We all have some sort of family drama—I’ll be the first to admit it. Some of it may not quite be Braxton Family Values worthy, but it can still be damaging to us and especially the little observers in our lives--our children.
One of the most difficult things to do as a human is acknowledge that we are wrong. Equally challenging is forgiving a person who has hurt us, or our children. However regardless of who did what to whom, if your children are missing out on a key familial relationship, we, the grown ups, need to do better. It’s just that simple.
At the end of the day, we are only responsible for our own actions. How we treat people, is an example that we set for our children and it is one of most important legacies we will leave behind. I’m offering a few examples of how I plan to start mending some fences in my own family and maybe they can help you do the same.
1. Have honest conversations with your spouse and your children. As my children’s developmental pediatrician often reminds me, “There are no secrets in a house.” In a dispute where family members are suddenly not speaking, an adult usually has to take the lead to help bridge the gap for the children’s sake. Both parents need to explain the situation honestly to their children to avoid more hurt and confusion. If an upcoming vacation to grandma’s has suddenly been canceled due to family tension, talk to your children. Let them know that plans change, things happen and allow them to be openly disappointed. The worse thing we can do as parents is to ignore their feelings or lie to them, thinking we are protecting them, when they can already sense that something is wrong.
2. Allow the children to express themselves. A great way to have children express feelings is by allowing them to write or draw. You’d be surprised at the stories children will include you in on if you are simply willing to be there to talk or just sit with them. Some children will want to share their work with you while others may want to keep their masterpieces private. If they miss their estranged relative explain that they are welcome to write the relatives a letter or draw them a picture that you will help them put in the mailbox. Children need to feel that they have some control in an otherwise powerless situation.
3. Don’t exclude anyone--especially the estranged parties. Modeling responsible and appropriate behavior to children is one of the best ways to show them how to behave when circumstances are less than desirable. It’s important to remember that our kids do what they see us doing and not always what we tell them. If a spouse isn’t getting along with an in-law, please don’t exclude that spouse from family events.
4. Encourage continued conversation. Once the initial disagreement and fall-out is over, your children may still have bad memories and feel the impact of it. Encourage your children to continue to talk to you. Consult with friends, family, clergy or a licensed therapist that you trust. The important message to your children needs to be that you are there to listen to their feelings and help them process what’s happened. Keep your personal biases out of your conversations. Your role is solely to support.
5. Use technology to your advantage. Let’s keep it real: if you don’t want to talk to your mother-in-law she probably doesn’t want to talk to you, but that doesn’t mean that your child can’t send her a quick text (if you’re okay with her texting). Have your child write a text, make a short video for grandma or scan the latest copy of the report card. You can certainly help set up a Skype session between your estranged family members ad your children and help your children write, type and mail cards to those family members.
So what that you and estranged family members un-friended each other in the heat of the moment, you’re human. Pick yourselves up, dust off the keyboard and keep it clicking. We have to start acting like adults and get over our own hurts so we can parent our children. They need us. That’s our job and, you know what? It’s the most important position we will ever have.
Sharisse Tracey is a mother of four and writer working on her memoir about family. She holds an M.S. in Educational Counseling, an MFA in nonfiction writing and a B.S. in Child Development. Follow her @SharisseTracey and catch up with her on SharisseTracey.com