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from the start....
Making Healthy Families
Part 1

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

The birth of a baby is the birth of a new family.

Families exist to nurture us, not only when we are vulnerable and as helpless as a newborn--but later, as we face the challenges of adulthood. We need to be able to depend on our intimate relationships for emotional support. Healthy families serve as a nest for our human growth and development.

Our families impact the very quality of life, including who we are and who we will become. What we can learn from the past forty years of research on family structures, styles, rules and communication, can help us create a healthy family system capable of adjusting to the ever changing needs of its members.



Clear generational boundaries are necessary for what family researcher W. Robert Beavers, M.D. calls "optimal" functioning. In a healthy family there is no question as to who is parent and who is child. This is true whether your child is fourteen or two, though naturally responsibilities change as your child grows.

In healthy families, no parent feels as though they must disclaim their adult power, and children don't feel called upon to assume premature adult responsibility. On an emotional level, this means that a child doesn't feel compelled to fill the needs that parents must provide for one another. If this happens, the emotionally "parentified" child is at risk for becoming the "problem" that parents polarize (or unite) around. With muddy boundaries, the child can become overburdened by adult problems. When this happens, generational boundaries collapse, often leading to unhealthy alliances, such as Mom and child against Dad or other painful strategies in a failing attempt to resolve conflict.

Parents sometimes unwittingly develop unhealthy family structures by putting their child in the middle of an argument, for example, "The baby is crying and she needs YOU to come home.", rather than, "I really need you."

You can learn to nurture clear generational boundaries in your own family. Doing so supports intimacy in the parental relationship, as parents must be more direct in communicating their needs to one another. This ensures your relationship will grow! Clear boundaries also allows a special bond to develop between siblings without the painful undermining that takes place when cross-generational alliances dominate the family structure, and one child feels he is "Daddy's favorite but Mommy likes sister best." Sisters and brothers share a similar position in the family and benefit from healthy peer relationships. When generational boundaries are intact in the family, a child's place is secure.



The first step in building a healthy family structure is to strengthen your couple relationship from the beginning. Your relationship is the garden in which your child grows. It also determines the emotional atmosphere of the family. Two points can help you nurture this important generational bond:

  1. Take time daily to express your needs and share feelings with one another. And schedule quality time to enjoy each other. Make this a priority from the start. Even if it is only once a month, it is a statement that you need each other. In fact, attention to one another is necessary for children to feel loved. Even young babies benefit from parents taking a night out for themselves to nurture each other.

    Now let's take a closer look at a common pitfall in early family development which exemplifies this point.

    Couples commonly come for counseling when their first child is between one and two years of age. Often, they have neglected their couple relationship through the plentiful changes of this period. When they finally turn their attention away from parental duties, they have been lonely for each other for a long time. Their need for meaningful contact is expressed through accusations of neglect and failure. As time goes by, lack of intimacy between partners becomes a family pattern that takes its toll.

    This leads us to another important reality of making a family together. Your own childhood is reactivated when you become a parent. This makes you particularly vulnerable during the first year of your child's life, as you are making this important family transition. Old wounds are reopened, but this time you are the parent! And your partner feels more like the opponent than your teammate. You may feel you are losing each other at the very time you need one another the most. This brings us to a second very important approach you can take towards building a healthy family structure from the very beginning.

  2. Adopt a team approach. Remember that the two of you share the same responsibility. For example, no matter which one of you is carrying out the responsibility physically, both should be sharing in the discussion and decision-making about how a child is disciplined or whether a job change is right for the family at this time. Feeling supported instead of alone throughout your day is a result of sharing feelings as well as responsibilities with your partner. This kind of team sharing and support strengthens your "couple bond," making you less likely to turn to your child for emotional needs that should be met in your relationship with your partner. In this way, clear boundaries between generations are off to a healthy start.

    Reaching out for adult support from friends and relatives is also important and much can be gained from parent support groups at this time.

Tip: The quality of your relationship is like a plant--it requires watering on a regular basis, or it will whither. Taking the time and attention to nurture your relationship in the ways discussed will help lay the groundwork for a healthy family system in the years and challenges ahead. Think of it as an investment in your family's future!

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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