence at them now matters. Families hold society together in ways nothing else can.

Sometimes when your parent/carer relationships are fractured, the whole idea of sibling-sibling adult contact takes on more importance. This has many similarities to carer-child ones and is worth considering if you find yourself disconnected for some reason from your parents.

Are you in for making family work?

Family’s a strange animal. On the one hand you’re a random bunch of individuals with different interests and ideas. But on the other you’ve a shared history. That gives you a potential advantage to live well from.

At the end of the day, I think making family work’s worth a decent effort on your behalf. You’ll benefit, your parents will – and so will the world around you. Sure, it’s not the same gig as it was when you were little, but it can still be good. Very good. Are you in?

Sharon