(Family Magazine May 2011 2nd Issue)
“Harmony” is a familiar concept to the Chinese. It has been a major theme in Chinese families for thousands of years. Today, the Chinese government even has a mandate to promote “Harmony” as the theme for the country. It is not surprising to find that “harmony” is an indicator of a healthy family in Western family therapy. McCubbin and McCubbin (1989) define a healthy family as “family resiliency or the ability of family to respond to situations and crises encountered over the family life cycles” (p.6.) “Resilience” is the characteristic of families achieving or adapting from many life challenges in order to achieve balance and harmony (Allen, 1998.)
Through my years of clinical experience in private practice, I have noticed that some families adapt better than others. Some get stronger when facing difficulties while other families become weaker or keep falling apart again and again. What is the difference that produces family resiliency? How can families achieve balanced and harmonious relationships in a crisis?
Perception of adversity affects a families’ level of stress
The following five situations demonstrate how the perception of difficulty relates to stress. The first four are based on Rueben Hill’s family stress model (Friedman, 1998) and the last one is my own observation.
- Families perceive less stress when they face planned events rather than unexpected ones. If you are expected to be laid off within 3 months, it is less stressful than to be laid off suddenly without notice.
- Difficult events occurring outside the family are less stressful than situations within the family. For example, a serious illness within the family is perceived to be more painful than war or flood.
- Stressors that had been experienced before lead to a lesser level of stress than if the stressors have never happened to the family. For example, a family may see their child’s chronic sneezing as less stressful than the child’s first nosebleed.
- Ambiguous situations are more stressful than certain events. For example, a family may see having lung cancer as less stressful than an unknown illness.
- Families perceive less stress if they know other families have experienced similar situations rather than a situation that is unique to them. In counseling sessions, many families would often ask “Why our family?” “Why only our family is so unlucky!”
Internal factors affect families’ abilities to adapt
Internal factors of the families will also directly impact the ways an individual, and the family as a whole, respond to the crisis as well as their ability to adapt. According to McCubbin and McCubbin’s Resiliency Model of Stress, Adjustment, and Adaptation, there are four factors which will influence family in crisis leading to a positive family relationship:
- Family has more cohesion, adaptability, hardiness and routine.
- Family is able to use resources to adapt to their stressful events.
- Family has a positive appraisal of their stressful situation.
- Family uses a wide range of coping and problem strategies to manage a crisis situation.
However when a family accumulates many demands from multiple stressors, strains and transitions, it results in a negative family relationship. (Freidman, 1998; McCubbin & McCubbin, 1993)
Nine characteristics of a resilient family
Fortunately, there are more factors that are positive than negative. However, there’s an old Chinese saying (loosely translated) – A parent with a long term chronic illness cannot expect even a dutiful son to constantly care for him. When a family has to deal with a long term stress, every member at home lives under constant high pressure. Not every one can handle such pain; adapting to the stress to achieve balance and harmony in the family will be a challenge. Patterson’s (1991) study, pointed out that families who are able to deal with a chronic illness resulting in resilience all have the following nine characteristics:
- Being able to balance the illness with other family needs. The family takes care of each other’s needs, they comfort and support one another. They do not blindly pour all their resources onto only the sick member. Thus, family members are able to fight the long battle of illness together.
- Having clear family boundary. Family members are able to respect each other and to accept each person’s responsibilities and limitations. They are not overly demanding on each member to revolve around the schedule of the infirmed. The family is able to live harmoniously when each one’s personal space is recognized.
- Being able to openly communicate. Intimacy in a family is built when members regularly express their thoughts and are willing to listen and accept each other’s feelings, both positive and negative.
- Finding positive attributions or meaning in the situation. Hardship is perceived as a life experience to refine their character and a means to learn to humble themselves and cherish each other.
- Maintaining flexibility. Creativity and flexibility is used to arrange the family routines instead of making strong demands that cause members to feel restricted.
- Committing to each other as a unit. The power of the family comes from each member patiently giving endless support over the long term.
- Putting active efforts into coping. While feeling low is unavoidable during hard times, family members know to turn their minds toward more positive and workable matters that bring new energy to the family.
- Keeping social connections. A patient who suffers from a chronic illness is always isolated. Family members could utilize more community resources and church support to help the patient stay connected to the society.
- Establishing collaborative relationships with professionals. Family members are able to gain guidance and support from professionals. Better arrangements can be made for the patient, thus reducing unnecessary troubles of daily life, benefitting the entire family.
Families who have these nine characteristics are resilient families who are better able to cope with adversity. Living under difficult circumstances can result in stronger personal lives and more united and powerful family bonds. Unfortunately, families lacking these nine characteristics are more likely to decline under long-term accumulation of stresses and become weaker and weaker over time. Helplessness and pain will be felt in the family with members complaining to each other.
Particularly in our current economic recession, every family needs to develop these nine characteristics. Family members must stay together to face the hardships of life, and we must try our best to establish a balanced life and to build a harmonious family!
“Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (NIV Bible, James 1:4-5.)
“但 忍 耐 也 當 成 功 、 使 你 們 成 全 完 備 、 毫 無 缺 欠 。 你 們 中 間 若 有 缺 少 智 慧 的 、 應 當 求 那 厚 賜 與 眾 人 、 也 不 斥 責 人 的 神 、 主 就 必 賜 給 他 。” (雅 各 書1:4 -5).
Allen, M.T. (1998). Traditional parenting and childrearing: Promoting harmony and beauty for life. Navajo parenting workshop at Northern Arizona Museum. May 15, 1998. Flagstaff, AZ.
Friedman, M.M. (1998). Family nursing.(4th Ed.). Stamford, Connecticut: Appleton & Lange.
Mc Cubbin, M.A. (1993). Family stress theory and the development of nursing knowledge about family adaptation. In S.L. Feetham, S.B. Meister, J.M.Bell, & C.L. Gillis (Eds.) The Nursing Family. New Bury Park: Sage Publications, 46-58.
McCubbin, M.A., & McCubbin, H.I. (1989). Families coping with illness: The resiliency model of family stress, adjustment and adaptation. In, C.B. Danielson, B. Hamel-Bissel, & P.Winstead-Fry, Families, health & illness: Perspectives on coping and intervention. St. Louis: Mosby.
Patterson, J. (1991). Family resilience to the challenge of a child’s disability. Pediatric Annals, 20(9), Sept, 491-499.