What makes a family strong? Have you ever thought about that? It’s a great gospel question, because there are many answers in the gospel of Christ. Trust. Love. Forgiveness. Prayer. But it’s also a great research question, and there are some family scholars who over the years have made it a matter of study. So, today I’d like to put on my “scholar” cap and share a few thoughts from those who have made this a topic of study.
Have you ever had your strength tested? It might have been tested by struggling to lift a heavy amount of weight. Perhaps it was tested by how far you could run. Or maybe it was tested in learning how you coped emotionally with a disappointment. In fact, these types of challenges test different aspects of a person’s strength such as power, endurance, and resiliency. Just as it is possible to test a person’s strength in different circumstances, it is also possible to see how a family’s strength is tested in a variety of situations. Families may face challenges and transitions such as the move to a new location, a sudden drop in family income, or the loss of a family member. The tests of life require families to develop strength and resiliency.
Family connections are one of the critical building blocks upon which a family’s strength is established. Scientific research suggests there is much to understand about the importance of family connection, the characteristics of a strong family, and how family strengths can be developed.
Why Are Family Connections Important?
Family connections, the relationships that link us to one another as siblings, parents, children, spouses, or grandparents are at the heart of the family experience. Families come in a variety of forms, but all families consist of relationships among different persons who care for and are committed to each other. Whether you are a husband or wife, mother or father, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, brother or sister, taking care of the relationships that bind you to other family members is what often makes family life happy and meaningful. Certainly, these relationships can be challenging at times. Yet family life remains a vital and valued part of human experience across cultures and different groups.
Findings from a national survey in 1989 that investigated attitudes toward family, community and values in the United States showed that family is a central priority in the lives of most Americans. This survey of nearly 1,200 respondents found that eight out of 10 individuals identified “family” as their first or second greatest source of joy and happiness in life. This pattern of valuing family was true for people in a variety of family situations, including those who are married (9 out of 10), divorced (7.5 out of 10), and single (6 out of 10). Additionally, 77 percent of parents in this national survey stated that relationships with their children were “the main satisfaction in my life.” Also in this study, values related to family well-being ranked consistently as the most important values held in a person’s life such as providing emotional support to your family, respecting one’s parents, having a happy marriage and communicating your feelings to your family. So, although the family may be under attack, it also seems that most people are not giving up on family life. Even within a culture that promotes individualism and personal gain, there is still a strong interest in collective well-being among American families.
The importance of family connections also remains strong in cultures around the world. For example, research on global trends in human values conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research demonstrates the importance of family life and its preservation is consistent across sixty countries and has remained important for the last two decades. Family connections are fundamental.
The Value of Family Connections
Why are family connections so important? Family ties make it possible to fulfill a host of needs and serve as a critical source of personal and social stability in life. Think of the following ways in which family connections are vital to life:
- Family connections make it possible for us to meet important basic needs for human survival such as gathering food and eating, clothing ourselves, or learning to read.
- Family connections enable us to connect with a meaningful past history through our relatives and ancestors and also contribute toward future generations.
- Family connections provide a sense of identity, purpose and belonging as we link with others in sharing stories, care-giving, or working together.
- Family connections give us the opportunity to express our feelings and thoughts and receive personal happiness and fulfillment through love and communication.
- Family connections create a web of support and stability when we face situations of concern or crisis such as illness, job loss, poverty, disappointment or death.
Mary Pipher, psychologist and author, has called families “our oldest and most precious institution” and asserts that strong family ties allow us to benefit “from the shelter of each other.” It is within the defining connections of home and family ties that we may learn to be strong and to strengthen each other.
The Faces of Families Today
Family. Home. Mother. Father. These are words that are heavy with meaning. What do they mean to you? When we use the term “family,” what image comes to your mind? Families today exist in widely differing circumstances and varying backgrounds. An important step in consciously working to strengthen family ties is to consider carefully what family means to you now and what you would like it to mean in the future. The faces of families are never just the same. The family you may have known growing up could have been Latter-day Saint, Christian or Muslim. The family you have experienced may be Native American, Latino or Caucasian. The family you relate to may consist of married parents with young children, a divorced father with one child or a grandparent raising a teen grandchild. Yet each one of us has had a mother or father and has experienced life as a son, daughter or sibling. Whether our parents are living or dead; whether we are in a family as biological offspring or by adoption; whether we are married, widowed, divorced, or single – we are members of a family.
Reflect on your own family experience and on what you have learned about how to foster family connections that help family members to be nourished and strengthened.
What Are Characteristics of a Strong Family?
From helping kids with homework to patching up a disagreement with a spouse, family challenges engage each of us every day at home and make us think about how we can strengthen our relationships. Are there insights from current research and practical experience that can help us to effectively navigate the changing currents of family life? There may not be an answer for every family concern, but there are ideas that can help each of us to strengthen and enrich our own family connections.
What is it that develops strength within our family connections and helps a family to be resilient in the face of life’s challenges? Research on the characteristics of strong families began in the 1960’s and has expanded over time to focus on factors that aid families in coping with challenges and developing resiliency. Today the term family resiliency is often used to describe families with multiple strengths. Family resiliency has been defined as the “characteristics, dimensions, and properties of families which help families be resistant to disruption in the face of change and adaptive in the face of crisis situations.” This means several things. First, family resiliency describes the things which increase a family’s ability to maintain its stability in the middle of life’s challenges, such as expressing support to each other if a family member loses a job. Second, family resiliency refers to a family’s capacity to buoy itself up or to bounce back after a difficulty has impacted the family. Also, family resiliency emphasizes healthy patterns such as open and positive communication rather than dysfunction or pathology in family relationships. Research on resiliency and strengths in family relationships has shown that there are a number of factors that contribute to the development of healthy, resilient families.
More recent research on what helps families to adapt well and remain healthy has classified two categories of strengths. The first category is family protective factors, or simply those things that enable families to adapt and endure well when facing challenges. The second category is family recovery factors, or those things which assist families to recover when they have experienced crisis or challenge. It is important to acknowledge that some strengths are most helpful for specific challenges while some are more universal to a variety of challenges. Also, different families will develop different strengths that are most helpful to them as they move through life’s experiences together. But a comparison of findings from the research on strong families also suggests that some patterns tend to be consistent and important for families across a variety of circumstances.
Ten Critical Family Strengths
I have chosen to identify ten critical family strengths that have been identified repeatedly in research on what it is that makes families strong. They are listed below.
— Strong and resilient families express commitment to each other by making time with family members a clear priority and working actively to create satisfying family relationships. Families often struggle today to balance their relationships with competing demands such as work, outside activities or sources of entertainment. Commitment to family ties is demonstrated by choosing to commit time and energy to family activities and relationships ahead of other choices. Also, family members work to overcome conflict and make family interactions positive and rewarding. This results in family loyalty and unity in reaching goals or dealing with problems as a family.
— Strong and resilient families willingly and consciously spend family time together and enjoy working, playing or sharing in recreational activities with each other. In healthy families, family time is “prime time.” It means being with each other often in positive and pleasant ways. It means talking about the day’s activities, cleaning up the yard or apartment, playing outdoors or going on vacation together. Ask yourself whether family time, either as a couple or parents with children, is truly getting enough of your time each day. Family members should also consider the season in the family’s history and remember that time together often changes as children grow older or circumstances change.
— Strong and resilient families practice clear and caring communication with each other. Communication is the lifeblood of family relationships. Healthy family communication involves listening to each other, trying to understand, being respectful of feelings, and making a clear effort to talk and explore concerns. Family members strengthen their connections as they listen carefully and try to communicate in ways that are positive and effective.
— Strong and resilient families cultivate love and mutual respect by sharing compliments, giving expressions of appreciation and support to each other, and helping family members feel good about themselves. Family members develop trust with each other and enhance personal esteem by practicing love and consideration. Saying “thank you” or recognizing a family member’s accomplishment are the little things that make love grow in family life. This quality within family relationships provides hope despite life’s challenges and also offers an atmosphere of support in difficult times.
— Strong and resilient families develop shared religious, spiritual and moral values that give them common purpose and direction. Research on strong families has consistently found the importance of shared values or beliefs that give family members a sense of common identity and purpose. Such values can be a source of strength for family members when life becomes difficult. Families may share a strong religious orientation, adopt common spiritual practices, or discuss their moral values and ideals to achieve this strength.
— Strong and resilient families work to resolve problems or cope with challenges by pulling together and giving one another help and support in a positive way. A family’s ability to cope with life’s problems is an important element of its strength. Some challenges are simply stressful moments that occur each day such as completing family chores or cleaning up a spilled drink. Other challenges may be major stresses that occur infrequently such as loss of a job or death of a family member.
Whatever the source of stress, families that focus on positive ways to cope and make changes as needed tend to be more successful.
— Strong and resilient families build and maintain supportive relationships with extended family, friends or persons in the community through community involvement, service and mutual support. Healthy families typically have networks of support through ties to grandparents or other kin, good relationships with friends or participation in faith communities, schools or other community groups. These connections allow them to be supportive of others and also to seek support in times of need.
— Strong and resilient families demonstrate respect for individual differences and the privacy of family members. Individual members of a family will hold different opinions, have different personalities and desire personal time or privacy. Healthy families provide balance between individual and family needs and allow for individuality and personal growth. This may mean encouraging a family member to pursue a new hobby or allowing a child or spouse to express opinions that are distinctive or unique.
— Strong and resilient families develop and engage in family traditions and common routines that guide family life. Family traditions may range from birthday celebrations to weekly outings as a family. Family routines also include such elements of family living as family meals, bedtime routines or reading with children each night. These familiar traditions and routines structure family life and help family members develop a sense of security and belonging.
— Strong and resilient families are attentive to meeting basic needs of the family, such as financial stability, health of family members, maintenance of the home environment and managing these needs as well as possible. Families are often affected by outside forces that can challenge them in meeting basic family needs. Families become stronger as they work to maintain the health of family members and share responsibility for household chores or other tasks. They also tend to do better as they seek to meet basic financial needs and manage the family budget in a responsible manner. Meeting these basic needs enables family members to function well and to contribute to the overall well-being of the whole family.
You will notice that I didn’t do something specific in this article. I did not link each of these different family strengths to patterns that are taught in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why not? Because that is your HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT. Sit down at family home evening with this list of strengths and talk about them and what in the gospel helps to teach and reinforce these principles. Trust me. It will bring to you a more deep and profound appreciation for the marvelous foundation the Lord has provided to help families become strong.
Families have changed in many ways and continue to face changing conditions in society. Families are diverse in a variety of ways which range from their ethnic backgrounds to their economic conditions. Yet the characteristics that help families to become strong and resilient tend to be consistent across a variety of family circumstances. The family connections that you develop today become the family strengths that you may rely on tomorrow. Communication, traditions and love are the building blocks of healthy and lasting family connections. These critical strengths and the other strengths listed weave the fabric of a healthy family life. Consider your own family strengths and how you might further develop family connections that will bring your family security and the capacity to successfully adapt to life’s challenges.
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