Families are the center point of all human relationships.
Having a happy family can be life-changing, especially for children who rely on parents and caretakers to help them develop emotional intelligence.
It’s through families that people discover what it means to love, be loved, and relate to other human beings. These lessons directly impact how they interact with people outside of the home.
While every family is bound to run into challenges now and again, some struggle significantly to have happy, stress-free relationships.
Though it can be difficult to work through differences, using these skills and techniques can help you improve your family’s relationships and heal from the inside out.
What does a healthy family look like?
No two families are exactly the same, but healthy families have many qualities in common.
People who grow up in dysfunctional families are not likely to know these traits by default, which puts them at risk of entering more dysfunctional relationships in adulthood.
Have you ever noticed that problems in families tend to repeat through generations?
The same is true for healthy families. By engaging through love and patience, they pass on these qualities to their children.
In a healthy family:
- Everyone has their own role and identity.
- Respect is shared by everyone, from parents to children.
- Parents have authority, but they do not abuse it or use it to control or manipulate their children.
- People openly express appreciation, affection, and gratitude for one another.
- People are comfortable sharing all of their feelings, including negative ones.
- Anger and frustration are not dangerous emotions, and they do not lead to emotional or physical abuse.
- Family members perform different chores, contribute to the household, and support each other.
- People are openly communicative and willing to talk through problems and challenges.
For people who do not have healthy families, these behaviors may seem strange and even uncomfortable at first.
Showing affection may not have been common, so even if children felt loved by their parents, they are not comfortable with physical affection as an adult. This can make them seem withdrawn or cold to those whose families were more physically engaging.
At the center of every healthy family are love and respect. People still get angry, disagree, and even argue. But they do not use insults, put-downs, or abuse to make themselves “right.”
There are no winners or losers in a healthy family. Everyone is part of a committed team that wants to make the household a happy, safe space.
Signs of a dysfunctional family
Sometimes, it isn’t always obvious that a family is unhealthy.
Outside of more overt signs of abuse, families can be dysfunctional in subtle ways, too.
Dysfunctional families may be all closely linked, and expressing your own identity could be something punishable. You may be chastised for voicing your own opinion or having values that aren’t shared by the whole family.
In psychotherapy, there is a term for families with limited emotional boundaries. It’s called enmeshment.
Enmeshed families have needy relationships, and parents are often reliant on their children for emotional support and validation.
Guilt and shame are commonly used in dysfunctional families to maintain the desired standards.
For example, if a child in a religious household disagrees with a certain value or teaching, the parents may accuse them of being sinful and guilting them as a form of coercion.
Because they want to be accepted and loved like any person, the child will take back their own opinion and adopt the family’s view instead.
In other dysfunctional families, parents may not even have the intention of harming their children. However, their lack of emotional boundaries can be damaging in other ways.
For example, a parent who treats their child as a friend or confidant cannot effectively discipline. This can cause their child to lack the guidance and structure necessary to grow and explore in a safe and healthy way.
Dysfunctional families can be:
- Unpredictable due to parental behavior.
- Enforce strict moral codes or standards.
- Be driven by perfectionism.
- Frequently include criticism and insults.
- Be heavily possessive or controlling.
- Discourage self-expression and independence.
Being a dysfunctional parent is not the same as being an abusive one, though abusive parents are always dysfunctional.
It’s important to establish this distinction to help you help yourself or a loved one.
Recognizing unhealthy patterns in yourself or your family members takes courage, and it’s the first step toward getting the right help.
How to improve family relationships
Get help for personal issues
Problems often arise in families when people expect others to take accountability for their own problems.
A parent with substance addiction, for example, might make their partner or even children responsible for their behavior.
If you suffer from depression, then your behavior likely affects your entire household. You may get mad at them for having their own emotional limits, which only leads to more conflict.
Everyone in the house has to have age-appropriate responsibility. For adults, this means admitting when your mental health is not at its best and seeking the right treatment. Improving your own mental health can help you improve your relationships, too. By developing deeper self-awareness, self-respect, and the ability to regulate your emotions, you bring a healthier, more loving version of yourself into all your relationships.
Address unhelpful beliefs and values
Beliefs and values are similar, but they have an important difference.
Beliefs are ideas about how things ought to be. They can be religious or non-religious, but they impact how families expect their members to live and engage with each other.
Values, on the other hand, are shared ideas and qualities that families strive to uphold. For example, a family may believe that “communication is everything,” so they value open communication and honesty.
Some families also hold harmful prejudices against minorities or other groups of people that are dysfunctional for personal development.
You do not have to hold your family’s beliefs or share their views. Being different does not mean you cannot get along.
What’s important is setting the groundwork for healthy communication before trying to correct or compromise on beliefs, values, and ideas. This will help each person communicate openly and avoid getting too emotional and resorting to conflict.
Learn healthy communication skills
This must be a team effort, but it has to start with every person learning how to communicate in a healthy way.
Good communication is built on a foundation of respect. You know that even if you disagree with someone, you will not insult them or belittle them.
You can respect your family member’s opinion without agreeing with it.
Learning how to comfortably agree to disagree is part of building a healthy family.
Good communication skills might feel foreign, and you will likely fall back on old habits more than once. This is a learning process, so practice patience with yourself and your loved ones.
Therapy is a good place for individuals and families to learn healthy communication. They can also learn how to identify communication styles, avoid conflict, and work through disagreements that often lead to tension and stress.
Stay out of personal drama
It is not helpful for anyone to gossip about others behind their backs.
If your family tends to talk about other people when they are not around, feel free to leave the conversation.
Drama like this leads to a sense of hurt, betrayal, and loss of trust. Without trust, it is hard for families to stay loyal and express their true feelings toward one another.
Let your family know that you want to speak to them and hear their thoughts, but you will not talk about other people if they are not around.
Learn how to set and enforce healthy boundaries
Boundaries are not harsh, punitive, or selfish. They help everyone feel safe, loved, and heard in the family.
Emotional boundaries may include not yelling, not tolerating name-calling, and not allowing someone to put you down.
Parents should avoid arguing and debating decisions in front of their children. While they can model healthy disagreements about small issues, larger topics, like money troubles or relationship problems, should be discussed in private.
Setting boundaries takes work, and you may alter yours a bit as you figure out what works best for you and your family.
If you are not sure where to even begin, consider reaching out to a therapist. They can help you learn more about how boundaries work in families, examples of healthy boundaries, and practice enforcing them when they are broken.
How to help yourself or a loved one
If substance abuse or mental health issues are causing stress in your family, help is available. We specialize in offering personalized, evidence-based treatments for a wide range of psychological disorders and addictions.
Situated in a peaceful, lakefront mansion in Florida, our expert team helps individuals improve every aspect of their lives. To learn more about our programs for yourself or someone you love, please contact us today.