Healthy Relationships and Mental Health
by Gerry Waters, on Jan 31, 2021 5:58:46 PM
February has traditionally been a 'season' of romantic love, but Valentine's Day has expanded to give us all a chance to celebrate and appreciate all those closest to us. Yet for many this year, the enforced closeness of Covid lock-downs and school closures, plus the economic hardships, uncertainty and stress that this pandemic has brought, have placed extraordinary stress on all of us, with corresponding impacts on mental health. Anecdotally we all see it; statistically there is no doubt that young people and adolescents have been particularly badly affected.
Whilst technology has been a life-saver for connection, it's also thrown many of our mind-healthy habits out of the window, and caused us to tune out those that we have been in close quarters with for sooooo long. In this blog, we examine the traits of a healthy family as a key to positive mental health, and what we can do to stay on track, and help our kids. With thanks to Gary Gilles, licensed professional clinical counselor, and adjunct professor at the University of Chicago.
1. Healthy families are attuned to each other’s needs. In other words, make regular time for face-to-face conversations with each other. When you do talk with your spouse or children, give your full attention, listen carefully to the details and ask questions to learn more. It’s easy to become a lazy listener to family members because you unconsciously think you know everything there is to know about them. But, there is a whole inner world of ideas, thoughts and emotions that are sprouting up each day that you will only learn about if you are curious and attentive. In fact, try being deliberately curious. Every day, make one attempt to tap into that inner world of each family member. You will learn things you never imagined and feel closer to them as a result.
2. Healthy families repair damage to relationships. Conflict is a normal part of family life. But when conflict is not resolved it can linger and accrue in a way that creates negative feelings and relational distance. Commit that you will not go to bed angry with one of your family members. Be willing to take responsibility for your part in the conflict. Take the initiative to work it out. Defer your point of view for a time while you listen carefully to the concerns of the family member with whom you are at odds. When you resolve conflict quickly and in a sensitive way, it sends a message that you value your relationship with that person so much that you don’t want to be out of sorts with them. Repair makes a relationship stronger.
3. Healthy families encourage emotions. Feelings are the way we express ourselves at our deepest levels. Feelings enable us to experience closeness and understand each another in meaningful ways. So, it only makes sense that healthy families create an open forum for feelings to be expressed and taken seriously. When a member of the family shows excitement, sadness, tenderness or even anger, invite them to talk about it. Probe gently, show empathy and validate the emotion, even if you don’t fully understand the circumstances surrounding the emotion. The facts aren’t as important as the emotion. You can make sense of the facts later. Focus in on the emotion; which is the heart of the message you should tune in to. A home where emotions are welcomed and encouraged is a safe and secure place for everyone.
4. Healthy families build each other up. What do you appreciate most about your spouse and children? What qualities does each person have that add beauty, sensitivity, care, laughter, honesty and energy to family life? Make a list and tell them in person. Better yet, ask each family member to write out a list and arrange a time to tell each other what is most appreciated. Take it one step further and ask each family member to compliment or show gratitude to each family member at least once a day. This action point alone could dramatically change the energy in a family from negative to positive.
These are all wonderful principles for us to remember as we navigate the day-to-day challenges of family life. For teenagers of course, life is even more complicated - so many key life experiences are being blunted or missed altogether - and the sense of lost chances plus the inability to pull away from family when developmentally this is exactly what teens should be doing leads to inevitable resentment. This Childmind article gives some great tips for refocusing and framing difficult discussion about exerting independence whilst keeping themselves and others safe, and a balanced perspective from Very Well Family can be found here.
The films in our Mental Health Trilogy have proved over and over to be a great help in understanding what is going on with the brain, and how we can develop greater resilience, use tricks to snap us out of negative thought patterns that have intensified with Covid, and start building up long-term healthy habits. Angst focuses on de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying anxiety, LIKE on breaking down and breaking free from social media addiction so we can refocus on those that matter, and The Upstanders on collectively pushing back against cyber-bullying and abuse.
For this month of love, let's celebrate and be grateful for each other, and continue doing our very best to stay curious about those closest to us - to what they're thinking, what they need, and how we can help. Happy love month to all!