8 Steps to an Emotionally Rich Family

Posted by in Families, Louise Behiel | 45 comments

We’ve talked alot about families and how early childhood experiences can shape adulthood.  And I’ve had a number of requests to share some thoughts about healthy families.  It’s an interesting dilemma – people don’t come to therapy because their life is wonderful.  But when I look at people I see and know, I realized there are some common principles lived by families who are emotionally present for each other and for the children.

Two small points.  When I work with parents about their families, I remind them of the old style radio my  neighbors had in their living room.

If you’re a Gen X’er or a Gen Y’er, you can find a sample of this radio in the Smithsonian, but they used to be common.  The important point of this radio is the big red needle, which you moved to choose a station.  It’s hard to see but there are a number of bands on the face of the radio.  The needle moved across all of them at the same time, but the choice of the band and the location of the needle determined the programming we listened to.

This is how I see children.  They are born with their bandwidth and their station pre-programmed.  It’s either AM or FM  or another band.  All of the parenting in the world can move that dial a little bit either direction of the pre-set selection.  But…lousy parenting can force a chld to a different band altogether.  So the key is to love our children as they are.

When I first started this series, a reader contacted me and said “Oh my Heavens, I am a hero and I’m trying to make my daughter adopt my world view and expectations…and that’s not who she is.” Mom was trying to change the band of her daughter’s personality.

So after that analogy what are the signs of an emotionally rich family?

1. Healthy families permit and encourage private time. Personal boundaries are respected as long as safety is not questioned.  This applies to parents and children.

2. Each person has a personal, private space for themselves.  It might just be the lower bunk in a shared bedroom, but there is a space that’s mine.  Always.

3. No conversation is off-limits but every conversation must be age appropriate.  Kids always know more than we assume or expect, so it’s important to be honest with them. At the same time, communication must be within the constructs of their emotional and mental development.

4. To successfully manage point 3, of course, parents have to be aware of normal, healthy development in children. Do you understand what your children are able to digest?  Psychology has lots of information about the emotional, moral, and intellectual abilities of children at each age and stage. Study them.

5. Positive affirmations and support must significantly outnumber the negatives. Children need to know what they’re doing right.  Not meaningless praise and pats on the head but the real stuff that they need to accept and own so they can be the best adults they can be.

6. Children need to regularly hear “I love you”, “I’m proud of you”, and “you (or your opinion) matters to me”. When children grow up knowing that they matter, they are free to fully evolve into their potential.

7. Children need us to ‘walk our talk’. If we expect them to tell the truth, then we need to set the example. If we talk the importance of God, or church or matters spiritual, it is important we live to those standards.  Little ones are easily confused about these beliefs and they need us to live as we speak.

8. In the same vein, it is important that we take care of ourselves. It makes no sense to talk about healthy living or the importance of exercise or educational success if we aren’t following through ourselves. It is a waste of air time to tell our children what not to do while we’re doing it.

Are you seeing the pattern? Children learn what they live (as the old poem says). So live your best life.  You don’t have to be perfect – they only need to know you’re evolving.  Tell them you love them often and do your best – it’s all any of us can do.

Image from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Truetone-Radio.jpg

Does this make sense? Let me know what you think, because I love to hear from you.


  1. Louise, this is an immensely freeing article. I sometimes have wished that I know what a healthy family looks like! It’s rather a relief that your suggestions are ones I’d already adopted ( by some instinct). I’d add another: personal responsibility to make ourselves happy. It is not up to our children to make my husband, or me, or each other, happy. Contentment and joy come readily. Also the personal accountability of an apology: “I am sorry for … “. That cuts out “sorry, not sorry” & also “sorry, sorry, I don’t know why I’m apologising but you’re not happy so it must be my fault.” We’re not a perfect family by any means, but we like being us and enjoy our lives. 🙂

  2. Thank you Louise for another fine post!
    Great illustration and analogy. (I’ve seen those radios.)
    When I finished reading this to my husband, we both looked at each other and said, “Whew, I think we did okay! But the best compliment is when you hear “Thank you Mom and Dad for the way you raised me” from your children. 🙂

    • weren’t those radios cool? I can’t imagine today’s young people thinking so but in my childhood they were amazing. and the more bands, the higher the social standing…LOL

      i totally agree, that’s the best. It’s also cool to see your children parenting the way you did.

  3. I love this post, Louise! What a great analogy regarding children and radios. You’re so right about learning what we live… I see it in my own and others’ lives more and more. In some cases, we learn what not to do. In many others, we carry behaviors and values on, whether positive or negative.

    • I can’t tell you how often I, like so many others, catch myself saying things my parents used to say. with grandchildren, it’s coming back again – so i’m having to be super diligent. weird. I thought I weeded out all that stuff with my own children

  4. This is such great advice! I agree with all of your points. 🙂

  5. My favorite part about raising children was item #3. My husband and I loved to talk with our boys and one of the rules we set early on was that we would not have a TV upstairs, so the dining room and living room were distraction free. There were times during our supper conversations that the boys would tell us stuff that made us want to cover our ears and sing la-la-la-la. 🙂 All of the items on your list are so great, Louise. I wish I’d had it way back then, but sometimes we learned those things only by experience.

    • thanks Sheila. conversation with our kids is so important. i’m sure your boys are great young men.

  6. Wow. This is a great affirmation that me and my husband are getting it right. I can’t wait to share this with him!

    • thanks Karen. Anything that spurs a positive discussion is a good thing. Hope yours and hubby’s is wonderful

  7. Another good post, Louise. As a non-parent, I’m always struck by how much parents need to know these days. How does anybody do it? Makes me want to give my own Mom another hug today. Thanks!

    • a hug for Mom is always a good thing, Diane.

  8. Your posts are great Louise. This one is useful for people with kids of all ages, but especially teenagers.
    I think #5 was a big one for me to learn. I could talk to my kid about her hair and makeup and just get an angry stare, but once I had praised her a few times about the same thing, (yes there were good days) it seemed like she turned a corner. Now I have the most delightful twenty-something daughter. In the end, its all good.

    I also found that if I had something that needed to be said, if I limited myself to saying it once (which is really hard for me) and then telling my kid that she could make a good decision, she made good decisions.

    • good lessons to learn, weren’t they? and I agree when we learn them it helps our children become wonderful adults

  9. Amen!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  10. Louise, thank you so much for this post. I think a lot about this subject, and I do my best, but I’ve got to tell you that I must improve #7 and #8. Kids are so alert and perceptive; every little action of ours can make a big impact in their lives. Thanks for this reminder.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post Fabio. I think we all can work on 7 & 8. I don’t wory about every little action, but little actions on our part are often habitual and those add up for our children. Glad you’re thinking about these issues – many parents don’t.

  11. If kid’s came with owner’s manuals, these would be the rules. Thanks, Louise.

    • Wouldn’t it be wonderful if kids came with manuals? wow. Glad you liked the list, Joan.

  12. Oh Louise, thank you for the above reminders about respecting our children’s individuality. What is it about human nature that makes us try to mold kids into little reflections of ourselves – yet when they display our bad qualities…we get upset (or is that just me?)! You know, the one thing I’d add to your list is the importance of apologizing to children when you’re wrong. I guess it goes along with modeling the behaviour you preach, but it’s something I’ve had to consciously work on, because, even as an adult, it sure is difficult to admit being wrong…but if I expect my kids to apologize for bad behaviour, then I’d better be able to do it too.

    • No, that’s not just you, DL = we all do it. I think we often do the same thing with our mates, too , chastising them for the very traits that made them appealing to us in the first place.

      I thought about including apologizing as an additional point but decided against, simply because of the length of the post but it is important. It is also important that our children see that we can admit our mistakes and not be crippled by them – we admit and then make it right, if we can, and get on with life. thanks for being here.

  13. Another great post, Louise. Each has been eye opening and thought provoking. I particularly liked your point about privacy, one I always encouraged between myself and my children. In fact – it was how I taught them to tell the time. We made a clocks out of Cornflakes boxes and every day we chose a time. They would have to set their clock for ten or fifteen minutes later, co-ordinate it with the real clock in their rooms or wherever they chose to be, and so we all had our private time.

    • Victoria, how nice to see you here. What a wonderful method to teach two pinciples at the same time – ingenious, but then I’d expect nothing less from you.

  14. I’m with Heidi! The magical 8 missing pieces. I’m glad these NEEDS are my philosphy TODAY, however. I’ll make sure my next doggie is well adjusted and knows that when he pees in the right place he gets lots of treats and love!

    • I’m so glad this list makes sense. Many of my readers are good parents working to be better but so many of us came from homes where none of these were used. so now we get to do them for ourselves.

      • Exactly! I know one young woman who has 100% turned this cycle around. I wish someone would have loved my parents. I’m doing that in MY LIFE today. Mom’s gone, but dad gets my love and care. I told Jen i have a 90 year old son now. He’s a lucky fella, dad.

        • You are so positive…your dad is indeed a lucky man

          • I’m sure Jen and i will bring all our blog friends with us on the date. Beware … we will have pictures of two very sweaty, dancing queens. Apparently Dad is receiving some very fine chocolates from Denver. He will be giddy! xo

  15. Great wrap-up, and some good points. This is a trivial example, but my daughter can’t ever seem to find the trash can. Stuff gets left out everywhere, and my husband can’t figure out why. Somehow, he never sees all the trash he leaves out 🙂

    • What a good example, Jennette. It’s just that simple, isn’t it?

  16. You just gave me 8 reasons to be grateful that I’m not living at ‘home’ any longer. I had a major breakthrough yesterday with my mom and letting go of expectations. I’m making progress at letting go of #5. I’m OK and I can now do the affirming for her that she needs desperately. Healthy is hard. Progress, not perfection, right?

    • Absolutely, progress not perfection. It was so freeing on the day I looked at my mother as a person and not my mother – all sorts of things became clear for me and allowed me to become free. it was and is wonderful.

  17. Studying child development from a few books when I first started having issues with my children was one of the best things I ever did to help calm me down and make sense of my little ones! When my daughter (she’s 25 now) first said, “Don’t look at me!”, and when each one hit their teens, I was better prepared to not get sucked in to an unsupportive way of parenting.
    I also learned that there’s a phenomenom called “Mommy deafness” that occurs when I speak more than listen, or when I talk to everyone as a group instead of individuals.
    Lots of good stuff. Love this post!

    • BEtsy, how nice to ‘meet’ you. I’m glad you found this post valuable. I have no idea how people raise children without some idea of childhood development. I specifically didn’t say “parenting books’ but rather we need to know what is natural for our kids at specific ages.

  18. Another fantastic blog, Louise.

    • thanks for stopping by Roxy. glad you enjoyed.

  19. Another great post, Louise and smack on. I’m so happy to see that we’re a whole lot right! Woo!! Yet, I relate to the fact that we aren’t perfect but yes, we are absolutely evolving. I think the willingness to admit mistakes and own up to the fact that we are fallible show kids that they don’t have to be perfect but they should learn from their experiences, the good ones and the bad ones.

    • Exactly, Ginger. I’m glad you’re smack on. Affirmations are good, aren’t they. And admitting mistakes, although I didn’t mention that specifically is a wonderful behavior to model – for the reasons you mention.

  20. This is great Louise. Your observations are clear and I think make excellent guidelines for families. Thanks!

    • You’re an early bird, Coleen. (for mountain daylight time, anyway) thanks for stopping by. glad it makes sense

  21. Really well done post, Louise. I think the example setting is the most important aspect of parenting. They study you, your children, always watching. The personal, private space was interesting too.

    • it’s amazing to me how many people don’t realize that kids are always watching and forming opinions. truly amazing.


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