Stuck on You: Healthy Family Relationships

This post originally appeared on the Emory Office of Health Promotion blog as a part of Stuck on You, a month of posts about healthy relationships.

Healthy relationships aren’t just romantic. For me, one of the most rewarding/challenging/awesome/frustrating parts of being at college has been establishing and maintaining a healthy adult relationship with my parents. It’s a huge step in establishing myself as an adult in the eyes of my family, and has made the time I spend with them on breaks and weekends generally rewarding, rather than a constant power struggle as a turn into a petulant 16-year-old again. If you’re interested in doing the same, these are the four things that have been the most helpful to me.

Make your own choices: It blew my mind when I figured out halfway through freshman year that I didn’t have to tell my parents anything about my academic performance. There was something really freeing about that. My academic successes happen because of my own motivation, not my parents checking up on me. My academic difficulties are the same way–as are the solutions I find to fix them. I realize that there are some families where this won’t fly, but if it’s possible for your situation, try not asking your parents for advice during the course registration process. They’re your courses. Sign up for them yourself. Feel free to tell your parents what you’re taking, but the buck stops with you. This helps to establish you as an adult who can make her own decisions.

Initiate contact: Call your family just to say hi. Text your siblings a funny picture that you took. Send your mom an ecard. By initiating contact with the adults who care about you, you reinforce the idea that your relationship is moving away from the one-way street of childhood into the mutual exchange of support that should characterize a relationship between adults. Look at the ways that the adults in your family stay in touch with each other (email? phone calls? Twitter?) and model your behavior on that.

Address problems: This is a “do as I say, not as I do” situation–bringing upproblems with my family in a level-headed way is super difficult for me. But here’s the deal: as you go through college, you change, whether that’s in your relationship with your faith, your political views, or your personal grooming habits. Given that that can frequently mean that you’re moving away from what your family does, it’s understandably stressful for them. They may criticize you for it (or, even more irritatingly, make fun of you for it). It’s tempting to respond with hostility, but that just makes you look powerless. Think about what you would say if a classmate or friend said the same comment, and respond accordingly. Personally, I’m trying to master a calmly-stated, “I would appreciate it if you didn’t comment on my body/clothes/hair. I don’t think it’s appropriate. Thanks.” Find your own version of the phrase and ingrain it in yourself!

Acknowledge kindness: When you’re a kid, familial kindness is expected (and legally sanctioned). You are, after all, pretty much useless in terms of feeding or clothing yourself when you are a child. But by the time you’re in college, you know the difficulties inherent in your parents putting together a care package, taking time off work to see your school play, or staying quiet on the phone while you talk about your own life. They aren’t obligated to do that, and you’re old enough to know that now. Say “thank you” when your parents do something kind, and be polite when they’re clearly trying to help.

A major caveat: these apply to my own family. If your relationship with your family is truly toxic, these are not a substitute for professional help. Everyone is different and your millage may vary. That being said, I hope these tips are helpful as you navigate your new-found adult relationship with your family.

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