Although most Americans think of families as being comprised of 2 parents and children, there are many possible family structures. For this post, I am defining caregivers as the primary co-parents, caregivers, relatives, and/or friends who participate in childrearing. For some families, children bring positive changes to the relationship such as a sense of gratification and joy, and they may feel a deeper connection to one another. However, parenting also brings challenges—such as exhaustion, spending less time together, and disagreements about how to raise children and parental styles. Combined with the exhaustion of not getting enough sleep, parents may not have the energy to discuss and resolve problems when they arise.
In healthy relationships, partners can openly communicate, respect and support each other, and express their thoughts and feelings to one another, especially when voicing concerns. Another aspect of healthy relationships is establishing healthy boundaries. As a parent, you can think of a boundary as the line you draw to set limits for yourself and your children. Sometimes, parents push past their limits to fix things for their children. For instance, your young child throws a tantrum because they are not getting what they want. You give them what they want because you want them to stop throwing a tantrum, especially if your are in public. Setting boundaries means knowing what you value, believe, and where you stand as an individual and as a parent. This allows you to stick to your values without pushing past your limits as a caregiver and individual. For instance, if you value respect, and your child is interrupting a conversation, let them know and hold them accountable. You could ask your child to apologize, say “excuse me,” and then instruct them to wait for an invitation to the conversation.
To promote healthy relationships within the family, parents and other caregivers should talk to their children about what healthy relationships are. The best place to start is with open communication. By openly communicating, caregivers and children create and sustain healthy relationships within the family structure. The following tips for healthy relationship-building among family members operate underneath the umbrella of open communication and intertwine with each other:
- Listen to each other: Active listening is a good communication skill to help understand other people’s point of view. For instance, you can stop what you are doing when a family member expresses themselves. You can pay attention to their words and body language.
- Express feelings: “I” statements are one way to express yourself without blaming yourself or others. Unless someone in your family is a mind reader, no one will really know how you feel if you don’t express yourself! Additionally, young children are learning how to express their feelings, so parents need to model healthy ways of expressing themselves and encouraging their children to do the same. If your child does not want to get in their car seat, and they start screaming, you can say to them, “I understand that you don’t like the car seat, but I need to keep you safe.” Infants and toddlers may not understand what you are saying, but they can hear your tone, and it sets the stage for expressing themselves in the future.
- Accept changes: Instead of looking at life events on a timeline and feeling like everything is off-track, look at life events as a new normal for you and your family members. My previous blog post talked about parents wanting their children to be perfect. Children reach different milestones at different times so if it takes your child a little longer to reach a developmental milestone, it is completely normal. For instance, if your toddler is not reading by age 2, understand that this does not mean your child will be a failure for the rest of their life.
- Manage conflict: Disagreements are normal, and talking through them will help with open communication. Instead of insulting each other, whenever you and a family member are having a disagreement, take some time to yourself, and revisit the issue once everyone is calm and has had time to process. In the midst of a disagreement, you can ask yourself, “why am I upset?” and “how can I express myself to my partner?”
- Take control of your relationships: Have an honest discussion about what’s going on in your life. For example, you can start a conversation about your new role as a parent, how you feel about that, and how you engage in these roles.