Do you ever wonder what a healthy, functional family actually looks like?

Like…what’s normal? 

If you’ve been following along with me on the blog here or over at the podcast, you know that I’ve been talking a lot about family systems. So much of what happens in our lives is informed by our childhood experiences. As you know, I am inspired to help you better understand yourself (and your past) so that you can live your best life right here, right now. 

Many of you have written to me that you deeply identify with the dysfunctional family dynamics we’ve covered and that you’ve found the series super helpful (which is awesome!) but that you also want to know what a HEALTHY system looks like because (good for you), you don’t want to repeat dysfunctional patterns!

That’s why in this week’s episode, I’m sharing 6 traits of healthy family systems, plus behaviors and strategies to help you get some clarity on what functional actually looks like in practice because as I always say, you can’t know what no one ever taught you but you can learn. 

 

So what the heck does a functional family look like?

 

There’s a Healthy Hierarchy

There is an order of importance or authority in every family system. In a healthy system, there is a generational hierarchy, that is, the parents are in a position of loving authority at the top and the children are below that. 

What does that mean? The parents are the leaders of the family and work together to create a safe, positive environment. They are responsible and capable of setting healthy boundaries, family rules and holding space for their children’s needs. There is age-appropriate behavior in place. A healthy family is one in which the parents or caregivers are appropriately focused on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the children. 

In dysfunctional systems, what we find a lot of times is that the children are compelled to act out adult roles and so the hierarchy is skewed. In a healthy system, the adults are the grown-ups. 

Kindness and Compassion Are The Rule

Being kind, compassionate and understanding is not the exception…it’s the rule. Within a healthy family, each individual is seen and heard and treated with respect and loving kindness. 

The parents or caregivers, again, work together to model and teach the children how to treat themselves and others with compassion. They lead by example and set the tone for how to talk to one another, for the kind of language to use in conflict or when problem-solving and how to interact in an emotionally healthy and age-appropriate way both within the family system and without. 

There Are Clear Boundaries

Healthy boundaries are essential in establishing the culture and the emotional climate of a family. In a functional family system, the boundaries are clear and consistent. There are healthy expectations, rules, curfews, chores, and articulated and appropriate consequences. 

Kids are encouraged and taught to draw boundaries with one another and with the outside world. They learn how to say no with kindness and how to express what is ok and what isn’t ok with them and as they grow are provided with increased opportunities to create and set their personal boundaries. Children in a healthy system feel safe to think differently than others within their family. They don’t have a fear of being punished or excommunicated from the group if they don’t “fall in line”. 

The parents or caregivers are supportive of each child’s feelings and ideas and teach them how to express themselves fully within the healthy boundaries of the family system. There are family rules and predictable schedules. The children feel secure because there’s a clear routine and they know and understand what’s coming next. 

For there to be a cohesive system, everyone needs to chip in and feel like they’re adding value in some way, so often there are age-appropriate chores or tasks for each member. How do we teach children that they matter? We allow them to be a part of the system and to contribute to the wellbeing of the whole from a young age. Even little ones can empty a wastebasket or set a table.

These are just some examples of the kinds of healthy boundaries that create a cohesive family unit, in which each individual is safe to authentically and respectfully express themselves.

There is Effective and Safe Communication

This goes hand in hand with healthy boundaries. In a functional family system, parents model effective communication with one another and with the children, so that boundaries are clear and understood. 

The parents use words to express their feelings, positive or negative, and teach kids to do the same while creating a safe, secure environment in which to do so. Kids are very astute and they will mirror modeled behavior good or bad. So if you want them to know how to express themselves and their emotions with words, you will be the one to teach them by what you do. 

There Are No Favorites 

The rules and boundaries of a healthy family system apply to all the kids in the same way (when age-appropriate). While the children are appreciated and celebrated for their uniqueness, they are treated in an equitable way. 

In a functional family, there are no favorites or scapegoats, no golden child or black sheep. 

Team Spirit!

There’s a feeling of camaraderie and loyalty in a healthy family, and I like to call that team spirit. It looks like everyone holding one another in high esteem and having a deep sense of security knowing that you’ll be there for one another come hell or high water. 

In functional families, each individual feels loved, known and lucky to be a part of the people that they call home. There is a healthy pride and commitment to family traditions and culture.  

You absolutely have the ability to intentionally create a family environment that supports the kind of experience that you want to have NOW.  If what you just read looks different from what you experienced or what you might currently be experiencing, that’s ok. You are not doomed to repeat your past or to make the same mistakes your own family might have made. 

The most important thing you can do as a parent, especially if you’ve experienced dysfunction in the past, is to get committed to resolving your own emotional and psychological baggage, or as I like to say, to clean out the crap in your basement. You can do this through therapy, journaling, ritual practices, meditation, energy work…so many things! I’ve included some more resources for you in this week’s cheat sheet, and you can download that right here. 

I want to empower you to create and maintain a healthy and loving family system now or in the future. I hope this helped you and added value to your life in some way and if it did, please share it! I also can’t wait to hear what you have to say about this, so leave me a comment and let me know if this resonated with you. 

Thank you so much for watching, for listening, for sharing and most of all, for caring about being the healthiest and BEST version of YOU. I hope you have an amazing week and as always, take care of you. 

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  1. Hi Terri!

    I just came across this video and it hit home. Everything you said makes perfect sense, I was nodding, agreeing, saying Yes!! I would love my family to have more of this awareness and put in some effort, but I realize after crap hit the fan and we continue in the same unhealthy cycles, that I can only apply what I have learned and am learning towards my own family someday. Its been painful and my god Terri I have tried to mend some of the brokenness, but I cant do it for my folks. I was that kid with no boundaries and no one caring and I see why I have struggled into adulthood, but I have always wanted to be in a healthy family, with healthy communication and boundaries. I know im moving in the right direction after seeing this!

    Thank you for making this segment, thank you for speaking to the core issues, and raising my awareness. Your amazing and always nurture my spirit!! Much Love!!

    1. I’m celebrating you for moving in a healthy direction!! We can’t make other change. But we can change ourselves and make healthy choices.Thank you for sharing your story and experiences. I’m cheering you on!

  2. Terri, I just found you on YouTube yesterday and it is just what I needed, thank you for the great videos and incredible thinking. The cheat sheets and all your material is extaordinary and excellent!

  3. Such a great video! It is so inspiring and useful both as a mom and as a psychotherapist. I love your work Terri. Thank you so much. Greetings from Mexico!

  4. This is a wonderful segment, Terri! I had a unique upbringing and a highly dysfunctional, long-term marriage, so it’s great to have this outlined to sort through the positives and negatives.

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