One key to an emotionally healthy life is having the support of a strong, supportive family.
A strong family may be as small as two people or as large as a kinship network of grandparents,
aunts, uncles and cousins. The size of the family, indeed the composition of the family, does
not matter as much as the feeling of belonging and the sense of sustenance that emerges from
living with stable familial support. People seem to do better in life when they have the feeling
of belonging to something larger, and stronger, than they are individually. It helps in eliminating
uncertainty from the stresses of everyday living.
The family has undergone many changes over recent decades, due mainly to major social and cultural
changes. When life was mainly agriculturally based or when immigrants came to a new land, the
traditional family was able to thrive. We looked to our kin for support and they were there
for us. The decades since the middle of the twentieth century have seen a steady unraveling
of this bygone ideal. It is difficult to describe precisely what caused this change. It may
have been such factors as social security (the government, rather than children, could take
care of people when they grew old). Or the automobile and modern roads (people were no longer
confined to one location any longer - family members could move away). Or was it television?
Computers and electronic data transmission? Improved communication technology? The high divorce
rate? What we do know is that families today find it more difficult, due to competing demands
from the larger world, to spend time together, to feel committed to each other, to communicate
with each other, to share spiritual values and to cope with crises together. Some families,
however, seem to have overcome these threats to a strong and thriving family life.
An ongoing research project conducted by Dr. Nick Stinnett at the University of Nebraska has
aimed to identify the characteristics of strong families around the world. Stinnett and his
colleagues since 1974 have surveyed over 3,000 families, about 80% of whom were from the United
States and 20% from other parts of the world. About thirty percent were rural and 70% urban.
The participants represented different economic levels, racial/ethnic classifications, age groups,
religions and educational levels. In spite of cultural, political and language differences,
strong families had similar characteristics.
Here are the six qualities shared by strong families:
A Sense of Commitment to the Family
A commitment is a pledge or a promise. Applied to family life, it is a sense of responsibility
or duty to the family that overrides temporary conflicts or times of crisis. Members of strong
families take their familial commitment seriously. It is conscious, unwavering and unconditional.
Strong families are not immune to the problems faced by everyone else in modern times - they
too face hectic days, financial difficulties, demanding work hours, marital infidelity, and
illness. In strong families, however, commitment implies that family members help each other
out during hard times. They make the family relationship a priority, even if it means sacrificing
personal wants, activities outside of the family, or work demands. At the core of sacrificing
for the family is the idea of putting the interests of others ahead of one's own - a notion
that reflects moral values and integrity.
Try these things:
____ Arrange a family council for an hour once a month. Discuss your family goals, what you
are doing to meet them, and what needs to be worked on. Listen to each other's ideas rather
than condemning them. Encourage free, open and accepting communication.
____ If everyone in the family is too busy with outside activities, rearrange schedules so
that more time can be spent together with the family. Or have each family member agree to give
up one outside activity.
____ Designate a wall in the house as the "family wall." Decorate it with photos,
souvenirs, and family mementos.
____ Make a record of the family history in a photo album, identifying dates, places and special
Showing Appreciation and Building Self-Esteem
Healthy families share in common the ability to show appreciation to each other. By showing
appreciation, we are essentially saying that the other person is worthy and has dignity. We
are declaring that we can see the positive qualities of the other person. This message is crucial
to emotional wellness because it is a core building block of self-esteem. Thus, strong families
help to build healthy personalities. Parents and siblings have a strong influence in molding
children to see themselves as either good or bad. When a person's self-definition is characterized
by negative self-esteem, he or she has difficulty both in acknowledging positive feedback and
in giving it. Strong families cherish their members, show that they are valued, and build self-esteem
in their members that can be carried on to the next generation.
Try these things:
____ Set a goal of giving each family member at least one compliment per day.
____ Create a positive home environment by reframing negative statements into positive ones
(instead of saying, "You are always trying to control me," say "I like how you
are concerned about my well-being all the time").
____ Write down ten things you like about each member of your family - and then show them your
Sharing Positive Communication
One research study has shown that the average couple spends seventeen minutes per week in conversation.
In contrast, strong families spend a great deal of time talking with one another ranging from
trivial matters to important issues. Communication helps us to feel connected, and because members
of strong families feel free to exchange information and ideas, they become good problem solvers.
Some families set aside time for family council meetings and others do their talking over the
dinner table each night. Most communication in these families, however, is spontaneous. Positive
communication involves both talking and listening.
Try these things:
____ Designate a time for the family to share the events of the day (for example, at dinner).
Avoid disciplining and negative remarks during this time.
____ Look objectively at your communication patterns and determine which ones can be improved
(for example, using sarcasm, creating crises, cutting off someone else who is speaking). Work
on one communication habit for a month. Then, the next month, work on another.
Spending Time Together
Strong families spend a great deal of time together, and the time spent is not always in planned
events. Just spending time, doing nothing in particular, eases a feeling of isolation and loneliness,
builds relationships, contributes to a feeling of security and helps to create a sense of family
identity. Individual family members should find time when two people do can something together
without the entire family present. Spending time can involve eating meals together, doing household
chores together, celebrating special events and holidays, participating in community activities,
indoor recreation (playing games, telling stories, working on puzzles) and outdoor activities
(taking a walk, camping, picnicking).
Try these things:
____ Recall some of your happiest childhood experiences which involve spending time with your
family. Try to recreate these types of experiences with your current family.
____ Let the children help with household tasks, and do these chores together as a family.
____ Plan a yearly family reunion - and make it easy for everyone to attend.
Cultivating Your Spiritual Wellness
One characteristic of strong families is a shared belief in a greater power that guides ethical
behavior, concern for others and a unity with living things. These shared beliefs help to create
a bond between family members, as well as providing a framework for love, purpose, security,
hope and peace. The guidelines for living a good life, which are inherent in spiritual beliefs,
help family members define appropriate behavior within the family and toward others. Some families
pray, meditate or read spiritually oriented writings together, and this serves to cohere the
life of the family. Spiritual beliefs also connect families with like-minded people in the community,
and this serves to validate and strengthen the family.
Try these things:
____ Find a cause that is bigger than you or your family (world hunger, peace, reducing crime,
helping the homeless). Volunteer your time as a family on these issues within the community.
____ Take a look at your own values and views about the world and your relationship to higher
forces. Keep a journal of your thoughts and share them with your family.
____ Set aside family time for a form of devotion which is compatible with your beliefs. This
could include prayer, meditation, contemplation or a walk in nature.
Coping with Stress and Crisis
A crisis is a time of decision, the outcome of which may be positive or negative. Some families
fall apart when faced with a crisis like illness, death, or financial setbacks. All families
experience the challenge of a crisis at certain times. Strong families, however, have the ability
to pull together and draw on each other's strengths when they are faced with the stress of crisis.
They pool their resources, work together, get help from outside support systems, keep communication
open in the face of the strong emotions of a crisis, and draw on their shared spiritual beliefs.
When a family is strong, it is able to maintain the flexibility necessary to weather the crisis,
and family members expect a positive resolution in the end.
Try these things:
____ Include in family discussions at dinner hypothetical questions involving crises (like
what you would do in case of an earthquake or a hurricane, or if a parent became ill, or if
there were a national emergency such as war). Use discretion in talking about these topics with
young children, who may be frightened by these discussions - but they can learn that if their
parents can handle these situations, so can they.
____ Examine the level of stress experienced by family members and use stress reduction techniques
for managing it (like exercise, cultivating a hobby, talking about stressors).
Developing a Plan for Building a Strong Family
Some people believe that their families are too troubled to change. They feel that their families
bring out the worst in each other and that they are plagued with insurmountable problems. They
feel hopeless about changing their family life. However, many strong families have emerged from
this place of despair, often in the face of a family crisis, to achieve a quality of strength,
support and vitality that they never thought would be possible. People can learn from their
It may take the trained eye of a professional therapist to help a family move from this feeling
of failure to one of success. An outsider can often observe patterns that family members themselves
are not able to see. The support of a therapist can lead a family, one step at a time, through
the process of identifying problems, developing strategies for dealing with each problem, and
then following through. Even the most troubled families can grow with this type of support.
A family has everything to gain by deciding to work on building its strength. Home should be
a vital, secure, and enhancing place - where comfort and support reside.
One way to start the process of strengthening your family is to try the following steps: