Strategies for Helping Families to Enhance Resilience

This article is the second of a two-part series. In the previous article, The Making of a Flourishing Family, we analysed the characteristics families display when they are flourishing and resilient. In this concluding article, we explore strategies for enhancing the resilience of those family units who may be experiencing dysfunction from within or stress from the outer environment.

If you are supporting a family in transition, you may perceive huge differences between them and the characteristics (named in our previous article) as belonging to resilient families. If so, you may be wondering: “So how do I help move my struggling family down the continuum towards greater functionality?” We address three principal areas of focus, which reinforce one another:

  1. Supporting a positive self-concept
  2. Encouraging effective parenting
  3. Creating supportive contexts

Any assessment you might make of your supported family would do well to include an examination of both protective traits (those factors which you realise are helping them to be more resilient) and also risk traits (those factors which are making it more difficult for them to respond with resilience). A thorough assessment, and any action plan developed from that, should look at individual, family, and also community factors (roughly relating to the three areas above). The following action points are mostly general in that they would help any family to function at a higher level.

Supporting a positive self-concept

Encouraging success; acknowledging accomplishments

Few would argue that those who perceive themselves as successful and competent will find it easier to maintain a positive self-concept, or that those who feel somehow “failed” or incompetent will find that same self-concept elusive. But what constitutes “success” for one person may be different from what another considers success. And in times of big change in a family, the roles, responsibilities, and ways of being that the members enacted before the change may no longer be relevant or valid. Making the same response to a situation as before may now generate a very different result, with the consequence that members may feel “all at sea”: ineffective with current options for response, but not knowing how to respond to the new challenges effectively. Too, preoccupation with transitions in a family may mean that the adults – the primary validators – are unavailable to help acknowledge their children’s accomplishments. For all members, but especially for children, the positive but fragile self-concept that they may have been individually holding for a long time can be quickly undermined.

As a support person, you can have a major role in establishing dialogue with various members to ascertain in which areas they now feel challenged, and which achievements within the family or their outer world would help them to feel successful. You can help them to move towards those successes, acknowledging accomplishments that have occurred along the way. Your role as a modeller of validation can help parents, especially, to understand the importance of continuing to find the time/energy to notice and affirm their children. The crucial thing to note is that, because perceptions of “success” and “accomplishment” can be so subjective, it is important to affirm people for those things that they value, especially in themselves. Otherwise, the validation is likely to feel hollow and be ineffective. Particularly in the case of major absence, such as with FIFO or non-custodial parents post-divorce, it is crucial to help the “part-time” parent creatively find ways to emphasise validation when they are home. It will involve them in searching for strengths.

Searching for strengths

When a family is under siege from change, it may be difficult for its members to spot strengths that they have used to cope with the new situation. For example, in the case of a couple divorcing, their ten-year-old daughter may be attuned to her powerlessness to change the fact of Mum and Dad arguing, or Dad going away. As a therapist or support person, you may be able to help her see that, while preventing the divorce was not within her capabilities, she did much to support the family’s resilience by continuing to do well in school despite all the chaos, and she used both wisdom and compassion in managing to not judge either parent, but continuing to cooperate with both of them. A new stepmother, similarly, may be validated because she has managed to befriend her new husband’s children: striking that delicate balance between being available as a friend/adviser, but leaving the major discipline to their father. In the chaos of the transition to a remarried family, she may feel overwhelmed and not be giving herself credit for her relational and diplomacy skills. Because we are taught not to “blow our own horn”, you may find that you are able to more easily find hidden strengths in family members by inviting members to help you spot strengths in one another.

Encouraging compassion

When our world turns upside down, it is normal to want to “put things right” and get as quickly as possible back to normal. It often seems that figuring out who is to blame and punishing the offending party will allow normalcy to be restored. When a family is thrown into disarray through transition to a new state, however, what is needed is an extra dose of compassion. Yet an empathetic stance is often one of the earliest victims of change. Your role as helper and support person may be invaluable in encouraging members to reframe what has happened or how they are feeling, to see things in a more compassionate light.

For example, with school-age children adjusting to their FIFO father’s new long-term absences, there may be hurt or disappointment that, when Dad does come home, he is grumpy and tired for a day or two. You may be able to help the children recall a time when they were so tired that they practically couldn’t eat, let alone do anything else, and all they wanted was to drift off to sleep – or else they just wanted to punch their little brother, for no particular reason! Helping them to understand their father’s fatigue empathetically may also reduce feelings of rejection or invalidation that Dad isn’t more available; they may be more willing to let go of the urge to take Dad’s bad mood personally. You can also coach the children’s mother, if that is your principal liaison in the family, to ensure that she can work with the children on this.

In the case of families changing membership (new lone-parent families and heterosexual and gay/lesbian remarried families), there is an ever-present need to advocate for compassion for all of the members. Parents and teachers may complain that children are acting out, but a quiet non-judgmental session listening to the children is likely to reveal a sizable measure of unprocessed grief about the changes that they do not know how to express. Boundaries and rules must still be respected (i.e., homework must still be completed, hitting a sibling must still be resisted), but with the illuminating lens of compassion, all parties can work towards helping the members – especially the young members – find a way to work through feelings, thereby restoring good behaviour and more important, a good self-concept.

Changing negative self-talk

Just as helpers may be able to assist a troubled family member in reframing his or her stance to a more compassionate one, so we as support people may be able to help individuals reframe their self-talk to be more positive and affirming. Particularly when things seem to be exploding in the family, it is easy to begin giving negative messages to oneself which undermine both self-concept and also one’s capacity to resourcefully deal with crises. In a newly-formed stepfamily, for example, a child may find it easy to criticise himself, comparing himself to a similar-aged stepsibling who seems to have it all and be able to do it all. In this case, any self-talk such as, “Jim seems to be so talented; I can’t really do anything special” could be reframed as, “Jim is really talented, but I have my places of skill, too.” In the case of new lone-parent families due to divorce, children often blame themselves, believing that if they had only been more obedient or helpful, they could have prevented the divorce. As support person, you can give such children – and through them the whole family – a priceless gift by picking up on such a dynamic, and re-routing their thinking.

If negative self-talk seems to be running through your supported family (or to prevent it doing so), you may wish to encourage the parent(s) to initiate a “brag session”, say at dinner, in which everyone is invited to name something that happened during the day which helped them to feel good about themselves (children can be helped to understand which of those items probably need to remain within the family, and shouldn’t be talked about outside it). As support person, you can work with parents to help them catch negative self-talk on the part of their children and encourage them to gently invite the children to reframe statements.

Encouraging effective parenting

As the pillars of a family of origin and the ones responsible for the creation of the rest of the family, parents are the prime “movers and shakers” of the family system and all of its dynamics. They know that they are tasked with the crucial function society gives to a family: that of educating and socialising its children. The effective performance of this function serves both the family and the wider society, as well-socialised young people grow into healthy, well-functioning adults who can make positive contributions to their world. As noted in our previous article, one of the process factors of families that flourish is that they have a legitimate and clear source of authority: that is, a system with established rules and roles, with parents that are effective.

Unfortunately for the attainment of resilience, however, most people in the job of parent have not gone to school to learn how to do that job; rather, anything they have learned has been via serious “on the job” training. What this means is that, although most parents are deeply desirous of being effective, “good” parents, they will tend to parent – for better or for worse – in much the same way that they themselves were parented. Thus, parents may, in that moment of desperation, succumb to techniques that they despised their parents using on them when they were young.

While that reality can be frustrating, it often gives you as support person ample scope for offering assistance. You can help to expand parents’ sense of discipline to make it educational, incorporating a respect for individual differences, for children’s wisdom, and for the use of natural consequences. Parents can be shown how to avoid reactivity, focusing instead on what they want.

Discipline as education, not just punishment

A crisis, by definition, is a time when events spiral out of control, so at times of family transition or crisis it is particularly tempting to want to regain that control by clamping down on the children of the family. The new widow, still mourning her late husband, does not wish for her sons to play too far from the home, or to take too many risks; she may be afraid that she will lose them, too. The father of a newly-formed stepfamily is anxious to show his bride that his children are well-mannered and cooperative, so he yells at them for minor infractions that would have escaped notice before. The popular conception of “discipline” equals it to “punishment”, which it can be. And it is more.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “discipline” as “punishment” (the first definition), but also as “instruction” (the second), or “training that corrects, moulds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character” (the third definition) (2012). The origins of the word discipline are from the Latin term disciplina, for teaching or learning, and discipulus, which means pupil. Being true to these venerable roots, you as support person can suggest to stressed parents that their routines of discipline be regarded as potential avenues of education and socialisation for their children, as the children take on different roles and responsibilities in the family’s transition to the new form. Parents, then, are not necessarily in the role of “the punisher”, but may be seen to be instructing and strengthening. Cohesive, resilient families are likely to take this broader view. One of the ways they do this is by responding in a thoughtful, considered manner, rather than being reactive.

Responding not reacting

Times of transition also bring out the desire in children to know what their limits are, partly as a way of knowing if their parents can handle them. So what do they do? They test the boundaries, with behaviour designed to see how far they can go before they experience the limit. Behaviours that “push the buttons” of the parent will only increase if parents become reactive, rather than choosing, with calm and foresight, how they will respond. The “knee-jerk” response of the parent confirms to the child that the child – who has managed to get a reaction – is in control, rather than the parent. Effective parenting sidesteps the power struggles that can otherwise occur, and allows children to experience both boundaries and respect on the one hand, and choice on the other.

An example of response, not reaction, may be found in the spouse of a FIFO employee who hears that her child has gotten in trouble at school for not completing required work. The reactionary parent may tell the child he is bad, ground him, and scream, “Just wait until your dad gets home from the mine!” While the child gets the message that falling behind in schoolwork is not a great thing to do, he also hears that Mum is not in charge (or else she would have applied some discipline), and that he, not his behaviour, is what is unacceptable. He feels disrespected and not held, as he has not experienced a genuine boundary; too much parenting like that will engender feelings of toxic shame, or inherent “badness”.

A chosen response, conversely, might see the mother making special time to talk to the boy, ask what happened, and working with him to construct a discipline – as much in the sense of “instruction” as “punishment” – to ensure that works gets caught up and stays maintained. It may involve staying home for an hour after school to make sure the work is done before enjoying free time, or setting up special tutoring until the child is on track. When it is worked through with the child, he feels respected and safe, knowing that there are boundaries, there is discipline, but these are applied in a respectful, wise manner, with “punishment” (read: further instruction) that fits the crime. Parents that can do this are likely to be able to also apply the next two suggestions as well: respecting individual differences and using natural consequences to guide the parenting effort.

Observing individual differences

As an observer of families, you may have seen it many times: Susie takes after her mum, who is great at things to do with academics and ideas, but she’s not that athletic. Her brother, Steven, meanwhile, is like dad: the school “jock” who struggles to keep up with his maths class. Youngest sibling, Chris is like no one else in the family; he’s the popular one, who knows just how to handle people, and has a real “gift of the gab”. Children differ from each other from the womb through to the grave, and those differences – for best results – require some personalising of the treatment applied to them. It is tempting, for example, to tell all the kids in a new remarried family that their bedtime will be 8:30. That will surely suit some, but not all. Children have different needs according to age, gender, developmental level, energy level, and personal interests and capabilities. Thus, it goes without saying that the more those individual differences can be respected, the more successful and resilient the entire family unit can be.

Yet the capacity on the part of not only parents but siblings as well to cater for those differences may be one of the early victims of the crisis of transition. When parents are overwhelmed with changes – such as are newly-single parents, newly remarried parents, or parents struggling with domestic violence – there is little energy left over to respect individuality. In your role of support person to a challenged family, you may be one of the few able to observe the family from a disidentified (i.e., more objective) stance. If you can see, for example, that older children are at developmental stages requiring greater autonomy, but that Mum and Dad in their preoccupation with changes occurring are tightening the reins instead, it may be you who finds practical and easy ways to help introduce small changes to allow the respecting of those differences. You can point out to stressed parents that the advantage of incorporating such changes is that, when the units in the system (the children) are getting their needs met better, the whole system can function at a higher level.

One important way that this can happen is that realistic expectations are set from the outset. In a new remarried family, for example, the just-married-couple is in love with each other and wants all the kids to blend in and integrate into one big happy family. The reality is, even the more malleable, younger children will need years for this to happen, and for adolescents, it may not happen at all, as their developmental needs require them to go for greater autonomy, meaning that their reference points increasingly are peers and others rather than family (Kemp et al, 2012). You, the support person helping the family, may be the only one who recognises the significance of such differences.

Helping a child manage the “public relations” aspect of explaining his mother’s new union with her lesbian friend is another example of where you may be able to support a family in finding ways to non-judgmentally acknowledge differences. Ditto the situation of being brought up from birth in a same-sex couple family. You can help with translating outside-of-the-norm individual situations to words that will be understood by the school and other institutions outside the family.

Utilising natural consequences

It cannot be overemphasised how compelling is the urge for families – meaning, especially parents – to reduce complexity to a manageable level when in the middle of sweeping changes in a family. Doing so seems to be the easier route in managing children, yet in the long run it is harder if, for example, a preoccupied parent attempts to make a single means of discipline – say, being sent to a room for “time out” – fit all inappropriate behaviour. Families who flourish are more likely to go for discipline which makes use of logical, natural consequences; some may be surprised to hear that they do this with appropriate, desired behaviours as well as inappropriate ones. For example, resilient parents may realise that calmly pulling over to the side of the road and stopping the car until the fighting in the back seat subsides is a more fitting “punishment” for distracting behaviour than turning around and yelling while continuing to drive. The children are “punished” for their distracting behaviour by the journey taking even longer.

Similarly – but less commonly – parents of adolescents who have been getting home consistently on time may be rewarded with a little bit later curfew. Children who throw a tantrum or otherwise act in a manner that is immature for their developmental level may find that their bedtime has temporarily come forward, befitting the younger child like which they have been acting.

The situation of creating a stepfamily is particularly rife with opportunities for re-thinking discipline, as in this case the roles, responsibilities, and norms for appropriate behaviour may most greatly change. Because as support person you are not emotionally involved in the family’s struggles, you may be instrumental in helping frazzled parents be able to laterally generate logical, natural consequences for both desired and undesirable behaviour. You will undoubtedly be more effective in doing this if you – and the parents – have taken into account what the children know.

Taking advantage of children’s wisdom

Flourishing families are ones that trust one another, and whose members are happy to give one another the benefit of the doubt. In such a climate, children are likely to act with greater maturity (it may be partially the self-fulfilling prophecy at work here!), and parents are reciprocally able to discern the wisdom in their children’s views. At the very least, children generally seem to know when parents aren’t being fair with them, or when rules and regulations are out of line with what their peers are subject to.

There is tunnel vision that can go along with a parent preoccupied with surviving a divorce, deciding whether to come “out” to heterosexual family members (for gays and lesbians), or caring for a suddenly sick spouse or child. When a parent is doggedly “hanging on” to some semblance of family stability and feeling pressured to respond to overwhelming challenges, it is easier to make decisions without consulting the child members of the family. It is easier, but it isn’t as effective.

Observing children’s wisdom means deeply listening to their complaints, taking on board their observations (which generally have a kernel of truth, even if some of what they suggest is not workable), and responding respectfully. As a support person, you may have both the listening skills and the available “bandwidth” (which the stressed parent does not) to hear the deep, if badly packaged, truth of what the younger members of a family are saying. Your role may be that of “translator”, converting such observations to a more palatable form for the adult(s) to hear. Additionally, you may be able to function as a facilitator of “brainstormed” proposals, where adults “piggyback” on (impractical) suggestions made by children, making them do-able. Particularly with new lone-parent and remarried families, it seems only fair to listen to children’s concerns regarding contact with their non-custodial parent: a task which may seem arduous for a just-divorced or just-remarried custodial parent.

Focusing on what is wanted, not what isn’t

The authors of all those self-help books which advocate visualising what one wants until it becomes reality are onto something. “Normal” parenting tends to criticise family members – children and spouse alike – for that which is deemed to have gone wrong, but an alternative approach is to catch people doing something right, in the knowledge that what we focus on grows (Kehoe, 1988) It makes sense that, in times of transition, it as if the ground is moving under one’s feet. The resultant sense of chaos and loss of control gives rise to the desire to control whatever possible, and the impulse is to do that by focusing on undesirable actions and attitudes. While the opposite approach can be more difficult for the challenged parent, it has the advantage of focusing attention on values that the family wishes to inculcate in its members. A child who remembers, for example, to include and consider his newly wheelchair-bound sister while playing with the neighbourhood kids has demonstrated not only maturity, but also empathy and inclusiveness. The situation is similar with a child who goes out of his way to include a new similar-aged stepsibling in the neighbourhood play. Rewarding such behaviour by noticing it ensures that it grows until it becomes second nature.

Even where parents need to focus on making changes, it is wise not to make too many changes at once, as this tends to unsettle children (Kemp, et al, 2012). Again, your perspective as the uninvolved (well: emotionally uninvolved) outsider is invaluable. It may be you, the support person, who discerns signs and symptoms of “change fatigue” in family members, and can thereby urge slowing down the rate of change, focusing on that which is currently working well.

One way in which insightful parents of remarried families can create a focus on the desirable after the marriage and coming-together is to make any changes to discipline before the marriage. In this way, children are able to adjust slowly to the new norms that will be in place later. This will flag any trouble spots, which can be worked through ahead of time, reducing potential resentment against the new “step” members of the family.

You’re powerless, so own it

If you are a typical helper, you genuinely desire to uplift the world and make it a better place, so along with inspiration, you hope to have the power to accomplish your vision for a better world. As a support person for challenged families, however, you may be paradoxically more powerful by owning your lack of power. This is true on several levels. At a basic, direct level, we helpers need to face it: what can we really do if people do not take up even the most valuable of suggestions we make? When families are struggling to survive, they are as a person in deep water, thrashing about for a lifeline. They may perceive that lifeline in you, and would be willing to drag you into the deep water with them by seeing your help as their only resource.

To do this, however, would mean that they unwisely disregarded their own wisdom and experience. Your mission is to not let that happen; rather, it is to foster their inherent knowing about what is best for them. Thus, you may be clear that you are right beside them, working with them, helping to generate solutions and offering tips but also you are a fallible human being who does not have all the answers. Taking this stance frees up both of you: you, because you really don’t know all that they know about their own situation and therefore what is best for them; them, because they are free to evaluate your offerings sympathetically, but reserving the right to disagree with what you say. This stance reflects that of the resilient family who is a partially open system (see Orientation to wider community, in the previous article).

The other level at which it is true that you are more powerful when you own your lack of power is that of yourself as a model. We speak more on that below, but suffice it to say here that, if you can model feeling comfortable and competent as a guide without all the answers, challenge-tossed parents can emulate your behaviour, gaining respect and credibility from their children and stepchildren for being congruent and genuine. Because teens and pre-teens are inclined to rebel against authority (particularly true for stepchildren who may not like or respect the new stepparent anyway), a stance of not claiming to know and being willing to negotiate is much more likely to be a win-win one in establishing norms and rules in a new family situation.

As a support person, you can model calmness and confidence instead of terror at the prospect of guiding family members without being the ultimate repository of knowledge.

Modelling desired behaviour

Finally, parenting, as we have noted, tends to be a “do what you’ve seen and not what they said to do” type of endeavour. So the more that parents in the throes of transition can observe someone modelling behaviours that would work in their situation, the more effective they can be. Let us examine this truth with respect to three areas: honouring commitments, communicating congruently, and respecting all family members.

Honouring commitments. A stable situation is, of course, one in which one can more easily attend scheduled appointments, keep promises, and bring plans to fruition. A new lone parent, through death, divorce, or suddenly having a FIFO spouse, is not in a stable situation; they are adjusting to a difficult change. So, too, is the situation for families with a newly disabled or sick member or families where violence has begun. In such cases, observing your willingness to honour commitments made serves as both a stabilising force and also a reminder about how one moves from the chaos of transition to the calmness of transition-achieved. Without overstating the case, you may be able to gently remind parents in cases where you observe that a commitment is about to be dishonoured that doing so jeopardises the trust members have been building with one another and undermines what stability there may be. You may be able to creatively generate means for keeping the commitment with the parent.

Communicating congruently. Do your verbal and non-verbal levels of communication match? When you say that you are happy, do you act happy? When you express disappointment or sadness, do you have an appropriate facial expression to register that? When you say that communication is important, do you follow that up with requests for clarification when you do not understand something? You may say to a challenged family that listening is a Number One skill for those who would flourish; do you give your undivided attention to a family member to whom you are listening? If you can say yes to these questions, you are probably modelling the kind of communication skills that, if emulated by the family you are supporting, will move them significantly along the continuum towards resilience.

It is true; all of this is harder in the midst of changes, where high frustration, fear, anger, and sadness impel a style of communication that is raw and non-relational. Thus, the more that all family members – not just parents – can observe the skilful communication that you engage with them, the more they can do it with each other.

Respecting each person. Families that are resilient have as their foundational premise the assumption that each person has value and deserves respect, even if the person’s behaviour is out of line or their views are unpopular. Numerous family situations are ripe for examination of what constitutes respect in circumstances of major transition, but one point is important with all of them: we may not always like people (and the parents you are supporting cannot insist that each of their members like all of the other members, especially in blended families), but we can still offer others our unconditional respect. We can be unfailingly polite. In doing so, we bring out the best in others and make room for genuine affection to grow.

As support person, you may very well find you do not like some of the family members with whom you must deal. Your unconditional respect is a priceless gift which helps to calm the swirling waters of change and conveys that you can handle whatever information the family might give to you. Modelling this shows people how they can similarly manage their own relationships, towards ever greater resilience. (Framework adapted from Becvar, 2007). They will do this more easily if they are functioning within a supportive environment. We look at that now.

Creating supportive contexts

While we have been advocating strategies which consolidate struggling families’ security and shore up members’ sense of belonging and self-esteem, there is another level. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1968)? Maslow noted that, once people met relatively basic needs, they involved themselves in meeting higher needs: ones that Maslow referred to as needs for self-actualisation. Flourishing families do this naturally. In such families, happy experiences are abundant, and they tend to spring from a home ambiance which not only protects and strengthens, but also nurtures and encourages its members.

Such an environment is especially important to a resilient family during troubled times. They develop and maintain it through celebrations and fun, allowing for private time and space, creating family time and enhanced relationships, learning to negotiate and compromise, practicing kindness, and attending to the need for meaning and purpose. Before we embark on those discussions, however, there is one standout point for you as support person: the issue of physical safety.

Ensuring safety, first and foremost

If you are supporting a family which appears to have been exposed to or victimised by domestic violence, none of the rest of the points below is relevant until you help the family get to safety. Remembering that one in three Australian women has experienced violence in her lifetime and that one in five has experienced violence from a current or previous partner (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006), we are talking about a tragically common event. If you look at risk factors and warning signs of violence, are told that someone has experienced violence, or you even just suspect it, your first duty is to get that family to a place of physical safety. You may also be instrumental in helping a woman report the incident to police, or helping her obtain a restraining or protection order (issued by the police). Even if one is issued, however, it may not take effect for some time, during which time the family (usually the woman and her children) need somewhere safe to stay. You need to be vigilant on their behalf, because not all communities enforce protection orders. Safety is your first mission in creating a more positive environment.

Organising private time, private space

Transitions such as death, divorce, illness, remarriage, or coping with violence are big, life-defining events. They evoke considerable need to re-think who we are, and how we do life. They are also stressful. One way to deal with stressors is by having private space and time to contemplate, re-group, or just be with ourselves. Resilient families are ones who not only respect this truth; they also understand the paradox that, when family members (spouses as well as children) are given the option to withdraw for a period, experiencing rich intrapersonal time, they are far more likely to want to opt back into the family unit and enjoy contributing to it.

Some family changes make members particularly vulnerable to losing out on private time or space. The most obvious example is when a stepfamily (either heterosexual or gay/lesbian) forms, bringing children from previous unions with it. In this case, the same house may now contain many more people than before. “My bedroom” may need to become “our bedroom”. Less obviously, a parent, newly-single due to divorce or possibly family violence, may need to move to a less spacious home for financial considerations, necessitating the sharing of space between children that formerly had their own rooms. In a family where a member suddenly becomes disabled or ill, their medical or health needs may mean that someone gives up a space so that new medical equipment (such as a hospital bed) can be accommodated. Yet despite these structural family changes, the need for privacy goes on. What, as a support person, can you do?

Simply helping parents understand the need is the first step. Then you may help to create, in conjunction with family members, a number of ways for individuals to get space sometimes. Members of a couple can (should!) have some separate activities which give them time and space away from one another. A burning-out caregiver may want nothing more than a quiet walk alone, with no demands on her, for an hour, so she needs respite care. Children who must share rooms can still create rules (enforced) to respect one another’s belongings. There might even be ways to let one of the room occupants have private time in the room at times, with the other agreeing to stay out for a period. Ditto the use of communal space. If there is, for example, more than one lounge, members may agree to let an individual have the sole use of one space for an hour or two while the rest of the family piles into the other communal space for a movie or a game.

The essential point here is that flourishing families choose to support one another and to be together. They can make that choice more freely if they have been able to have some time/space apart to cater for their needs for aloneness (which is a pre-requisite for self-actualisation). Private time energises family members – and thus, the whole family – and gives people a deeper capacity for fun and genuine celebration when they do come together.

Celebrating and having fun

It’s been confirmed. Upon realising that all work and no play had made him into a dull boy, Jack found a therapist who suggested that he lighten up a little: that he find some ways to celebrate life and have fun. The families you are supporting may not need much therapy. You could whisper into their collective ear that playfulness, creativity, and spontaneity will bring a sense of aliveness and richness that greatly aids coping. You might even be able to persuade the family that it is the child members who, because they aren’t in the throes of managing a transition in the same way that the adults are, might be able to take on the responsibility of creating that sense of fun.

They could, for example, put up jokes around the house in unlikely places, plan an evening meal where everyone dresses up and talks like someone else while they are eating, or simply have an evening roasting marshmallows and then sleeping together by the fireplace. The kids could head a committee to come up with wacky ideas which would then be approved by the adults. Especially in new remarried families, this would be a way for children to begin bonding with their stepsiblings through their cooperation on “Project Fun”. Definitely, encouraging humour will go a long way to move past current stresses and challenges and foster relatedness.

Celebratory occasions can be put together in much the same way. Handmade certificates, medals, or other honouring items can mark a member’s achievement in a special in some way for an evening. Similarly, a round of appreciative affirmations by others at dinner for some job well done teaches that life can be enjoyable and positive, even while there are challenges happening. The capacity of children to grow into flexible, adaptable, joyful individuals is greatly enhanced by this sometimes unspoken stance that, “Yes, Kenny has been diagnosed with cancer, but right at this moment we can all enjoy some family fun” or “Yes, Daddy’s not back from the mines, but we can still have this time to honour you winning the Spelling Bee now, and we can celebrate again when Dad comes back.”

There is scope for family members to enlarge into the grandest possible vision of their lives that they can hold when they can manage the “both/and”: that is, the ability to acknowledge an unpleasant reality on the one hand, and not let it keep them from experiencing more in-the-moment joy on the other. Holding the “both/and” may even be a requirement for achieving self-actualisation, because it frees someone to experience all of who they are (with all the inherent contradictions) in any given moment.

If, as support person, you see that a parent has missed or is about to miss an opportunity for honouring a family member or celebrating an important milestone, you can gently remind the parent about the importance of these with offers such as, “That’s great that Allen was voted the soccer team’s most valuable player. Would you like me to meet with him to help figure out how we could honour that in the family?” Similarly, you can help coach kids on how to help absent or non-custodial parents realise the importance of what they have just achieved, so that those parents can respond with greater emotional presence. The ability of families to do this supports their broader skills of enhancing relationships.

Enhancing relationships

Resilient families know that to be a highly functional whole, the parts must rub along nicely together. At times of transition, relationships tend to have a lower priority, as the family focus turns to dealing with the change. Beyond that, sometimes the relational changes are the transition. Thus for the members remaining in the household after, say, death, divorce, or a parent going away to work, it is particularly important for there to be one-on-one interactions between all of the members. You can figure on double the importance for biological parents with their own children when a stepfamily forms. Also necessary in this or any situation where there are two parents is couple time, as the couple is the basis for the other relationships. Even if all that can be managed is 15 minutes of quality time per day, it makes a huge difference to the relationship in question if the two members give one another their undivided attention, full listening capability, and a non-judgmental attitude towards what they may hear.

A crucial aspect of coming together for remarried families is to take pressure off the new relationships by limiting expectations from day one. In terms of members of the combined family coming together, it is essential that both the biological and the stepparent appreciate that it is a long and winding road to fabulous blended relationships, and there is little initial return on the investment of energy and time. Knowing this, however, can help stepparents from losing control and issuing the desperate, dead-end ultimatum, “It’s either me or them!”

In your role of support person, you may need to be patient in educating your supported family about how individuals must nurture the family relationships if they wish for the family context (formed by the relationships) to nurture them. Family members will be grateful for your firm insistence on exclusion of television and phones from the quality time. You may even be able to provide, for example, a baby-sitting or caregiving service on occasion in order to allow, say, a single parent to get away for an hour or two of one-on-one time with a child who might be feeling somewhat neglected. However the family does it, such efforts pay big dividends towards helping to create supportive family time.

Creating time for family

Resilient families understand the importance of creating a sense of “we-ness”, a mutuality of concern which helps to ground and strengthen individuals while nurturing their growth and development. Thus, such families take extra care to schedule in family time. This, though difficult to find in the modern world, is nevertheless invaluable to help members experience their roots and learn the larger system dynamic of which they are a part. We mentioned that resilient families tend to have clear authority structures; the creation of family time may be one instance in which members – especially internet-addicted children and teens – are given to understand that non-participation in the family time is mostly not an option (there may be some exceptions to this for adolescents, who need to individuate). Whether it is for a weekly movie, game, meal out, or just hanging out, all members need to understand that every single contribution is vital to creating a sense of belonging among the members, a sense that the family unit holds them in good times and bad.

Blended families can especially benefit from creating family time together, as in doing this they are creating the family! It is important for them to sometimes just experience “real life” together, as opposed to the parents feeling like every outing between the sets of children coming together needs to be an expensive theme park day or other “tourist mega-attraction” (Kemp et al, 2012). As a supporter of a particular family, you may know about their habits, preferences, and obligations. You therefore may be in a position to kickstart their process of option-generation for family activities. Bette and Eric, whose situation was described in the first article of this series, needed to overcome Matthew’s (typical) adolescent resistance to spending parts of the weekend with the family. That they succeeded meant that Matthew got many memories of his father which he is grateful to have now. That they succeeded with harmony – and without World War III being started with Matthew! – is a testament to their resilience skills of negotiation and compromise.

Learning compromise and negotiation

What are the processes for decision-making in the family that you are supporting? Is there one person making the decisions for everyone? Does that person consult first, or just decide? Resilient families can roll with the punches, achieving better interactions generally, because they understand that one of the hallmarks of a flourishing family is that all participate, at least to some degree, in major decisions and event planning. That is, the parents of a household may still make the ultimate decision about where the family, say, goes for holiday, but all of the members may be allowed to give their input as to what they would prefer, with an attempt made to find a solution which contains elements of all the preferences. Child-members of a resilient family can become comfortable with the give-and-take of negotiation, knowing that whether they win or lose a particular case, they are winners because they have participated in a process which gives them a voice and values their perspective as having validity. They become empowered individuals, seeing most situations as negotiable.

Learning to negotiate and compromise can enhance the capacity of all family members to be direct and assertive in their communications. There is no more need for covert agendas, as family members build enough trust in one another and in their capacity for frank discussion that they can meet their needs in an atmosphere of basic fairness and respect. Empowering and growth-engendering, such a context for family life can do much to alleviate the sense of victimisation and powerlessness that sometimes accompanies major change.

Particularly in the case of a family coping with sudden illness or injury, there may be much more to do, and much less person-resource with which to do it. Pre-teens and teens may not agree that their normal life activities should be foregone as a result. Blended families have major negotiations and compromises to make, as do new lone-parent families.

As support person, you may be able to model appropriate framing of issues such that all points of view are able to be heard. Your skill with helping people bring forward issues of concern and demonstrating how to generate multiple options may go a long way towards moving a struggling family onwards towards re-establishing a sense of “normal”.

Practicing kindness

Families that meet the challenges of change with resilience are often notable by their willingness to create a supportive environment through spontaneous acts of kindness towards one another – even anonymously. Remember the injunction from the eighties to “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty”? What if a family were to create an atmosphere so caring and considerate that people regularly took out the trash, brought other members a cup of tea or breakfast in bed, or secretly put someone’s favourite chocolates on their pillow at night – all without being asked? Such actions always contribute to resilience, but they particularly help families to flourish in the wake of a severe crisis or transition.

For example, right after a divorce, a newly single mother may feel particularly unattractive and possibly rejected. The children may be feeling insecure in their household, now missing a member. By emphasising the happiness that a benefactor may derive from doing an act of kindness, you may be able to help members move past their own grief or sense of loss to a sense of mastery, power, and satisfaction. Performance of kindness need not cost money, nor does it need to be unreasonably time-consuming. A children’s drawing with “I love you” on it, a happy face and love note in a lunch pail, or a volunteered run with the vacuum cleaner all say the same thing: “you matter”. They say it all the more strongly when the hard edge of change is cutting the family, as in the case of illness, death, or violence.

In a new remarried family, you can expect there to be less motivation for such acts, but kindness can be “downsized” accordingly. That is, a child may not feel drawn to writing “I love you” on a picture for a stepparent, but they might be willing to draw the picture. Appropriate gestures to stepsiblings may be on the order of a note saying, “Thank you for ____; I really appreciated that.” Slowly, bridges of caring and kindness can be built. This is an easier task if people are able to get some clarity about their life meaning and purpose.

Finding meaning and purpose

We noted among the characteristics of resilience the importance of a strong sense of meaning and purpose, which tends to leave space for the transcendent. Mostly, that sense of meaning and purpose is derived from a connection with something that is larger than ourselves. It may be a cause, a belief in a supreme being, or simply a deep sense of the perfect organisation and symmetry of the universe. Benson (1996) has shown how connecting with transcendent experiences helps us to counter the physical and mental symptoms of stress, and work by Jones (1995) has demonstrated how a sense of meaning and purpose is a consummately important contributor to psychological health. Both studies and objective observations of healing from medical procedures have supported the notion that engaging the stillness activities such as contemplation, meditation, or prayer, ushers in the transcendent clarity about purpose which generates higher levels of functioning, and ushers in a sense of wellbeing and optimism (Miller, 1999). With meaning and purpose, we have hope.

Resilient families tend to have a strong sense of purpose; it colours their interactions with one another and likewise, their capacity for making meaning from the experiences with which life presents them (Framework adapted from Becvar, 2007). Thus, the same-sex couple family, taunted and ridiculed for their sexual orientation, makes meaning of the exclusion by the wider society to set up a sense of “family” as they would prefer to have it, rather than be dictated to by biological givens. The resilient family facing terminal illness, such as that faced by Eric, may use the time – as Bette, Eric, and Matthew did – to draw close to one another. The single father, freshly widowed, vows to use his newfound bachelorhood to deepen his capacity for emotional self-reliance.

One of the caveats of social/emotional supporting is that we as helpers/therapists not make meaning for our supported people; “clients” and those we support need to be free to come to their own understandings, in their own way, in their own time. But where your support may be invaluable is in holding space for that meaning-making after crisis or transition. Your capacity to sit compassionately with various individuals from a family who has lost a member will be much appreciated. Your willingness to be a sounding board for someone trying out new meanings in the wake of huge change is a gift of immeasurable value, one which may help a member of a family, or indeed the whole family, to reclaim a life permeated with hope. At least, you will have helped the family set up a wonderful resource: a supportive environment to better deal with their challenges.


  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (2006) Personal safety survey, Australia 2005. ABS Cat. no. 4906.0 Canberra: ABS. Retrieved on 9 July, 2012, from: hyperlink.
  • Becvar, D. (2007). Families that flourish: facilitating resilience in clinical practice. New York: WW Norton & Company.
  • Benson, H. (1996). Timeless healing: The power and biology of belief. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  • Jones, J.W. (1995). In the middle of this road we call life. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Kehoe, J. (1988). Mind power. Zoetic, Inc.
  • Kemp, G., Segal, J., & Robinson, L. (2012). Guide to step-parenting and blended families: How to bond with stepchildren and deal with stepfamily issues. Retrieved on 6 June, 2012, from: hyperlink.
  • Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being (2nd ed.) Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
  • Merriam-Webster. (2012). Discipline. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved on 17 July, 2012, from: hyperlink.
  • Miller, W.R., (ed.). (1999). Integrating spirituality into treatment: Resources for practitioners. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.