Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University
In a recent counseling session, a married mom with three young children was wrestling with a very common dilemma: how to create a relationally healthy home environment for her children when she did not have one herself growing up. Here’s how she put it:
I grew up in a family that was very unhealthy and it didn’t give me a very good model of what I’m supposed to do as a parent. Now that I have my own family (husband and three children) I find that I am often at a loss to know how to create a warm, close family environment. I don’t really know what a healthy family is supposed to look like.
As I told her, it takes a lot of honesty to admit that you lack the emotional or relational skills to build the type of family you ideally want. But, the good news is that those emotional and relational skills can be learned, even in adulthood. They might not come easily as they would have were they taught to you as a child, but with practice they can become a regular part of your family life. Here are four essential traits of a healthy family dynamic.
1. Healthy families are attuned to each other’s needs. In other words, make regular time for face-to-face conversations with each other. When you do talk with your spouse or children, give your full attention, listen carefully to the details and ask questions to learn more. It’s easy to become a lazy listener to family members because you unconsciously think you know everything there is to know about them. But, there is a whole inner world of ideas, thoughts and emotions that are sprouting up each day that you will only learn about if you are curious and attentive. In fact, try being deliberately curious. Every day, make one attempt to tap into that inner world of each family member. You will learn things you never imagined and feel closer to them as a result.
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2. Healthy families repair damage to relationships. Conflict is a normal part of family life. But when conflict is not resolved it can linger and accrue in a way that creates negative feelings and relational distance. Commit that you will not go to bed angry with one of your family members. Be willing to take responsibility for your part in the conflict. Take the initiative to work it out. Defer your point of view for a time while you listen carefully to the concerns of the family member with whom you are at odds. When you resolve conflict quickly and in a sensitive way, it sends a message that you value your relationship with that person so much that you don’t want to be out of sorts with them. Repair makes a relationship stronger.
3. Healthy families encourage emotions. Feelings are the way we express ourselves at our deepest levels. Feelings enable us to experience closeness and understand each another in meaningful ways. So, it only makes sense that healthy families create an open forum for feelings to be expressed and taken seriously. When a member of the family shows excitement, sadness, tenderness or even anger, invite them to talk about it. Probe gently, show empathy and validate the emotion, even if you don’t fully understand the circumstances surrounding the emotion. The facts aren’t as important as the emotion. You can make sense of the facts later. Focus in on the emotion; which is the heart of the message you should tune in to. A home where emotions are welcomed and encouraged is a safe and secure place for everyone.
4. Healthy families build each other up. What do you appreciate most about your spouse and children? What qualities does each person have that add beauty, sensitivity, care, laughter, honesty and energy to family life? Make a list and tell them in person. Better yet, ask each family member to write out a list and arrange a time to tell each other what is most appreciated. Take it one step further and ask each family member to compliment or show gratitude to each family member at least once a day. This action point alone could dramatically change the energy in a family from negative to positive.
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