The short answer is, start now with the end in mind.
This question talks right to my heart.
See, in the not-too-distant past, my beloved mother left her body. She was and is, my best friend (asides from my partner). She illustrated beautifully how to hold the relationship with her children in such a way to make it future proof.
She was as much my best friend the day she died as the day I was born.
I am aware that this is a precious rarity rather than the norm and there is/was a huge amount to learn from her and with her. It feels good to share some parts of her legacy here with you.
As I was growing up, it wasn’t that we didn’t have moments of disagreement, (we did) and it wasn’t that I didn’t give her a run for her money when I was a teen, (I did).
Neither of us were perfect all of the time for one another but we were always, ALWAYS friends. When there was a rupture and I had upset her or done the wrong thing, she always made it very clear that it was a behaviour of mine that she didn’t like but it was never the person I was that she didn’t like. That distinction was priceless. I may do annoying or silly things but I knew her love for me was unending. I felt loved no matter what crazy stuff I did as a kid AND I knew she was always my friend even when she may have been mad or sad with me.
She also took the time and energy to repair with me, always. She modelled doing that well. She would make time to talk it out at a time that we were both calmer. She would model for me taking responsibility for the bits that were about her and I would learn from her over time and with repetition, to take responsibility for the bits that were about me.
She taught me that being honest was honorable even if what I had done wasn’t ok. She did this by diluting her reactions in praise of my having been honest in the first place about what had occurred. This became a life skill for me to take into adulthood and it deepened my capacity to feel safe and trust her to be able to comfortably manage whatever I needed to share with her even if I knew it wasn’t something I was proud of. This continued throughout my life with her far beyond my youth. All the way through my adulthood, long after I was an age that i needed to tell my mum stuff, i actually wanted to tell her stuff. It preserved and strengthened the intimacy between us.
She also modelled her imperfectness, talked about it, described it, normalised it, grieved it openly at times when I was old enough to understand. Her doing that gave me permission to be imperfect too. That helped immensely especially when the world I grew up in held a strong narrative of needing to be perfect. She acted as the counterbalance – she held the other side, that imperfection is loveable too. I loved her along with her imperfectness and humility and so I also learned that I was lovable with my imperfectness too.
She had realistic expectations of me, celebrated me when I did well and supported me when I didn’t feel my best. She only ever wanted me to be happy – and she meant it. That was her sole expectation of me, to find what made me happy.
When I am asked the question of “How to future proof our relationships with our children?” the legacy of my mother sits proudly in my heart as I share here with you. She has also handed on that baton to me as I parent my own child. The theory and knowledge I have as a therapist sits neatly and complimentarily alongside this lived experience.
Once our kids grow beyond the age where we can discipline them and hold boundaries for them, there will be only one tool left in our toolbox and that is, our ability to influence them.
Once they grow up and move away from us both emotionally and physically, we will only be able to influence them if we have stayed connected to them through all the twists and turns of their lives. If we have remained a “safe harbour” for them to continue to share their lives and their shortfalls without too much shame, overt personal criticism or judgement. So they continue to feel safe to reveal many of the layers and versions of themselves to us as they unfold across time.
We can only have a relationship with them if they value our connection to them. If they feel seen, heard, acknowledged and held by us – if we have been able to repair with them even when they DO unlikeable things. When we keep them feeling like they are likeable even when their behaviors are challenging. To keep coming back to connection even when it falters. Over and over again. Coming back to a point of connection each time they do something challenging or put themselves in a challenging situation or become someone or something different to what we hoped.
If they know they can keep showing up and being themselves and be received in some relatively reasonable, relational way, then we can future proof our relationships with our kids all the way through our lives.
With you as we all ride the twists and turns of living.