Family Vital Signs: Seven characteristics of healthy families

by Joseph D. White, Ph.D.

When we visit the doctor, the first portion of the appointment is usually spent checking vital signs — physical symptoms such as temperature, blood pressure and heart rate — that are quick indicators of health and physical functioning. Over the past several years, researchers have identified several characteristics of healthy families that we might call family vital signs — indicators of good relationships and strong family functioning. If your family is doing well, paying close attention to the following variables can help keep it strong. Or, if you’re struggling right now, these seven areas might be good first points of intervention to help you get back on track.

1. The family meal. Eat meals together, around a table and with the television turned off. In a 2005 study, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that children and teens who regularly eat with their families have lower levels of tension and stress at home, are happier and have better peer relationships, get better grades in school, are more likely to confide in their parents, have healthier eating habits, have a lower risk of suicide and have a much lower risk of substance abuse.

2. Family prayer. Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Families, wrote, “Prayer increases the strength and spiritual unity of the family, helping the family to partake of God’s own ‘strength.’” A 1991 study by sociologist Father Andrew Greeley found that only 1 percent of married couples who pray together regularly and report a high quality sexual relationship think that divorce is even possible for them. It really is true that “the family that prays together stays together.”

3. Clear parent-child roles. While we want to have friendly relationships with our children, remember that sometimes we can’t be a buddy and a parent at the same time. Children need firm, consistent limits that are developmentally appropriate. And mom and dad must also be consistent with one another. If one of you plays the “heavy” and the other comes to the rescue, your child will be confused and will have less respect for both parents.

4. Family rituals. Families that have their own traditions and patterns, not only on special occasions, but also around the rhythms of everyday family life, tend to be strong and healthy. A family ritual may be as simple as a nightly bedtime story before going to sleep or a particular night of the week that is reserved for “family game night” or other together time.

5. Good communication. Keep one another informed through frequent conversations, notes (perhaps on a marker board on the refrigerator) and a family calendar. With today’s busy schedules, car time is a great time to reconnect. Talk with your children using open-ended questions, such as, “Tell me about your day at school.” Use fun conversation starters such as, “If you could have any three wishes right now, what would you wish for?”

6. A clean, well-organized home. The way in which we order our external environments can often reflect the order — or chaos — of our lives. When clutter gets out of control, things can feel more stressful. Take time out to throw out what you don’t need and organize what you keep. If the task seems too daunting, break it up into smaller pieces, perhaps one room at a time, and enlist the help of all family members.

7. A strong marriage relationship. One of the best gifts you can give your child is two parents who are in a close, loving relationship with one another. Take time to be together and nurture your marriage, even if it means being away from the kids sometimes.

Every family has periods of struggle and times of smooth sailing. Paying attention to family vital signs can help guide you out of the rough spots and make the home a place of renewal and joy.

This article comes to you from Take Out (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.

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