Father, Son, Family

"Family relationships can be some of the most rewarding ones in our lives, but they can also be some of the hardest to navigate."

Many studies have shown that family relationships can have both short and long-term effects on our mental health, providing sources of both support and stress. [1]

COVID-19 has put additional strain on many of our family relationships – testing the bonds we have with parents, siblings, partners, children, and other family members. 

From adjusting to new workspaces and supporting vulnerable family members, to coping with reduced income or unemployment, lots of guys have had to shift their roles and how they contribute within their families.

If you are sharing a household with family members, it may be hard to get the same amount of space or distance you usually have. If you live far away from them, on the other hand, solely communicating through phone or video calls can make it difficult to feel connected.

Here are some tips to help you improve your family relationships no matter your situation, so we can band together to get through the months ahead. 

1. Be aware of how you choose to communicate

There are many subtle cues in our mannerisms and expressions that get lost in translation when we aren’t able to see or hear each other. Texts or app messages aren’t as personal, and for some less tech-savvy family members, they may even cause more stress. 

Communicating in person when you can, and via a video or phone call when you cannot, will help you feel more connected than sending a text or email. 

2. Take the time to listen

Everyone needs an ear to talk to, and it’s important to be there for those closest to you. 

Give your family members the space to talk without interrupting to offer your opinion or advice. Guys have a tendency to want to fix things, but it’s often more important that you listen, so others feel heard and understood. 

  • For eg. Arash’s partner starts talking about the extra stress she’s feeling at work. The first thing Arash thinks is how he can help. He starts telling her about an app she can use to better manage her time and how she can motivate her team. While this might sound useful, what she really wanted was to talk through her frustrations and feel understood.

    It would have been far more helpful for Arash to have asked “What can I do to help you feel less stressed?” or “You don’t usually get so stressed about work, what’s different this time?” If she wants his advice or feedback on what to do, she’ll likely ask more directly. 

3. Evaluate your own communications skills

By understanding our own communication styles, we can better understand why people react the way they do to us – and then work to better communicate our own wants and needs.

  • For eg. Scott tells his brother “You always keep the car late, when you know I want it.” This kicks off an argument with his brother about sharing their car, things get heated and some hurtful things are said.

    Afterwards, Scott gives his brother the silent treatment and ignores him for a few weeks, even though they live in the same apartment. This leads to more resentment between the brothers and now neither wants to be the one to “cave” and start talking first.

    Instead, it would have been much better and more appropriate for Scott to have talked to his brother the next day – once they had both cooled off. He could have started by acknowledging his role in the argument and apologizing for what he said (it’s difficult to start conversations like this, but they both would have come out of it feeling better).

    This time, Scott starts out the conversation by better explaining the issue and what he would like his brother to do more specifically.  He says “I’m working Monday, Wednesday, Thursday evenings now, so can you make sure to have the car back by 5:30pm, my shift starts at 6pm.” This opens the conversation up for a negotiation instead of an argument.

4. Try not to make any assumptions

Making assumptions can backfire, so it’s best to clarify and go over things more thoroughly when you can. 

  • For eg. Henry wants to buy a new truck to replace his current one, which is a few years old. When he brings it up, his wife says “No”. Henry storms off thinking, “she never lets me do what I want,” and “she only said no because she wants to make my life more difficult.”

    But the truth is, a portion of the money they were saving had already been set aside for a family trip. Because of all the COVID-19 restrictions, Henry has forgotten about the trip, but his wife and kids are still looking forward to it, whenever it becomes safe to travel again.

In this situation, both partners could have communicated better, to ensure that they were on the same page.  

5. Check in with their health

The more often you check in with the mental health of others in your family, the easier it is for them to check in with you. It can also help them feel more comfortable having conversations about mental health with other people in their lives.

  • For eg. Your brother has been seeming more stressed at work lately so you want to check in and see how things are going.

    Try starting a conversation by mentioning a change in behaviour you’ve noticed “Hey, you seem tired these days, what’s going on?” Maybe your brother then explains that he’s been working late to prepare for a big presentation the following week that he’s nervous about. You can follow up by asking him what about the presentation is making him nervous.
  • If it seems like something more serious is going on, you can ask more directly as well, saying something like “I noticed you’ve been staying in bed a lot lately and ignoring your friends’ calls, are you feeling down or depressed?”

6. Be warm, encouraging, and express your gratitude

Try to be as nice and civil as possible. If you bring frustration or anger into a conversation, chances are it’s going to be reflected back at you. 

If you set the tone by showing respect and kindness, you’ll be more apt to get it back too. 

  • Sometimes something as simple as saying “Hey, I noticed you were cleaning up today, the place looks great” or “I appreciate you picking up dinner tonight” can go a long way. 

7. Solve problems together and make sure you’re on the same page

It’s important for everyone to feel involved when tackling any problems. Make sure to get input from those involved and work together to come up with a solution that everyone is content with. 

  • For eg. Desmond has a wife and two children and their monthly expenses are getting tight. Instead of working on a plan by himself and cutting out costs wherever he sees fit, Desmond gathers all the info then goes over it with his wife.

    They decide they’ll both come up with a list of three monthly expenses they could cut back on, and talk to their children about doing the same.

    This way everyone gets a say in what they cut back on and they feel like they are doing it together. Instead of Desmond thinking, “Shit, how am I gonna get my family through this”, he’s thinking “Okay, we’ll get through this as a team.”

8. Pick your moments

If there is something that’s potentially contentious to talk about, wait until you have an opportunity with a few uninterrupted minutes before bringing up the subject. If it doesn’t seem like a good time will come up naturally, set aside some time like you would for a meeting. 

  • For eg. Cam is worried about his uncle’s drinking. He wants to talk to him about it, but doesn’t know how to start. He tries talking to him while they’re watching a basketball game, but his uncle is really into the game and barely pays attention.

    Instead, Cam can wait until after the game to tell his uncle he’s worried about the effects of his uncle’s drinking on his health, their relationship, and their family as a whole. Cam can then use this as a starting point to talk about his uncle reducing how much he drinks.  

9. Spend time together doing activities you can all enjoy

Make sure to take time to do something fun or relaxing as a family. Laughter is often the best medicine. 

Try watching a funny movie, or going for a nature walk, putting together a family tree, or going out to get ice cream or a treat you all like. 

10. Lead by example, with your own self care

Setting the example for how to take care of your mental health and improve your relationships will also help show the people around you that they can do the same. 

  • Make sure to include some “me time” to get a break from family stress and manage your own mental health.
  • Sometimes you’ll need to set clear and consistent boundaries so you can get enough space. 
  • It’s good to have a few healthy outlets from stress, one outdoors like going for a walk or short hike, and another indoors like watching sports. 
  • Try to avoid dealing with stress in unhealthy ways, like smoking, drinking, or comfort eating. 
  • More on self care strategies to manage your mental health.  

11. Recognize unhealthy relationships and what you can’t control

We can’t always influence our family members or change what they do, but we can control our reactions. It can be unpleasant and awkward but sometimes you may have to minimize or cut off contact with family members who are causing a lot of stress and aren’t making an effort to change. 

  • For eg. Joe’s younger brother-in-law, Chris, has moved in with him and his partner, after losing his job. Chris was only supposed to be with them till he got back on his feet, but it’s been several months now and he’s stopped looking for work. In the meantime, Chris is getting shorter with his temper and refuses to talk about it. 

Instead of being resentful and complaining to his wife. Joe and his wife need to talk more directly in a firm and constructive manner with Chris – to let him know that he needs to acknowledge his temper and start looking for work again, and that he can’t expect to stay there indefinitely.

12. If you need to seek additional support

If you or a family member are feeling overwhelmed it’s important to reach out and seek professional support

Depending on the situation you may also want to look into finding a therapist, that specializes in treating families (if you are especially concerned about finances you can ask if they offer any reduced or ‘sliding scale’ fees).

  • If you find yourself in an abusive relationship (which may have become even worse during COVID-19), you need to reach out. This page on HelpGuide has lots of useful tips on Domestic Violence and Abuse.

References:

  1. Family Relationships and Well-Being | Innovation in Aging – Oxford University Press
Written by the HeadsUpGuys Team - Combining lived experience, clinical practice, and research expertise. Reviewed and approved by Dr. John Ogrodniczuk - Professor and Director of the Psychotherapy Program at the Department of Psychiatry, The University of British Columbia.
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