Source: Pxhere, 2017. The image is released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0.
Is it “normal” to call your mother multiple times a day, or is an annual visit at Christmas and a monthly phone call “healthy”?
Do you have a family whatsapp group in which you share photos and videos? Or are you part of a family whose videos of your get-togethers have gone viral on social media?
And on the flip side, what exactly does estrangement between family members look like? For some, it might mean having “no contact” with their parent/s for a specific amount of time (e.g. one month, 12 months). But for others, estrangement refers to relationships that are characterised by distance in terms of contact, communication and relationship quality (Blake, 2017).
Assumptions about what is a “normal” level of contact between family members have important implications. For example, a recent fraud investigation by the Student Loans Company (SLC) in the UK caused controversy. The SLC allegedly monitored the social media accounts of 150 randomly selected estranged students (those studying without the support of a parent) in order to determine the quality of their family relationships, resulting in some having their funding frozen or withdrawn.
Following the fallout from this investigation, the SLC’s processes are under review and they have apologised to students. But determining the level and amount of contact between family members that is indicative of a supportive relationship is far from simple. For example, just how meaningful is a post on a facebook wall from a parent to a child? What does it mean if parents and their adult children don’t speak or see one another face-to-face, but exchange birthday and Christmas cards?
Given the proliferation of social media platforms on which family members can now communicate, maintaining contact with a family member is arguably easier than ever. For example, Skype can facilitate contact between family members who live in different countries or continents, enabling grandparents to read their grandchildren bedtime stories from across the globe.
But whilst the proliferation of social media platforms and technologies that enable family members to be in touch with one another can be a force for good, leading to feelings of connection, there now many ways not to be in touch with a family member.
Those who are estranged from a family member might use a number of strategies to either maintain or break an estrangement. For example, parents who do not wish to be estranged from an adult child might continue to make phone calls and send birthday and Christmas cards to their children, or choose to send letters, emails, and texts (Agllias, 2013). And adult children who have chosen to maintain distance from a family member might choose not to answer the phone or to notify parents if they change their address (Agllias, 2017; Scharp & McLaren, 2017). Maintaining an estrangement might therefore be understood as a process, rather than a one-off event.
We might have images and ideas in our minds as to how “normal” family members communicate with each other. These ideas might be informed by families we see in films, television, and our social media feeds. We might assume that in “normal” families, contact between family members is regular, and a source of joy and support.
But little about family life is static or simple. Contact and communication between family members shifts and changes over time and depends on factors like the ages of family members, the culture in which they live, their gender, and what stage of the life course they are in.
In understanding how family members communicate with one another, we need to acknowledge and potentially question the assumptions that we have about “normal” family relationships as they “should” be. And we need to explore and understand the complexity and the diversity of family relationships as they are. There is likely no one single story as to what kind and level of contact and communication is “normal”.