Resilience could save your family’s life. No, really. Alright, it can’t actually save the physical bodies of the family members, but it can save your family’s emotional life by allowing you to survive the bad times as an intact unit– because surviving in the hard times is what resilience is all about.
To be resilient, your family needs to have certain habits, rituals and ways of thinking in place that will enable the members to stay physically together and emotionally connected despite stressors like interstate moves, physical illness and injury, job loss and death. Studies into resilient families have identified six common characteristics. These are the things you want to have in place in your family if you want to keep being a family right through the rough patches.
1. Demonstrate commitment to the family
This means making your family a priority in your life. You do this through your actions and through the way you allocate your time and money. Priority areas don’t just get lip service – they should get a fair amount of your leisure time and your disposable income. For example, if you plan to take the family out to dinner, and then your friend calls with free tickets to an awesome show, you need to politely decline and take the family out to dinner. This is how you demonstrate your commitment.
2. Show appreciation and affection for each other
Like in any long term relationship, it’s too easy to forget to tell family members when they’ve pleased you and instead come to expect it, only speaking up when things don’t go the way you want. Instead, name the things you do like about the people in your family. Tell them why you like them, often. And show them that you mean it by being affectionate. It doesn’t have to be a lot of affection; it doesn’t even have to be physical affection. I once worked for a boss whose family all signed off their phone calls with ‘love your guts’. It wouldn’t work for most families, but for hers it was a sign of affection.
3. Use positive communication patterns
Communication patterns are the way we speak to others generally, so aim for an overall positive vibe in the tone of your interactions with your family. A good example of this is to assume the best rather than the worst of family members. Daughter didn’t respond to your request? Assume she didn’t hear you, not that she was ignoring you. Son been hitting your daughter? Look for ways he’s in pain in his life (e.g. tired and hungry if young, rejected by friends if older) as an explanation first, rather than assuming he’s a ‘bad kid’. Positive communication also includes asking rather than telling, using please and thank-you, and all those other nice ways of speaking that we use at work but often let slip when we get home.
4. Spend enjoyable time together
This is like date night for families! Doing activities together as a family, on a regular basis. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree that the activity itself is awesome. Enjoyable time together can be washing up and talking about your day, or all laughing together at the same TV show. The activity isn’t the focus (although fun is fun and so it’s good if fun activities can be included), it’s being able to enjoy each other’s company. This is one of those ideas that’s self-reinforcing. Even if it doesn’t feel fun at first, if you keep it up, the shared understandings, in-jokes and memories that come from spending time together will emerge and you’ll discover that anything can be fun – if you’re doing it as a family.
5. Develop a sense of spiritual wellbeing and connection
But what if we’re not religious? Spiritual understandings are about believing in something bigger than yourself as an individual. Spiritual wellbeing can come from a dedication to truth, to fairness and equality, to your community, to humanity as a whole, or to nature, as well as more traditional spiritualties such as religions. Having a set of beliefs, and feeling connected to those beliefs because you act in accordance with them – that’s what spiritual wellbeing looks like. Feeling like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves is actually a cornerstone of mental health – isolation is one of the scariest things to us humans – so it makes sense that a strong family does not feel like a group of isolated individuals, either within the family of within the world itself.
6. Have the ability to successfully manage stress and crisis
The key word here is ability. While we all have good intentions to manage stress well, if you don’t have the right tools and skills, you won’t be successful. Ability in a family is partly each individual managing their own stress well through adequate rest, diet, exercise and mindset, and partly about family dynamics. As a family, the ability to handle stress means communicating through difficulties rather than becoming hostile or shutting down communication. It means understanding the other family member’s strengths and weaknesses, and making sure that you approach crisis as a team, where each person plays a role based on what they are good at doing, and the problem is then tackled together.
Do you think you have a resilient family? I’d love to hear from you in the comments about any special activities you do as a family that helps keep your family strong.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.