Healthy family relationships help all members of a family feel safe and connected to one another. While all families go through good and difficult times, a family with healthy relationships is still able to interact with one another in a safe and respectful way. Positive interactions between family members outnumber difficult ones.
Healthy family relationships - what are they?
In healthy family relationships, people are able to trust and rely on each other for support, love, affection and warmth. Families often share common goals and try to work together to reach those goals. For example, children may help their parents and carers to get the dinner dishes done so that everyone can relax or everyone in the family may do their own bit to help save some money to go on a family holiday. Some things we may see in families building positive relationships include:
- each person in the family is valued and respected
- two-way communication exists
- each family member makes an effort to understand and trust the other’s point of view
- family members check in with each other, especially when making important decisions
- adults share responsibility, where possible, for caring roles.
One study (Geggie, J., DeFrain, J., Hitchcock, S., & Silberberg, S. (2000). Family strengths research project. Newcastle, NSW: Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle) asked different types of Australian families to suggest what they considered to be the qualities that made their families strong even when facing difficulties. Eight characteristics were identified:
Family strengths as identified by Australian families
- Communication: Listening to each other and communicating with openness and honesty.
- Togetherness: Sharing similar values and beliefs that create a sense of belonging and bonding.
- Sharing activities: Spending time together doing things they enjoy (e.g., sports, reading, camping or playing games).
- Affection: Showing affection and care regularly through words, hugs, kisses and thoughtfulness.
- Support: Offering and asking for support, with family members knowing they will receive help, encouragement and reassurance from one another.
- Acceptance: Understanding, respecting and appreciating each family member’s unique qualities.
- Commitment: Seeing family wellbeing as a first priority and acting accordingly with commitment and loyalty.
- Resilience: Being able to tolerate difficulties and adapt to changing situations in positive ways.
Families also identified that the biggest challenges for family relationships were communication breakdown, parenting issues and difficult relationship patterns. To build stronger family relationships, it helps to first recognise family strengths before working on challenges.
Children benefit from healthy family relationships
Children thrive on feelings of belonging and affection that come from having caring and supportive families. The quality of family relationships is more important for children’s wellbeing than the size or composition of the family. Whether families with children have one parent or two, whether they include step-parents, grandparents or other carers, they can build strong, positive relationships that promote family wellbeing and support children’s mental health.
When children receive love and support in a warm family environment, they are better able to take on the childhood tasks of exploring their world and learning new skills. They also learn from the family environment how to connect to other people and build healthy relationships. This helps them experience more positive peer relationships and teaches them how to interact with adults. Children who learn the skills of building healthy relationships are more likely to grow up to become confident and resilient individuals.
Families come in different shapes, sizes and numbers
Families can have different expectations of their children’s behaviour and the roles of parents and carers. This leads to differences in family relationships and communication styles. Many beliefs about what helps create strong family relationships are influenced by the values and experiences that parents and carers were exposed to in their own families while growing up.
Cultural background also influences the values and goals adults have for children’s development. There are also differences within cultures, meaning that no two families will have the same values, even if they come from the same community. For example, it is common in western industrialised societies like Australia for parents and carers to value children’s independence, such as personal responsibility for interactions, whereas parents and carers from non-western cultural backgrounds frequently give more emphasis to joint family responsibilities and togetherness. In some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, for example, family members may be jointly responsible for caring for children and the elderly, as well as sharing food, clothing and housing and acting as a support network for each other.
Differences in the make-up of families with children may also lead to diverse relationship and support needs. Some examples include:
1. Two-parent families
Family relationships are first influenced by the main couple relationship; this partnership has a major impact on interactions among all family members. While parents and carers may sometimes find it a challenge to meet children’s needs as well as their own and their partner’s needs, it is still important to set aside some time to attend to the couple relationship.
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