Family Therapy UK

What Makes a Family Work Well?


Family life throws up all sorts of problems.  What these problems are, and when they occur, varies from family to family depending on family composition and circumstances.  Families go through stages of development. All families start with children and parents, whether they live together or not.  Children get older, start school, become  teenagers, begin to spread their wings and generally leave home to make lives for themselves. In between, there may be illness, deaths, divorce and separation of parents.  There may be new arrivals into a family such as a new brother or sister, or a new parent.  Families move area, children bring home friends - some welcome, some not.  Having a family requires flexibility and an ability to face change. Family Therapists refer to this process of change as the 'Family Life Cycle.'

Sometimes change is difficult both for children and adults.  Sometimes families cannot deal with a difficulty or change and problems develop. At such times things may become stuck.

Don't expect perfection

Everyone wants a successful family.  Even if things are going wrong and family members have fallen out with each other, there is usually a wish to put things right and to repair the damage.  It is easy to imagine that other parents manage situations with each other and their children better.  This can lead to disillusionment and upset.  In reality, there is no such thing as a perfect family.  As parents, you can only be good enough.  Good enough is OK!  A valuable asset in any family is the capacity to see the humorous side of things when things go wrong.  Often, over time, even the worse disaster can be seen to hold some elements of humour. It is important to remember that over time, things often sort themselves out.

Parents being clear about their roles

There is no training to be a parent.  We do however, pick up a lot of information about parenting from our own parents and other adults when we are children.  Sometimes, we choose not to do as our parents did or we find ourselves copying behaviours our parents used. This is because at times of stress we tend to revert to earlier forms of behaviour.

Try as parents parents to discuss how you would like your family life to be. Discuss what rules you would like for both yourself and the children. Think about how you will manage the children and what forms of discipline you are most comfortable with. When you start a family you will hold different expectations of family life based on your own experiences.  If you are a single parent, it is worthwhile thinking about these issues too. Try to ensure that other closely involved adults, such as grandparents, are clear about how you want your children to be managed.

As a parent you are an important role model to your children, just as your parents were to you. As parents you present a model of parenting to your own children. They will learn these skills from you. If you handle your parenting well you will help them be better parents themselves. Be consistent in the way you manage and discipline them.  This means working together and supporting each other. If you have different ideas about discipline, discuss this, away from the children. Try to arrive at a style of parenting that you are both happy with.

Protect the children from adult business and responsibilities.  When parents divorce for instance, children become distressed if their parents criticise each other or involve children in their bad feelings. Children need to feel secure and safe. They need to know their parents can protect them and sort their difficulties out.  They won't feel this way if you are always arguing. Older children benefit from being taught the good management of money, to see healthy relationships, to develop responsibility without being burdened by worries or bad feelings they cannot do anything about.

How you interact with your children will influence how they act as adults towards their own partners and children.  You are your child's most important role model.  You have to create a family value system, it will not arrive out of thin air.

Parents being sensitive to developmental/psychological change

Part of being a good parent is to be sensitive to developmental changes (both physical and  psychological) in your children.  The way you interact with young children will be different from the way you interact with older children who need more responsibility and freedom to develop skills outside of the family.  This sounds obvious, but many difficulties in family life are due to difficulties in parents adjusting to their children growing up.

For instance, what time is the right bed-time for a six year old and for a ten year old?  When do you let your children sleep-over at another house for the first time?  How do you respond to your child coming home drunk?  When will you talk to your children about sex and contraception?   How do you decide how much pocket money to give a child?  How do you vary the discipline of children at different ages?  How do you deal with differences that you have as parents about such issues?  As parents you need to decide this together. Act as a team, as the leaders of your family.

Being clear with children about your concerns and rules will help them feel safer about themselves and to feel loved.  Having a rule or boundary around a behaviour or event, means that as a child develops in maturity, you can relax, change or tighten the rules in a way that helps them develop confidence and life skills in a safe way.  Of course, children challenge rules, but this is useful too. It gives you a clue that something needs changing or is going wrong.  In many ways, rules act as rites of passage in a child's life towards adulthood..

Providing opportunities for socialisation

Children need to socialise to develop relationship skills and general sociability.  This can begin from a very young age.  Pre-school nursery groups have been shown to help children cope better when starting school.  Belonging to social groups helps children develop confidence, develop interests and goals in life as well as developing their independence.  Having friends is very important to children.  Very shy children may need support and gentle encouragement to join in activities with other children.  Try to find an activity that interests your child and be prepared to help them settle in at first. Choose activities that interest your children - not activities or organisations that you personally feel are important and that you missed out on as a child. Your children may have different needs and interests from you.

Relatives are a useful way of helping children develop socially, particularly if you are a single parent family and want your child to experience different sexed role models.  Aunts, uncles and cousins can provide interests and be important role models.

Older children can benefit from sleeping over at their friends or relatives and many schools run residential courses for children.  As long as children are looked after by responsible adults, these experiences help children develop self-reliance, confidence and coping skills.

Many parents experience difficulty in separating from their children.  Children often pick up on these feelings and become anxious about separating as well.  By introducing your children to other people and activities in a progressive and sensitive way from an early age, you will help your child and yourself.  Some parents cope well with their children going to nursery, but find secondary school or university more worrying. How well you cope with such changes depends on your own experiences and present life-circumstances.

The importance of giving your family time

Families need time together.  Children need time with their parents.  Parents need time with each other.  Although modern life can be very demanding, it is important to make time for the important people in your life.  If you don't, you should not be surprised if your relationship suffers.

There should be time to talk.  Time to play.  Time to discuss rules.  Time to praise.  Time to just be together.  It is being together, experiencing life in a close loving environment that develops bonds, a sense of belonging, a social conscience, a sense of identity.  Children develop their sense of identity, their self-confidence, who they are, and their sense of social responsibility from the people around them.  If you are never around, your children will miss out, and so will you.

Responding to difficulties before they become problems

Responding to difficulties in children or your partner before they become too large, or out of control, is important if things are not to escalate or become stuck.  To respond to difficulties, you do have to be around!  You can pick up on problems by asking children how they are from time to time.  Look out for changes in behaviour such as a child becoming withdrawn or tearful.  Pay attention to what children are saying.  Let them know you hear their pain when they are unhappy, or their happiness when they achieve a goal.  Listening skills are very important.  Many problems in family life can be avoided if you encourage children to talk from an early age.  For children to want to talk they will need to feel listened to and appreciated for who they are. Children will not talk if they are often criticised or are afraid.  Try to create some time for yourselves as parents to talk about your own individual needs as well as your role as parents.  Where there is more than one child, do some separate things with each of them from time to time.  This will help them feel special, improve your relationship with them and provide a time to talk away from the other children.

Reading the signs of things going wrong

Look out for changes in behaviour.  A child may become moody or irritable.  They may stop going out with friends.  Reluctance to go to school may indicate bullying or that a child is not coping with their academic work.  Sometimes children won't or can't talk, particularly if they are feeling bad about themselves or are afraid to say things.  Think about how the special needs of one child may impact on another. For instance, if you have a child who is ill they may demand more of your attention than normal. Other siblings may become resentful. Think about how children react to news of death or illness in their parents or relatives.

Try not to take sides with a child against your partner or their other parent.  Sometimes, when a child is having difficulties, they direct their unhappy feelings against one parent. This is often directed towards the one they feel safest with.  Be supportive of your partner and sympathetic towards your child.  Try to help them talk to each other when things are calmer.

Sometimes children develop rituals or become a slightly obsessive when they are feeling stressed.  This is normal. Sometimes these behaviours can give you a clue about their worries.  For instance, a child who hides food away may be feeling unsafe or insecure.  A child who is being bullied may withdraw and become less sociable.

Remember that parents can become exhausted, upset and uncertain too.  Support your partner. If you are a single parent, get some help for yourself. If you are divorced, discuss any difficulties you have with their other parent.  People often underestimate the demands children place on parents. This can be magnified if a parent is unsupported or facing other difficulties such as debt, depression, loneliness, marital difficulties or illness etc.

Talking and listening

When a child refuses to talk or communicate, let them know you will be available when they feel like talking.  Don't force children to talk.  Give them time and space and they will often tell you what is bothering them.  With young children, it can be useful to ask if they are experiencing a feeling such as anger, fear or sadness.  This connects through to their fears and helps them feel understood even when they may not be able to verbalise their worries.  Very young children like to be hugged and touched when they are upset.  This makes them feel safe and protected.

With older children, you can try many of the same things, but if they are unwilling to talk, don't nag them. Sometimes it is better to let the other parent or another adult talk to them if you have fallen out with them.  Try to remember, particularly with teenagers, that your differences are not a battle or war against each other.  If it starts feeling like that, you need to back off and cool down.  Remember that in most instances, it is impossible for your child to actually get the better of you. Make sure your partner or their other parent is working to support you.  When the situation does become a  battle of wills and things get out of hand, and you may benefit from professional help. Family Therapists are experts in this area.

A good way to get children of all ages to open up, is to talk whist doing an activity. This should be something the child likes and feels comfortable doing.  Travelling in the car is often a good place to talk to teenagers.  Teenagers, indeed most children, find it hard to sit down in a formal way and talk about their feelings.

Don't hide your feelings from children.  Tell them if they have hurt you or you are worried about them.  Do this in a considered, calm and helpful way.  Make sure the feelings you express to them are not ones you should be directing elsewhere, to your partner for instance.  If you are feeling depressed or fear you may hurt the children, get some help from a relative, a friend or social services. Read my handout on Emergency Help if you are feeling desperate or suicidal.

If you are lucky, your child will come and talk to you.  If they do, let them know how much you respect them for doing this.

You can enlist the help of friends or relatives to find out what is troubling a child.  School teachers can be very useful sources of information. Always talk to teachers if you have concerns about how your child is coping at school.

When dealing with problems between you and your partner, get some space away from the children to talk. Remember you are not just parents, you are spouses too. Try to spend some separate time together and deal with issues of intimacy. If you are having marital difficulties you can contact a Family Therapist or organisations such as RELATE.

Successful families have good communication skills.  Communication requires talking and listening skills. Listening is often harder to do than talking.

Some other articles in this series may help:

Getting extra help

How To Deal With Difficult Behaviour in Children

Conduct Disorder in Children

Dealing with School Bullying


The National Family and Parenting Institute

Advice for parents

Dennis Neill

Family Therapist

Family Therapy UK

7th September 2009

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