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Ah, the holidays…great food, great memories, great company.  Okay, so maybe some of you are a little anxious about spending time with the family.  Lots of people dread the holidays because it means spending time with family members who you don’t get along with or you can’t stand.  It also might mean your kids are off from school and you are dreading all the extra time they have to hang around the house.

As a graduate student in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), I am learning about the things that help make a family healthy and happy versus what constitutes a dysfunctional family.  By the way, there is no such thing as a “perfect” family.  There are certain common traits that help individuals in a family to have a sense of belongingness and connectedness, as well as a sense of individuation and differentiation.  Okay, in other words, they feel like they’re part of a team–the family team–and yet they can still be themselves too.

As part of a presentation this week, I have to report on how one type of family therapy (symbolic-experiential family therapy) views healthy family interaction.  Stay with me here because I think you’ll find this interesting.  See if your family or the family you grew up in fosters these things:

  • Healthy families exhibit a tolerance for conflict.  They resolve conflicts overtly and use tools like compromise and agreement to resolve conflicts in a healthy way (no blame, shame, withdrawal, or punishment).  There’s no avoidance of it, no chronic conflict, and there’s no premature closure–like you’re cut off from resolving it.
  • Healthy families have a sense of cohesion and a family identity which is fostered by an underlying commitment to one another.
  • Healthy families have a need for intimacy and closeness.  Intimacy, trust, and bonding exist between spouses, parents and children, and siblings.
  • Healthy families have flexible coalitions (as opposed to permanent or long-standing coalitions).  Temporary, non-threatening coalitions are available to family members when issues arise and support is needed.  Long-standing or permanent coalitions often leads to family problems and is a way to deal with anxiety in an unhealthy way.
  • Healthy families have permeable boundaries.  Individuals can allow people “in” while maintaining a clear sense of themselves.
  • Healthy families have flexible roles.  Individuals can experience success and failures, express their preferences and differences, allow for changes in beliefs or behavior all without being punished or disqualified (Gehart & Tuttle, 2003).

If this sounds too scholarly for you, and don’t worry, I thought the same thing as I reread it!–I think you’ll relate to a recent article on what makes a family functional vs. dysfunctional on PsychCentral (Aletta, 2013).  The author mentions several attributes of healthy families, but the number one trait of a functional family is RESPECT.  The author also mentions the importance of an emotionally safe environment, having privacy, accountability, courtesy and manners at home, parents encourage siblings to work together, allow members to change and grow, stay clear of teasing and sarcasm, provide clear boundaries (parents, you are not your child’s friend), parents work as a team–even if you’re divorced!, and family members follow the Golden Rule (treat each other how you’d like to be treated).

No family is perfect.  We all want the best for our children.  Raising kids is hard–especially these days with so many temptations around, 2 parents working, divorced and single-parent homes, economically-challenged families…Family is supposed to be a place where you’re accepted, loved, and supported.   You deserve to have a happy family.  If you’re divorced, you deserve to be in your child’s life–a child needs both parents in their life.  Even if you come from a not so idyllic background, you can still be a great parent–but this takes awareness, a willingness to learn and grow, and maybe a therapist (MFT) to help you work through your family of origin issues that get in the way of your parenting and relationships now.

So many people lack the skills to be a great parent because these skills just weren’t modeled to them as kids.  There is no textbook on parenting, but there are things you can do to have a happy family.  The suggestions above are a great place to start.

If you are divorced, I don’t care what Dr. Laura says (gosh that lady is so opinionated and judgmental!), your kids can still turn out great.  Please be the adult and parent your child needs.  They still need structure (rules, repercussions, and boundaries) and they need your love and nurturing.  They don’t need a best friend, they don’t need to be elevated to the spouse role or caretaker role, and they don’t need to have all the material things in the world (because you may feel guilty or feel like you have to compete at some level).  And, barring abuse and neglect, your child needs both parents in their life.  I don’t care what you think of your ex, your child has a different experience of them–not as a cheater, not as a schmuck, not as a cheapa$$, but as a parent–a parent they need in their life.


Aletta, E. G. (2013).  What makes a family functional vs. dysfunctional?  Retrieved from

Gehart, D. $., & Tuttle, A. R. (2003).  Theory-based treatment planning for marriage and family therapists:  Integrating theory and practice.  Pacific Grove, CA:  Brooks/Cole/Thomson.