Making Healthy Families
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.
A LOOK AT FAMILY STRUCTURE
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
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
WHAT YOU CAN DO
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:
- 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.
- 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!
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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