Characteristics of Healthy Family Systems

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

“A healthy family is neither necessarily average,
nor merely lacking in negative characteristics.
Rather it has described positive features”

We have all become familiar with the concept of “dysfunctional” as it applies to communication and relationships. We may have even concluded that we come from dysfunctional family backgrounds ourselves. The term itself may be overused and perhaps misused but it gets the point across. Thanks to the media and John Bradshaw’s popularity, we understand that we need not recapitulate the past. Indeed past pain in relationships can be circumvented to some degree by learning to change that which does not promote health and happiness. So far, so good, but what exactly needs change and what does not? We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, excuse the old adage. What particular points of strength did our families teach us? What are the hallmarks of families that seem to flourish in an atmosphere of warmth and ease, even under stressful life events? Too often we study what goes wrong, but this does not always give us a picture of how things go “right”!

I must admit, I have an avid interest in studying successes of all kinds. I like stories that relate ways people made things work, regardless of the subject. Once I even thought of opening a “placebo” clinic to study the very real and positive effects of this phenomenon. No, really! I wanted to know what physical manifestations occur in our bodies when a person administering a medication truly believed in its power to promote healing. I wanted to study the effect of this “relationship membrane” on body chemistry. Not as a “suggestion” but as a fact. By indulging in this avenue of thought I came to experience the paradox of defining things from a predisposed, but invisible assumption: i.e. that “placebo” was “not real”, and therefore “suggestion” was not real either. Sometimes our attempt to study health is limited by our unconscious or conscious biases.

Paying attention to positive elements in human relationship results in more than the sum of its parts. By studying the characteristics of what contributes to health and well being in family systems, you may find yourself thinking differently about your own family experience. Expectations that reside in past negative experience can cause you to miss opportunities for positive interaction with family members. Wondering what will bring joy or soothing, instead of reliving irritations which presuppose past negative attitudes can constructively alter relationships.

The characteristics listed below are one research team’s2 attempts to describe what goes on in families that contributes to healthy relationships. It is not all inclusive, nor does it express one way to be as a family. These are simply observations from a variety of family cultures that have been identified as having positive impact on growth and adaptation. Each family is its own unique culture. But all families, no matter where they are, do basically the same thing. Families exist to nurture the growth and development of their members. Each family is like a garden. The characteristics below are some of the nutrients you may wish to consider in tilling the soil. Consider the questions below with reference to your childhood experience of family and your own current family situation.



Family atmosphere is influenced by a belief in helping each other, acknowledging human needs for reassurance and support, and viewing mistakes as human. Family members know that human needs are satisfied through relationship, and when children grow and leave home their independence is continually dependent on other community systems. While these members strive for competence, they know they do not solely control outcome. They believe they can make a difference through their own efforts and influence their success in the world, but know also that success is a result of variables beyond their complete control. When members make mistakes, from a child dropping a spoon on the floor to damaging the family car, members believe there may be numerous factors involved, and refrain from jumping to blaming or criticizing statements precipitously.

When errors in judgment are made especially by children or adolescents, members seek to help produce change through warmth in relating versus over controlling. This does not mean that clear and defined consequences are not invoked. It does mean, however that motives or reasons for “mistakes” are evaluated from a variety of different angles, rather than assuming the person to be “bad” or “stupid”, etc. Members believe in the inherent “goodness” of one another, and do not assume “bad” intent of other members. Instead, a learning orientation to life with emotional availability to members helps ease distress. For example: an 18 month old throwing a spoon on the floor could be seen as trying to disrupt or take control, which would assign the child more negative motive, than if the parent were to also consider tiredness and natural developmental challenges of this age, which would be seen as normal and inevitable testing of limits.

Ask yourself: What were the basic attitudes, beliefs or philosophy that influenced you in your childhood family? Did people believe in the basic “goodness” of one another? Were limits set neutrally, without emotional rejection? Or was emotional rejection and judgment part or all of the response to mistakes or misbehavior? Was this a family in which people strived for perfection but accepted the inevitability of mistakes? Was the need for reassurance accepted? Was humor present? Could members show fear and uncertainty with expectation for reassurance and understanding? Describe your present family’s orientation, reflecting on these basic questions related to family relationships and the overall atmosphere of warmth and caring?

Remember that if your family atmosphere is not where you want it to be, you can change it! You are not stuck in the past. Though it is natural to recreate a family atmosphere similar to the one you grew up in, once you are able to objectively identify elements you would like to change, your observations lead you to different outcomes. And change takes time. Each incident or event you turn around builds on itself to create the future. Patience and compassion are your best allies to evaluate your present family orientation.

Clear boundaries between family members means that the responsibilities of adults are clear and separate from the responsibilities of the growing child(ren). There are no “parentified” children in the family, and people talk freely for themselves, expressing differences of feelings and opinions without fear of punishment or retaliation. However democratic discussions are, parents retain appropriate decision-making relative to the age of the child. Naturally, as the child grows, the task of the family is to prepare the growing child or adolescent for making her or his own decisions in life. This is a gradual process.

Boundaries also refers to the permeability of the nuclear family structure to the larger extended family and outside community. A cohesive sense of family must be balanced with acceptance of outside persons and resources to be flexible and resilient. Children need to be able to trust in other adults and seek resources outside the family as they mature.

Ask yourself: Were the roles of parents and children clear in your childhood family? Did you learn to take responsibility as a child, gradually and make your own decisions? Was there too little guidance, or too much? Did you enjoy an identity with your family, yet connect with outside members of the community and extended family for greater resources? advice? information? How do you see your present family with respect to clarity of roles, expectation and responsibility?

Power and Intimacy:
People are able to relate intimately when they feel they have equal power. This is because when we get frightened, two options are open to us: to relate through loving and caring to get our needs met, or to control others or a situation. We may choose the power of love or the power of control.

As children grow, they approach more equal control in the family, but certainly their feelings and thoughts should have some potential power in influencing decisions. Therefore, their attempts to relate carry some sense of power in their destiny. For couples, equal power in decision making is essential or intimacy suffers. Classic examples of this can be seen in the housewives of the 1950’s in this country, when men assumed deference in decision making because they brought home the paycheck. Because Dad made the money, oftentimes Mom’s feelings, her needs, her schedule, were ignored unless it fit into Dad’s needs and work schedule. Mom’s emotional caretaking of family members was unpaid work and therefore of secondary importance. She became a second class citizen in many families and everyone suffered because of the loss of intimacy inherent in such an arrangement.

This does not mean that one or the other partner cannot specialize in homemaking and the other in working outside the home for money. But it does mean that attention to equal consideration which leads to joint decisions promotes intimacy because those decisions were made in consideration of others.

Ask yourself: How were decisions made in my childhood family? Were people’s feelings considered? Did any one person’s feelings or needs dominate over others? if so, why? Was any attempt made towards fairness in considering members’ needs when they conflicted? Were children’s feelings heard and taken into account by parents in their decision making in the family? What are the answers to the above questions for your present family? Do all members have the same opinion as yourself? Do any members feel that their feelings do not matter when it comes to important decisions? Does your partner feel considered and respected with regard to feelings in conflictual situations?

Honesty and freedom of expression:
Members of a family are free to express themselves autonomously , including different opinions or viewpoints if the family interactions support individuality. Discussions can be lively and even heated if it is basically acceptable for family members to have differences. Love and caring is not withdrawn if people think differently about something. If ambivalence and uncertainty are accepted, as well as differences, families tend to enjoy an open atmosphere of honesty in relationship.

Ask yourself: Did you experience pressure to lie or hide your true feelings or opinions in your childhood family? Were members open to differences in the family, or extremely threatened by feelings or ideas that conflicted with their own? In your present family is honesty of feelings and opinions prevalent? Is individuality and expression of a range of feelings and opinions acceptable?

Warmth, joy and humor:
When there is joy and humor in relationships, people seek out the comfort of these interactions. Family members’ enjoyment and trust in one another is an important energizing resource! There is the feeling that there is always someone to talk to who cares, and who you can laugh and have fun with at various times as well.

Humor plays a very important role in family bonding. One aspect of mental health is the ability to laugh at ourselves good naturedly. This is not the same as laughing at, or making fun of someone at their expense. Instead, it is a shared experience of humor that lightens up the potential to take ourselves too seriously, and not be able to see the forest for the trees. Humor often allows us to regain an overview or larger perspective that has been temporarily lost in the stress of everyday living. Many medical researchers have even linked it to physical health and recovery. Do you use humor to emotionally recover from alienated or polarized positions that you may find yourself immersed in with your partner or other family members? You may try it sometime, to see how it can help free you from a need to “be right” or other naturally human ruts we find ourselves in with our partners!

Ask yourself: Can you remember good times, fun times and times of mirth and laughter that bonded you as a family in childhood? How often or how rare were these occurrences? Did you feel there was always someone you could talk to who cared about your welfare? In your present family, how much do you laugh together? have fun together? seek out comfort and caring from one another?

Organization and negotiating skill:
A necessary aspect of family life is coordinating tasks, negotiating differences and being able to reach closure effectively. Negotiating skills include the ability to listen and make choices in what family members feel is a fair process. In healthy families, this process does not get overly bogged down, although there is room for discussion, and parents alternate the role of coordinator between them. Parents can take charge without being overly controlling. There tends to be a spirit of camaraderie and trust built up over the years so organization is relatively easy. This of course goes along with the other characteristics of healthy families, which includes clear boundaries and roles in the family.

There is much to be done in running a family household, and everyone benefits when things that need to get done can be taken care of without undue stress and chaos. When family chores run smoothly, negotiating doesn’t need to be repeated every weekend!

Ask yourself: Were family tasks done with ease or with difficulty in your childhood? Was there a reasonable amount of order in the household, or did weekends get bogged down in repeated attempts to organize basic family tasks? Could you count on things being done regularly and did you have regular family chores yourself or were things more haphazardly maintained? If organizational structure was maintained was it flexible enough for updating from time to time as needs of family members changed or was it overly controlled and rigid, allowing for little or no adjustment over time? In your present family is there reasonable order which is sustained over long periods of time with appropriate flexibility or are there repeated arguments over basic chores and lack of clarity regarding how they will get done?

Whatever your answers, you can begin to observe whether you have transferred any ineffective patterns of organization onto your own family from childhood, and decide what kind of organization you want to have in your current home life.

Value system:
Part of the health and vibrancy of any family is also dealing with weaknesses, fears and stresses in the system itself. Nobody is perfect and no system is perfect. But in healthy families, truth is accepted as not absolute. Different perspectives on reality are acceptable and people are basically good. These are two underlying beliefs.

In addition to a basic positive view of humanity and of life in general, healthy families also deal with the inevitable losses that occur in the family life cycle. To do so, families employ varying philosophies, religious or otherwise about the nature of life and what its all about. Healthy families include some larger concept of life that encompasses the fact that we all die.

Therefore we must inevitably be able to find some meaning in something that is a larger whole. The individual must be able to find significance in the contribution to something greater than the self. The capacity for symbolism must therefore be a part of the family’s emotional wealth, since we cannot answer the basic question of “why” that our children ask us with anything but intuition, faith or philosophical speculations.

Whether in society, family, grandchildren, god, politics, or social change, an individual must be able to find meaning that in some way transcends the ultimate loss of individual life. Along the way, there are usually a number of naturally occurring deaths in the family that help prepare us, as we are faced with carrying that family member in some other form than the physical.

Ask yourself: What philosophy or values did your childhood family hold regarding life? Were people perceived as basically “good “or not? Was there acceptance of different views of reality? What did your parents tell you about the nature of life, the meaning of family? How did your family handle the subject or experience of death? What kind of values do you want to pass on to your children? How do you discuss the meaning of life? How do you handle the subject of death?

Judith Viorst, in her book Necessary Losses, elegantly describes the process of “growing up” as a series of continual losses necessary for growth throughout the life cycle. Leaving childhood is necessary for becoming an adult. Letting go of our children as they leave home is necessary for their development as adults and for our growth as parents. We all move on in life. Our connectedness remains but our relationships and how we depend on one another change.

The ultimate loss however, our own death, brings us face to face with the profoundness of it all. Our last letting go is both inevitable and unknown. Songwriter Chris Williamson on her album, Live Dream, refers to her first awareness as a child, of her own death. She says to her audience:

“What d’ya mean born to die, I said, beating my fists on my father’s chest. Some joke!”

Perhaps it is the finitude of death that allows us to deeply appreciate life.

As we travel through the life cycle we continue to grow and learn. The older we get, the less we find we know. Helping each other through this process of living the best way we can is what family is all about. It is my hope that the characteristics described in this article will help you as parents on your journey.


1. Epstein, Bishop, Ryan, Miller and Keitner, The McMaster Model View of Healthy Family Functioning, p,139 in Normal Family Processes, edited by Froma Walsh, 2nd edition, The Guilford Press, N.Y., 1993.

2. Beavers, R. and Hampson, R., Measuring Family Competence: The Beavers Systems Model in Normal Family Processes, edited by Froma Walsh, 2nd edition, The Guilford Press, N.Y., 1993.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for,, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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