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How To Build A Strong Family

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As we breeze into fall and find the holidays on the horizon, now would be a good time to talk about what makes a healthy family, and look at how we can leverage holiday rituals and traditions to bring that healthy family closer together.

What is a “family”?

Family includes people we love, and those who love us — parents, children, grandparents, and siblings.  “Family” can also include close bonds with friends and neighbors.  No matter who you consider “family,” it all boils down to those we feel connected to through a shared history and experience.

Why is a strong family important?

Our family teaches us how to function in the world.  Children learn manners and appropriate socialization skills from their family.  They learn how to communicate, how to cooperate, and how to problem-solve.  They learn empathy and trust, find meaning in shared values, and take on responsibility.  At its best, family members provide unconditional love and support to each other.

What are the characteristics of a healthy family with strong bonds?

Researchers from the University of Nebraska conducted a study on the characteristics of strong families, and they recognize six major qualities that all contribute to family happiness and strength:

Commitment: They make their relationships a high priority.  Put the welfare of other family members before yourself.  If everyone chooses a path of selflessness, the family as a whole benefits.  When you hold yourself responsible for valuing another person’s feelings and needs over your own, that empathy grows to become the foundation for a strong family bond.

Appreciation:  They let other family know, daily, they are appreciated.  Use appreciative language and gestures with each other.  Greet everyone warmly as they walk in the door.  Ask them about their day.  Thank whoever cooked dinner.  Go out of your way to be kind.

Communication:  They talk to each other about issues both big and small.  Keep your communication positive, listen to all opinions, and don’t forget to lighten the mood with laughter when tensions are running high.

Time Together:  They are deliberate about planning activities.  It’s the small daily family rituals that are often the most meaningful.  Eat dinner together.  Watch a movie on Friday nights.  Walk the dog together.

Spiritual wellness:  They believe in a greater power and have shared beliefs.  Model acceptance and tolerance.  Share your views about your beliefs, and why they are important to you, but also be open to learning more about the beliefs and values that your loved ones hold dear.

Crisis and stress:  They are able to cope with difficulties and crises because they are resilient together.  Everyone processes stress differently.  Give everyone room to vent and work through their stress in their own way.  Just be available to provide support as needed.

How do we develop and cultivate the traits of healthy families?

Here are seven simple keys to growing healthy families:

The power of modeling.  What kids see you do as they grow up is what you’ll likely see them do when they’ve grown up.

Giving the gift of time.  Set aside special time for individual family members.  Take an interest in their passions, and introduce them to your hobbies.  Be curious and open to new ideas.

The power of nourishing love.  Cherishing and nourishing your family are two very different things.  Cherishing means to value and care about it.  But do you express it?  Nourishing is the action that expresses that love, and reinvigorates the relationship.

Cultivating an encouraging environment.  An encouraging environment is one in which you spend more time building and encouraging your loved ones than you do scolding and correcting them.

The gift of healthy anger.  When a person understands anger and learns how to express it in healthy ways, it can be an ally and actually lead to increased trust, greater intimacy, and stronger relationships.  While we may have minimal control over when we experience anger, we have total control over how we choose to express that anger.

Nurturing quality communication.  Good communication doesn’t just happen.  Healthy families set aside a regular time for focused communication, where individuals really listen to what others are sharing, and show sensitivity to each other’s feelings.  Quality communication also recognizes the importance of nonverbal aspects of communication — hugs, laughter, tears, etc.

Conflict — a pathway to intimacy.  Most of us haven’t learned the value of conflict, and interpret it as an attack.  When we avoid healthy conflict, we avoid growth.  Instead, make your primary goal of conflict to understand the other person.  Take a few minutes to acknowledge, discuss, and define the conflict, and then LISTEN.  Ask yourself “What is MY contribution to this problem?”  And finally, commit yourself to understand what the issue looks like through the other person’s eyes.  It is through this journey of empathy that you will be able to resolve conflict.

How do rituals bring a family closer?

It is important to actively find ways to bring your family emotionally closer.  In his book, “The Intentional Family,” family therapist William Doherty focuses on the idea that the way we enact our family relationships through rituals is just as important as how family members speak to each other.

So what exactly is a ritual?  Doherty defines a family ritual as an activity that has meaning, has coordinated activities that are significant to the family, and is repeated.  Not all family rituals necessarily involve the whole family.  Some rituals involve just two members (ie: a grandparent/grandchild playing a game together), some involve the larger extended family, others include close friends of the family, and still others connect the family with a larger community such as a church or synagogue.  Family rituals give us:

Predictability:  A ritual brings a sense of order to family life, and that brings calm to the environment.  If there is no predictability to a ritual (ie: reading a bedtime story EVERY night), then the ritual loses its power.

Connection:  When a family feels connected to each other through rituals, it’s because they have built trust within a shared experience.  (ie: the bedtime ritual is often the primary one-on-one time between parent and child)

Identity:  Rituals provide a sense of belonging and defines what is “special” about the family.  Maybe your grandmother once knit matching sweaters for everyone, and now your family has taken the tradition to a new level by all wearing ugly Christmas sweaters at the holiday.

Values:  Values demonstrate what we believe and hold dear, and religious rituals are a good example of the way rituals enact values for a family.

According to Doherty, the idea of the Intentional Family is to create rituals that reflect your family’s own unique values, histories, religions, and cultures, and to leverage those rituals to consciously plan your life together.

What are the different types of family rituals?

Let’s examine the five different types of rituals identified by Doherty:

Family rituals:  Not all family rituals involve the whole family.  Some rituals involve just two members — a married couple going out to dinner or a grandparent reading to a child.  Successful intentional families learn to ritualize everything from pairs to large community families (church group or volunteer group).

Connection rituals:  These offer everyday opportunities for family bonding, such as family meals, morning and bedtime routines, or family outings.

Love rituals:  These focus on developing one-to-one intimacy, and make individual family members feel special.  They can be divided into couple rituals and special-person rituals.  Examples of couple love rituals are anniversary celebrations or date nights.  Special-person rituals generally center around birthday celebrations, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, etc.

Community rituals:  These have a more public dimension than connection and love rituals.  They include major family events such as weddings and funerals that link families to their communities, as well as religious activities in churches, synagogues, or mosques.  In addition, community rituals include conscious efforts to connect with a wider social network than the family, to both give and gain support.  The healthiest families give to their communities and receive support back in good measure.

Holiday rituals:  Thanksgiving and Christmas have evolved into a special category of family ritual, involving three functions of rituals — connection, love, and community.  There are the grand rituals of the calendar year for the majority of families, Christian and non-Christian alike.

So while we still have a few months before Thanksgiving and Christmas, why not take the time to assess the rituals your family keeps, and create or change them in response to the way your family has grown and changed over time.  Multi-generational families are a gift, and it is a delicate art to balance the weight of tradition with the desire to incorporate fresh rituals as new members join the family with their own values and opinions.  Major transition times in family life are good opportunities to review your rituals.  Focus on the needs of the group, and the values you want to promote.  Building and maintaining a strong family bond is a process.  Enjoy the journey together.

At OHI, our caring staff members are eager to give you all the unconditional support, inspiration, and transformational tools you need to bring your body, mind, and spirit into healthy balance in a serene, peaceful setting. Visit our website at www.optimumhealth.org, and call us at (800) 588-0809 to make your reservation.


“The Intentional Family” by William J. Doherty, Ph.D.

“7 Keys to Building Strong Families”, Dr. Gary Oliver, iMom.com

“What makes a family strong?, Gail Innis, Michigan State University Extension, December 2, 2016, canr.msu.edu