by Adam Clark, Secondary School Counselor/PSHE/TOK
Eighteen or so years ago when my partner Asako and I made the decision to have children, we envisioned our growing family as an extension of the relationship we had begun as a couple. My own father, who worked in the constant critical spotlight of municipal government, summed up the vision well by referring to home as his “wound licking place”. In other words, home is where family members can safely build and rebuild for the world outside. In this article you’ll find five conditions for high functioning families to help make our homes the most positive and rewarding places for our children to grow and, not insignificantly, for parents. They are presented, in the order that I see them as relevant to and emanating from the couple who function as central. In other words, when these conditions are evident in the central relationships within the family they radiate outward from there. In single parent families or in multi-generational families, identify which relationships are central to family functioning and build from those.
- Members consider family as among, if not the top-most, of their priorities - Awareness of this objective permeates interactions and decisions. This can look like prioritizing time together over other competing time demands. Things like meals together or family vacations consistently occur.
- Unconditional positive regard - a fundamental non-judgmental stance toward other members. This is enacted in a myriad of smaller patterns where respectful interactions of affirmation and support are expected of all family members. At the same time, this one benefits from clear boundaries and appropriate discipline particularly when children are younger for things like talking back, hitting other people in the family, insults etc.
- People express their “truth” - accurate empathetic understanding of one another’s perspectives that are communicated back. Some of the most respectful, but arguably most difficult, things we can offer other people are our honest thoughts and feelings. At the same time, these statements must be about building understanding as opposed to placing blame. This is also sometimes expressed as “relational” thinking, in comparison to “transactional” thinking.
- Family members are available and responsive to one another - From this condition family members feel acknowledged and supported. On perhaps a counter-intuitive level, this condition helps develop independence as a secure base that allows broader exploration to occur.
- A palpable sense of play and enjoyment - It’s a bit hard to argue against the benefits of having fun together for developing positive relationships. At the same time fun also serves as the counterpoint to disciplinary actions. If a fun family atmosphere is the norm, when someone gets in trouble they want nothing more than to put it right again so everyone can go back to having a good time.
Like all organic systems, higher levels of family functioning can’t be flipped on like a switch. Perhaps more like fertilizer, water and sunlight in a garden, with heightened attention given to these core conditions, families can become more positive toward, open with, and attuned to one another.
* While these conditions have been reinforced by my own experiences as a parent and work in mental health, they are based in principles of attachment theory (1,4), person centered therapy (2), and the full-value group norms that underpin experiential learning (3,5).