As a child growing up in a home with a mentally ill mother, I was always fascinated with families who seemed to be happy and genuinely cared for each other. I would find myself gravitating toward classmates who seemed to have families who enjoyed being together to escape my crazy family as often as I could and to be somewhere more peaceful than my own home. In fact, I spent almost every weekend I could with my paternal grandparents or in the homes of one of my friends.
This fascination with normalcy in the home was reawakened when I was in graduate school and studying theory – Family Systems Theory to be exact. I read everything I could find on Family Systems, especially articles written by Murray Bowen, MD. Dr. Bowen actually served in WWII as a medical officer only to return after the war and specialize in psychiatry. He believed that the family was “an emotional unit” and any change in the function of one family member causes other members to change. Dr. Bowen proposed that “the emotional functioning of every family member plays a part in the occurrence of medical, psychiatric or social illness in one family member, and treatment need not be directed at the symptomatic person.”
With all the knowledge I had on Family Systems, I soon discovered in my counseling practice that it was rare to get all family members together for an appointment, much less a series of appointments. Although I found that when I was successful obtaining a family who wanted counseling together, it was challenging early on, but ultimately a rewarding experience – especially if the parents were willing to work on their own issues.
So what are the components to look for in a healthy Family System? I believe that studying the relationships of God the Father, with God the Son and with God the Holy Spirit are the best examples of a healthy Family System. Stephen Seamands in his book, Ministering in the Image of God (2005) states that the four characteristics of the Trinitarian relationships are: (1) Full Equity; (2) Glad Submission; (3) Mutual Deference; and (4) Joyful Intimacy. So how can we apply these traits to parenting?
- Fully Equity implies learning to respect the boundaries of each family member. These boundaries include establishing clear roles, tasks, and responsibilities between husband and wife; parents and children, as well as between children. In an unhealthy family, there is typically a lack of respect for the positions of other family members, which can be manifested by dismissing or criticizing each others’ thoughts, feelings, and communications.’
- Glad Submission means that each family member looks out for the emotional, physical, and relational well-being of the other family members. This trait is manifested by seeking the comfort, preferences, rights, and protection of another family member, even if it means sacrificing one’s own preferences at times. In unhealthy families, self-interest is the primary function of each member. Decisions are made based on “what I want” rather than taking into consideration the impact your “self-interest” will have on others. I have seen numerous breakups of families due to the attitudes of parents that “kids are resilient” and “will adjust.”
- Mutual Deference is seeking input from everyone in important decision-making and distributing power among every family member as well. Although true power should be based upon one’s role in the family, i.e. husband – wife relationship as well as the parent – child relationship, a family can learn to be equitable in power without the need to be equal in power. There should be a willingness to defer one’s “power” to another based upon the person’s wisdom, experience, and the nature of the particular situation. The key is flexibility within a defined Family System. Unhealthy families in this area tend to consist of at least one dominant parent. Members of these families tend to cling to their own perceived roles out of fear of losing identity or power to other family members. A common statement heard in this family is “because I said so.”
- Joyful Intimacy is developed through healthy communication, appropriate touch, kind words, shared experiences, and time spent together. The self-worth of each family member is developed by being valued and enjoyed by others in the family. In contrast, unhealthy families often feel threatened by one another. Parents in these families often use shame and guilt as weapons to control their children, and the children, in turn, do the same to their siblings. These children typically grow up with a deep sense of shame and have difficulty functioning as healthy adults.
Although as a child, I did not know what I was seeking when I found those families that I wanted to be with. I now look at the characteristics of a healthy family listed above and realize that these were the things I was lacking at home, in addition to a relationship with our Heavenly Father. I know that no family is perfect, but I believe that if we work toward establishing the four traits defined above, then we can be healthier parents and, in turn, establish healthier families.
One of the highest compliments anyone has given me has been that I am a good mother. I know that I am not perfect and I made a lot of mistakes as a mother, but I believe that I have great children because I know the One and Only True God – Our Heavenly Father. He is a Good, Good Father.
I hope you enjoy this song, Good, Good Father, by Housefires II.