Building Strong Family Relationships

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Originally posted as: Relationship Building; the Game of Give & Take [July, 2016]

Today we are going to talk about…building strong relationships with your loved ones.

This is a huge topic area – one that we will return to many times on this podcast, so for today we're just going to zero in on one way to get a measure on how much you're putting into a relationship and how much you might be accidentally taking away.

This is an important topic for you to be aware of because the absolute best time to build a really strong relationship with your child is when they are young and they adore you.

Except that for many people this is such a busy time – rushing to daycare, to work, to pick the kids up, to get groceries…which typically results in the adults shifting into autopilot mode and often spending more time and energy to find the patience and friendliness for total strangers (i.e. waitresses; grocery clerk…) than for the people you love more than anyone else in the world.

We also live at a time when there are so many opportunities for our kids and a strong desire to give them ever possibility in life. So you sign them up for programs and then rush around trying to get them fed and off to dance, hockey, music, Beavers – or whatever they've signed up for – and in the process start chipping away at the relationship that is the most important part of the whole experience.

Let me rephrase that so you really hear what I'm saying…

nothing will be as important 20 years from now than the relationship you have built with your kids.

Even if you have sacrificed so much for them - gotten up at 5 every morning to get them to the rink or dance studio, taken a second mortgage on the house to pay for equipment or scrapped your plan to go back to University…if you haven't put the work into building your relationship with them when they are little, they will not want to spend time with you or even to call you once they move out of your house. You will have become an obligation – not someone they enjoy and want to be around.

I'm not saying you shouldn't put your child in extracurricular activities (or be nice to the other people you see in a day) – not at all – I'm just saying, it is important you become aware of where you are putting your energy and make your relationship with your immediate family top priority, because everything else will pale by comparison when your child is old enough to be on his own.

That's exactly what I'm going to talk about today – how you can become aware of what you're doing that is building relationship and what you might be doing that is taking away from it. This awareness alone can make a huge difference in your life and as you'll see it's not as hard as you might think.

This information doesn't only apply to relationships with kids – it comes into play in any significant relationship – the one you have with your spouse, lover, mother, siblings, friends and close colleagues.

Everything we do in a relationship is either giving to it or taking away. Those things that show and build trust give; while those things that break or weaken trust take away.  As you take away from relationship, you'll notice things start to feel strained, unless you're putting back a good deal of what you are taking. This can sound really obvious, but the truth is people overlook this all the time.

Meet Sally

Sally is the mom of a seven year old boy, Nolan. When Nolan was a baby Sally stayed home with him for the full year maternity leave, spending lots of time and creating a strong bond between them. She returned to work for a year and then left for a second mat leave and his little brother Ty came into the picture. Sally was home for another year and even though Nolan now had to share her with his brother, he loved being home with her.

Then mom went back to work and everything changed. Nolan had to get up at 6 a.m. and mom was busy trying to get everyone ready to go. When mom got home from work at the end of the day she was tired and busy trying to get supper and her many other chores done…so she didn't have much time to play. She still read Nolan a story every night before bed, and found little moments to cuddle, but otherwise Ty took up most of her attention and Nolan spent most of his time with dad.

Fast forward a few years, Nolan and Ty are both in school and Sally has put the boys in a skating program, Beavers and soccer. Thankfully the skating and soccer are at different times of the year so they don't conflict, but it does create a hectic schedule with at least 3 days of extra-curricular a week.

In a typical day Nolan sees his mom when she wakes him up.  Nolan does not wake up easily and his mom is often frustrated with him so she starts out cheery and loving …then ends up snapping at him to get dressed and eat before the bus comes. Some days she reminds him if he'd just go to bed when he's told to, he wouldn't be so tired and she even threatens to take away his computer game. She always gives him a hug and tells him she loves him before he goes out the door.

The fact that Sally get's to be there to put her kids on the bus is wonderful, but also means they have to go to an after school program most days so she can work until 5:30. By the time she picks them up and gets home, it's after 6 and everyone is hungry and tired. Sally makes Nolan do his homework while she makes supper – which causes a lot of arguments and although she tries to help him she's distracted by Ty and the food she is trying to prepare. By the time supper is finished it's after 7 and it's time for baths a ½ hour of computer games and bed. Sally used to use story time as a way to get Nolan off the computer by saying something like, "if you want a story you need to come now." but then he started choosing computer over story so that didn't work.

What I hope you can see, is that Sally's story isn't very different from other moms. You likely noticed I hardly brought dad into the picture – and the reason is because he's really not relevant to this story.  When you're looking at relationship building it can only occur when you are interacting with that person. So when dad watches Nolan in the bath, Nolan is building relationship with his dad not Sally.

Okay, so let's look at this relationship from a perspective of giving and taking. For the first few years of Nolan's life, Sally gave a lot to the relationship. She played, laughed, cuddled, read stories, regularly expressed how much she loved him, gave him compliments and looked after him. As Sally's life got busier with Ty then work and pressing timelines, Nolan was corrected more, was ordered around and needed a lot more discipline.

These things all take from a relationship. This doesn't mean we don't ever do them…it is in fact critical that we do, it just means we need to be conscious of how much we are doing them so we can insure we are putting more into the relationship than we are taking out. A suggested ratio is 4 gives to 1 take, but rather than get hung up on the numbers, I hope you'll recognize that you want to be giving lots more than you are taking.

For many families they give, give, give for the first few years, but then as time marches on start taking more and more on a regular basis. This creates a strain on the relationship, causing their child to act out – increasing the need to take. By the time their kids are teens, they're hardly talking to each other…right at a time when you need communication to be openly flowing.

What gives and what takes – pick up a copy of the list along with a great game for adventurous families

Once you've read the list and notice how often you are doing them, you can get a pretty good handle on how often you are giving and how often you are taking away. Then when you do a measure at the end of the week – you get a pretty good picture of your habits – which might result in you giving yourself a pat on the back and continuing on as is…or might result in you feeling a bit dismayed at how often you are taking away from the most precious thing in your life.

A couple notes of caution;

1) even if you are giving more than taking from the relationship, your child can still make decisions that seem totally ridiculous to you at the time.

2) you'll want to revisit this with each new stage your child goes through, because even though you might be doing great right now while your daughter is in grade 3, as she moves into the tenacious tween stage, you might change your style without really recognizing the shift.

For adult couple relationships you want to pay attention to the normal ebbs and flows of life. If things are feeling stressed, add in more giving such as; little compliments; comments of appreciation; loving looks; smiles; acts of kindness. Communication and finding time for each other are the two areas that people typically build their relationship on, then when things get stressed or something happens they aren't ready to share, they stop and shift into efficiency mode – more criticism, correction, eye-rolling, sarcasm, teasing. Before they know it, they are wondering if this is truly the relationship for them.

One of the best gifts you can give your kids if you are currently in a two parent relationship is to focus energy on making that relationship solid. You can't afford to ignore it until the kids are older because by the time they are that ship will have sailed. Even if you end up divorced you can still have a strong, positive relationship with your 'X'…so pay attention.

Finally, your happiness meter will definitely rise if you become aware of all your significant relationships and consciously give more than you take…  with colleagues, friends, family (mother, father, siblings).

So by becoming aware of when and how you are taking and making sure you are putting more than enough back in, you can be building a relationship that is strong no matter how much stress is in your life. It doesn't take a lot of time or energy to give a compliment, say how much you appreciate something someone else did or to say something supportive to another.

In my Family Booster shot deck of cards I share how you can turn this relationship give and take into a game. Be sure to pick up your instructions for it along with the list of what gives and what takes from a relationship.

So there you have it, simple relationship awareness that will help you recognize what you are doing that is actually building your relationship and what you might be doing that is stealing from it. Life is a game of give and take, so you will continue to do both. The difference is when you do it consciously (or at least with more awareness) you'll know what you need to do when thing are starting to go awry.

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