Virginia Satir, pioneer in family therapy, was the first to describe a healthy, happy family and the poor coping strategies of families caught in dysfunction. Nowadays everyone seems to come from a dysfunctional family that dealt with the hard knocks of life by creating more confusion and pain. Satir taught congruence and straight communication skills as a way of stopping the unhappiness that some families create down through the generations. I remember the day she charged us to go forth into the world and bring functionality to our families and to the business world.

So what is a functional family? Is there such a thing as a functional family?

I watched my daughter and her husband and their nine month old son during the Christmas visit. I observed as Kathy, radiant and loving as a new mother, played with Michael setting firm limits and telling him no when necessary . She allowed the baby to freely explore and experience his new world as only a determined baby who has just learned to crawl can do. When Michael got stuck between the couch and a post, Kathy watched patiently as he cried, struggled and worked his way out. When he cried, no one shushed him or rushed over to save him. Jim, the proud father, sat on the floor with them laughing and playing with the baby and occasionally reaching over to give Kathy a hug or a kiss. Jim rough housed with the baby teaching him to enjoy the rough and tumble of life; Michael squealed with delight. I saw how the parents disagreed over things and worked their differences through. Jim’s parents died when he was young and he was raised by his older brothers and sisters. He said that this was the best Christmas of his life. Seeing the look of loving and being loved on his face and my daughter’s joy, I was honored to be a part of their first Christmas with the baby.

This is a functional family I thought. Love, self expression, necessary limits. Allowing feelings even the not-so- comfortable ones. Negotiation of conflict not avoiding it or escalating it into aggression. Compromise, meeting each other’s needs while keeping one’s own self constant. The constancy of firm discipline both for the parents and children. The seeing the best in others, viewing the glass half full instead of empty. Staying true to the family’s needs for honesty and integrity.

Functionality--this is what Satir talked about--what I had been so hungry for coming from a family that did not know how to handle conflict without isolating, blaming, giving in or manipulating. Which I had allowed in my own children’s lives when they were young, because it was all I knew how to do. Then I met Virginia Satir, took her training and slowly started to clean up my act. The determination to be direct and straight in all my relationships had paid off not only in my life but in my children’s. Probably the best investment in life that I had ever made was those dollars spent for training with Virginia Satir. She taught me techniques to heal my own long-held-hurts from my own family pain and to deal straight with others. My children learned through my directness what they had not been taught earlier on. Now the payoffs in good mental health continue through the next generation.

Then I thought about what breaks into a functional family system. What stressors cause husband and wife to pull apart, distance and slowly erode the love that they had pledged? The external stressors are job loss, financial strain, illness and too busy schedules resulting in not taking time for each other. Extensive job demands and workaholism can result in family pressures and strain pulling parents away from the needs of the children. Telling children that the negative feelings they have aren’t real.

But it’s the adaptations to the stressors that define functionality. It’s the way we cope with stress and conflict not what happens to us. The inspirational literature is full of examples of people with severe adversity in their life who make it against the odds. The difference between winners and losers seems to be how we cope with failure, with betrayal, with trauma and with those aspects in those we love that are so irritating. It’s the inner demons that create dysfunctional families.

The internal strains come from fear and unmet needs deep in the psyche that create giving in too much and giving up one’s self or conversely, selfishness, egocentricity and refusal to see problems from the other person’s point of view. The demons not addressed slay the integrity of the self. Not having a way to negotiate conflict and fight in healthy ways sets the stage for below-the-belt-fighting. Refusal to know one’s own anger results in expressing it sideways in manipulation or aggression. Denial of one’s problems--not owning up and dealing with addictive needs create the most severe forms of dysfunction in families. Alcohol and substance abuse, reacting to physical attractions to people outsideYes. No person is so lucky to go through life without hard knocks. But help is available for the asking to help families gain strategies and skills for dealing with tough times.

All families have their challenges. Aversity happens. Trials and tribulations can create character. They send family members into anger, depression or refusal to take responsibility. Those tantalizing demons of fear, addictive urges, denial and defensiveness create havoc in families. It’s what we do with adversity that creates the life well lived or one of despair.

So I got to thinking about what we need to teach children to prepare them for times when life does knock them around? What tools and techniques do children need to prepare themselves for the difficult times in life? As we move into this new century, what is the best that we can teach our children so that they will be self reliant? What is it to be really fully human living free and expressive? Why don’t we teach children the truth of what they are--a beautiful expression of love?

So in response to these poignant questions which have to do not only with our creating inner peace, but also peace in our world, I wrote a tribute to what Virginia Satir taught. . .

What if every child were taught that . . .

....feelings, especially bad ones, are just that--feelings come and go and can be watched and called by their name and released. That uncomfortable feelings can be self soothed by rubbing your body and breathing deeply when upset or hurt. That feelings of anger, disappointment and sadness can be talked about in safe ways with people who help you understand them. That fears are mice with nervous stomachs with megaphones.

....scrapes and small fixes can be gotten out of by using the old noggin to problem solve. That you are responsible for the consequences of actions and to think before speaking or acting. That learning sometimes involves making errors. That it’s okay to make a mistake with the choice to learn from it. That taking responsibility and making amends for what you did wrong is one of the biggest boosters to self esteem. That constructive criticism can be listened to use as a challenge to do better next time. That you can choose love people who are problem solvers and do not sweep issues under the rug.

...failure is part of life and the determination to get up and try again is a handy tool to deal with it. That the negative dialogue with oneself after failing can be stopped. That you fail only when you give up and let failure get you down by defining yourself as a failure. That the world can be seen through the lens of optimism. That there are some things that you can change and some things that just need to be accepted.

....grownups are responsible for handling their own pain. Children need not take in the negative feelings of others. Kids should be kids. Kids should not expected to take care of adults who are hurting or choose to remain caught in addictions. That good help is available for those who want it.

....there are those in the world who don’t feel good about themselves who might use put downs and bad labels. Unkind words can be refused and deflected rather than internalized.

....conflict is inevitable. That confrontation and threat can be met with techniques of fair fighting and conflict resolution. That denial of anger is a defense that sets up an unhappy life. That anger is a normal human emotion that can be expressed appropriately.

....the darker aspects of yourself are part of being human and are to be understood and transformed rather than be denied or railed against. And conversely, to learn to be empathetic with the darker aspects of others while holding them responsible for their cruel deeds.

....those exciting high feelings of addiction that come from doing something unhealthy or dangerous are a trap for an unsatisfying life. That the addictive highs should not be used to distract from or medicate pain. That there are feel good solutions--healthy addictions to help alleviate stress and conflict.

.... you don’t always get your way and that’s okay. That the feeling good that comes from trying to gain power over or hurting others is a pseudo self-esteem. Feelings of power gained at the loss of someone else are only temporary and destructive to both involved. That personal power brings about more joy than power over others. True self esteem comes from satisfaction of living according to the Higher Self.

....we are all brothers and sisters of one big family and that skin color and individual differences are to be celebrated. That life is precious in every form and is to be respected. are truly a child of the Universe created in love to love and be loved. To get love from those who can give it and stop trying to get it from those of stone. That love is your Original Birthright. That no matter what the confusion or question, love is always the answer.

Flash! Flash! To Teach Children These Skills You Must Use Them Yourself!

What Tools Have You Used From Your Mental Health Tool Box This Week?

* Watched bad feelings as they came up. Called them by name. Interrupted them by Thought Stoppage.

* Used techniques of self soothing. Sought input from friends or wrote about the bad feelings.

* Problem solved difficulties and issues. Looked for self defeating beliefs under chronic issues.

* Accepted consequences for your actions. Thought before speaking or acting.

* Analyzed errors. Made a plan to do things differently next time.

* Made amends to anyone you hurt. Remembered love is being big enough to say you are sorry.

* Listened to constructive criticism. Increased self esteem by learning something useful.

* Interrupted your self defeating thoughts. Broke into self pity using the learned optimism process.

* Observed yourself giving up and broke into the failure mode. Thought optimistic thoughts about self.

* Observed how you take on the pain of others. Stepped back from rescuing and enabling others.

* Let others take responsibility for their problems. Dealt with guilt and needing to intervene.

* Refused to take on the put downs of others. Asserted self and set appropriate boundaries.

* Accepted your angry feelings and expressed them in safe, appropriate ways.

* Looked at a shadow part of self. Owned your projections of anger at others.

* Caught stress build up that preceded addictions use.

* Felt the highs of addiction and called it by name. Observed how addictive behavior was rationalized.

* Stayed with uncomfortable feelings to understand them instead of using a substance or activity to
deaden pain. Chose healthy addictions to alleviate stress and conflict.

* Used stress management techniques of deep breathing, meditation, progressive relaxation, etc . . .

* Observed self judging and criticizing others. Broke into control issues and looked at own problems.

* Felt good about achieving self growth and personal power rather than trying to fix others.

* Focused on respecting others. Enjoyed or accepted differences rather than judging them.

* Felt universal connection with others. Felt lovable and expressed that love to others.

* When confused, turned to the Higher Self or prayer for answers.


Author's Bio: 

Lynne Namka is a psychologist in Tucson, AZ who has an award winning web site on anger mangement.