Study shows the importance of the ties that bind us

There’s good news about families. Regardless of life’s inevitable challenges, families remain strong, resilient and lasting when attainable characteristics, practices and priorities are in place. These common strengths of thriving families can be found in a wide variety of family make-ups and circumstances. They’re not tied to family structure, nor are they guaranteed by wealth. They are a result of getting the basics right.

The basic strengths of strong families, according to research, include characteristics like the ability to adapt to change, having clear roles for family members and maintaining overall physical, mental and economic health. Practices like spending family time together, communicating with and being committed to each other, and establishing accountability and mutual respect are considered key strengths. Also on the list are priorities like having community ties, spirituality, cultural traditions and an extended sense of family.

The most recent and broadest research is the American Family Assets Study by Minneapolis’ Search Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to discovering what kids need to succeed.

The Search Institute has spent the last 50 years looking into the strengths in young people’s lives, and the last 25 focused on developing assets they need to grow up successfully. Their study, published in 2012, was based on the results of a 2011 Harris Interactive survey, which polled a diverse cross-section of more than 1,500 families. “A big part of our research is understanding the power of focusing on strengths … of counterbalancing the negative messages about kids and families that are out there,” says Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Ph.D., the institute’s vice president of research and development. “We know that family is important, and yet it’s sometimes hard to be tangible about what that means.”

Eugene and his team had a sense that what was happening in families and what those families shared as common strengths were part of what they needed to tap into to help build stronger families. In the end they identified 21 tangible things families can do to be stronger units. These family strengths, or “assets,” as the institute refers to them, center around five common qualities or actions:

1. Nurturing Relationships

Are family members respectfully listening to each other? Showing each other affection? Encouraging each other? Asking about each other’s highs and lows of the day is a great way to keep in emotional touch. “Relationships shape us so much, as do the quality of the relations with each other,” Eugene says. “The way we get along shapes family life. It matters. It’s what gets us through challenging times.”

There are high societal expectations of closeness. There is no other group of people we spend more time with. There is no relationship like the parent-child relationship. And there are no other relationships where those involved have such a great stake in each other’s lives. We are responsible for each other. Sometimes grandparents are part of that immediate family. Sometimes friends are.

2. Establishing Routines

Are you eating dinner together? Hanging out together by planning regular game or movie nights? Creating meaningful traditions, like half-birthday celebrations or doing fondue as the first meal of the new school year? Can you depend on each other? Do you have a family calendar everyone has access to?

Kathleen Fischer, a Dallas-based family and parenting coach and author, uses the 21 Family Assets often when working with families and refers to family dinnertime as a secret weapon.

“When parents say, ‘How am I going to connect with my kids?’ I ask how many times they eat dinner as a family. This is your best tool, your most consistent, easiest way to broach tough subjects, to check in, to get a barometer on how they’re doing in the day.”

3. Maintaining Expectations

Are the rules fair? The boundaries well-defined? Can you discuss the tough topics? Is everyone contributing?

“As your kid is moving toward being in charge of his own life, the amount he’s contributing back to the family is important,” Kathleen says. “I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about, ‘Would you pick up a gallon of milk?’ ‘Would you take Jonathan to soccer practice?’ If my kid is on the East Coast in college and Grandpa is getting over pneumonia, can he take the train down to Philly and check on him? Not only is it a relief to Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, but it also says to the kid, ‘You have a real role to play as you begin to contribute back to the family in adult ways.’ ”

4. Adapting to Challenges

Is everyone doing what needs to be done at home, work and school? Do family duties need to adjust while Mom is out of town or your 16-year-old studies for finals or a state debate competition?

Does the family adapt well when faced with changes? Do you work together to solve problems? Is everyone’s voice heard? Even Eugene, who has been a parent for decades and has one senior in high school and a recent college graduate, learned something along the way. He was surprised at how important adaptability was to those interviewed for the study.

“It’s easy to forget how important it is to adjust when things come up,” he says. “When we talked with families in the study, we weren’t originally thinking about this. We were thinking communications and routines, but people kept bringing this up, that they’d been through some tough stuff. To me, that was one of the pieces that stood out. It’s actually something we can celebrate, that we can use to get through the tough times.”

5. Connecting to Communities

Do family members have relationships with others in the community, with coaches, teachers and other adults? Are neighbors looking out for each other? Do you feel a part of your community and are family members active in it and giving back to it? Are there nearby places each member of your family feels at home, like a neighborhood coffee shop, church or a friend’s house?

“The best families are not cocoons against the world, but families that are connected and engaged in the world,” Eugene says. “Different people bring fresh perspectives, new ideas. When there’s a disaster, it’s the neighbors who help you through it. When a family becomes too isolated from activities and broader connections, it’s not good for them.”

The study found that the more assets a family has, the stronger parents and children will be. Broadly, kids from such families are more engaged in school, take better care of themselves and stand up when they see someone treated unfairly. Parents of these families also are more likely to watch their health and be active in their communities.

Strengths Trump Structure and Demographics

People sometimes equate a “good family” with a particular type of family—and that family usually looks like the person imagining the perfect family. The image of a strong family then becomes based on who is in the family, who isn’t in the family, as well as our own individual values.

“That doesn’t capture enough about what a family is,” Eugene says. “You can have a traditional two-parent, two-kids-and-a-dog fabulous family. But you can also have a family that’s abusive and dysfunctional that looks just like that.” Regardless of the structure, “What are the processes and relationships going on with the family?” is what is more important to ask, he says.“What happens when we pay attention to those?”

The American Family Assets Study shows those processes and relationships matter far more when you’re looking at outcomes than demographics do. Statistically controlling for family size, composition and neighborhood, demographics may account for 5 to 10 percent of the outcome difference among families (how happy and successful their children end up). The 21 Family Assets account for a 30 to 35 percent difference.“Family isn’t isolated, but has a unique role,” Eugene says. “You’ve been with them from early childhood, all the way through. And you have this deep bond and attachment. That’s just different than any other relationship.”

The assets study is one of only a few studies since at least the ’70s, Eugene says, that has tried to quantitatively look at family strengths. It seems in more recent years, we’ve gotten too caught up in the techniques of parenting. But a positive spin on the family and children in the past decade has started to cast a different lens on the family: “We started asking ourselves, ‘What is it that families were doing that made them function well and helped parents raise happier, healthier kids?’”

The Search Institute research uniquely includes the important role children play in the strength of a family, a change Doug has seen in the research community in the last 15 or so years: “Some of the positives of the Family Assets have to do with what the youth contributes to the family. They have an important role and contribution. Recognizing that within a family is very important.”

From the April 2014 issue of Live Happy magazine.