Families come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes that size is rather large, if you live with your extended family. Clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje looks at ways to maintain peace in the home if you have many different generations living under one roof.
The makeup of a ‘normal’ family is not always consistent. Some families are made up of the traditional nuclear system of mother, father and sibling; while other families may look a bit different. Some homes also have grandparents or aunts and uncles or cousins as well.
Each type of family system may bring with it a set of benefits and challenges. It is helpful to prepare realistically for what these may be, in order to ensure effective communication, clear boundaries, distinct roles and responsibilities and ways of addressing conflict.
Clear and open communication is necessary in any family system, but can feel even more essential when managing many different people with their unique ideas and beliefs in a multi-generational household.
One way of creating a space for communication and sharing of ideas is setting up a family meeting. Depending on the topic and appropriateness, the children in the family can also be included in this space, so they know they too are valued members of the family. Family meetings should be a regular and consistent space for discussing issues such as chore allocation, weekly schedules, discipline, house rules, congratulating others and saying thank you.
Clear rules for all members (elders and children alike) should be maintained highlighting the consequences of those rules not being respected (e.g.: no TV privileges if someone crosses their time limit for bath time). Keeping these rules in a visible written or picture form in a central place like the kitchen can be helpful for children.
- Roles and responsibilities
Before extended family members move in, it is important to have a clear idea about what each person’s role in the home will be. These need to be clearly communicated. For example, it may become an area of conflict if a grandmother begins to discipline a child in a different way to that which the parents have agreed upon. In this example, the role of parent and grandparent need to be clarified.
The parental decisions and choices need to be explained clearly in order for them to be respected. Children can become quite confused when rules may shift and change depending on who is looking after them. Rules for discipline need to be consistent between each caregiver.
When living in a multigenerational home, it can be difficult to make sure each member has their own space and privacy, both physically and emotionally. This is especially the case when rooms and beds need to be shared.
A child who must change from having a room all to themselves, to sharing with cousins for example, may feel cross or pushed aside. There may be fights about whose toys are whose, and a battle of ownership and competition may play out.
If a parent is able to anticipate these kinds of reactions, they may feel better equipped to deal with them. Setting firm boundaries about what is appropriate can be key. On the other hand, this can also be a helpful situation to help children learn all about sharing and empathy. Physical and personal boundaries must also be set firmly, especially with small children in the home, where abuse and inappropriate touching is understood clearly as an unacceptable and criminal crossing of boundaries.
Conflict management is an important tool for large extended families to incorporate into their communication style. Disagreements are a natural part of all relationships and we can never expect to agree with everyone! However, the way in which these disagreements are managed can impact on the atmosphere of a home.
If the atmosphere at home is tense or secretive, it creates a space that is not conducive to learning or connection for children. Conflict can come about for many different reasons. One family member may feel they are contributing more than others and feel resentful, some may feel others are too intrusive or domineering, while others may have behaviours felt to be unsafe for children.
It is important to address these difficult issues before they become more rigid and difficult to shift. If one finds that there is overwhelming conflict and a chaotic atmosphere has developed, it may be necessary to seek help in the form of family therapy, where the family can be guided in a more formal way on how to communicate effectively and establish healthy roles and boundaries.
- Benefits and value
As much as having extended family in one’s home can feel difficult and challenging, it can also add much value, benefit and support to all family members. For example, having additional family members in the home can provide some relief in managing every day chores and financial burdens.
There is a saying that says, “Many hands make light work,” and, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Extended family members can be helpful in fetching children from school or helping with homework, helping to tidy and clean the home, or sharing costs of everyday living.
Children who have strong connections with their grandparents and aunts and uncles can also feel more supported and loved. If there is a new baby joining the family, new mothers and fathers can also feel very grateful for having the extra hands as they adjust to parenthood.
- Quality time
As in any family, spending quality time connecting and enjoying each other’s company is hugely beneficial in creating strong bonds and a supportive home structure. Playing board games together, sharing dinner time as a family at the table without distractions, supporting others at sporting or school events and having fun outings can boost the confidence and self-esteem of the family as a whole.
Having extended family join one’s home can offer rewards as well as difficult adjustments. In order to make the most of the experience it is vital to prepare oneself and the family for the realistic possibilities of what may come; both the benefits and the obstacles. There can be very challenging disputes but living together as extended family can also lead to feelings of greater security and a sense of belonging.