Characteristics of Healthy Family Systems
By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.
A healthy family is neither
nor merely lacking in negative characteristics.
Rather it has described positive features1
We have all become familiar with the concept of dysfunctional
as it applies to communication and relationships. We may have even concluded
that we come from dysfunctional family backgrounds ourselves. The
term itself may be overused and perhaps misused but it gets the point
across. Thanks to the media and John Bradshaws popularity, we understand
that we need not recapitulate the past. Indeed past pain in relationships
can be circumvented to some degree by learning to change that which does
not promote health and happiness. So far, so good, but what exactly needs
change and what does not? We dont want to throw the baby out with
the bathwater, excuse the old adage. What particular points of strength
did our families teach us? What are the hallmarks of families that seem
to flourish in an atmosphere of warmth and ease, even under stressful
life events? Too often we study what goes wrong, but this does not always
give us a picture of how things go right!
I must admit, I have an avid interest in studying successes
of all kinds. I like stories that relate ways people made things work,
regardless of the subject. Once I even thought of opening a placebo
clinic to study the very real and positive effects of this phenomenon.
No, really! I wanted to know what physical manifestations occur in our
bodies when a person administering a medication truly believed in its
power to promote healing. I wanted to study the effect of this relationship
membrane on body chemistry. Not as a suggestion but
as a fact. By indulging in this avenue of thought I came to experience
the paradox of defining things from a predisposed, but invisible assumption:
i.e. that placebo was not real, and therefore
suggestion was not real either. Sometimes our attempt to study
health is limited by our unconscious or conscious biases.
Paying attention to positive elements in human relationship
results in more than the sum of its parts. By studying the characteristics
of what contributes to health and well being in family systems, you may
find yourself thinking differently about your own family experience. Expectations
that reside in past negative experience can cause you to miss opportunities
for positive interaction with family members. Wondering what will bring
joy or soothing, instead of reliving irritations which presuppose past
negative attitudes can constructively alter relationships.
The characteristics listed below are one research teams2 attempts to describe what goes on
in families that contributes to healthy relationships. It is not all inclusive,
nor does it express one way to be as a family. These are simply
observations from a variety of family cultures that have been identified
as having positive impact on growth and adaptation. Each family
is its own unique culture. But all families, no matter where they are,
do basically the same thing. Families exist to nurture the growth and
development of their members. Each family is like a garden. The characteristics
below are some of the nutrients you may wish to consider in tilling the
soil. Consider the questions below with reference to your childhood experience
of family and your own current family situation.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HEALTHY FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS
Family atmosphere is influenced by a belief in helping each other, acknowledging
human needs for reassurance and support, and viewing mistakes as human.
Family members know that human needs are satisfied through relationship,
and when children grow and leave home their independence is continually
dependent on other community systems. While these members strive for competence,
they know they do not solely control outcome. They believe they can make
a difference through their own efforts and influence their success in
the world, but know also that success is a result of variables beyond
their complete control. When members make mistakes, from a child dropping
a spoon on the floor to damaging the family car, members believe there
may be numerous factors involved, and refrain from jumping to blaming
or criticizing statements precipitously.
When errors in judgment are made especially by children
or adolescents, members seek to help produce change through warmth in
relating versus over controlling. This does not mean that clear and defined
consequences are not invoked. It does mean, however that motives or reasons
for mistakes are evaluated from a variety of different angles,
rather than assuming the person to be bad or stupid,
etc. Members believe in the inherent goodness of one another,
and do not assume bad intent of other members. Instead, a
learning orientation to life with emotional availability to members helps
ease distress. For example: an 18 month old throwing a spoon on the floor
could be seen as trying to disrupt or take control, which would assign
the child more negative motive, than if the parent were to also consider
tiredness and natural developmental challenges of this age, which would
be seen as normal and inevitable testing of limits.
Ask yourself: What were the basic attitudes,
beliefs or philosophy that influenced you in your childhood family?
Did people believe in the basic goodness of one another?
Were limits set neutrally, without emotional rejection? Or was emotional
rejection and judgment part or all of the response to mistakes or misbehavior?
Was this a family in which people strived for perfection but accepted
the inevitability of mistakes? Was the need for reassurance accepted?
Was humor present? Could members show fear and uncertainty with expectation
for reassurance and understanding? Describe your present familys
orientation, reflecting on these basic questions related to family relationships
and the overall atmosphere of warmth and caring?
Remember that if your family atmosphere is not where
you want it to be, you can change it! You are not stuck in the past.
Though it is natural to recreate a family atmosphere similar to the
one you grew up in, once you are able to objectively identify elements
you would like to change, your observations lead you to different outcomes.
And change takes time. Each incident or event you turn around builds
on itself to create the future. Patience and compassion are your best
allies to evaluate your present family orientation.
Clear boundaries between family members means that the responsibilities
of adults are clear and separate from the responsibilities of the growing
child(ren). There are no parentified children in the family,
and people talk freely for themselves, expressing differences of feelings
and opinions without fear of punishment or retaliation. However democratic
discussions are, parents retain appropriate decision-making relative to
the age of the child. Naturally, as the child grows, the task of the family
is to prepare the growing child or adolescent for making her or his own
decisions in life. This is a gradual process.
Boundaries also refers to the permeability of the nuclear
family structure to the larger extended family and outside community.
A cohesive sense of family must be balanced with acceptance of outside
persons and resources to be flexible and resilient. Children need to be
able to trust in other adults and seek resources outside the family as
Ask yourself: Were the roles of parents and children
clear in your childhood family? Did you learn to take responsibility
as a child, gradually and make your own decisions? Was there too little
guidance, or too much? Did you enjoy an identity with your family, yet
connect with outside members of the community and extended family for
greater resources? advice? information? How do you see your present
family with respect to clarity of roles, expectation and responsibility?
Power and Intimacy:
People are able to relate intimately when they feel they have equal power.
This is because when we get frightened, two options are open to us: to
relate through loving and caring to get our needs met, or to control others
or a situation. We may choose the power of love or the power of control.
As children grow, they approach more equal control in
the family, but certainly their feelings and thoughts should have some
potential power in influencing decisions. Therefore, their attempts to
relate carry some sense of power in their destiny. For couples, equal
power in decision making is essential or intimacy suffers. Classic examples
of this can be seen in the housewives of the 1950s in this country,
when men assumed deference in decision making because they brought home
the paycheck. Because Dad made the money, oftentimes Moms feelings,
her needs, her schedule, were ignored unless it fit into Dads needs
and work schedule. Moms emotional caretaking of family members was
unpaid work and therefore of secondary importance. She became a second
class citizen in many families and everyone suffered because of the loss
of intimacy inherent in such an arrangement.
This does not mean that one or the other partner cannot
specialize in homemaking and the other in working outside the home for
money. But it does mean that attention to equal consideration which leads
to joint decisions promotes intimacy because those decisions were made
in consideration of others.
Ask yourself: How were decisions made in my childhood
family? Were peoples feelings considered? Did any one persons
feelings or needs dominate over others? if so, why? Was any attempt
made towards fairness in considering members needs when they conflicted?
Were childrens feelings heard and taken into account by parents
in their decision making in the family? What are the answers to the
above questions for your present family? Do all members have the same
opinion as yourself? Do any members feel that their feelings do not
matter when it comes to important decisions? Does your partner feel
considered and respected with regard to feelings in conflictual situations?
Honesty and freedom of expression:
Members of a family are free to express themselves autonomously ,
including different opinions or viewpoints if the family interactions
support individuality. Discussions can be lively and even heated if it
is basically acceptable for family members to have differences. Love and
caring is not withdrawn if people think differently about something. If
ambivalence and uncertainty are accepted, as well as differences, families
tend to enjoy an open atmosphere of honesty in relationship.
Ask yourself: Did you experience pressure to
lie or hide your true feelings or opinions in your childhood family?
Were members open to differences in the family, or extremely threatened
by feelings or ideas that conflicted with their own? In your present
family is honesty of feelings and opinions prevalent? Is individuality
and expression of a range of feelings and opinions acceptable?
Warmth, joy and humor:
When there is joy and humor in relationships, people seek out the comfort
of these interactions. Family members enjoyment and trust in one
another is an important energizing resource! There is the feeling that
there is always someone to talk to who cares, and who you can laugh and
have fun with at various times as well.
Humor plays a very important role in family bonding. One
aspect of mental health is the ability to laugh at ourselves good naturedly.
This is not the same as laughing at, or making fun of someone at their
expense. Instead, it is a shared experience of humor that lightens up
the potential to take ourselves too seriously, and not be able to see
the forest for the trees. Humor often allows us to regain an overview
or larger perspective that has been temporarily lost in the stress of
everyday living. Many medical researchers have even linked it to physical
health and recovery. Do you use humor to emotionally recover from alienated
or polarized positions that you may find yourself immersed in with your
partner or other family members? You may try it sometime, to see how it
can help free you from a need to be right or other naturally
human ruts we find ourselves in with our partners!
Ask yourself: Can you remember good times, fun
times and times of mirth and laughter that bonded you as a family in
childhood? How often or how rare were these occurrences? Did you feel
there was always someone you could talk to who cared about your welfare?
In your present family, how much do you laugh together? have fun together?
seek out comfort and caring from one another?
Organization and negotiating skill:
A necessary aspect of family life is coordinating tasks, negotiating differences
and being able to reach closure effectively. Negotiating skills include
the ability to listen and make choices in what family members feel is
a fair process. In healthy families, this process does not get overly
bogged down, although there is room for discussion, and parents alternate
the role of coordinator between them. Parents can take charge without
being overly controlling. There tends to be a spirit of camaraderie and
trust built up over the years so organization is relatively easy. This
of course goes along with the other characteristics of healthy families,
which includes clear boundaries and roles in the family.
There is much to be done in running a family household,
and everyone benefits when things that need to get done can be taken care
of without undue stress and chaos. When family chores run smoothly, negotiating
doesnt need to be repeated every weekend!
Ask yourself: Were family tasks done with ease
or with difficulty in your childhood? Was there a reasonable amount
of order in the household, or did weekends get bogged down in repeated
attempts to organize basic family tasks? Could you count on things being
done regularly and did you have regular family chores yourself or were
things more haphazardly maintained? If organizational structure was
maintained was it flexible enough for updating from time to time as
needs of family members changed or was it overly controlled and rigid,
allowing for little or no adjustment over time? In your present family
is there reasonable order which is sustained over long periods of time
with appropriate flexibility or are there repeated arguments over basic
chores and lack of clarity regarding how they will get done?
Whatever your answers, you can begin to observe whether
you have transferred any ineffective patterns of organization onto your
own family from childhood, and decide what kind of organization you
want to have in your current home life.
Part of the health and vibrancy of any family is also dealing with weaknesses,
fears and stresses in the system itself. Nobody is perfect and no system
is perfect. But in healthy families, truth is accepted as not absolute.
Different perspectives on reality are acceptable and people are basically
good. These are two underlying beliefs.
In addition to a basic positive view of humanity and of
life in general, healthy families also deal with the inevitable losses
that occur in the family life cycle. To do so, families employ varying
philosophies, religious or otherwise about the nature of life and what
its all about. Healthy families include some larger concept of life that
encompasses the fact that we all die.
Therefore we must inevitably be able to find some meaning
in something that is a larger whole. The individual must be able to find
significance in the contribution to something greater than the self. The
capacity for symbolism must therefore be a part of the familys emotional
wealth, since we cannot answer the basic question of why that
our children ask us with anything but intuition, faith or philosophical
Whether in society, family, grandchildren, god, politics,
or social change, an individual must be able to find meaning that in some
way transcends the ultimate loss of individual life. Along the way, there
are usually a number of naturally occurring deaths in the family that
help prepare us, as we are faced with carrying that family member in some
other form than the physical.
Ask yourself: What philosophy or values did your
childhood family hold regarding life? Were people perceived as basically
good or not? Was there acceptance of different views of
reality? What did your parents tell you about the nature of life, the
meaning of family? How did your family handle the subject or experience
of death? What kind of values do you want to pass on to your children?
How do you discuss the meaning of life? How do you handle the subject
Judith Viorst, in her book Necessary Losses, elegantly
describes the process of growing up as a series of continual
losses necessary for growth throughout the life cycle. Leaving childhood
is necessary for becoming an adult. Letting go of our children as they
leave home is necessary for their development as adults and for our growth
as parents. We all move on in life. Our connectedness remains but our
relationships and how we depend on one another change.
The ultimate loss however, our own death, brings us face
to face with the profoundness of it all. Our last letting go is both inevitable
and unknown. Songwriter Chris Williamson on her album, Live Dream,
refers to her first awareness as a child, of her own death. She
says to her audience:
What dya mean born to die, I said, beating
my fists on my fathers chest. Some joke!
Perhaps it is the finitude of death that allows us to
deeply appreciate life.
As we travel through the life cycle we continue to grow
and learn. The older we get, the less we find we know. Helping each other
through this process of living the best way we can is what family is all
about. It is my hope that the characteristics described in this article
will help you as parents on your journey.
1. Epstein, Bishop, Ryan, Miller and Keitner, The
McMaster Model View of Healthy Family Functioning, p,139 in
Normal Family Processes, edited by Froma Walsh, 2nd edition,
The Guilford Press, N.Y., 1993.
2. Beavers, R. and Hampson, R., Measuring Family Competence:
The Beavers Systems Model in Normal Family Processes, edited by Froma
Walsh, 2nd edition, The Guilford Press, N.Y., 1993.
Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.
Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.
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