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Building Harmonious Intergenerational Relationship

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  • An elderly man who lives with his unmarried children, is unhappy and critical of them. Frequent arguments and even fights are common between the elderly father and the adult children.     

  • A newly-wed wife moved into her husband’s family home while the couple waited for their HDB BTO flat to be ready. Her mother-in-law saw it as the young woman’s duty to take over the household chores. From time to time, she would complain about her daughter-in-law to her unmarried daughter who lived together with them. Tensions in the family grew as the days went by.

  • A 3G family – with grandparents that looked after their grandchildren for most of the working week, while the two young parents held full-time jobs– is often unhappy. The husband finds himself frequently caught in-between his wife and his elderly parents. They often complain to him about each other, particularly about their contrasting parenting styles.

Intergenerational relationships, like any relationship, require effort to remain strong and harmonious. Being aware of the common difficulties faced in maintaining such relationships and how these relational obstacles can be overcome – is therefore very important. This is especially so for families living in today’s technologically advanced societies, where digital tools that allow us to easily connect with others, and the wider world, also wield the potential to isolate us from our own, boringly familiar, family members.

Think of how family members typically behave when they are all at home in the evenings, for instance. Separate “islands of activities” quickly sprout in different parts of the family home. The children might be gaming on their computers. Their parents, relived at the end of the workday, may be checking their Facebook feed or catching up on the latest news online. The grandparents, meanwhile, know that it’s time to tune in to their favourite TV serials. Family members remain as socially distant from each other as they were earlier in the day, when they were at physically distant locations – childcare, schools, elderly activity centres, workplaces, or back at home doing chores.

With every one so busy with their separate activities, the chances of family members becoming “strangers” while living under the same roof are high. Meaningful conversations will be scarce if members speak to each other only for the purposes of daily functioning. And without intentional engagement in shared activities, mutual understanding and appreciation of one another will likely be minimal. Relationships between family members unavoidably suffer.

The key to building family relationships lies in building a BRIDGE that will connect every family member together. BRIDGE encapsulates 6 essential building blocks of a well-knitted family.

Boundaries – Harmonious families maintain healthy boundaries. Discerning elderly parents do not openly criticise their adult children about their parenting styles but remain ready to share their opinions and advice when consulted, without imposing their beliefs on their children. Likewise, members of harmonious families are careful not to ‘take sides’ in disputes between other family members that fall across different family units. The daughter facing her mother’s regular complaints of her sister-in-law offers an illustrative example. Had she openly supported her mother or sister-in-law, she would have inevitably strained her relationship with the other, causing the family to be pulled further apart.

Reaching out – Harmonious families take the initiative to connect through conversations and shared activities. Grandparents, for instance, can explore new gadgets and games with their grandchildren. Younger family members, who may be familiar with the latest mobile games, could be taught how to play games from their grandparents’ childhood. Adult children, who observe their elderly parent reading the newspapers alone, may initiate a conversation about the puzzling state of today’s current affairs.  Hence, instead of leading largely segregated day-to-day lives, individual “islands of activities” can be combined more often to bring the young and the old together. Another way is to seek out organised activities in the community for intergenerational engagement.[1]

Interaction– Harmonious families ensure positive daily interaction patterns, in both their verbal and non-verbal forms. Warm and gentle responses promote connection and help build relationships. But cold and hostile ones promote distancing and discourage further interaction. A kind look or remark encourages more welcoming responses than an impatient “tsk” of disapproval. A calm voice and a smile can help someone who is angry or flustered to simmer down and pour out their feelings to their family members.

Dialogue – Members of harmonious families employ good listening in two-way open dialogues with one another. Healthy interaction depends on the maintenance of a safe space where honest opinions and different views can be shared and listened to. While open but tactful dialogues can promote deeper understanding and draw family members together, the use of accusations, threats, criticism, and sarcasm can generate toxic resentment that will hurt all parties. For example, the son who repeatedly launches into shouting matches with his elderly father, whenever he tries to remind him to take his medication, could have prioritised listening empathetically to the elderly man’s thoughts and worries. By cutting him off and insisting he takes his medication immediately, the elderly man feels ignored and controlled.

Growth – Harmonious families grow their relationships through intentional efforts to understand one another. They focus on understanding why each may hold differing views, rather than defending their beliefs and ideas at all costs. Greater mutual understanding would also allow care and concern for one another to be better conveyed and received, helping to minimise misunderstanding between different generations.

Expectations – Harmonious family members manage their expectations through open conversation and discussion. In the earlier case of the family with in-law tensions, things took a turn for the better when the mother began to openly discuss her expectations for her new daughter-in-law, while listening to both her son and her daughter-in-law’s opinions, before coming to an understanding that was acceptable to all sides. This helped promote mutual respect and avoid unhappiness and tensions in their relationship.

Harmonious intergenerational relationships also help generate positive ripple effects. Firstly, strong and happy relationships are associated with better health and well-being levels for the individuals involved. Secondly, good quality relationships help create a stronger support structure, for the family as a whole, increasing the mutual support between the older and the younger. Start building the BRIDGE in your family today!

Written by: Lily Ching, Counsellor, Fei Yue Community Services


  1. Bina Gubhaju, Angelique Chan (2017-09). Helping Across Generations: Families in Singapore. Research Brief Series 3 : 1-17. ScholarBank@NUS Repository. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.25722/7F6C-QZ58

  2. Dykstra, Pearl A. Intergenerational Family Relationships In Ageing Societies, Department of Sociology, Erasmus University Rotterdam.

  3. Leng Leng, Thang. Promoting Intergenerational understanding between the young and the old: the case of Singapore.

  4. Leng Leng,Thang and Mehta, Kalyani K. The Dynamics Of Multigenerational Care In Singapore. Retrieved from https://www.difi.org.qa/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/ThangLeng_KalyaniMehta.pdf