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The other day I was responding to someone who was dreading the holidays with her ‘dysfunctional family’ (her words). It got me thinking about that word, dysfunctional, and how it implies that there is an opposite, functional, family somewhere. What does that look like? Is it a Perfect Family? Some Stepford-like pod of people who never fight, are always neat and smiling? Yeesh! That sounds horrible. In fact it sounds downright dysfunctional!

So what is a functional family? How do we know if we have one? How would you define a functional family?

I don’t have all the answers. Family dynamics and treatment are complex and a whole field of study of psychology all by itself. These impressions come as much from my experience as from education and training. No family is perfect, even the functioning ones. My family of origin was what I’d call dysfunctionally functional. From them I learned as much what not to do in creating my own family as the opposite, what to emulate as I rear my kids and forge my marriage. In my work with couples and counseling parents I’ve also seen what works and what doesn’t.

So here’s my personal brain dump of qualities that make up a family that functions. It’s unscientific, but it’s as good a place to start the discussion as any:

R-E-S-P-E-C-T  Respect is the Holy Grail of functional families. All people in the family, brothers to sisters, mothers to fathers, parents to kids must be respectful as consistently as possible. Being considerate of each other is the tie that binds, even more than love. I think too much emphasis is put on love in general. I’ve heard of many atrocities done within families in the name of love but never in the name of respect. Just about all the things on the list come out of respect first.

An Emotionally Safe Environment. All members of the family can state their opinions, thoughts, wants, dreams, desires and feelings without fear of being slammed, shamed, belittled or dismissed.

A Resilient Foundation. When relationships between and amongst people in a family are healthy they can withstand stress, even trauma, and, if not bounce back, at least recover. Resilience starts with encouraging sound health, eating and sleeping well, and physical activity.

Allow privacy. Privacy of space, of body and of thought. Knock and ask permission to enter before going through a closed door. All family members are sensitive regarding personal space and aren’t insulted if someone needs a wide berth.

Accountable. Being accountable is not the same as planting a homing device on your kid or abusing the cell phone to track her whereabouts 24/7. That’s not much better than stalking. No, being accountable is (again with the respect thing) respectfully and reasonably informing people in the family where you are and what you are doing so they can grow trust and not worry.

Apologize. It’s sad when people hold out for an apology on a point of pride, never acknowledging their part in a dispute. How many times have you heard of rifts in families that last for years because someone feels they are ‘owed an apology’?

A functional family has conflict. It’s very cool when we can have an argument and get to the other side of it still friendly and satisfied with the outcome. But let’s face it, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we say things that we regret. If we can feel and show remorse for our part, quickly apologize, ask for and receive forgiveness, no harm is done. You may even become closer for it.

Allow reasonable expression of emotions. When I was growing up I wasn’t allowed to be angry at my parents. I was determined to not do that to my kids. It hasn’t been easy. The main thing for me was to teach them to state their anger in a managed manner and to teach myself not to fly off the handle when they did. I had to learn that their telling me they weren’t happy with something I did or said could be done with respect. And, very importantly, vice versa.

Gentle on teasing and sarcasm. Teasing can be OK as long as the teased is in on the joke. Same with sarcasm. A functional family won’t use either as a poorly masked put down.

Allow people to change and grow.  It used to be people in the family were labeled the smart one or the pretty one, the funny one or the shy one. While that’s not done so overtly any more, labeling is still something to watch. A functional family lets people define themselves. It also lets the kids become independent when it’s appropriate and come back to the safety of the family when they need nurturing.

The adults in the family need to be allowed to grow as well. A mother may want to get a graduate degree, or a father may decide to retire early and start something new. These changes merit discussion on how they will effect everyone in the family, adjustment, perhaps negotiation, but again, if done with respect every one can be satisfied.

Parents work as a co-parenting team. I strongly believe that a functional family is one where the adults are at the center of the family, in charge and pulling together in the same direction. Divorced parents, or married, kids need the assurance that a firm hand (not too tight and not too loose) is at the tiller, even if they may not thank you for it.

Use courtesy at home first. An ounce of a well-placed ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘I’m sorry’ is worth a pound of explanations, defensive arguments and misunderstandings.

Teach siblings to work together. Brothers and sisters have a unique relationship and it’s a dead shame when it is not nourished. Functional parents encourage siblings to play, work and problem solve together, enhancing inter-sib communication. Instead of interfering with all their arguments, they are rewarded when they find a solution by themselves.

Allow for individual differences. A functional family knows that they are not clones of each other and actually thrive in this knowledge.

Have clear boundaries. We aren’t each other’s friends. A parent is a parent no matter how friendly they may be. Our children are not extensions of ourselves, they are individuals. Do not ‘friend’ them on Facebook unless you talk about it first and they say it’s OK and they mean it.

Have each others’ back. Part of resilience – being supportive to each other no matter what, will allow your kid to call you when he thinks he’s in trouble, like needing a ride home from a party that’s gotten too wild.

Get each other’s sense of humor. Functional families laugh a lot. They have ‘inside’ jokes and favorite stories, anecdotes of memories shared that delight and re-enforces a healthy bond.

Eat meals together. So hard to do in today’s society but research does show that communication within a family is enhanced if we take more meals together, even if it’s in front of the TV.

The Golden Rule. Of course, we can’t forget the ol’ “treat each other as we wish to be treated in turn.” It was true way back when and it’s still true now.

Please tell me what you would add, change or delete on your own list of what makes a family functional!

Photo courtesy of Somerset via Flickr