Getting buy-in on both serious stuff (your parents’ health care) and fun stuff (your beach vacation) can make life so much easier.

By Anna Davies
July 30, 2020
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Anne Bentley

We have no idea what the queen first thought when Harry and Meghan announced their decision to step back from official obligations, allegedly blindsiding Her Royal Highness. But the couple may have avoided a lot of heartache—and international headlines—if the royals had had more consistent and clarifying communication. It’s a lesson we should all take to heart.

“Often we reserve family meetings for crisis moments, when emotions and tensions run high,” says Linda Miles, PhD, a psychotherapist in Tallahassee, Florida, and the author of Change Your Story: Change Your Brain ($16, amazon.com; $11, bookshop.org). “Regular check-ins will help you and your family align, and it will be easier to get on the same page if a crisis does occur.” Miles suggests having group talks about key issues, such as aging parents, health concerns, and holiday traditions. But the topics don’t always have to be so serious. Discussions of all kinds can help your family become stronger, happier, and more harmonious than ever. Here, some regular meetings every family should consider.

The Family-Vacation Forum

Attendees: Nuclear or extended family
Recurring: As needed
Location: Dinner table

Anne Bentley

You want a beach chair and books. Your 12-year-old wants to Instagram her way through New York City. And your 7-year-old can’t stop hinting how “educational” a trip to Epcot could be. How do you align?

First, sit down and talk about what vacation means to each of you, says Gabe Saglie, a senior editor at the website Travelzoo. Is it spending time together? Trying new things? Reminisce about the best vacations you’ve taken, either as a family or before the kids were born. This shifts planning from “where we want to go” to “how we want to feel.”

Your kids—and you—can also make mood boards, online or on paper. As the collages of amusement parks, beaches, and monuments form, you may see a common thread. A seaside vacation with boardwalk rides and games plus scenic views of dunes, surf, and sunsets could tick the boxes for everyone. When the trip gets closer, try the “top pick” strategy: Everyone chooses the one thing they really want to do on vacation. Maybe your husband wants a surf lesson, your son wants mini golf, and you want a few hours on the sand with your book. Fill the itinerary with these highly desired activities.

If you’re planning a larger family vacation, put a leaf in the table and discuss budget expectations early. Accept that compromise and alternative plans may be in order. For example, if your brother-in-law has sent you several links to sprawling Tuscan villas, let him know your family is budgeting x for lodging and y for transportation. The more concrete you are about what you can spend, the less chance of misunderstandings and confusion, Saglie says. Who knows? Your brother-in-law might offer to cover the difference, be open to the Sonoma trip you suggest, or decide to go his separate way. Once the budget is nailed down, touch base weekly. Share itinerary ideas via Pinterest boards, then employ the “top pick” strategy.

Next steps

For an extended-family trip, imagine the worst-case scenarios (messy rental house, whiny kids) and proactively set up systems to combat them, Miles says. Creating a cleaning chart or planning a few breaks (screen time for everyone!) can make the trip more restful and fun.

The Senior-Care Summit

Attendees: Siblings
Recurring: As needed
Location: Conference call or text

Anne Bentley

Mom and Dad aren’t getting any younger—or sprightlier, or less forgetful. But before you pass Dad a brochure for an assisted-living community while he’s serving you his world-famous lasagna, reach out to your siblings, Miles says. “Aligning can help you approach your parents as a unified front.” This meeting should include siblings and their spouses only, and it can be virtual—text, email, and video chats all work. The point is to make sure everyone is operating with the same info. Have Mom and Dad written a will, appointed an executor, and created an advance directive? Do you know where important documents are or whether a lawyer has helped draft them? Do any siblings—especially the ones who see parents in person most often—have any concerns about health or safety, or about the expense of their care?

This check-in will help you assess what info you need from your parents. It’s also a good time for you and your siblings to share how you can step up as Mom and Dad start to need more help, Miles says. “Local siblings often take on a large portion of caretaking, so it can be helpful to offer practical assistance options now, before there’s a crisis,” she explains. Maybe out-of-town siblings can contribute financially, research estate planners or senior communities, or do some repairs or cleaning during their visits home.

Next steps

If your parents are currently undergoing a health crisis, it may help to create an information hub. Use Google Docs or a task-based board, like Trello, to keep everyone in the loop about doctor talks and updates. If your family is far-flung, an ongoing to-do list can help you divvy tasks. “You don’t need to live nearby to research physical therapists or place a standing grocery order,” Miles notes.

The Gifting-Guidelines Gathering

Attendees: Extended family
Recurring: Yearly
Location: Existing family get-together

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This is the year, you vow, to stop the deluge of things from well-meaning family members on birthdays and other holidays. Rather than cringing when a package with your in-laws’ return address arrives, make your wishes known in a low-key way, Miles says. Bring up the topic in person toward the end of a visit. Mention how much you and the kids enjoyed everyone’s company and that you’re looking forward to making even more memories, Miles says. Then drive home your point.

Instead of saying, “Please don’t give us the five-foot-tall pink plastic kitchen,” focus on what they can give. For example: “As we come up on Ellie’s birthday, we’ve been thinking of shifting to more experienced-based gifts. We’re wondering if you’d be interested in joining us. If you gifted us a zoo membership, it would be a great place for us all to go as a family.” Another idea is to skip presents altogether: “The holidays are so hectic, and the cousins love connecting with each other. Instead of a gift exchange, how about we use the money we would have spent on presents to take them to that Marriott for a night?” (Seriously, all kids need is an indoor pool. And their cousins!)

Next steps

Miles warns that you can’t make anyone gift your way. “If your parents love giving gifts, it can be tough to take that away from them,” she says. But you can set boundaries. If Grandma insists she wants to give toys, let her know those toys can stay at her house, to make visits there even more special.

The Safety-First Stand-Up

Attendees: Nuclear family
Recurring: Twice yearly
Location: At home

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It’s a good idea to regularly touch base about safety. You’ll want to create (and then review) a what-if plan for home emergencies, like fires, and make sure everyone knows what to do if you’re separated during a weather event or other natural disaster, says Maureen Vogel of the National Safety Council.

Start with your home: Your kids may be years past babyproofing age, but it’s important to point out hazards to tweens and teens, Vogel says. For instance, do they know that charging their phones while watching YouTube videos in the tub is a bad idea? Do they know what gas smells like? “Just as you might have done when they were younger, consider household dangers, then discuss them,” Vogel says, adding that a warning about social media pranks might also be needed—kids may unwittingly take risks based on the latest nonsense they’ve seen on TikTok.

Older kids can be great problem-solvers. Ask them what they’d do if you had a medical emergency or they accidentally started a fire while home alone. Come up with a disaster plan together so you can feel reassured about their own safety smarts. “The point is not to scare your kids but to help empower them to make smart decisions,” Vogel says. Load emergency contact numbers onto everyone’s phones and post them on the fridge, and introduce yourselves to neighbors who could be helpful in an emergency.

Another item on this meeting agenda: a safety plan for an emergency outside the home. Do your kids and spouse know your phone numbers—mobile and work—by heart? Memorizing phone numbers is no longer a habit in our contact-list world, but it’s an important step. So is offering a disaster plan, even if it’s as simple as reminding kids to listen to a teacher, police officer, or other adult in charge if something scary happens and you’re not right there, Vogel says.

Next steps

Have a similar safety conversation with your extended family. If your brother’s home is lost in a fire, would he be able to stay with you? If you can’t reach your sister or her husband, is there a neighbor or friend to call? Making a plan, even if it’s likely you’ll never use it, can give you peace of mind.