How Healthy is your Family (after a year of COVID)?

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

Over the years family therapists have done a variety of studies on the characteristics of healthy families, including the well known Timberlawn Study (1977), the McMaster Study (1988), a more recent study from the University of Michigan (2018) as well as a recent study from the US department of health and human services. All of these studies attempted to answer the question, “What characteristics do healthy families share?” While the studies reflected some differences, they all had certain similarities about what traits healthy families have in common.

After a year of covid, and the incredible pressures that shelter in place, working from home, remote learning and absence of support put on families, it is an understatement to say that families are stressed. Now is a good time to do a brief check up and explore some of the attributes of family health and how your family is doing after a long year and, perhaps, set some goals to rebalance.

What are the markers of Family health that the studies agree on? Here are 5 traits that you can use to assess how your family is doing:

Healthy families have a strong executive system that is in charge (this could be a husband and wife, two partners, grandparents, or other constellations). What is important is:

  1. The executive system is a team that works together.
  2. There is not one part of the system that overfunctions, rather there is partnership.
  3. The executive system lets children be children and does not burden children with their stressors. It stays attuned to the needs of the children.

Healthy families have developmentally appropriate boundaries. That is, the executive system maintains healthy boundaries that are appropriate to the ages of the children and allow their developmental needs to be met.

Healthy families parent towards autonomy. That is, they know the goal of parenting is to prepare their children to launch some day, and have adequate self confidence and tools to do so. In contrast, unhealthy families expect their children to validate their self-esteem.

Healthy families have healthy communication:

  1. That allows a wide range of emotions to be shared;
  2. The listens carefully and not reactively;
  3. Where emotions do not have to be repressed.

Healthy families have a transcendent value system. What is fascinating, is that most of the studies agreed that healthy families have a value system that transcends them, such as a shared faith or spirituality or commitment to social justice or the environment. This shared commitment helps them stay grounded and connected to something greater than themselves.

Do this quick assessment with your executive team to determine how your family is doing and to set some goals for rebalancing. If you need help, do a check up with one of our relationship specialists, or stay tuned for more workshops on rebuilding healthy families.