9 Successful Family Traits
Protecting your family’s mental health and maintaining strong family relationships is a challenge even in the best of times. These days, it can feel more overwhelming than ever. As a parent and role model, building a healthy family while living through a global pandemic, helping your child navigate school, and keeping an eye on social media may feel like a daunting task. It can be difficult to know where to prioritize your time and energy to have the most significant impact on everyone’s well-being. So what traits make a family successful?
Research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that compiled findings from various disciplines (psychology, psychiatry, social work, sociology, and marriage and family counselors) provides some guidance and is supported by research from Oregon State University – Cascades.
According to the HHS research, successful families are enduring, cohesive, affectionate, and mutually appreciative. Family members communicate with each other frequently and fruitfully, and children go on to form successful families of their own. “They are not necessarily families that are trouble-free,” researchers noted. “Some have experienced health problems, financial difficulties, and other problems. But they are adaptable and able to deal with crises in a constructive manner.”
What Are the Top Traits of Successful Families?
According to the HHS research, nine traits exist in strong, healthy families:
- Expressing appreciation.
- Time together.
- Encouragement of individuals.
- Ability to adapt.
- Religious/spiritual orientation.
- Social connectedness.
- Commitment to family.
- Clear roles.
Embark Division President Dustin Tibbitts, LMFT, characterized the traits of successful families as straightforward for parents looking to assess and improve their family dynamic. “Their straightforwardness can be helpful because often parents tend to make it too hard,” he said, adding that parents also take a lot of shame upon themselves when things aren’t going well.
Below, Tibbitts explores the nine traits and offers tips for parents.
1. Expressing appreciation
When was the last time you said thank you or told your child you are grateful for them? Tell them you are thankful they are a part of your life and share the specific attributes, actions, or experiences that you appreciate about them. These simple gestures are compelling for successful family life.
According to Tibbitts, “The No. 1, most important way to help mental health is the expression of appreciation and gratitude. It sounds hokey, but it’s extremely powerful.”
2. Time together
When it comes to time together, there are two key concepts:
- Focus on quality over quantity. For example, when you’re together, practice active listening, which involves reflection (paraphrasing what your child says) and empathy (understanding their emotions based on what they share with you).
- Be available when your child needs you — on their time, not yours.
“A lot of parents feel guilty because they’re not out playing ball with their kid, taking them on trips, or going shopping,” Tibbitts said. “But really, what kids want is the time when they want it.
“So, if your teenager approaches you at 9 p.m. and you’re tired, but you give them time, that’s what they want. Even a half-hour goes a long way. Of course, it’s harder to do that when you’re exhausted, but successful families do that. They give their kids time when they need it.”
3. Encouragement of individuals
This may sound similar to the first successful family trait, but there’s an important distinction.
“Encouragement is different than appreciation,” Tibbitts said. “Appreciation is gratitude. Encouragement is saying, ‘You can do it!’, ‘There’s hope for the future!’, and ‘You’ve got this, and I’m right here with you.’”
Encouragement should take the form of mutual support, recognition, and respect. The HHS research noted that “Strong families cultivate a sense of belonging to a family unit, but also nurture the development of individual strengths and interests. Members enjoy the family framework, which provides structure but does not confine them.”
In the HHS research, experts recommend that families’ communication be “clear, open, and frequent.” They also noted that “Family members talk to each other often, and when they do, they are honest and open with each other.”
Tibbitts added that parents should focus on a real, true emotional connection that’s delivered in a way your child can receive it. Parents can assess if their child is receiving and internalizing connection based upon their body language, word choices, eye contact, voice tone, use of appropriate touch, conversational pacing, how often they seek parents out, and other cues.
5. Ability to adapt
Can your family react to and handle stressful situations in constructive ways? Can you grow and change when the circumstances demand it?
Tibbitts said, “Most psychosis, most neurosis, and most mental health problems come from rigidity and the inability to adapt.”
By teaching your children flexibility and adaptability, you prepare them to handle the inevitable stressors and challenges that life presents. For example, when a child fails at a school assignment, parents can work alongside them to provide support in giving it another go. If a child faces a disappointment like an activity canceled due to COVID-19, parents can encourage their child to come up with a creative replacement activity instead of doing nothing.
6. Religious/spiritual orientation
Having a connection to the broader world is vital for healthy development. According to Tibbitts, “Families that are successful share a common spirituality. This is not religion, per se, but a deep spirituality — a connection to something greater than yourself. Expressing that with your child, and helping them tap into that connection for themselves, goes a long way.”
Spirituality can be found in many places if you are not religious. Connecting with nature and your community can help put your child and family in a frame of mind to feel a part of the world around you.
7. Social connectedness
Tapping into the resources and support of groups outside your family — from friends to neighbors to community organizations — is crucial for creating strong bonds for family members.
“I’ve interviewed a lot of families,” Tibbitts said, “and families who have traditions that involve participation in the community are more successful than others.”
These community ties could be as simple as celebrating the Fourth of July with your neighbors, maintaining a tradition with your friends to share Thanksgiving together, or caring for an ailing neighbor. This stable base outside the family provides another layer of support to help cope with adversity and build meaning into life’s challenges.
8. Commitment to family
According to the HHS research, in a committed family, “They have a sense of being a team; they have a family identity and unity.” This commitment goes two ways, from the individual to the family and the family to the individual.
One way to build this commitment is through shared responsibilities.
“Especially for teenagers, they need to feel like they’re part of something,” Tibbitts said. “As much as they fight it, they’ve got to have some sense of meaning in the family, and that’s accomplished through responsibility.”
For example, many families have pets their children are responsible for. Helping aging grandparents with chores around the yard, babysitting younger siblings, changing the oil in a car, helping decorate for a holiday, and taking a turn cooking dinner are other good examples.
9. Clear roles
Knowing where you stand in your family structure and what role you play in times of crisis is critical for a well-functioning family. The HHS researchers noted, “With a clear yet flexible structure in place, family members are aware of their responsibilities in and to the family. Consequently, in the face of crises and problems, members know their roles.”
Tibbitts added, “What is your child’s role, and is it clear? What is the parent’s role, and is that clear? We see a lot of problems with families who are so fluid and nebulous that the kids are simply confused all the time.”
For example, Tibbitts said, some single parents defer the correction of siblings to an older child, and this can be confusing. “Take a moment to sit down together and outline when and where this might be appropriate so that the child knows what it means to be an adult versus an older sibling,” he said.
Similarly, some families allow children unsupervised access to credit cards, cellular phones, and the Internet. Tibbitts said taking time to thoughtfully set limits and boundaries around money, time with friends, and time online is an adult role — and it will result in children feeling much more secure and stable.
By striving to ensure your family reflects the nine traits of successful families, you can provide a healthy and nurturing environment not only for your child but also for future generations.
“Families with clear roles who spend time together, communicate well, adapt to stressors, appreciate and encourage one another, and are connected to their communities and to something greater than themselves are successful — and they’re setting future generations up for success as well,” Tibbitts said.