The modern day family is diverse in nature, with families today made up of a wide range of people. Healthy family relationships are key to the development of children’s positive mental health, with the family unit providing a central support network for children. Healthy families can consist of any person or group of people a child shares an emotional bond, common values and responsibilities with, and who contributes significantly to a child’s wellbeing. These families might consist of aunts, uncles, grandparents, step-parents or adoptive parents, and any person who plays a significant care-giving role for a child.
Healthy family relationships greatly influence children’s mental health and wellbeing as they help children build trust and feel supported. Children can share worries and stresses within healthy families, and can be supported to manage through these challenges. Family relationships also offer children their first opportunities to practise positive relationship skills that they can apply to other relationships in their life; even simple skills like saying ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’.
Emily McDonald, Senior Manager Practice Development for Relationships Australia Victoria is a keen believer in the importance of healthy family relationships. “Close family relationships influence us across our life span and play a crucial role in our growth and development by teaching us about the fundamental ways our connections to others can enrich our lives and wellbeing, and guide us to make good choices.”
“Increasingly, evidence1 indicates that being in a healthy relationship is a positive predictor of better health and wellbeing.
“Healthy family relationships have their ups and downs with moments that are supportive and moments that can feel disappointing and hurtful. Close family relationships are a very good place to learn how to accept people’s differences, manage your own emotions, and practice negotiation and conflict resolution skills.”
Fostering healthy family relationships can be achieved through:
Making relationships a priority
- One way children learn is through observing adults behaviour, so it is important to role-model healthy interactions and place value on family relationships.
Making time to spend together as a family
- Quality time is a key ingredient in fostering healthy relationships. Spending time as a family can take many forms including mealtimes, trips to the park, board games etc. Quality time also includes day-to-day activities such as taking children to school and sporting activities. It is not the amount of time that makes these interactions quality, rather the investment of time and interest in children that matters.
Clear, open and effective communication
- Communication is an important building block of healthy relationships. All children respond well to communication that is clear and open. These communication patterns can then be internalised by children and carried into other relationships.
- Affection can be shown in a variety of ways; it can be physical or verbal. Showing affection within the family unit supports children to feel loved, cared for and safe.
Supporting each other
- When children feel supported by family, they are more likely to experience a deeper bond and connection within the family unit. This assists children to manage life’s inevitable stress.
Creating opportunities for engagement in leisure activities
- Today’s modern families are often busy with a multitude of commitments, so creating opportunities to engage in leisure activities is key to supporting families to develop and maintain strong and positive connections.
Clear boundaries and expectations
- Children thrive in environments where boundaries and expectations are clear. Ensuring all family members are clear and consistent as far as possible helps to foster healthy interactions.
Emily adds, “Families can build healthy relationships with their children through consistency, comfort, care and play, and making sure children feel accepted, loved and appreciated. Having clear expectations and limits on behaviours, routines and boundaries is also important in a healthy relationship.
“You can assist your child to recognise and manage their emotions, and be proactive in repairing moments in your relationships with your children that don’t go so well or might be negative or destructive.
“One last thing is very important too - looking after your own emotional health and your own relationships!”
1. Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001; Proulx, Helms, & Buehler, 2007