Is Your Family Functional and Healthy?
8 Characteristics and a Road Map Back to Health!
In our last podcast and blog entry at DoctorZest.com, we discussed the differences between a functional (healthy) and a dysfunctional (unhealthy) family. I had found no studies that were specific enough to be of much help. After many years of research, teaching, and writing, and a LOT of observation, I have derived the following eight characteristics that differentiate between healthy and unhealthy family environments. Here, I want to focus, particularly since it is the holiday season as I am writing this, and recording a podcast of same, on the functional or healthy family characteristics over the negative, more dramatic abusive and neglectful, or unhealthy or dysfunctional family. So, here we go.
Oh, what good is this? Well, it’s a roadmap. If you are in a family, and it isn’t going well, then here are some areas you can specifically address. And, I would suggest you make a list of things you, together, can change so that your home environment is one of encouragement…urging each person, no matter what their age, to live lives of significance.
The 8 Characteristics of a Healthy Family
Refusal to Abuse
Functional families are not a bunch of goofy Pollyannas. They know what one another’s weaknesses and fears are, but they refuse to take advantage of these vulnerabilities. They love one another too much to inflict deliberate harm. They also may be smart enough to realize that the payoff is not worth the activity; that is, it is a bad investment of behavior. I tease you about the shape of your nose, then you cry and we spend all kinds of time reassuring you that you are okay, apologizing, and trying to set things right—so why waste energy doing it in the first place when so much energy will be wasted cleaning up after it?
Dysfunctional families look for opportunities to abuse. They may actually think it is fun in some instances, or their right in others, to hurt someone small and defenseless. They often misinterpret the Bible itself to justify doing so, such as quoting, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Interestingly, hitting children for their own good actually is not what that statement means. In the Aramaic translation, the translation written most closely to the time of Christ, the rod was the shepherd’s crook, and symbolically represented giving love and protection, rather than using it to inflict pain. People who hit children are either cowards (they know they can get away with it because kids are smaller than they are) or ignorant (because there is no research at all that says it is good for children to be hit, but there is plenty that shows the damage that can be done) or they are so full of anger they cannot help themselves and therefore need therapy, or any and all combinations of these three.
In his book, People of the Lie, Dr. M. Scott Peck (1983), pitches a case for a new classification in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for a category of evil. He is not talking about a religious issue. Peck is making a case for righteous and deliberate abuse to be seen officially as a mental malady titled evil so that it can be recognized and treated. In light of this category of functional familyism, Peck’s argument makes perfect sense. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about this as a category than, say, nervous tics or obsessive hand washing, which do have special classifications? I am not belittling the need for treatment of nervous tics or compulsive rituals, but I am stating that people deliberately and righteously inflicting harm on others in and of itself certainly should be enough justification for a category.
Human energy is measured in time. Being alive means being in motion, that is, doing something, and we measure that state of doing by time. What did you do today? Well, I spent 20 minutes folding clothes, 1 hour going to the grocery, 8 hours sleeping, 42 minutes eating, and so on. That is how we measure our energy. Raising healthy children and tending a family effectively takes a lot of time—rather large chunks of time—dedicated to maintenance, affection, fun, health, safety, and more.
If I walked up to you on the street and said, “Say, could you give me about 40 hours a week of your time?” you would say, “What? Are you crazy? I am way too busy. I can’t find 3 hours a week to get in my 30-minute walking program. How am I supposed to give you 40 hours! You’re nuts!”
But people have children without ever considering this major contingency. And you must find the time, because you are going to be spending at least 40 hours a week to raise that child up to adulthood—if you are to do a quality job. Somewhere in there you have to not just count clothes-washing and meal-fixing, but you have to build in quality time.
What is quality time? The answer depends on the ages of the individuals and cultural norms in a family, but what it does mean in terms of common characteristics is dedicated time, aware and involved connection with one another, healthy interaction, closeness and warmth. You can see why sitting and watching television in the same room would rarely fit the definition. Just eating at the same table might not qualify. Driving somewhere in the same car might not count. The point is that quality time is meaningful and nurturing to everyone involved. This takes thought and sometimes skillful planning. How many parents do that? Not enough.
Necessities Are Provided
Abraham Maslow, among others, has done a good job of telling us straight out that we need food, water, warmth, and air. When children are severely deprived of these items, it makes headlines because it is so alarming. Children going unfed for days or being kept in suffocating closets, cages, or basements is shocking to many of us in the United States. That people might have to go without fresh water or live in the cold for months or years in our country is unthinkable.
The more functional a family is, the more they don’t just “put food on the table.” They are also knowledgeable about healthy and appropriate nutrition, healthy water, and clean air and are invested in upgrading these necessities when possible.
Health Needs Are Met
Children are properly immunized, allergies are tested and checked, strong and healthy teeth and bones are invested in, safety needs are seen to, checkups are done regularly, and sex education is properly conducted.
The more functional a family is, the better they do these things. This is another reason why poverty is violence. When families are deprived economically, they often cannot afford the costs, transportation, or other resources in people or time that it takes to get these necessary needs met in a complete and appropriate fashion. Lots of cash, on the other hand, does not mean that functionality will be automatic. Some well-to-do families can be just as neglectful as a family that lives with economic deprivation. Statistically, the odds are better that when a family is economically well off, the health needs of the children will be met.
Why is this important? First, if your body is in a suffering state, Maslow (1971) tells us that it is very difficult to pay attention to higher needs, such as achievement and creativity and being all that we can be (self-actualization). One’s attention first and foremost, naturally goes to the toothache, the skin rash, the hunger in the stomach, or a less than desirable appearance, again and again. You cannot muster the concentration long enough for developing oneself to make it pay off—and development takes persistence. It is hard to persist at anything other than seeking relief when one is unhealthy.
It sends a not-so-subtle message of love to children when they see parents going to the extra lengths it takes to make sure they are healthy. Children may not send thank-you notes to parents for getting them braces or making sure the vitamin bottle is always full, but subconsciously, it is noticed and catalogued and, over time, sends a clear signal of care and support. One that says: “You are more than worthy of my sacrifices for you.” For children, this builds an underlying confidence and sense of trust in the world.
When children who are well cared for grow up, they take care of their children the same way, establishing a healthy legacy of behaviors that are passed on. Healthy legacies in families are what build a strong country over time.
Problems Are Opportunities
Pertinent to this area of functionality, I witnessed two significant incidences within a week of each other that make the point perfectly. A movie director could not have staged them any better. Maybe these things happen because of coincidence, or perhaps I just notice them because I am a professor of learning psychology and a former psychotherapist.
The observational opportunity involved sitting in two different restaurants just a few days apart, but observing two similar situations that were handled very differently. Both involved a mom (there, but not part of the story), a dad, and a small daughter of about 4 years of age. I was eating alone nearby—typically, with a fork in one hand and a journal in the other—but in perfect proximity to view all aspects of these parallel situations. Both little girls accidentally knocked over their cups; one had juice in a small glass, the other milk.
When the first little tyke spilled her juice, the father went ballistic. “Now look what you have done!” He frantically grabbed a napkin, his tense body language similar to a military general moving alarmingly to stop the accidentally pushed red button from beginning a nuclear war. His face scowled at the little girl, and he huffed and puffed like the whole evening had just been ruined and it was her fault for not having finer muscle control. The look on her face was one of shame—sucked back in, with her lip quivering and her eyes going blank, as she had obviously learned to do many times before.
In the second situation, when the little girl spilled her small red plastic cup of milk, the father calmly looked over as the little girl began to get upset and began to reassure her, “That’s okay, honey. These things happen.” He smiled and picked up two paper napkins and gave her one. “Let’s clean it up together,” and again, “It’s okay, sweetheart, it’s just a little accident. We will get you another milk.” Every kid should have such a dad.
The child in the second incident was actually the only one upset, and the father showed his stripes by making it a learning incident in several ways. One lesson, the obvious, is that accidents happen. It is what you do after the accident that counts. Second, the dad showed what a functional parent does in times of stress: comforts and reassures. Most important, he demonstrated that a delightful little girl’s self-esteem was more important than the cost and mess of a spilled glass of milk or juice. Each time a parent physically or psychologically clobbers their kid over something, it sends an obvious message to them that they are worth less than that.
What you live with you learn, what you learn you practice, what you practice you become.
There are enough rough bumps in the road of life without a parent making more, and topping it off with a clear message: “If you can’t count on me when you spill your juice, you can know that I will fumble the big ones that are sure to come your way. You are on your own, kid.”
Maybe I am reading more into one or both situations than there was—and maybe less. But, regardless, the point is made that life is problems—just one damn problem after another. Whether it is taking time to refill the ice-cube tray when in a rush or leaving it for the next time (or person); whether to steer left or right when a deer runs in front of your car; whether to go to Yale or Harvard; whether an egg should be boiled quickly or slowly when making egg salad; and so on ad infinitum. Functional families help their children prepare for problems. They use problems as opportunities to teach various problem-solving techniques, decision making, handling emotions, prioritizing, and more, to build a child’s confidence in their ability to handle life.
It’s Okay to Make Mistakes
Dysfunctional families often lack the ability to effectively solve problems, so naturally, they dread their arrival because the family is just going to get weaker (more tired, more broke, more depressed) each time they pop up. And woe unto the family member who creates the problem by making a mistake. Mistakes are spotlighted and shamed in a misguided attempt to ward off the problem or prevent it from happening again. This is not unlike trying to kill a fly on the wall with a sledgehammer. It might work, but the damage caused is bigger than any benefit that might be reaped. Because there are always going to be mistakes where there are humans, a family where mistakes are not okay is a toxic environment because everyone is constantly trying to blame others for anything that goes wrong. Who wants to be hit with a sledgehammer?
If problems strengthen a functional family, then mistakes are critical to the growth of that family. Mistakes are seen as challenges, like a puzzle to be solved. Mistakes are seen as warning signals that we must take action to keep our family safe and healthy, so mistakes help stave off further danger and can easily have a positive spin to them. As a former certified diver who did some salvage work in the Gulf of Mexico, I was grateful for all the mistakes we made in training that gave our instructor an opportunity to remind us that you do not ascend faster than your bubbles or that you always carry a knife or that you never, ever dive alone. Our instructor was in the lifesaving business first and foremost. So are functional families.
Rides Easy in the Saddle
A dysfunctional family walks on thin ice. A functional family breaks the ice on purpose—sometimes just because. They can be spontaneous without fear. Functional families laugh. They smile. They can bear down seriously when needed, but can just get plain silly, too, because they know that one should not take oneself too seriously all the time in this life, because life is to be enjoyed. Life is not a crucifix. Life is not a jail sentence but, rather, a canvas to paint on, so why not paint it with fun and jubilation rather than with grayness and antagonism?
Dysfunctional families are so fear-based that they are constantly angry and/or depressed and/or tense, waiting for “the other shoe to drop.” They cannot relax. They might buy relaxation tapes, but they get frantic when they can’t find them.
Obviously, if a family does not have good problem-solving skills and if the next mistake just might be the proverbial straw that breaks the family’s back, how can they be expected to hold the reins loosely? They either become hypervigilant, or out of exhaustion, they escape into something—anything—for relief, whether that might be excessive alcohol or drugs, television, tobacco, daydreaming, sex, shopping, gambling, eating, working, and so on. Anything to become unconscious.
Lot of information here, I get it. If you are applying this to your family in hopes of making things better, just take one characteristic at a time – read it over and use it to measure your family. Don’t beat yourself (or your family) up for not being perfect. Calmly have a discussion with your family members and explain that there are choices that can be made for the good of the family, as well as for each person in it.
A family should be a nurturing, nourishing, safe place, where people are affirmed for what they are. Which does not mean you cannot spot areas that need improvement and plan a way to rectify them. But you always start with affirmation. Like learning to play the piano…you don’t criticize someone for not being able to play the piano, right? But you can still affirm them. Then take lessons…and get better.
Healthy families are so powerful, but so are unhealthy ones. As much time as they take up in our lives (and in our heads and hearts) you would think we would spend more time deliberately making sure we have a good one, and if we do not, building one. People reinvent themselves, so why can a family not reinvent itself?*
It is worth the trouble…
*My two sisters and I, after our parents passed away, made a conscious effort to “remodel” our family. Almost every year, the three of us get together at a vacation spot for 3 or 4 days and just enjoy one another. We fix meals together, laugh a LOT, and run around doing touristy things. We value every minute of it. It is what our growing up family should have been, and the hardest part is knowing that it could have been.
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