Now that we're all adults, we've discovered there's no such thing as a "normal" family, right? Every family has certain quirks, issues, or problems that need to be worked through or navigated. While no family is "normal", there are things that families can do to increase stability and stay healthy. Dr. Froma Walsh* has discovered some key factors that resilient families have in common. When families incorporate these ideas, they are better able to weather the storm and find a sense of stability and health.
Make Meaning of Adversity: These families understand that the process of growth comes with many challenges and sometimes complicated feelings and family dilemmas are normal. These families are able to find a reason for their suffering and problems. For example, the father of a family may lose his job. The family may make this troublesome time less difficult by framing it as an opportunity to try something new, find something better, or an opportunity to spend more time with the family. The family translates this adversity into something that is more helpful.
Clarity in Communication: Resilient families give clear, consistent messages and keep their words and actions congruent. Parents are more helpful to their children when they share as much information with them as possible and remain open to discuss questions or concerns. Parents refrain from hiding things from the children, and treat questions from children respectfully. Family secrets, in my experience, are almost always detrimental because they block understanding and closeness.
Emotional Expression: Open communication, supported by a climate of mutual trust, empathy, and tolerance for differences, enables family members to share a wide range of feelings. Families are encouraged to share their feelings and comfort one another. "When strong emotions can’t be shared with loved ones, there are increased risks of substance abuse, symptoms such as depression, self-destructive behaviors, and relational conflict or estrangement." It's important that each person in the family can express their feelings openly.
Flexibility: Resilient families are able to change to meet new challenges, while at the same time attempting to provide some continuity and stability. Be firm, yet flexible. (Does this sound like like a mystic phrase that Yoda might say?) This is another example of the need for balance. Authoritative parenting (providing structure without rigidity) is the most effective for family functioning and the well-being of children. Through stressful times, it is especially important for parents/caretakers to provide nurturance, protection, and guidance. For example, parents might allow a later curfew for special circumstances. Or during a time when a a child has a significant illness, parents lower their expectations for chores.
Balance between Connectedness and Differentiation: Family members should be committed to weather troubled times together, while also respecting each others’ individual differences, separateness, and boundaries. It's important to have a sense of togetherness as a family without forcing members to be exactly the same. This gets harder as children reach teenage years and discover that they may have different ideas and opinions on certain topics. It's important to continue to show love and support in families even when family members have different ideas and feelings.
Transcendence and Spirituality: Most families find strength, comfort, and guidance in adversity through connections with their cultural and religious traditions. Having a higher power (like God, for example) or a higher cause (like finding a cure for cancer) is one more thing that can unite families. Engaging in spiritual activities (like church attendance or prayer) or providing service to others helps family bonding.
Positive Outlook: High-functioning families have been found to hold a more optimistic view of life and accept what they cannot change. Resilient families promote hope, affirm each others’ strengths, and provide encouragement. They don't waste time complaining about things that aren't going to change. This optimism fights depression and discouragement. For example, if the family car breaks down (or worse suffers damage from an accident), the family can look at riding the bus or asking neighbors for rides as an opportunity to try something new and exciting rather than cast blame and find fault for temporarily being without a car.
What does your family do to help weather the storm?
*Walsh, F. (2012). Normal family processes: Growing diversity and complexity. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.