Families, almost from their start, face forces that could pull them apart. When a family begins to mature, that potential loss of connection, that feeling of something changing, is difficult to confront.
And it makes communication even more important.
“This idea of feeling connected becomes very reinforcing, to all of us, and it contributes to happiness, it contributes to mental health and it does contribute also to physical health,” says John Northman, a psychologist from Buffalo, NY.
“It’s well known that when people feel better connected, that they feel better physically, they’re certainly less likely to feel depressed — or if they do, they’re in a better position to get out of being depressed.
“Overall, it leads to a feeling of a greater degree of support and connection psychologically,” he said.
It’s All About Support
The research on the importance of communication in families is strong and varied.
In the Handbook of Family Communication, editor Anita Vangelisti, a professor at the University of Texas, writes, “Communication is what creates families. When family members communicate, they do more than send messages to each other -- they enact their relationships.”
A paper in the journal Military Medicine says communication can cut both ways in families. It says that deployed soldiers can get a big dose of positivity when chatting with folks at home, but in some cases, that contact can have a negative impact.
It all boils down to this: Good family communication is important because families are what we most often turn to for support, Vangelisti says. If families aren’t communicating, support systems can fall apart.
Help for family members can take many different forms, Vangelisti says, including:
Emotional support: “Making us feel better, sharing in happy moments together,” she says.
Esteem support: “Making us feel good about ourselves, validating when we’re doing well, helping out when we’re not doing as well.”
Network support: “That sense of belonging. That’s really important with families, so you kind of have a home base, a place where you feel accepted and you belong, no matter what.”
Informational support: How to do things that maybe were done by others in another family setting.
Tangible support: Things like financial support and care packages from home.
How to Keep the Lines Open
Once you know it’s important for your family to communicate, you have to figure out how. Even now, when everyone has a cell phone handy, to keep the connection flowing can be tricky.
Haven’t heard from a relative in a while? Can’t find the time to call back home? Emails are wonderful tools ... except when they’re not.
“Emails are notorious for generating misunderstanding, because of the speed and thoughtlessness with which people generate them,” says Arthur Bodin, a psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association.
They can easily be misunderstood because tone is often absent.
“It makes for poor emotional communication,” Bodin says.
Likewise, texts or tweets -- even phone calls -- can lack the cues you get only with visual connection. Anyone who has done Skype or FaceTime knows that those forms of communication aren’t always the best way, either.
Still, something is better than nothing, Vangelisti points out.
“I guess what most communication people would emphasize,” she says, “is it’s not quite as much the channel as the way that channel is handled.”
With a kid away at school or a parent separated from the family, figuring out who makes the first communication move is sometimes difficult.
“If someone doesn’t take that risk and reach out,” Vangelisti says, “it’s not going to happen.”
Some psychologists warn about demanding communication.
“Call me every Friday night” might not only be impossible, it might be counter-productive for someone trying to find footing in a new situation. Demands don’t work in those situations, Bodin says. Understanding does.
“First of all, you don’t call them every night or on any regular schedule,” Bodin says, speaking specifically of a parent with a child away at college. “You don’t put a guilt trip on them if they don’t want to call their mother or father.
“You recognize they have a life of their own. You don’t try to micromanage them there.”
Still, family members wanting a connection can find a way.
- Ask, don’t demand, a call or email.
- Send a card or brief email.
- Leave a message or send a text message without the demand or expectation of one in return.
Every talk or letter doesn’t have to be deep, either. You can talk about dogs, the weather, or your health, the neighbors that used to live next door, or your new ones. Talking about the latest crazy thing Aunt Edna said might actually help strengthen your connection.
”A lot of the time people want these conversations to be deep, meaningful, impactful,” Vangelisti says. “Allowing them to be boring and routine, I just think that’s another thing that we forget about.
“All those boring things, those are the things, really, that our relationships and our lives are made of. Letting those be part of our conversations at a distance lets us stay in touch in a real important way.”
Psychologist David Olson devised something called the Circumplex Model of Marital & Family Systems to help examine and treat families.
It breaks down three aspects of marital and family systems:
It suggests these things are crucial to having successful family communication:
- Listening skills
- Speaking skills
- Continuity tracking
- Respect and regard
Keep at It
Psychologists talk about “families of orientation" and “families of procreation." Put another way, the family you were born into and the family you create.
Communication plays an important part in keeping them both intact because of the stress of transition.
“Their physical well-being is already going to be a little bit at risk under stress. Their body is in a stressful state,” Vangelisti says. “So having that communication and that relationship can be really important. We just underestimate that.”
The good news is that families, even those in transition, have one huge advantage in the ability to stay connected.
They are family.
“You have a lot of history and you have those ties of family that have been there since [childhood],” Northman says. “Despite the -- should we say, ‘mishaps?’ -- that occur along the way, in adolescence and into adulthood, you have those ties that maintain the connection. That’s where families can be particularly strong.”