How Healthy is your Family?

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

Since mid-March, the world has been struggling through shut-downs and slow attempts at reopening because of COVID-19. Families have been hit hard with the pressures of homeschooling, cancelled family vacations, being sheltered in place with too much togetherness at times, and intense anxiety. Now we are worrying about how the school reopening will go, with colleges already off to a difficult start.

Given all the pressures on families through this pandemic, and anxiety about schools reopening, September is a good time to reexamine the health of your family. We can all do a quick assessment of these variables:

  1. How has your family structure held up and adapted during COVID? Healthy families have a clear executive subsystem in place. Despite stressors and anxiety, parents set clear structure with developmentally appropriate boundaries. During times of increased anxiety, it is easy for structure to become either too rigid or too loose. It can become more difficult for parents to work together to hold a developmentally appropriate level of clear structure.
  2. Structure without empathy, nurture, and understanding doesn’t work. While this sounds obvious, the greater the stress and anxiety, the more difficult empathy becomes. As our anxiety increases, along with exhaustion, we become preoccupied with our own needs and find it difficult to offer deep empathy and nurture to those around us.
  3. Empathy is based on understanding of children’s temperament. All parents know that no two of their children are alike. They are born with a particular temperament that does not change much. Therefore, one style of parenting does not fit all children’s temperaments and parenting must be tailored to the unique temperament of each child. No book or podcast on parenting can be helpful if it does not factor in temperament.
  4. Effective empathic parenting attempts to accurately “mirror” children. Mirroring is quite different from validation. Validation says “you are awesome”, or “you are just so smart…” In the end, validation says nothing. Mirroring says “I’m so proud of how you shared your toys with your brother”, or  “I know you were anxious about going to soccer, but you were able to do it anyway, and tried really hard.”
  5. Healthy families know their history. While we all want our children to have a better life than our own, understanding our own history and unresolved issues is essential. There is always a danger of “projecting” our own fears and unresolved issues onto our children, which then blocks effective mirroring, empathy and attunement.

None of these issues are easy: especially when we are tired and anxious! Our next few newsletters will try to expand on each of these principles for creating healthy families.