In Tough Times, What Sets Healthy Families Apart?

Some families seem to float through tough times, while others struggle. When a person goes through hard times, it is not unusual for him to use a defense mechanism to cope. Families also develop systems to defend themselves when times get tough. However, defense mechanisms are harmful strategies to a family in the long run.  Instead, healthy families work hard to build character and forge healthy relationships to endure, and they rise above difficulty.

What Healthy Families Do Not Do

  1. Denial – A classic example is the spouse of an alcoholic believing that the drinking is only a social activity or a spouse believing they are reading into things when clear evidence of adultery arises. Strong families save their families by clearly addressing situations, even if it is outside their comfort zones.
  2. Play Pretend – It is avoidance in the form of “forgetfulness.” While everyone forgets things from time to time, those who repress forget appointments, tasks, or items they do not like or consider bad. Strong families decide to pay more attention to things they don’t like to make sure they get done.
  3. Let Adults Act Like Children– Under periods of stress, a person may revert to younger stages of development. For example, a grown daughter learns that her mother has died and remains in bed refusing to leave the home. It could also look like her six-year-old child then bedwetting. Even strong families need time to care for themselves after trauma, but they will eventually choose to get out of bed with gratitude and keep on going, even when they don’t feel like it!
  4. Distort Reality – A family’s attempt to cover up insecurities by advocating for its opposite. It could look like a workaholic constantly telling his children about the importance of playtime. A daughter being bullied at school for being smart may hide her high achievement and promote academic failure.
  5. Point the Finger – Strong families do not see the undesirable traits in themselves and then paint them onto others. A mother who is having difficulty with implementing discipline may tell the father who has effective strategies that he needs to take a parenting class on limit-setting. Instead of projecting, a mother might ask the father for help or take the class herself and ask him to join for support.
  6. Acting Out – Families with acting out styles resort to external expressions of pain. Physical aggression, cutting and anger outbursts in families are all examples of this. Acting out is often a combination of hurt and unkindness towards others and yourself. It is choosing not to communicate in a way that brings positive connection.
  7. Blame Shifting – Sometimes, families shift emotions to a less threatening target. An example is a father who is angry with his boss starting an argument with his wife when he gets home. Instead, the father can recognize the source of his frustration as independent from his wife and problem solve to address his boss or find another place of employment.

What Healthy Families Love to Do

  1. Love – Mother Teresa said, “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do but how much love we put in that action.” Strong families choose to love and respect each person in their family.  Compassion is concern for the sufferings of others.  They make proactive sacrifices for one another and are committed to the well-being of themselves and others.
  2. Honesty – Strong families are not afraid to speak truth into their own lives and the lives of others around them. Even when it is hard to be honest and circumstances are rough, they tell the truth.  They are also receptive to the words of others seeking the best for them. It includes holding one another accountable for actions, saying what you mean and meaning what you say, and not taking credit for anything undeserved.
  3. Forbearance – “Forbearance” isn’t a word used in everyday conversation much anymore. If it is used, it may be in the context of a loan. Forbearance is a legal term meaning to refrain from enforcing a debt, right or obligation that is due. In a relational context, it means the quality of someone who is patient, self-controlled and able to deal with a difficult person or circumstance even when they have the right to be angry. It means not having a running tally of past wrongs.
  4. Humility – Strong families take a modest view of themselves and others and have a balanced view of strengths and weaknesses. As a result, they seek the best in themselves and others.  David Brooks, New York Times columnist and bestselling author of The Road to Character defines humility, “Humility is the awareness that there’s a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong.” Families practicing humility acknowledge that they may not always be right. They are focused on exemplifying their values and give others the freedom to do so as well.  They consider others before themselves and look for ways to serve others.  Strong families recognize they are a part of a network greater than themselves and are mindful about how their actions will affect their family and community at large.
  5. Courage – The moral strength to persevere through difficulty.  It doesn’t mean not being scared but having the confidence to persevere for something greater than fear. Courage is leaning into anxiety and is linked to vulnerability. Dr. Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly says, “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.” She also explains that courage includes “learning to take risks, share bold ideas with confidence, have tough conversations, and rise from setbacks and failures.”
  6. Gratitude – Strong families are thankful families. They cherish and appreciate life and each other as gifts. Giving thanks is a way to show affection and love and it is a regular part of interaction. Whenever a family member shows an act of generosity or love, it is acknowledged loud and proud! They can also be thankful of the circumstances, good or bad.
  7. Kindness – The virtue of kindness is being a good person and being available. It can look like a needed conversation or a hug. Caring and understanding are cultivated continual acts of kindness.
  8. Hope Angela Duckworth, New York Times best-selling author of Grit and motivational speaker, told her children they could quit but never on a bad day. She was actively instilling hope. This type of hope cannot be separated from patience and strong families maintain that good things are possible for themselves and others. Sometimes, the hope comes from faith in God or principles found outside themselves.  Since these families have enduring hope, they can make hard confrontations and seek help when needed. Hope allows them to persevere through situations like terminal illness and death.
  9. Excellence – Dignity and pride is a part of the culture of a healthy family, and it is developed by cultivating excellence. Excellence is not perfection but a drive to be the best person you can be in periods of calm and adversity. Families do not seek flawlessness but push one another to reach and exceed potential…over and over. The job, skill, assignment, or grade is obsolete compared to the attitude and effort given to it. Martin Luther King Jr. explains excellence well when he said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

It is possible to have a strong, healthy family and make healthier families stronger! Day by day, both the individual in the family, along with the family itself, practice character even when it is uncomfortable, because it promotes resilience and closer family connections in the long run.  Fuller Life is here to help your family remain healthy and grow stronger every day.


10 ways your family can serve others

How Families Develop Character in Children

Honesty Rules: 10 Steps to Get There

Families Taking Charge: Dealing with Stress

100 Kids Activities to Build Character

Emotional Regulation for Kids

5 Mindfulness Activities You Can Do As A Family


Dombeck, M. (2004, June 22). Defense Mechanisms. Retrieved May 19, 2017, from

Whitbourne, S. K. (2011, October 22). The Essential Guide to Defense Mechanisms. Retrieved May 19, 2017, from

Contributed by Angela Blocker, M.A, LMFT Associate

Clinical Supervision by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT, LPC

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