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  • Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS

6 Characteristics of Healthy Families

  • While each family is different, there are some common elements that can contribute to a healthy family environment.

  • Respecting opinions and personal needs, as well as showing respect, are all part of healthy family systems.

  • In isolation, one or more of these characteristics not being a part of your family is not in itself dysfunctional.

Whenever I conduct trainings or start working with clients who are beginning their journey in recovery from family trauma, I like to go over some basic characteristics of healthy families. If we do not know what is healthy, it's difficult to identify what was unhealthy. These may sound easy to identify, but in truth, many of us are unaware of what makes a family healthy—or normal. Words like “healthy” or “unhealthy” have become so commonplace, but few of us could describe the characteristics required to use these words in relation to families. Thus, I focus on these six to give a foundational understanding to build from.

Here are six common characteristics of healthy families or social systems:

1. Respecting healthy emotional and physical boundaries. Children and other family members have privacy, and all members understand and respect that. In healthy families, parents do most of the emotional work with their children by modeling empathy, self-control, and appropriate behaviors in response to emotions or stress. The role of children is to learn.

2. Seeing each family member as an individual with an opinion. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion and all family members should respect and allow those opinions to be expressed as long as they are respectful, even if adults make the final decision. In families where there is little room for differing opinions, it is common for children to grow up into adults who do not know who they are. When you are always taught how and what to think, it is normal to not know how to do this for yourself.

3. Setting consistent, fair, and age-appropriate rules and expectations. All families have rules and it would be normal to find homes with different sets, but rules that are inconsistent or not age-appropriate create an environment of confusion and chaos. Children are still growing and learning, so a caregiver’s expectations of them should not be the same as their expectations of themselves or other adults.

4. Meeting each person’s needs appropriately. All members are concerned with the health and well-being of others, but in an age-appropriate way. Parents provide emotional care for the children; not the other way around. As best as they can, other members also seek to meet their other family members' needs.

5. All members of the family feel safe and secure. Children in healthy families feel safe learning, growing, and making mistakes. They have a healthy understanding of mistakes and understand that they will not challenge or threaten their security or safety. Love is unconditional.

6. Expecting mistakes and forgiving them in a healthy way. The family members understand that we are all humans learning and growing. Conflict is handled in an appropriate and safe way, with adults modeling appropriate ways to manage disagreements and disputes. These families explore mistakes to understand and improve, instead of shaming people for them. Children understand that they will be punished for unacceptable behavior, but that they will also be forgiven for making mistakes, instead of having them held against them for years after. Take a moment to think about your family history and if you remember any of the above characteristics. Often, people who experienced family-of-origin trauma will not have these experiences. This list can just give you an idea—if none of them took place in your home, that might be a sign that things were at least somewhat unhealthy.

In isolation, one or more of the above characteristics not being a part of your family of origin is not in itself dysfunctional. For example, different households might have different ideas about whether and how the children can express their opinions based on individual family dynamics, like culture, generation, and other factors. All of the above items do not have to exist together, either, for a family to be healthy.


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