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Promoting Family Strengths

Kelly A. Cole
Extension Associate
Janet A. Clark
Associate Program Leader and Associate State Specialist
Sara Gable
Human Development Extension State Specialist

Why are family strengths so important?

In our society, families take on many different structures. Although they may be formed in different ways, most families accomplish similar tasks, such as childbearing, providing for members' basic needs, providing emotional support, socializing members, establishing family traditions and delegating responsibility. By accomplishing these tasks, families influence the way individuals and society function. Few other social institutions have such a great impact on society. This profound influence makes evident the importance of strengthening families.

Family diversity

American families are characterized by great diversity. The traditional family has undergone numerous changes in recent decades. Many of today's scholars refer to the current trend as the postmodern family. Factors that have led to this change include divorce, remarriage, adolescent childbearing and changing social values. Following are descriptions of common family types.

  • Married nuclear families
    Husband, wife and children
  • Joint-custody families
    Divorced parents sharing child custody
  • Cohabiting families
    Unmarried men and women, and children, if any
  • Single-parent families
    Children raised by one parent as a result of divorce, death, desertion or never marrying
  • Voluntary child-free families
    Couples who choose not to have children
  • Involuntary child-free families
    Couples who are unable to have children
  • Blended and stepfamilies
    Husband, wife and children from previous marriage(s)
  • Families headed by gay men or lesbians
    May or may not include children
  • Grandparent-led families
    Children raised by grandparents because of adult child's death, parent incarceration, financial problems or other factors

Family resilience

According to the National Network for Family Resiliency (1995), resilience is the ability of an individual, or in this case a family, to use its strengths in order to positively meet life's challenges. It involves the family's ability to return to previous levels of functioning following a challenge or crisis.

Throughout the 21st century, individuals and families will be characterized by increased diversity, which could be experienced as stressful. Because of this, individual and family resilience may become increasingly important.

Resilience is exercised when family members demonstrate such behaviors as confidence, hard work, cooperation and forgiveness. These behaviors contribute to the effectiveness of Family Protective Factors - factors that help families withstand stressors throughout the family life cycle. For example, shared experiences such as family time, yearly vacations, holiday celebrations and other traditions can help strengthen the bonds among family members.

When a family is confronted with a crisis, Family Recovery Factors become critical. These are factors that help promote a family's ability to bounce back following a period of difficult family functioning. Events in which recovery factors may be especially beneficial include coping with a serious illness, an untimely death, the loss of a primary job or a natural disaster. Aids to recovery include the availability of family and community support, participation in recreational activities, optimism about the situation and shared family experiences.

Characteristics of strong families

  • Adaptability
    Strong families are able to cope with everyday and unanticipated stressors.
  • Appreciation
    Because they care about other family members, individuals frequently do positive things for one another.
  • Clear roles
    Family members are aware of their roles and responsibilities and are able to remain flexible.
  • Commitment to family
    Family members are committed to the family as a system, and members recognize each individual's worth and importance to the family.
  • Communication
    Family members are open and honest with one another, and they are willing to listen to other members' views;
  • conflicts are managed and resolved when they arise.
  • Community and family ties
    Strong families are connected to the community and they are involved in community organizations.
  • Encouragement of individuals
    Individual development is encouraged both inside and outside of the family system.
  • Shared time
    Both quality and quantity time are shared.

Strategies for strengthening families

  • Spend quality time alone with each child at least once a week.
  • Respond to children with patience and respect their feelings and abilities.
  • Encourage family members by asking them to share their accomplishments.
  • Visit and find ways to help at your child's school.
  • Eat a meal together as a family at least once a day and involve family members in mealtime tasks.
  • Hold family meetings that give all family members an opportunity to talk openly.
  • Develop a family mission statement that includes your family's purpose, goals and objectives.
  • Develop and maintain family traditions and rituals.

Building and maintaining healthy family relationships

In recent decades, a number of changes have contributed to a reshaping of American families. Examples include high rates of adolescent and unmarried childbearing, a high divorce rate, single-parent households, stepfamilies and dual-earner families. Families need to be prepared to cope with these and other stressors and demands that may be placed upon them. Regardless of family type, there are times when all families need to be nurtured. Nurturing families in times of need can provide family members with a greater opportunity for building and maintaining healthy relationships.

A number of recommendations have been offered that can help families build and maintain healthy relationships. Selected recommendations follow.

Encourage open communication

  • Communicate not only through words, but also through actions.
  • Be aware of body language and tone of voice.
  • Show that you understand what the other person is saying.
  • Maintain good relationships with extended family members to increase sources of support and resources.

Maintain and strengthen relationships in the family

  • Parent-child
    Set and enforce family rules; be a patient parent; praise your children's efforts and accomplishments.
  • Marital
    Share housework and child care responsibilities; agree on family priorities and goals; value and nurture the relationship.
  • Siblings
    Develop sibling rituals and traditions; acknowledge one another as individuals; provide encouragement.

Manage crises and conflict

  • Avoid taking things personally, which may help you avoid unnecessary conflict.
  • When conflict does arise, resolve the problem before moving on.
  • Direct attention to solving the problem rather than determining who is to blame.
  • Understand what the conflict is about and model appropriate problem-solving strategies.
  • Avoid holding grudges.
  • Accept responsibility for your mistakes.
  • Negotiations, compromises or apologies may be necessary before reconciliation is complete.

Conclusions

Families have evolved in a number of ways over time, and these patterns of change can only be expected to become more common in the future. These transformations may be challenging for families, but the strategies outlined here can help minimize the stress these families experience. It is important to remember that all families have some strengths, although these strengths may be more evident in some families than in others. Individual family members play a significant role in determining how well a family functions. Although each member's actions are important, strengthening family relationships requires the commitment and cooperation of all family members. By working together, family members can build and maintain close relationships during periods of normal family functioning as well as during times of stress.

Resources

  • Acock, A. C., and D. H. Demo. 1994. Family diversity and well-being. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications.
  • Kansas Sate University Cooperative Extension. 1995. Families of all kinds: A guide for leaders. MF-2024.
  • Lingren, H. G. 1995. Creating sustainable families. G95-1269. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension.
  • McCubbin, H. I., M. A. McCubbin, A. I. Thompson, S. Y. Han, and C. T. Allen. 1997. Families under stress: What makes them resilient. Adapted from the 1997 American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences Commemorative Lecture.
  • National Network for Family Resiliency. 1995. Family resiliency: Building strengths to meet life's challenges. Iowa State MU Extension.
  • Schwebel, A. I., M. A. Fine. 1994. Understanding and helping families: A cognitive-behavioral approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Many thanks to Brenda Procter and Lucy Schrader for reviewing this guide.

GH6640, reviewed April 2001


GH6640 Promoting Family Strengths | University of Missouri Extension