Family Relationships That Work: Building Healthy Harmony

Family mixing cookie dough at home

Raising a healthy family can be overwhelming in today's world. You want your kids to have life experiences, and you also want to protect them from harm. Add to that any unexpected stressors and it can seem even more difficult to keep your family unit thriving and close-knit. Having healthy family relationships doesn't mean that there are no problems, but rather that family members can work together to overcome their issues. Learn what the dimensions of a healthy family are and what you can do to strengthen your family bond.

Dimensions of a Healthy Family

Research has shed light on the three general components that are needed to constitute a healthy family. Each of the components focuses on a different need a family has: functioning day-to-day, strong relationships, and the health of each family member.

Family Functioning

In order for basic needs to be met, there are different functions that have to occur. These include providing food, shelter and education for the children. Other instrumental needs include decision-making, managing finances, and maintaining discipline.

Interpersonal Relationships

The component of interpersonal relationships includes being there for each other and having positive interactions and strong bonds. A healthy family communicates about problems rather than sweeping them under the rug, and works on solutions and/or provides emotional support. In turn, through strong communication, the family is aware of each member's needs and provides support while also respecting boundaries.

Dad and kid under a colorful blanket

Healthy Lifestyle Behaviors

Healthy lifestyle behaviors include those that foster the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health of each family member. This includes healthy diet, exercise, healthy expression of emotion, and having a sense of purpose. Spiritual health does not have to mean strongly emphasizing religion. It can also mean having clear family values and being true to those values.

Strategies for a Healthy Family

With competing demands on your time, trying to have all three components for your family can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, there are specific things you can do to integrate these components into your family's routine.

Function as a Team

Spending some time to plan the instrumental can pay back dividends in productivity and create more time for fun. For example, you can:

  • Establish family roles - decide who will be responsible for laundry, cooking, managing finances and the like.
  • Focus not so much on equality, but equity. It may not make sense for you and your spouse to take turns cooking if one is a whiz at it; but you can still work as a team with the other, taking care of the dishes afterward. Or, the organized one can manage finances while home repairs are the other's purview.
  • Delegate age-appropriate responsibilities to your kids.
  • Establish family rules and consequences for breaking them.
  • Be on the same page with discipline and utilize authoritative parenting.
  • Allocate time to evaluate how well the structure is working and make necessary adjustments.
Multi-generation family holding hands

Foster Closeness

The world is going to bring you and your family all types of challenges, disappointments and grief. That is why it is important for your family to be a haven for each of you to take shelter from whatever storm you are experiencing. To bring your family closer together:

  • Eat dinner together without electronics, and reserve this time to talk about your day.
  • Establish a time or day each week for family fun that is prioritized. When parents are consistent with this, they model to their children the importance of honoring one's commitments.
  • Set up engaging and interactive fun activities such as board games, rather than passive activities such as watching TV.
  • Have fun together and laugh together often. This is also how your relationship with your spouse can remain strong and satisfying, in turn allowing you to be better parents.
  • Have open communication with each other. This means listening fully and without judgment, and not trying to plan how you are going to respond. It is okay to say, "Let me think more about what you said and get back to you."
  • Make honesty a family rule and establish consequences if that rule is broken.
  • Be loyal to each other while also providing critical feedback; speak up and tell someone if they are doing something immoral or unethical.
  • Handle conflict constructively.
    • Start with "I" messages instead of striking out at your family member. The formula is "I saw... and therefore I feel..." For example, "I saw that you borrowed my favorite sweater without asking and therefore I feel disrespected."
    • Fight fair - no name-calling and no generalizations like, "You always do this."
    • Stick to the issue at hand, don't bring up the past.
    • Focus on finding a solution together rather than blaming.
    • Own your mistakes and apologize.

Engage in Healthy Activities

Engaging in healthy behaviors doesn't have to be time-consuming. For instance, you can:

  • Eat healthily without spending hours in the kitchen. For example, oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter or turkey sandwiches for lunch, and a stew with healthy ingredients in the slow cooker for dinner. Low-fat cheese and trail mix make great snacks.
  • Incorporate physical activity into your family's fun time such as swimming, a hike, or a day at the park.
  • Volunteer in your community as a family once per month doing things such as working at a soup kitchen or organizing a fundraiser for a cause you all value.

  • Utilize self-care strategies for both you and your spouse. The better you care for yourself, the better you can care for your family.

  • Encourage expression of negative as well as positive emotions. This makes it easier for family members to cope in healthy ways with various stressors, from losing a basketball game to the loss of a loved one. It is okay for parents to cry in front of their children if it is due to grief, and doing so also models for the children that they are encouraged to express their emotions too.
  • Support a family member struggling with mental health by having an open dialogue about it and encouraging treatment.
  • Seek family therapy if you are struggling to communicate or understand each other. Life is not easy, and seeking help is common and healthy. The sooner that issues are addressed, the less likely they are to worsen.
Family with four children carrying canoe

Weather the Storm and Enjoy the Sail

Having a healthy family does not mean that things will always be storybook perfect. In fact, weathering storms as a team can bring you even closer together and further strengthen your ability to handle life's challenges.

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Family Relationships That Work: Building Healthy Harmony