This article was originally posted on LinkedIn a year ago when I was working in a community mental health setting. I feel like this is particularly relevant now during this global pandemic when so many children are home (schools closed for the rest of the year in many states), and parents are trying to juggle home-schooling, childcare, professional and home responsibilities. Being in a shared space with your family all day can create conflict. Here are a few tips that may help decrease conflict and increase family functionality.
Do functional families exist? Movies and television series often normalize dysfunctional family units – it’s understandable, as it’s often a reflection of our own life experiences (and to be honest, a little dysfunction is what makes life interesting.) Family dysfunction becomes an issue when relationships deteriorate, family members start to question their sense of belonging within their family unit, and individuals begin to experience challenges accomplishing daily tasks when carrying the weight of toxic family dynamics.
To be clear, when I say “functional,” I don’t mean “perfect.” We know that “perfect” is unrealistic and unattainable. What I mean by “functional” is the ability to experience a healthy flow within the family unit; barriers and obstructions are worked through so that healthy flow can continue. As I’ve worked with individuals and families, particularly children and parents, I’ve observed a few recurring themes that we end up referencing almost every counseling session. These themes can be summarized in what I call the “Three Cs” for improving family flow and functionality.
1. Care – Genuine care and concern, not the manipulative quid-pro-quo kind. Have you ever heard the phrase, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care?” Individuals, particularly children, need to feel that family rules and guidelines are created and practiced out of love, not control. Love and support shouldn’t be used as bargaining chips. For example, a child shouldn’t feel that his parents genuinely care about him only if he cleans his room every week. It becomes a balancing act between letting kids know that your love and genuine care are unconditional, and also letting them know that certain behaviors have natural consequences.
2. Communication – Clear communication and active listening. When a dysfunctional environment is the water we’re swimming in, we often need a neutral third party to help us become aware of what’s obstructing the flow within the family unit. We sometimes expect our family members to be mind-readers; when they don’t seem to understand our unspoken and unclear expectations, we may begin to feel anger and resentment. For example, a child can say “I’m thirsty” and expect her parents to get her a drink of water. When it doesn’t happen, the child may believe the parents don’t care, and subsequently, the parents may wonder why the child seems so irritated. It takes practice to teach and encourage someone to say, “I’m thirsty, can you please get me a glass of water since you’re closer to the kitchen?” It also takes self-awareness and courage to verbally acknowledge and hold ourselves accountable when we make a mistake.
3. Consistency – Kids thrive on routines. If detours need to be made, it falls back on that foundation of genuine care and clear communication. I’ve worked with several families where the parents are divorced and the child splits time between parental households. Oftentimes, the child experiences challenges switching between two environments that may be completely different. I encourage each parental party to practice at least 1-3 similar routines or traditions that the child can expect at each household. This can be one-on-one homework time or reading a book together before bed – routines or traditions that can be practiced consistently to make the transition between households feel less abrupt. Additionally, if families have household rules, it’s important to practice them consistently – to clearly communicate their purpose, and to let family members know that these rules were created out of genuine care.
One caveat that I need to make is that these components for family functionality should not be viewed as a remedy for abusive behavior and households. If particular family members are hurting and manipulating others by wielding power and control, I ask that each family member work through their issues individually before attempting therapy as a family unit.
I also need to acknowledge that these “three Cs” were created through an individualistic lens. The concept of seeking counseling and therapy itself is individualistic. In many collectivistic cultures, some of these components may be unheard of or impractical – for example, younger family members may not be able to speak directly to their elders. The universality of the “three Cs” is something I’m continuing to explore, and as a mental health counselor raised in both individualistic and collectivistic cultures, it’s something that can be challenging to reconcile with specific cultural lifestyles and traditions. My ultimate goal is to promote emotional and psychological well-being and functionality for individuals, families and communities.