What makes families stronger?

I am spending this week in Hawaii, working with colleagues on a project that helps families to stay strong after tremendous ordeals, such as living through a natural disaster like a hurricane or having a family member go to war.

When considering families, I have been most influenced by the work of two people. One of these is Dr. Mary Pipher, the American Clinical Psychologist who is most famous for her book Reviving Ophelia. The other is Annette Lareau, an American sociologist whose studies on class, race and family life are summarized in the book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.

Dr. Pipher wrote a book The Shelter of Each Other, specifically about families. One chapter in that book lists six ways that families can be protected. In my clinical work, I have often helped families use these strategies to stay strong in the face of great stress in a family or conflict between family members.  Here is how I use Pipher’s strategies in family therapy:

  1. Families must have time together:  Anybody in today’s overcommitted world knows that this is not easy. There are many families that I see in family therapy whose only time together is the time they spend in sessions. We often start by having them add time for a meal together after the session.
  2. Families must have special places: Helping families identify their special places can be fun because these places are usually associated with their best times. All family members enjoy speaking about the places they can go back to enjoy each other’s company and reconnect. You can think of where these places might be: a vacation home or special camp grounds. We try to get families to find a way to make their homes a safe place. Discussing this after talking about your good times together can be very productive and rewarding.
  3. Common interests strengthen families: These can include a child’s sports or pets; pets are often the best neutral family members. A problem I find is that people today often associate interests with spending money. One great interest that can cost very little is the natural world. Even in the largest cities there are quite wild places where common interests in nature can be nurtured for almost no cost.
  4. Families must learn to celebrate: Special occasions such as birthdays, graduations should be marked with special ceremonies. Photos and videos make these last. My favourite videos are often those taken by the youngest family members whose colour commentary brings others together. A camera for a young person is a great,if occasionally embarrassing, investment in family life.
  5. Families must have connecting rituals: A connecting ritual is a special activity with a family member. For example, my daughter is a theologian and going to church services with her is a connecting ritual for any of her family members and for her. Many people have connecting rituals around sports, like Super Bowl Parties.
  6. Families must have stories and metaphors: The words “Remember when…” are very healing. Family metaphors can be activities that they all enjoy together like camping or playing certain games. When my mother passed away this fall, many people remembered playing cards with her. They also remembered that the rules of card games could be quite flexible at times. As for stories, we all have stories that others tell about us that we love/hate.

Annette Lareau’s work, as described in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life, examines how children grow up in different classes in America by intense observation of families in different socioeconomic groups. What is fascinating about Lareau’s work for a family therapist is the similarity of the lives of children in a particular socioeconomic group.

Lareau’s work has helped me to consider two types of families in Canada in particular: the families of single mothers and the families of children who are living outside of their family in the care of the province. Both of these types of family have very particular problems that we would all address in very different ways. While financial poverty is often a concern in these families, spiritual poverty can be even more difficult to overcome. These families often need help being something more than a few people, some of whom happen to be children, living under the same roof. In my experience, these families need to have their stories recovered. A child hearing his mother tell him why he has his name for the first time can be very powerfully affected.

This week, I am hearing about the pain in families where someone goes to war. In the United States, whenever the public sees a woman or a man in a military uniform, they say, “Thank you”. I find it moving. Those who join a ranch of the armed forces in any country, in my experience, do this for love of country and a willingness to die for their country. This is admirable, whatever one may think about war. The men and women who do this and their families need to build stronger supports for themselves at times than other families. In the day to day operation of a household, larger concerns, such as that someone could die or be permanently injured, need to be lived with. There’s a difficult task and one that requires extra efforts. If there is anyone reading this who is in a military family, I admire you. You are also making a sacrifice for your country.

I want all families to be stronger and so I offer these suggestions above. As the Irish proverb goes: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”

 

 

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