COLUMN: Develop a healthy family

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By John Lapp

In my many years of family practice in the field of mental health, I have heard routine testimonies of some conditions in the homes in which my clients were raised. It didn’t matter if the family background was in wealthy or very poor families, just because one family has all or most of life’s goods, and the other seems to have lived from paycheck to paycheck, what I heard was that their particular family history was one of unhealthiness.
So maybe it’s time to address some suggestions, some help about how to assure that you are doing the best that you can to develop the conditions for a healthy family. One of the prime factors is when a child has grown up in a family where there is a regular presence of a happy atmosphere, and that usually should be seen in the relationship between the parents.
That doesn’t mean that we should all parade around the house with a plastic facial smile, which may hide some deep-seeded unhappy feelings. However, some people who could, and should, smile more look like they had a snack of sour rather than sweet pickles.
When we talk of how healthy or unhealthy families are, it does not relate to the issue of whether your family members are free from sickness. What I’m referring to is when the family seems to be enjoying life with one another, even though sometimes disagreeing or even occasionally being contentious. It is allowing for each member of the family to develop who, and what, God intends for them to be. No matter how hard you try there will be times of irritation and aggravation, but don’t let those times be the usual, the norm in your home.
In the emotionally healthy family, one of the main ingredients is that both the parents and the children learn to develop respect for one another. In many homes I have worked with, one of the things I have to spend almost too much time on is the development of showing a healthy respect for one another, although each member is different from any other member. Even those families where twins or triplets have been born, the regular report is something like: “they may have come out of the same womb with the same parents, but none of them is like any other.” One of the things I have heard too often from children is “my mom/dad doesn’t listen to me.”
(Of course that same statement has more often been said by the parent(s) about the children.)
Some of that can be corrected when the family is involved in therapy for a few or more sessions. Recently one of my adolescent clients happily said, “Mom and I are talking better with each other now.” As it turned out, both mom and daughter had made some changes, especially in the area of interrupting each other, often out of lack of patience or respect for one another.
Another suggestion is to let the children, of course within healthy boundaries, make some of their own decisions. If they are never allowed to make any decisions, even small ones, what may happen is that they finally become adults, never learning to make decisions or rationalizing the benefits or consequences with which they would have to live.
An example from my own basically healthy family background is when my mom insisted that I eat something that I loathed — namely liver. I know that many of you like liver, and that’s good for you and also for the sake of those who package liver in the meat department of your local grocery store. I don’t know how you enjoy liver, and I probably never will. No matter how it was fixed, and mom was a good cook, it always tasted like liver. My older brother hated sweet peas, and mom would put one pea on his plate and expect him to eat it. Something I still don’t know is why he hated peas because I always loved them and still do. He always loved liver, no wonder he was “strange.” Being we were sometimes contentious, he would stare at me across the table to make sure I ate that one piece of this awful tasting stuff called liver, and I of course being able to do a “payback” would stare at his plate to make sure he didn’t put the pea in his pocket or dispose of it without eating it.
Later, when I asked mom why she expected me to eat that one piece of liver, her reply was “because it’s good for you.” Well yes, it probably has some nourishing qualities, but so do other, tastier foods. Mom and I had a great relationship growing up and into my adult years. I never held this against her, but she later admitted that the liver/peas issue was, in fact, a waste of time.
Another major factor in the development of a healthy family is the encouragement between family members to accept and appreciate others’ talents and abilities. For example, not all of the males in the family may desire to play football, or even have an interest in the game as do dad and some of his brothers. Maybe he has a strong interest in learning to play a musical instrument, or develop creative things like art. He needs not to be shunned or be seen as an “oddball,” although that can readily happen in a sports-minded family.
Maybe a female has an interest in something that may not be considered feminine in nature.
We have an extended family member who showed interest in photography more than anyone else in the family. Because that was encouraged, the pursuit has now landed him as the videographer for a major professional football team, a respected position in a growing profession. He also did wedding photography.
In a healthy family, parents should do all they can to encourage the natural abilities seen in each child. And the children need also to respect the talents seen in the parents.
This article was not designed to be a complete and comprehensive presentation that assures that with these things in place your family will be healthy, but it’s a good start.