“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family” – Virginia Satir
For most of us, our family – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, grandfathers, and grandmothers – is an essential part in our lives, and are some of the most meaningful and important relationships we have. In the womb and up until birth, our very first relationship is with our mother. She is the one that nurtures, feeds, and cares for us in the strange and unfamiliar world we’ve been born into. As we develop throughout our formative years of childhood, we learn what it means to be in relationships with others through our relationships with our family members; carrying this dynamic – whether healthy or unhealthy, constructive or destructive – into every future relationship throughout our lives.
Most modern families are founded upon crisis, intense emotions, quick fixes, instant gratification, and self-centeredness; cultivating deep-seated hurt, anger, resentment, and abjection that penetrates into the core of our personality and self-identity. Symptoms surface most when family dynamics experience intense pressure, stress, and unrealistic expectations: people become silent, reactive, invisible, unheard, miserable, dominating, submissive, and insecure; they start yelling, criticizing, blaming, abusing, neglecting, and hurting those they love and care about most. Children who observe and experience these traits in their family grow up learning the best way to solve their problems and get their needs met is by fighting, escaping, or manipulating others.
In my professional experience working in the field of substance abuse I’ve seen the profound and destructive impact drugs and alcohol have on disrupting the family core, tearing families to pieces, and systematically destroying lives. I listened to countless clients speak of the fear, hurt, abandonment, neglect, and abuse they’ve experienced as a result of the catastrophic damage drugs and alcohol cause to the family system and dynamics; carrying these experiences throughout their lifetime in subsequent relationships, and even passing such experiences down to their own children.
However, despite all the symptoms and manifestations of conflict and discord within the family, the core family dynamics and system usually remains unchangeable. It is the family’s core that creates either chaos or harmony, encourages self-expression or conformity, leads to growth or destruction, and instills principles and values; fundamentally impacting every single family member for lifetimes and generations. Instead of creating a family core which is reactive, subject to the whims of external pressures and problems, you can be empowered and proactive in creating a family core based on solid and fundamental principles; regardless if you presently have a family of your own or desire to create one in the future.
When creating a principle-centered family, one must clearly understand and differentiate between “principles” and “values”. Principles are defined as: “fundamental truths, accepted and professed rules of action or conduct, or a fundamental doctrine or tenant”. Values encompass something of worth, importance or meaning. Principles are different than values in that principles are the essential and constitutional foundation for the family core; the integral and underlying aspects to family dynamics and family systems. While values fluctuate depending on various circumstances and conditions, principles are unchangeable and enduring regardless of the circumstances; hence the vital importance of establishing the family core based on sound, congruent principles.
5 Helpful Tips for Creating a Principle-Centered Family
While the respective principles will be unique and specific to you and your family, here are general guidelines to assist you in understanding and determining how to discover and incorporate fundamental and vital principles into your family core:
1. Create a Family Mission Statement: Like a corporate mission statement, a family mission statement is a formal summary of the aims, values, and goals of the family. A family mission statement encompasses the core principles and guiding vision of all family members. Take a moment to sit with the entire family present, and hear what each family member seeks and desires for both themselves and the family as a whole when collaborating on your family mission statement. A family mission statement doesn’t have to be complex or lengthy, just a short paragraph that goes to the heart of the matter all family members’ seek when creating core family principles.
Example Family Mission Statement:
To help all members realize the dreams, goals, and aspirations for themselves and each other. We deeply appreciate and respect the uniqueness, exceptionality, and creativity all members offer our family; seeking to enrich and inspire each other by strengthening our faith, bonds, and character. We will support all members in time of difficulty and struggle, and enjoy the precious moments we spend together.
2. Raising Our Children: Teaching and guiding children in the modern world of materialism and chaos is quite challenging to say the least; especially in a world filled with atrocious crimes against children, and harmful role models and cultural influences for both boys and girls. Many times parents have a vague idea of how to raise children - since you never received a training manual for this being called a “child” - and will usually raise children based upon their own parents’ strategies, which can perpetuate inter-generational family issues, problems, and conflicts. There is also a plethora of information about different strategies and issues in raising children, but most strategies become ineffective unless they are aligned with family principles.
It is of the utmost importance to collaborate with your spouse or partner in creating and establishing principles both of you agree on for raising your children. Children are very perceptive and will recognize inconsistencies and incongruence between parents with differing principles and in their cleverness will exploit one or both parents to get what they want. If you are a single parent, or are co-parenting. I understand there may be some unresolved issues between you and the other person, but it is crucial to put your differences aside for the sake of your child/children and focus on what principles would be constructive to your child’s growth and development. I strongly encourage you to cooperate (to the best of your respective ability) to create some principles which will support both of your child-rearing efforts. If there are fundamental disagreements between parents, just let it go. The battle isn’t worth it. You can only control the principles you choose to set with your child in your home, and can’t control what the other parent does.
When contemplating principles, you would like to incorporate into parenting, reflect on what you want to teach your child and what you want your child to learn. What principles will help your child reach their fullest potential? What values and morals do you want to instill? What principles will help your child learn responsibility and self-discipline? How will certain principles affect your child’s self-esteem and self-worth? Reflect on what the short-term and long-term costs and benefits your child will derive from these principles. Also, reflect on why it would be important to establish principles for yourself as a parent and your child.
3. Establishing Clear Family Roles: While some of you play the role of “super parents”, having a wide-variety of roles which require you to wear many different hats is be absolutely exhausting. Establishing clear family roles will help you drop the excess number of hats you’re wearing, especially the hats that don’t truly belong to you. Each family member is unique and their uniqueness is a vital contribution to the family when seen, understood, and harnessed effectively to support the family system. It will be helpful for you to identify each of the current roles you, your partner, and your child/children play in the family system. Also, reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of each family member, and how each members’ strengths can be use to support the family.
How can house chores be respectfully delegated, but also align with strengths of different family members? If you’re not the most fiscally responsible, but your partner is, delegate that duty to him/her. If you enjoy cleaning and cooking, delegate this time to yourself, and have your partner manage the children or tend to the yard during this time. If there are things both of you don’t like to do, collaborate together on how each of you can contribute to get the task done.
Also, you and you’re partner aren’t the only ones in the family. Chores are a great way to teach children the importance of contribution, hard work, discipline, organization, and responsibility. Of course the difficulty and complexity of the chore is going to depend on the age of the child, but give your child a choice between different chores he/she is willing to do.
Examining family roles this can be a vital opportunity to explore and discuss healthy boundaries. Too often family roles become unhealthy and enmeshed, leading dysfunctional family roles and dynamics. Healthy boundaries are important in creating an interdependent family system - a beautiful mix between dependence and independence - amongst family members. Healthy boundaries help parents separate from their children for private time, and supports children in developing a healthy self-identity separate from their parents and siblings. Think of healthy boundaries as a chain link fence. They allow healthy aspects of the family relationship to pass through, while keeping out the unhealthy parts. There are 3 types of boundaries – clear, rigid, enmeshed – in families, so take the time to identify what types of boundaries are present between all family members.
4. Collaborating on Family Goals: Once you clearly define what roles each family member will play within the family system, albeit roles may change with changes in the family system – loss of a job, change of residence, illness, birth of a child, or the unfortunate death of a family members – you can start to create congruent family goals. Don’t have too many family goals at once. One or two at best or else everybody will feel overwhelmed and frustrated.
Family goals are essential for building trust, communication, and cohesiveness within the family. They help the family grow and evolve, give direction and guidance, and create a deeper resilience which helps the family withstand the storms and struggles. When writing family goals make sure they follow SMART goal outline (Specific Measurable Attainable Realistic Timely).
In addition to collective family goals, individual family members are also encouraged to create their own personal goals utilizing the SMART goal outline. Individual goals are important, especially in the formation of self-identity, as they help each person explore and identify their own values, interest, talents, and strengths. Parents are encouraged to help younger family members clearly verbalize their goals, as they can have difficulty doing so on their own.
What are some short-term goals – goals to accomplish in the next 3 - 12 months – that align with your family principles? If your family wants to take a trip to Disneyland and it will take $5,000 to do, sit down and create some SMART goals that will help you achieve this goal. If you want your children to explore their curiosities through different extracurricular activities, or teach them discipline and responsibility, or learn financial responsibility, what SMART goal will help them accomplish this goal?
What are some long-term goals – goals to accomplish in the next 3 – 10 years – which align with your family principles? How do you want to grow intimacy in your relationship/marriage or with your children? How do you want to grow your family’s education, growth, and faith? Again discuss and write down each goal using the SMART goal outline.
Bringing the family together, and having each member open up and talk about what kind of goals they want to accomplish both as individual’s and as a family will help promote deeper understanding, inclusion, communication, and support among all family members’.
5. Schedule a Family Meeting Time: Set a scheduled time (weekly, biweekly, or monthly) for all family members to come together to discuss and review how the family is doing and if any changes need to be made to family goals or roles.
Family meetings are also an important opportunity to allow family members to discuss issues, struggles, and conflicts, work out any conflicts parents are having with their children or siblings are having with each other. Regular family meetings, like regular checkups to the doctor, are valuable to maintaining the health and wellbeing of the family. Of course sometimes it is better to have these discussions 1-on-1 instead of in the presence of the entire family to reduce feelings of embarrassment or shame.
Having individual family members’ rate their own progress towards individual goals, as well as to allow other family members rate each other by providing constructive feedback can create an essential opportunity to reflect their progress, elicit support from other family members, and most importantly encourage personal accountability and self-discipline.
It is important to establish some ground rules for these family meetings in order from them to be effective and meaningful; for how we give and receive feedback can be a fine line between constructive creativity, and chaotic warfare. Some examples of ground rules can be: respecting for one another, using “I” statements when speaking, no personal attacks, taking breaks if things become too heated, and taking accountability for individual actions and family roles. The goal of these meetings is to create a space of openness and communication where real issues can be talked about and goals actively worked towards in more intimate and meaningful ways. Make sure to collaborate with all family members in creating ground rules for the initial family meeting, and review the ground rules each and every meeting.
It is possible with dedication and support of all family members to create a strong, principle-centered family that nurture, encourage, and empower feelings of worth, value, creativity, and individuation; all vital healthy growth and development of the family system.
Of course creating a principle-centered family will not happen overnight. This is a process that will take time and effort. Creating a principle-centered family is like a tree sapling. With great care, attention, support, and patience the sapling will take root and grow into a strong, beautiful tree.