In the raising of eight kids, I’ve learned some stuff.
Not that it means I’ve done it all right. Heavens, no. There are things you learn in the parenting journey that only come about because you messed it up.
And then you jump back in and try again.
Given the size of our family and the scope of time I’ve been parenting, it’s made me a fascinated observer of family life and dynamics. It’s powerful to gather up and add those things to family life that have been hallmarks of families I’ve admired. There are those families I’ve seen who genuinely enjoy each other, celebrate each other, who develop close ties that last, even after the kids have launched and have built lives of their own.
And then there are those families who start off strong but struggle, even though all the heart and time and effort are there.
While there are no magic and guaranteed formulas for developing and maintaining a successful family life, there are clues, bread crumbs that seem to be present in the lives of families who show admirable levels of emotional health and connection. Some of those things are simple and easy to implement into your family life; others take a higher degree of self-awareness and the willingness to get outside coaching when needed.
Emotionally healthy families make it a priority to eat meals together.
I know, I know, you’re exhausted by the end of the day. I am too. The thought of trying to hustle some kind of dinner to the table and gather everyone up seems like one more chore. But you can’t fight the compelling findings of all the scientific studies around this topic. From higher vocabulary development for toddlers to lower teen pregnancy rates and lower drug use numbers for teens, making a family meal a priority on the calendar a few days a week gives all kinds of return for the time investment.12
Emotionally healthy families talk about feelings and emotions.
And that means all the emotions and feelings, not just the sunny ones. Our kids need to know, and we need to show, the importance of communicating our emotions and owning them. A powerful tool in that effort is to expand our vocabulary for identifying the emotions we feel. Equipping our kids with those expressions helps open dialog about feelings, which can also facilitate conversations about coping with and navigating those emotions.
Emotionally healthy families fight.
But with rules, honor, and kindness. Look, I’d rather have a conflict-free zone at my house at all times. But it’s not the healthiest example for my kids, because it doesn’t deal with the fact that human beings will have times of dispute. Allowing our kids to disagree, and to disagree passionately, helps prepare them for real life. However, there should be some non-negotiables for disagreements. No name calling. No physical fighting. No devaluing of the other person. No yelling. Lots of grace and forgiveness. Learning the rules of a fair fight and requiring that approach within your family is a fantastic skill set to equip yourself and your kids with.
Emotionally healthy families don’t play favorites.
It is critical that each kid in the house feel included, loved, and equal. And Mom and Dad, that’s on you. Sure, there will be times that one of your kids may question and wonder if something is fair. But state, out loud, that in your family, everyone matters, regardless of grades, athletic achievements, or behavior. Do your best to make Christmas and birthdays equitable for everyone. And if you’re looking for a biblical example on how not to do it, be sure and check out the story of Esau and Jacob and the consequences on their sibling relationship because of their parents playing favorites (Genesis 25).
Emotionally healthy families see themselves as a team.
Yes, honoring each family member as an individual is important. Very. And it’s also important that your family knows that you are a team. You have each other’s backs. You protect and help and serve and care for each other. You are the refuge from the tough stuff in the world. Your family, your team, are the people you can count on. Make this part of the culture of your family. Too many families, out of generational examples or modern stress, allow the family dynamic to take on aspects of competitiveness and distance.
Emotionally healthy families celebrate each other’s uniqueness and differences.
In a team, all the players have unique gifts and personalities. It doesn’t make them any less a team. Your kids should differ from each other. They should have original ways of looking at things. Celebrate and value them for it. This is an area that may take some work for you. You may prefer a certain set of personality traits or interests. But that kid of yours who doesn’t do things the way you prefer or doesn’t excel in areas you wish they would has no less value in the family than the kid you resonate with more closely. Celebrate all the facets that God has brought to your family. Unity is not about being clones; it’s about unifying in devotion and loyalty to each other.
Emotionally healthy families have spiritual practices and faith.
Giving our kids a foundation of faith, giving our families a centralized understanding of the values by which we conduct our family life and values, has a lifelong impact. And it also defines the dynamic of family life. Practice spiritual habits, from going to church services to prayer. And it’s important to note this: while it can be an important part of your spiritual practice, building faith in your family is not achieved simply by routinely going to a church service. Active conversations about God in your home, an openness to talking though tough questions, your kids ‘catching’ you studying scripture, praying, and other faith activities, are essential to the long-term health of your family.
Emotionally healthy families can only be as healthy as the leaders of that family.
I know that I have not wanted my kids to struggle where I’ve struggled. It can be easy to fall into ‘do as I say and not as I do’ kind of parenting. We can burn a lot of energy trying to keep our kids from going into the ditches in which we have found ourselves. But here’s the deal; if we want our kids to eat healthy, we have to model it. If we want our kids to be active, we have to model it. If we want our kids to manage their anger well, we have to model it. We can’t just tell them what they should do; we have to do it. If you’re finding yourself trying to get your kids to avoid behavior that you don’t like in yourself, get some help for you. Show the courage to reach out, wrestle with the challenge, and show your kids how to overcome. Your physical, emotional, and spiritual health as a leader in your family directly impacts the overall health of your family.
Emotionally healthy families practice healthy boundaries.
I’m a recovering people pleaser. I’m a business owner who would say yes to every demand of a client. I’m a community member who would answer the call for every volunteer need.
Here’s where it got me: resentful, exhausted, and, at times, a less-than-engaged and present family member.
Healthy family life requires boundaries, both within the family and out. Your kids need to know that you and your spouse are going to have time reserved for just the two of you. And your kids should be able to expect that you will put boundaries around work and social commitments to focus on them.
Additionally, you and your kids and your spouse are a family unit. Yes, having extended family as part of your life is wonderful. But there should even be boundaries about just how far extended family encroaches on your family unit. For great resources on boundaries, check out Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, and this interview with Dr. John Townsend.
Developing an emotionally healthy family is an ongoing process, no matter how many years you’ve been married or have been parenting. Don’t be overwhelmed by the areas in which you want to make progress. Choose one to focus on for the next few weeks and then evaluate how things are going. Through your love, vulnerability, willingness to seek counsel and help, and with plenty of prayer, you can make a tremendous difference in the overall dynamic of your family.
Julie Lyles Carr is a best-selling author, podcaster, and entrepreneur living in Austin, Texas, with her husband Mike Carr. They have eight kids, two unfriendly cats, and an antique dachshund.