[Positive Parenting]:::Features of a healthy family

No. 68 Friday, March 19, 2010
Based on the extensive research of Minuchin a Salvadorian family therapist in healthy families there is a clear separation between adults and children. Whether the family has one or two parents and regardless of the number of assorted relatives living under one roof, the adults and children are kept apart by an invisible boundary. This boundary according to Minuchin is "likened to a one way valve. It allows the adults to meet the needs of children, but it prevents the children from meeting the needs of the adults. Although love and affection flow freely in both directions, the children are not allowed to become part of the adult support system".

    Minuchin identifies three different subgroups within each family; The "spousal unit which refers to the husband and wife team, or mother/step mother and father/step father team; The parental unit which would include all the caretakers of the children usually found in extended family units or in nuclear family units with hired help and finally; The "Sibling unit," which refers to the children.
    When the three family sub groups are healthy the entire family benefits. In healthy families adults have a strong support system, whether from a partner or from friends. This support provides the adults with the energy and emotional stability required to be good parents. Good parents in turn tend to have well-adjusted children who progress along a normal path of development. These children tend to relate to each other in a more or less positive manner, which means that the parents spend less time intervening in squabbles and have more time to spend with each other. The time spend together reinforces the marriage relationship. /this in turn makes them better parents. Minuchin describes this as "an upward spiral that creates a sense of harmony and well-being in adults and children alike."
    When the family subgroups break down and becomes un­healthy every member is adversely affected. When the adults in the family do not have adequate emotional support, they often turn to their children for the satisfaction of their needs. The children in turn suffer in three significant ways: [1] They are deprived of good adult role models, [2] They feel obligated to meet the needs of their parents and; [3] They have to suppress many of their own needs. These children as a result experience greater difficulty relating to their siblings. Some of the anger they feel towards their parent is often transferred to their sib­lings, minor conflicts are turned into protracted struggles.

                            SPOUSAL UNIT
   1. RESPECT AND SUPPORT: In a healthy family unit the adult partners respect and support each other. The partners are "best friends." They are genuinely interested in each other and show this interest on a daily basis. They can depend on each other when the going gets tough, and they consider each other as a buffer against the outside world. They greet each other warmly after a hard day's work and can say "I need some sympathy," or, "I need a backrub." They freely share their dreams, their successes and their frustrations. The spousal unit in an unhealthy family unit on the other hand may be plagued with a lack of respect and intimacy between the adult partners. The energy which should be staying within the relationship is diverted to other family members or outside activities or addictive behaviours. In some case there is open hostility between the adults.
   2. NURTURE AND TOLERANCE: In a healthy family system the adult partners take care of each other. They offer encouragement, support and affirmation. They make each other feel loved and respected. They give each other special privileges and surprises. Hugs and kisses, and nonsexual touching are common forms of nurturing. If one partner is sick or disabled, the other partner gladly lends a helping hand. They understand that living together requires tolerance and compromise. This gives them the ability to overlook benign personality quirks and to respect each other's individuality. Mistakes are viewed as a part of life and apologies are freely given and received. They also understand and are not threatened by each other's need for individual time and space.
    In stark contrast is the enmeshed family in which children and not the adult are the main source of affirmation and affection for adults. Hugs, kissing and touching are reserved for children, not adults. The adult partners expend little effort to make each other feel safe, loved and appreciated. There is little tolerance for differences, mistakes and alternate views. Partners "keep score" and grudges are harboured for years. 
   3. SHARING OF SIGNIFICANT INTERESTS AND FUN TIMES: While they do some things together the adults in healthy families share many interests. They add variety to their lives by going on "dates," taking vacations without the children, and cultivate shared activities. The children have first hand view of a marriage that looks interesting and fulfilling. Nurturing the marriage relationship is seen as an essential part of positive parenting. In the unbalanced family, the partners share few activities. Their interests centre around work, the children, or activities outside the family. Little effort is made to develop joint projects or to spend time apart from the children. As a result the children grow up thinking that marriage is no fun and following the example of their parents, may fail to put energy in their love relationships.
   ADULTS ARE FINANCIAL AND PRIMARY SOCIAL PARTNERS: In healthy families, the adult partners have a mutually agreeable system foe paying bills, making purchases, investing money, and planning for future financial needs. They consult with each other frequently so each is well informed. They have common property. They value each other's contribution to the household, whether work is inside or outside the home. When money problems arise they work together to find solutions.
    Committed couples attend social functions together, whether it be family reunions, weddings, business affairs, church or school activities. Appearing together build common experience and makes a public statement of union and permanence. In unhealthy families, partners may make excuses and may take turns to attend functions. When they are together the children are usually also present. These maneuvers may be an attempt to avoid intimacy with the partner.
   ADULT PARTNERS RESOLVE CONFLICTS AND WORK OUT PROBLEMS: In healthy families, the adult partners work together as a team to find solutions to problems. They brainstorm, form strategies, and set goals. This mutual problem-solving develops a sense of shared accomplishment. If partners have problems within their relationship, they respect­fully express their feelings of anger, hurt, fear, or resentment. Each person listens with full attention to the other. They apologize when necessary and give comfort and reassurance as the need arise. In dysfunctional family units however, problems are either denied or blown out of proportion. Partners blame each other and may resort to verbal or physical abuse. Children are frequently used as scapegoats.
    Take a close look at your family to see how well you are functioning. You may not have a perfect or healthy unit at the moment but use these points to help to make the change. We will continue to look at the other sub groups: the parental unit and the sibling unit in our next article.

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