The Making of a Flourishing Family

Have you ever wondered what makes some families capable of moving through very tough times without cracking under the strain? Are they just lucky somehow, or are they doing some things to get through in a happier, healthier way than typical families? What do you make of the family members’ responses to adversity in the following example?

When Eric was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer, the oncologist looked at both Eric and his wife Bette, and said that, first, there was no cure and second, that most people with this particular cancer only had four or five more birthdays after diagnosis – at most. Then she looked straight at Bette and said, “He’ll last longer if he doesn’t have much stress.” In that instant, Bette made up her mind that she would do everything in her power to make Eric’s home life a paragon of relaxation and harmony. Bette had always had a very high-powered job as a top-level manager in the public service, and was accustomed to taking her inbox home at night, working a few more hours at home before returning early the next morning. Despite this, she now undertook to be the complete “domestic goddess” in their small family household as well. She took over all the cooking and kitchen wash-up during the week, and used Saturdays for cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry, and ironing all of their clothes for the coming week. She also dealt with all the money, banking, and taxation issues in their family. In short, she created an environment in which Eric could simply come home from work – which he was still healthy enough to manage at this point – and just relax.

Their only child Matthew was 13 at the time of diagnosis. Both Bette and Eric wanted to wait until he was older to let him know the bad news. What they did now was negotiate with him to make sure that he kept a big part of Sundays free to go on family outings. They both knew that, later on, he would be glad that he had had that time with his dad, even though now it was going “against the grain” of Matthew’s burgeoning adolescent bid for greater independence.

Eric did not wish to let most of his friends know about the dark cloud hanging over his head, so only a few close friends and extended family members were told. Several years after diagnosis, Eric realised that a bone marrow transplant was his only hope of long-term survival. He found out that he could get that in Australia, but not with any health insurance plans in New Zealand, where they lived. So Bette gave up her high-level job in New Zealand, taking up a position in Brisbane. It was one level lower than what she had had in New Zealand, but she wanted to give Eric every chance to live.

Along the way, Matthew had been told the truth, and although he was shocked and grieving at first, he pitched in, doing what he could to help the family get through day-to-day. After graduation from college, Matthew did spend time working in New Zealand, but came back to live with his family in Brisbane, knowing that his time with his father was limited.

Between the excellent medical care, his own strong will, the goodwill of Bette and Matthew, and the change to work that he had always wanted to do, Eric enjoyed a number of fairly good years. When it was time for the bone marrow transplant, Bette took extended leave from work, and sat by his side in the hospital, day after day, for six weeks. Eric was too weak to talk most of the time, but just knowing she was there helped him to rally. Eric eventually passed the 10-years-past-diagnosis mark: a huge milestone for anyone with his diagnosis, as fewer than 10 per cent made it that far. The family used these relatively healthy years of Eric’s to become even more close-knit. Eric had several heart-to-heart talks with Matthew during these years. In one, he simply apologised for all the times that he may not have been a perfect father, or may have unintentionally hurt Matthew or been unfair with him. Matthew was touched by that, and apologised for all the times he may have been an unruly teenager or uncooperative family member. As Eric grew weaker, he gradually began having little talks with both Matthew and Bette separately, advising each of them about things that would help the other person cope better when he was gone (Bette and Matthew only found this out later on when they compared notes). Bette began running interference for him, shielding Eric from excessive visiting: either too many visits, or visits that went on too long.

Matthew had by this time graduated from university, which he chose to attend locally in Brisbane, but deliberately did not take up a job, as he knew his father’s days were coming to a close and he wanted to spend as much time as possible with him. As Eric became progressively weaker, needing at least weekly blood transfusions, Bette used extended work leave to work only part-time, taking Eric to treatments on the other days, and being at home for him. When it was clear that Eric only had a few months left, she retired early to spend those months fully with him.

Eric survived a rare total of fifteen years post-diagnosis. Bette and Matthew were gracious and composed at his memorial service. When asked how they did it, the reply was that they had had fifteen years to cry, and they had been grieving along the way, even as they celebrated Eric’s remarkable staying power. Some years before he died, Eric had become known to all as a very serene, spiritual person: one who was grateful for the time and the life that he had had. When asked how she had managed both the demanding professional arena and also their domestic one so cheerfully, without resentment or burnout, Bette said simply, “I love him. That was my gift to him.”

This true story exemplifies a number of the characteristics that families display when they are flourishing and resilient. In this article, we analyse just what those qualities are. If you are offering support to a family, it will be helpful to know what a family unit might look like when it is highly functional.

Aspects of resilience

We can usually get an intuitive sense of whether or not a family unit has dynamics which help it to support and protect its members. For many of us, it might only be a vague feeling that “there’s something not quite right about the Jones family”, or alternatively, “I always feel great after a visit to the Smiths.” Let’s take that instinctive knowing a step further. What dimensions of family – and the family system – might we identify as characteristics that help that family to prevail over adversity and to flourish? We discuss the following processes or categories of resilience:

  • The atmosphere of the family
  • Collaborative problem-solving and conflict resolution
  • Orientation to the wider community
  • Support for individual development
  • Effective communication and relationship skills
  • Nurturing behaviours, enriching time together
  • Clear family structures, legitimate authority
  • A congruent family story
  • Creating “we-ness”: a mutuality of concern
  • Creation of supportive and celebratory rituals
  • Strong meaning, purpose, and values, with room for the transcendent

The atmosphere of the family

Families that flourish generally have an atmosphere characterised by warmth and a sense of congeniality. There is a caring attitude conveyed both between the members and to those in the “outside” world. People in such a family feel connected to one another, and seek to enhance the wellbeing of one another. An understanding about the importance of interdependence prevails, as well as a sense of optimism about the capacity of the family to support and protect its members. Members have enough positive experience of the consistently caring climate that they are drawn to naturally expecting and looking for the best in others – both within the family circle and outside of it – even though they are not unrealistic about the foibles of human nature.

Such family members are also likely to allow others to have a different opinion without rejecting or punishing them for that. In a warm, welcoming climate, there is room for the different subjective world views of all of the members. This enhances the family’s capacity to be able to debate issues and express opinions in a way that does not create conflict, as opposed to an authoritarian context where any dissension from the “authority” opinion would spell trouble. Because there is no one belief system to which all must adhere, discussion centres not on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of someone’s idea; rather, the family process is one of searching for ways to work together despite differences of opinion.

Collaborative problem-solving and conflict resolution

Have you ever been in an argument with someone, decided to meet up to resolve it, but then ended up just rehashing the original disagreement? Resilient families don’t do that. Rather, they engage in collective brainstorming and shared decision-making. They know how to formulate workable goals and practical steps to arrive at them. Their preferred method of conflict resolution is not an aggressive win-lose stance nor is it an unassertive lose-win one in which someone acts merely to placate another. In fact, they do not even hold compromise in the highest regard, realising that the trade-offs that occur in that process are sometimes too costly and not necessary. Nor does the “ostrich” solution – just sticking one’s head into the proverbial sand and ignoring the conflict – attract them. Collaborative problem-solving, the gold standard for conflict resolution, is the preferred modus operandi for flourishing families. They thrive on negotiation, because they instinctively understand that that, as opposed to power tactics, is what equals do.

What gives resilient families the faith that they can work things out? It is helped immeasurably by the warm atmosphere and the respectful, supportive attitudes that they hold for one another. In such a climate, members can comfortably engage in pro-active seeking of discussion in order to forestall problems, avoid crisis, and be prepared to deal with the future. The good news for such families is that this way of approaching problems also tends to be used outside the family, with positive consequences for the members’ interactions in the wider community.

Orientation to the wider community

On this important dimension of resilience, healthy families figure out how to be responsive to the broader context – say, their community – without being overwhelmed by it. Neither a totally closed system (into which no input can come) nor a totally open system (in which all feedback/input is accepted) feels right to such a family. Rather, they let in what makes sense to let in. Families that flourish tend to have boundaries based on clear values, norms, and rules. These maintain their individuality, but are flexible, such that if a rule or value change is deemed necessary, it is possible. Members tend to have networks of solid relationships outside the family, which provides them with additional support. In order to maintain the networks, members devote energy to them, helping their friends and acquaintances when needed. In fact, taking the initiative to become involved is a hallmark of a well-functioning family, and the main question is whether members extend their assistance at the level of their neighbourhood, their children’s school, their local church/mosque/temple, or in regard to some sort of political advocacy. Because family members are oriented with caring and concern to a larger context than their own family, they avoid the mistake of social isolation, and ensure that resources are available when they need them.

Support for individual development

Which is better: to encourage independence, or to allow people the option of going into their dependent mode, asking for help, solace, and comfort? Families with a high level of functionality realise the importance of doing both, in a healthy balance. The paradox is that, as connection (involving dependence) is fostered, so, too, is independence. Resilient people instinctively understand the importance of having both modes available, depending on which is more appropriate in the moment. The high levels of autonomy that form half of the equation are sometimes expressed in the various activities that spouses pursue totally apart from each other. Similarly, the children may follow entirely different areas of interest from one another: one child wild about dancing, for example, while a second is a passionate nature lover, and the third adores soccer. The encouragement to follow their own interests sets up a context for support and thriving.

When allowed to be in touch with themselves, family members improve their capacity for empathy with others, and also their willingness and ability to take responsibility for their own feelings thoughts, and actions. Thus, effective support and communication becomes the norm, and also is how healthy processes are managed.

Effective communication and relationship skills

At the heart of the flourishing family is always a capacity for effective communicating and relating. And at the heart of effective communication is the capacity for congruence: that is, the ability to match verbal language with nonverbal language, thereby avoiding double messages. Good communicators interact directly, giving full attention to whomever is speaking, and asking for clarification when the message seems unclear. They acknowledge what they believe they heard before moving on to make their own point, which tends to reduce conflict and help discussions to happen in a polite and efficient way. Individuals in resilient families are able to take up a variety of positions, but no one gets stuck in only one way of responding, such as the person who always withdraws, or the person who must always dominate, expecting others to submit.

Well-functioning families are comfortable to give compliments to one another, and there is ready acknowledgement for the achievements and milestones that occur. Members’ capacity for open, expressive affect – all sorts of emotion – is high. This includes individuals’ willingness to express anger if necessary, though there tends not to be as much disagreement as agreement. Assertive, direct, yet affirming and respectful, healthy families enjoy communicating with each other and they do it well.

Nurturing behaviours, enriching time together

Healthy families can be observed enjoying each other’s company. Whether they go for a picnic, a concert, or a bike ride, or just get together to share a meal, the emphasis is on generating positive energy and enriching their sense of family through being together. To a resilient family unit, both serious time for supporting and listening and light-hearted playtime are important. Just as significant as whole family activities are the times when one member comes together for a one-on-one with another member. There is awareness that, in order to thrive, the family must have both.

For their part, the parents of a well-functioning family make sure to enrich and nurture the spousal relationship, as that is the basis of all the other relationships. The parents may get together for a weekly date night – just the two of them – or they may carve out time to do things with other adults. They tend to be able to manage intimacy and sexual expression in a way that nurtures them emotionally and has basic equality of power. A highly functioning couple models for their children a healthy, mature relationship, one in which the partners are clear about developing together in some ways, as opposed to merely drifting into totally separate activities. The latter sort of relationship tends not to be durable at the “empty nester” stage; such parents often find they have nothing in common when the children leave, and find no reason to stay together.

An important aspect of enrichment for flourishing families is time spent together as a group. It is not just the sense that they should get together because they are family. There is also the pleasure they take from one another’s company, whether they are doing structured activities such as a meal or a church service, or merely just “chilling out” as a family. Having regular times to be together enhances the family’s understanding of themselves as a unit, and strengthens the individual members’ sense of belonging. Because healthy families have a predominantly warm, affectionate climate, they naturally impart to their members a capacity for feeling and expressing empathy with others. This results in a willingness to let go of grudges, and sweeps away lingering resentments or underlying conflicts. In such a family, positive interactions greatly outnumber negative ones. The positive encounters enable a sense of spontaneity and humour. Joke-telling, teasing, and playfulness abound. When members learn not to take themselves too seriously, they also learn to cope more flexibly with life’s challenges. Such a family environment revitalises and strengthens its members.

Clear family structures, legitimate authority

When you were growing up, whom did you perceive as the legitimate head of the family: your father? Your mother? If you had any live-in relatives such as grandmother or grandfather, where did they stand in the hierarchy? If you were lucky to grow up in a resilient family, the chances are that, whoever was head, their authority was clear. This is not to say that the head would have acted in a domineering, authoritarian manner; hopefully there was sharing of power for planning and decision-making. But what matters for family members – particularly the children – is that there is clarity about the family structure, and that it is defined and respected.

If you were deeply lucky, you also were governed by a stable rule system which the authorities in the household enacted consistently. That is, if you pulled your sister’s hair, you got in trouble, but so did your brother if he committed the same offence. Moreover, you got in trouble every time you did it. If, say, Mum and Dad disagreed somewhat about what the punishment for the offence should be, they did not show the disagreement when you were being disciplined. This would have wiped out your potential game of “playing both ends against the middle”: for example, getting agreement from one parent to do something and then telling the second parent (who would never have granted permission) that the first parent had said yes.

In a healthy family, boundaries are clear around rules, discipline, and authority. The other, usually unspoken rule, is that there are no “triangles”: those dysfunctional groupings where, instead of legitimate one-on-one relating in a family, a member brings in a third party, either “ganging up” on the other person, or else inappropriately involving a third member. If you were further encouraged in your family to sort out your own problems with your siblings without involving your parents (insofar as possible), you probably grew up with a greater capacity for reciprocity, cooperation, and negotiation.

A congruent family story

When Meg, a college student, fell while rollerblading with her boyfriend, she broke her arm, but her parents were already in bed when she returned home, so she didn’t go to the emergency department that night. Her father took her the next day, and as she waited for treatment – in excruciating pain by this time – he looked at her and said, “You’ll be ok. You come from sturdy stock.”

Meg didn’t realise it at the time, but that phrase, probably uttered almost automatically by her father, would become her mantra in years to come when things got tough. It was not something that her father thought a lot about; it was just how he operated his life and brought up his family. As such, it constituted a family myth for Meg’s family: that is, a story that a family tells itself about itself. If the story matches what is actually going on, and is also congruent with how those outside the family see it, then that family could be said to have a congruent family mythology or story, and is showing resilience. The family does not flourish when it creates a story that is not based in reality. For instance, to perpetuate a myth that “We are one big happy family” when several of the members haven’t spoken with one another for years would be to weaken the family dynamic with denial and a consequent inability to then deal with what is actually happening. When a family story is congruent, on the other hand, it allows its members to engage in realistic self-appraisal, while providing a lens for viewing itself that focuses on possibilities and potentials rather than limitations or deficits.

The advantage of a positive mythology is that the particular story or belief that is told can be an enormous source of inspiration, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for its members. An example of this could be the family that says, “We are resourceful under pressure”. It members will be motivated to think creatively in order to find the needed resources when adversity strikes.

Creating “we-ness”: a mutuality of concern

Successful families don’t distance themselves from the family unit. Rather, they see that “We are all in this together.” They know that, in order to flourish, they must create a mutuality of concern, a collective sense that all members are creating what ultimately occurs; thus, all members have some responsibility for monitoring their actions, words, and thoughts in order to create at the highest possible level. Such an attitude tends to preclude blaming and fault-finding.

You can think of it like a set of dominoes, placed on end equidistant from one another. The assumption in a dysfunctional family might be (unconsciously) that the dominoes are placed in a straight line. Thus, to knock over the first domino – which knocks over the second one, which knocks over the third one and so on – is to have initiated some action which will not have boomerang consequences for the initiating actor. After all, the last domino in the row is just going to fall over, end of story. In a resilient family, conversely, there is a sense of “we-ness”, a sense of being in an interconnected web where any actions taken, favourable or unfavourable, come back to one eventually. The assumptions made by this sort of a family are more akin to a set of dominoes placed in a circle. Any domino in the circle can act, but if it pushes over the one in front of it, the dominoes will keep falling until the domino in back of the initiating domino falls over onto the initiating one, completing the circle of causality.

Characteristic of families showing this sort of systemic orientation is the holding of a set of goals for the collective whole, and also, being capable of helping individuals in the system to hold goals. The collective goals help the family to identify and live its meaning and purpose (a huge boost for psychological wellbeing and resilience: Jones, 1995), and the pursuit of individual goals feeds back into the system (the family), enriching it.

Creation of supportive and celebratory rituals

What rituals does your family celebrate? When you think of “ritual”, what comes to mind? Is it something like decorating the Christmas tree together, or do you also include daily rituals, such as a prayer period or story-reading with children at bedtime? Because rituals fulfil so many functions for the flourishing family, there tend to be many observed. Not only do rituals help family members to accept change, growth, and loss, but they also can build and maintain a sense of identity. Rituals have the capacity to move people from feelings of powerlessness to those of having a sense of control and mastery. Rituals can create a sense of joy and help to structure grief that needs to be expressed, which helps to alleviate anxiety.

Rituals to do with formal celebrations of holidays such as Christmas, Easter, weddings, and funerals are well known to most Westerners. The celebrant telling the groom, “You may kiss the bride” or the community organiser putting together an Easter egg hunt for the little ones are familiar rituals, hallowed by their long-standing tradition. No less important are the daily rituals that families do, from the prayers before taking food together at dinner to weekend play routines which may evolve as the family grows up. One ritual with high potential for creating wellbeing in its members is the practice, often observed at dinnertime, of each person sharing something from their day with the rest of the family. Some families call it the “Rose and Thorn” ritual, in which each person names something that was a “thorn in their side” that day (i.e., a challenge), and also something that made their life as sweet-smelling as a rose (that is, a happy event). Other families have a round-robin sharing of something that they are grateful for that day. Occasional celebratory rituals may include ways of marking achievements, such as good grades at school, a promotion, or a medal won in a sporting event. Perhaps the person being feted gets to wear a crown for the evening, and choose what the family has for dinner, or maybe they wear a special home-made medal, which is returned to the cupboard after use, ready for the next such celebration.

The precise rituals do not matter. What is important is the sense of collective marking of happenings in a particular way to honour, celebrate, and/or transform the events impacting on the family. Role performances are thus acknowledged, the sense of family identity and belonging is strengthened, and structures, rules, and boundaries are observed and sometimes influenced.

Strong meaning, purpose, and values, with room for the transcendent

If you are supporting a struggling family, does their value system include the dimension of the transcendent? That is, does the family have either a belief in a supreme being, force or spirit, or else a value system which is ethical and humanistic? Highly functioning families tend to the important process dimension of transcendence, whether or not it includes belief in a particular religion, in order to extend their sense of relatedness and continuity across a greater time-space continuum.

This awareness of this level of being often impels flourishing individuals and families to define their meaning and purpose in life through specific values which are centred on the pursuit of alignment with the spiritual. Such individuals generally possess a strong sense of a life mission or destiny, and are altruistic, idealistic, and strongly desirous of helping others. They have a sense of the sacredness of life, although it is the spiritual realm, rather than the material realm of “life on earth” where they are focused. This orientation is regarded by mental health experts as critical for both physical health and also psychological strength and coping (Jones, 1995). (General framework adapted from Becvar, 2007).

No family is perfect, nor does any family possess all of the foregoing characteristics in perfect measure. Families that flourish, however, have a number of these traits. They can be distinguished by their spirit, which bespeaks a confidence, competence, and belief in themselves born of past experience of coping effectively and learning from it. Such families are resilient because they are able to make meaning from adversity, enabling them to get back into the swing of life. Finding purpose in even hard times breeds success in retaining a positive outlook after a crisis. With high levels of communicational and relational skill, flourishing families evidence flexibility, adaptability, and connectedness. They solve problems collaboratively, with open emotional expression. And they are resourceful: not wealthy in a material sense, necessarily, but emotionally and socially resourced, and able to use what they have well.

This article is part one of a two-part series. In the follow-up article in this series we’ll explore strategies for enhancing the resilience of those family units who may be experiencing dysfunction from within or stress from the outer environment.


  • Becvar, D. (2007). Families that flourish: facilitating resilience in clinical practice. New York: WW Norton & Company.
  • Jones, J.W. (1995). In the middle of this road we call life. New York: Harper Collins.