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What Makes Families Thrive?

Friday, August 10, 2018

With the recent opening of Norfolk Island’s new child and family support service, it’s timely to find out what we know about families that thrive. Surprisingly, apart from a raft of Google pages devoted to blogs telling people to spend more time together, tackle conflict positively, recognise each family member’s strengths, and follow the lead of good role models, there seems to be little evidence-based research that unpacks the ingredients of successful families.

The guru of couple’s therapy, John Gottman, who has devoted over 40 years studying couples, is one exception who has turned his sights on families. Gottman’s research was the first to use observational coding systems refined over many years to map out the critical elements or building blocks of successful couples. His scientific research with thousands of couples and families included observations, interviews, physiological, and questionnaire data. Some families were tracked for as long as 20 years to observe changes in how this social system works at different stages in the family life cycle.

Gottman’s research pinpointed the emotional climate between the parents as being a core indicator of thriving families. By this he means the strength of each adults’ ability to manage their own emotional states, and to be attuned to the emotional states of their family members. Put simply, this means having the capacity to look inwards whilst also being able to look outwards. It means being focused on the multitude of subtle changes in emotional states we have ourselves in response to things going on around us, and at the same time being able to observe and make sense of subtle changes in the emotional state of another person (or in the case of the family, several other persons).

In his books, Gottman is critical of much of the popular parenting literature as he claims the focus on “discipline” rather than “attachment” and “interaction” is flawed. For families to thrive, people have to (a) feel safe and connected to each other, and (b) attune their brains to each other, like master satellite dishes constantly on watch for changes in each other. More importantly, he suggests that we must also have the skills for smoothing out ripples in the emotional climate, bearing in mind that there’s no “one size fits all” method for getting disturbed emotions back into a state of stability.

Another key element Gottman recognises is that there’s much more to re-stabilising emotional ripples than just words – saying “the right thing”. His work with communications experts like Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen led to developing the Specific Affect Coding System (SPAFF) for observing emotional shifts between people in families. These are tied to behavioural patterns, the habits people develop over time which becomes a kind of short-hand communication system

Another body of work that helps us identify what makes families thrive is that of Stephen Covey. His book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families” (1997) also took the focus off discipline and parenting. Instead, Covey emphasises “beginning with the end in mind”. That is, what is your vision for this family? He recommends looking beyond the front fence and developing a “flight plan” which is the end point at which you are aiming. Covey asks us to describe our family in 20 years’ time – how will it be operating?

Covey talks about being proactive – looking into the future and seeing possible road bumps, then putting in place plans to avoid or minimise them. He suggests learning to “hit the pause button” rather than instantly reacting and being able to respond thoughtfully rather than react uncontrollably. Part of being proactive is also depositing into the family’s emotional bank account.

Understanding is critical to successful families. By this, we mean not jumping to conclusions or making hasty judgements, but being able to listen with an open mind and heart, as well as being able to share openly your own views, needs or emotions. It’s about setting up an open flow of information between family members about they each tick.

Finally, Covey talks about celebrating differences rather than trying to clone every member of the family. Differences are what captivates our attention in the wild, and in our social systems it’s no different. Seeing and thinking differently give us the opportunity to critically review our own positions on thing. It is also a chance to see completely new and exciting ways to move on from an argument or stonewalling.

What Covey and Gottman have in common, apart from their guidelines being based on extensive research, is that they drill down into how families work based on good evidence which is now being supported by neuroscience. They also talk about good research showing that families can be coached to success in the same way we do with individuals and with work teams. Rather than waiting until the family is in trouble, both suggest learning techniques from coaching so that your family becomes a work or art, a dynamic living being that is constantly nourished to grow stronger and more resilient.

Dr Kate Lemerle, Psychologist

Chrysalis Counselling & Coaching, Norfolk Island


TEL: 52112 or email

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