Tips for Talking Across Generations of Family

Are you anticipating difficulty when you get the family together for your family meeting?

Holding a cross generation family meeting can be challenging.  This article is intended to help you identify key attributes about your family so you understand and anticipate some of the dynamics that can surface during a family meeting.

What kind of family do you have?

The makeup of family can affect the way members within and between family units communicate. As part of the action items to develop a long term family plan, and in preparation for your family meeting, we listed defining who is in your family as a task. Definition of family is difficult even for scholars. Definitions vary from strict bloodlines, to anyone playing a role of family. Traditional, nuclear Mom, Dad and the kids; Single parent, divorced parent; Same sex parents; Grandparents; Step families and more are some of the varieties. There are families with long history together, and families who are just starting to create their histories.

Intact Family” communication patterns are defined in “Communication in Intact Families” by Ascan F. Koerner (PH.D) Mary Anne Fitzpatrich (PH.D). They suggest two dimensions that help place an intact family into a communication pattern: a) how much and about what the family talks (conversation) and b) what level of conformity is expected between family members when they talk (conformity). They define an intact family as the traditional, nuclear family with one female mother, one male father and one to many children all living together.

Consensual families are high in both levels. The authors suggest that in this model, there is pressure to agree and pressure to conform to the family hierarchy. Parents listen to their kids, but make the decisions for the family. Then they try to explain their decisions to the kids.

Pluralistic families are high in conversation but low in conformity. In these families, the authors believe that parents are willing to listen to the kids and let them help make the decisions. Discussion is based on merit of the content, not who says it.

Protective families are low in conversation, high in conformity. In this situation, the authors share that the parents don’t feel a need to listen to their kids or explain their decisions. Open conversation is not valued or practiced. Therefore kids don’t learn how to converse.

Laissez Faire families are low in both areas. The authors think that few things are discussed and parents don’t feel a need to make the decisions or involve the kids in decisions. Family members are emotionally divorced from one another. Children learn to make their own decisions, but are not confident in those decisions because they don’t get parental support on them.

The authors are careful to point out that the models do not indicate how well a family functions, just how it communicates.

Knowing how an intact family fits into this theoretical model may help you think about ways to encourage communication in your family meeting.

If you are a divorced and a single parent living alone with your children, Julia M. Lewis and Linda Johnson Rietz (both from California State U) and Judith S. Wallerstein (University of California) discuss your situation in “Communication in Divorced and Single Parent Families”.   They indicate that most divorcee’s (whether male or female) tend to not coordinate parenting tasks with each other (they call it ‘co-parenting’), so the children do not encounter an environment where there is consistent communication, monitoring or discipline. These parents typically communicate less with their children and the children model that behavior. The children also tend to mistrust relationships, due to the trauma they suffered during their parents divorce.

“Communication in Step Families” by Marilyn Coleman, Lawrence Ganong, Mark Fine (University of MO Columbia) reviewed multiple scenarios involving families with step children. Step children, step parents, step grandparents are instantly possible in a step family, depending on the age of the persons remarrying.

Issues noted in communication were:

  • Disagreements over resources;
  • Loyalty conflicts;
  • Individuals holding a guard and protect mentality – particularly with respect to biological kin and
  • Conflict with extended family members

The most common communication strategies used were:

  • Compromising on rules and discipline;
  • Presenting a united front to the step children/children;
  • Speaking directly to the person you are having the conflict with;
  • Re-framing the problem as less serious or making a joke of it and
  • Withdrawing to avoid the conflict,

What generations will be present?

Because of the differing environments that each generation grew up in, the groups have different approaches and expectations for communication.

Jan Yager in Boomers Face Challenges Relating to Other Generations – 5 rules for improving how we communicate with each other described the generations as follows:

The Greatest Generation lived through two defining events: the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II. They have known sacrifice, postponing dreams and goals, enduring financial hardships, as well as working in a country with more widespread military commitments.

The Boomers, grew up in the shadow of World War II with the 60s and Women’s Lib as two of their defining social events. Boomers are determined to do things differently than (their) parents, including (their) approach to retirement.

Generation X is the generation that grew up with technology as a comfortable, acceptable way to communicate and interact.

Generation Y or the Millennials are the youngest ones in today’s workforce, ranging in age from 18 to 25. Those in Generation Y, even more than Generation Xers, grew up with technology as an expected and predictable part of their lives. Cell phones and the Internet are completely natural for this age group. In general, they also expect everything to happen very quickly and are much more likely to be comfortable multitasking than any previous generations.

Igeners Not yet in the workforce, but very much a force in the personal lives of many Boomers, is the generation that Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D. in his book Rewired (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) calls the iGeneration (or “iGeners”), those born in the 1990s and the new millennium. As Rosen notes: “They own cell phones, but use them more for sending text messages than talking. They blog, vlog (using videos to transmit information), Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, video chat, share photos, and latch on to and embrace any new communication tool and give it their own personal spin.””

Her advice was a) don’t be judgmental; b) don’t make assumptions; c) ask the right questions in the right way; d) ask for help if you need it and e)remember mental and/or physical disabilities may plan a role.

What stages of life are your family members in?

Child (1 – 10) If children are present at your family meeting, you will need to adjust the agenda, or provide for separate activities for them. Depending on the ages of the children, you might want to include them for a portion of the meeting, but not all of it.

Youth (11 – 19) Teens will probably express discontent at being included in the family meeting unless you take care to engage them in active participation by giving them a role in the meeting or holding a teens meeting as a separate part of the family meeting.

Young Adult (20 – 30) This age group is typically still involved in separating themselves from their family to establish their independence and prove their abilities. They will probably (think they) know more anything than anyone else. They should be given a significant role in the meeting and could actively participate in education of the Child and Youth components if you provide for that.

Middle Life (31 – 60) This age group is in their stride. Per “Keeping all 5 balls in the air, juggling family communications in mid lilfe” by Karen L Fingerman ,Jon Nussbaum and Kira S Birditt , they have the most communication relationships (children, peers, parents, grandparents) and the most complex communication needs. They tend to be focused on others and will make excellent leaders, coordinators and active participants in the meetings.

Elder (60 +) This age group (according to Dickson, Christian and Remmo in “An Exploration of the Marital and Family Issues of the Later-Life Adult”) wants and relies heavily on family communications. Their life long support groups are dwindling (death of spouses, even children, loss and geographic distance of friends) and they find it harder to develop new communication relationships. In addition there are mental and physical issues that can affect the reception and broadcast of communications (such as illness, weakness, sadness and etc).

Are family members afraid of losing autonomy by being in the bigger family group?

In “Keeper of a family’s generous flame” , Pamela Ryckman notes that David Rockefeller Jr “…credits his family’s institutions with keeping disparate branches of kin together. She quotes him as saying “The flame of family traditions is maintained in the institutions and the institutional traditions inform the family. We are all very much individuals, but we’re all aware that we’re carrying the family flag.”

Family members may need explicit re-assurance that the larger family group respects the autonomy of the individual member and the individual family unit.

What are some of the things needed to successfully connect across generations?

Fran C. Dickson, Allison Christian and Clyde J. Remmo in “An Exploration of the Marital and Family Issues of the Later-Life Adult” indicate that there are five things a family needs in order to have solidarity across multiple generations. These are:

  • Contact with each other;
  • Affection displayed;
  • Agreement on certain aspects of family life;
  • The family functions as a support source for all generations, not just elderly and
  • Opportunities for interaction must be there.


“Defining the Family Through Relationships” by Kory Floyd, ASU; Alan C. Mikkelson, Whitworth College and Jeff Judd, ASU in The Family Communication Sourcebook edited by Lynn H Turner, Richard West Copyright 2006 by Sage Publications, Inc.

“Keeping all 5 balls in the air, juggling family communications in mid lilfe” by Karen L Fingerman (Purdue University) and Jon Nussbaum and Kira S Birditt (Penn State University) in Handbook of Family Communications.

“Communication in Intact Families” by Ascan F. Koerner (PH.D) Mary Anne Fitzpatrich (PHD) in Handbook of Family Communications Edited by Anita L.Vangelisti Copyright 2004 by Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Inc.

“Keeper of a family’s generous flame” by Pamela Ryckman. Financial Times. London (UK): Dec 2, 2008. pg. 6

“Boomers Face Challenges Relating to Other Generations – 5 rules for improving how we communicate with each other” by  Jan Yager, Ph.D. May 9, 2010

“An Exploration of the Marital and Family Issues of the Later-Life Adult by Fran C. Dickson, Allison Christian and Clyde J. Remmo in Handbook of Family Communications

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