Two Keys For Creating A Family That Thrives

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Family Morale and Cohesion - Essentials For A Happy, Healthy Home

Why are morale and cohesion important within a family?

While deployed in Iraq I had the opportunity to work with men and women from a variety of military units. Most of those with whom I worked were attached to the Army, but some came from the Marines, Air Force, Navy and the National Guard. Across all branches of the service there was a common thread: belonging to a unit that had a sense of cohesion and high morale meant you had hit the jackpot.

Forward Operating Base Paliwoda, Iraq

Forward Operating Base Paliwoda, Iraq

Military members in these units tended to be optimistic, happy, productive, and consistently focused on completing their mission. They felt a sense of connection with each other, a sense of purpose, and a heightened desire to succeed.

When cohesion and moral were absent in a unit, or severely lacking, tensions would frequently escalate, conflicts gave rise to deeply held grudges, performance declined, and mission focus degraded.  

For better or worse, this is true with families as well. When cohesion (emotional bonding/mutual concern) and morale (a sense of confidence, enthusiasm and shared purpose) are high, every member of the family benefits. Parents and their children are happier, more productive, goal oriented, and resilient. When these keys are lacking or absent, families end up struggling with conflict, pessimism, anger and insecurity.   

High morale and cohesion act like shock absorbers that diminish the impact of normal daily stress. They decrease family tension which, in turn, frees up the energy of each family member to focus on that which is positive, constructive and rewarding.

Children from these families enjoy a greater sense of freedom to take chances in life, to be bold, and persist in the face of uncertainty. Risks are more likely to be seen as opportunities, and when failures arise they are more likely to be viewed as mere detours on the way to success.

One of the most important gifts parents can provide for their children is a home environment embodied by a strong sense of cohesion and high morale. How, you ask, can this be accomplished? Good question. Let’s dig in to examine the answer.

How To Increase Family Morale And Cohesion

Building family cohesion and high morale is not complicated, but it is challenging. This is no different than completing a marathon: the act of running 26.2 miles is pretty straight forward (no degree in physics required). But getting to the finish line is not easy. You’ll need to put in a great deal of work, push through some difficult times, and keep focused.

Let’s look at six areas of family life you can focus on to help build strong cohesion and high morale.

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One: A shared purpose, driven by shared values, pulls people together. When a family has developed a clear sense of what they stand for, cohesion is strengthened. You may be thinking “Terrific, I don’t know what my family stands for…. In fact, I don’t even know what you mean. Now what do I do?” 

I’ll explain. Every family has certain values that are esteemed. For some this may be that they are Christian, or Jew, or Mormon, and so forth. Another value commonly cited is loyalty to family and friends. Honesty, charity, service to others are also frequently found as primary values within the home. All of the above relate to ethical or moral values.

Then there are the ‘preferential values’ (they are not related to the moral demands made on each family member, but rather the preferences of family members). This may include a decided focus on the outdoors, or sports, music, the arts, history, gardening and so forth.

These shared values help define a mission that unites members within the family. Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a Certified Imago Therapist, expands on this point by stressing that “Family’s build morale and cohesion by spending time together and developing family rituals and a mission. When everyone feels on the same page, they will feel more like a cohesive unit… [especially when] everyone works together to achieve the same goals.”

Families that strongly unite around values are more cohesive than those that do not. Lynn Zakeri, a therapist in Chicago, provides a wonderful example of how this can play out in a family as she describes the approach she takes with her own children: “We are Team Zakeri therefore we are loyal. We have each other’s backs. For example, we have two sons. From the first day my second child existed, we told our first born that this was his best friend, his playmate, his most loyal fan. And from that day forward, they have remained each other’s favorite person.”

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Notice that Ms. Zakeri emphasizes that her family is a team, and one of many qualities her ‘team’ embodies is loyalty. By encouraging family identification around core values she is providing a foundation for a healthy sense of cohesion. 

This strategy can be even more powerful when these values are turned into simple “truth statements” that are repeated frequently. Examples of this approach include “We Smiths never give up”, “The Robertson’s will always help someone in need”, and “Honesty is at the heart our home.”

Two: Recognition of each person’s value, and contributions, and potential for growth make a huge difference when building cohesion. There is a universal and basic need that people have to be recognized as having worth. When a child’s parents and siblings express sincere appreciation for his, or her, worth, a feeling of attachment grows stronger. Cohesion increases.

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With this in mind it is clear that parents need to find a variety of ways to show each member of the family that he/she is greatly valued. Global statements of affirmation (e.g., “Wow, you’re terrific”) are not nearly so helpful in this regard as specific statements (e.g., “I’m grateful for your help cleaning up after the party. I can always count on you.”).

Small acts of thoughtfulness also move the needle. Helping a teen wash the car for ‘date night’, a plate of cookies brought to your junior high student who is up late studying for a test, and similar kindnesses specifically tailored to the child’s personality or needs work wonders.

Another way to powerfully recognize someone’s value is to take the time to celebrate watershed moments. This might be a graduation, or success in some field of athletics, music, academics, etc. The celebration need not be elaborate (for most events), it just needs to be clearly focused on recognizing the accomplishment of that specific family member. 

Lauren Cook, a therapist/author in Southern California, notes that “Cohesive families take time to appreciate each other and celebrate what is going well in one another’s lives.” She sums this up by noting that cohesive families intentionally focus on expressing a sense of gratitude for others in the family.

Three:  Traditions, especially long held traditions, are a powerful way to build cohesion and elevate morale. Implicit within every family tradition is the sense of being engaged in something that “we as a family” have done throughout the years. It might even be something that extends over several generations, creating an even more powerful bond.

Lori Whatley, is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Atlanta Georgia. She advises parents to build family cohesion by “Enjoying Holiday traditions together each year. Celebrating birthdays together…. [or] gathering at the same time every year at the beach…”  Her main idea is that there by tradition that can be counted upon to occur at regular times and intervals.

One way to make these traditions even more powerful is to assign certain family members specific tasks. For example, when celebrating Christmas there may be a tradition of putting a star on top of the Christmas tree. By having each child in the family take a turn (year by year) in being the ‘one who hangs the star’ the tradition becomes more powerful.

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Why? Because children invariably become invested in securing that role. The more emotional investment the greater the chance for cohesion.

If a family’s summer tradition is to go camping at a specific National Park each year it becomes easy to assign specific tasks to children that likewise build this sense of cohesion.

These tasks might include ‘Quartermaster’, the child who helps with the food shopping/packing, etc. Another child can be assigned the official ‘scout master’ and help parents determine the route of the first hike of the camping trip.

Traditions are powerful cohesion builders, and made even more potent when linked to specific roles.

It is important to note that traditions which instill a sense of ‘belonging’ are particularly potent. Cheryl Fulton, an Associate Professor in the Professional Counseling Program at Texas State University, underscores this point when she notes that “The key to a family ritual is that it is repeatable, consistent, evokes strong emotion, and engages everyone. Positive family rituals can bond a family for life as they become memories that are often revisited, re-instilling a sense of belonging and family commitment.”

This point cannot be stressed enough. Wonderful memories attached to strong emotion have the capacity to bind individuals together over the course of many decades. Such memories will frequently act as a small fire that fuels hope, a fire by which one warms their hands during the harsh winter times of life. Parents who build a treasure chest of such memories early in their children’s lives have given a gift that will be cherished even when their offspring are adults.

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Four:  Consistency in parental expectations builds cohesion by reducing anxiety (fears arise when expectations frequently change, making children uncertain of how they are to win parental approval – consistency is the antidote for such fears).

Anxiety is corrosive. It wears away at family morale, tears at the fabric of family cohesion, and poisons the hard-earned sense of esprit de corps within a family.

Caroline Fleck, a clinical psychologist who operates a private practice in Mountain View California, notes that “cohesion is built through both time and attitude.”  She suggests that having a routine that includes connecting as a family at particular times of the day (mealtimes, bedtimes, etc.) ensures that the family is “investing the time that intimacy requires.”

She also notes that it is particularly important for parents to instill a “one for all and all for one” attitude in their children. This builds a special supportive family atmosphere that Dr. Fleck describes in the following way: “They show up for each other and, here’s the kicker, they do it even when doing so conflicts with other interests. If showing up were easy, we’d all do it all the time. But it’s not: it requires  that we do what is in the best interest of our relationships, not necessarily ourselves…”

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It is important to note that parents who have consistent expectations are also more likely to have children who feel competent. When a child knows what is expected it is much easier for him, or her, to successfully meet that expectation. This in turn leads to feelings of competency and confidence.

Part of this self-efficacy will invariably be rooted in the child’s identity with his or her family. For example, if Julie’s is given the expectation that she is to complete homework every night, and perform chores every Saturday, before playing with friends, she will likely grow up to view herself as someone who ‘gets things done’ because that just the way ‘my family rolls.’

Five: Family Responsibilities   Having responsibilities that extend beyond benefiting oneself is essential for building family cohesion. Helping with the dishes, mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, babysitting younger siblings, folding clothes, preparing meals, and many other tasks fall within this category.

It is important to note, however, that fulfilling responsibilities builds cohesion when everyone is required to participate. If some family members are frequently allowed to slide by without doing their part, this will invariably lead to resentment and distrust in those that are doing the work. Morale and cohesion will diminish. Think “Cinderella Syndrome” but with a really a bad attitude.

Six: Adventures fuel the growth of a family’s esprit de corp. When people share the experience of discovering new and attractive places, they tend to form closer bonds. Likewise, when people share hardships and risks in the pursuit of some goal (e.g., mountain climbing, white water rafting, exotic travels, etc.) they also tend to bond more closely.   

The take away application for your family is that you do well to get your spouse and children involved in some adventures. These need not be at the extremes of big game hunting in Africa, or saving Polar Bears in the Artic. Simply look for opportunities to do that which is out of your normal routine, involves some discomfort/risk/shared sacrifice, and gets the heart racing. Make sure to memorialize the event by taking photos that can later be framed.

How are a sense of morale and cohesion restored after being damaged?

Just as important as knowing how to build cohesion and morale, one must recognize how to restore these qualities when they have been damaged. The most common way they are injured is through some form of betrayal. This can take many forms.

Betrayal may arise when the child finds that a parent has been hypocritical: a mother who always emphasized honesty is found to have cheated her business partner.

Another common path of betrayal is when parents divorce. Although the parents may have struggled and sacrificed to make the marriage work for years, and only came to the decision of divorce after much heartache, children frequently see this as a major betrayal of what they had counted upon.

Extreme anger outbursts, especially when accompanied by hurtful remarks, is a frequent source of betrayal.

Embarrassing another family member in public by disclosing something that had been expressed in private has devastating consequences. This occurs most often between siblings, but likewise is seen between parent/child and husband/wife. As kryptonite is to Superman, this form of betrayal is to family morale and cohesion. It should never occur, and if it does must be dealt with quickly and decisively in order to prevent its corrosive impact from rooting deeply within a relationship.

Family stress can also fracture cohesion and morale (it may also strengthen morale, and cohesion, depending upon the family dynamics). When one member of a family has a chronic illness that saps the time and other resources of the parents it can lead to resentment and alienation. When parents have intense and frequent conflicts this has the same impact. So too does financial stress when parents are not united in their response (when parents are united, and clearly communicate with their children why their ‘lifestyle’ will change dramatically to meet the demands of this financial crisis, families may enhance their cohesion).

Other sources of stress to family cohesion and morale could be mentioned, but these are some of the most common. I should note at this point that it is much easier to destroy cohesion, and degrade moral, than it is to build these qualities. The obvious lesson is that it is best to avoid such injuries in the first place.

This still leaves the question of what to do once these challenges to morale and cohesion have occurred?

The best responses fall into four categories (which often overlap). We will briefly look at each of these responses.

One: Take Ownership Of Mistakes  After a family setback, Dea Dean, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Ridgeland Mississippi, stresses the importance of setting aside “Intentional time to establish healthy emotional boundaries, family expectations and desires and listen to the perspectives and ideas of all [family] members.”  

As a parent, part of this process may be responding to a mistake that you made. Quickly move to own it. That’s right, own up to the fact that you messed up. Apologize. Seek forgiveness. Then ask what you need to do in order to make things right. If the response is reasonable, get after it. Get it done and put the whole thing behind you.

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What’s more, do this as soon as possible. Don’t make a mistake that hurts someone, that degrades family morale/cohesion, and then sit around thinking about it for several weeks. Move quickly to make the repair.

As Lauren Cook stresses, “The best thing to model for children is what it looks like to recover after messing up – and that includes apologizing and acknowledging the other person’s feelings.”

Important guidance: when someone takes responsibility for their mistakes it goes miles and miles towards healing a hurt, towards mending a wound. The person who has been injured feels respected, his or her self-worth restored. What’s more, the person who owns the mistake feels a huge weight lifted off their shoulders (surprisingly, even if the apology is not accepted).

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So, man up. Own up to your mistakes. What’s more, make your apology clear, don’t muck it up with justifications for why you behaved poorly. If you end up saying something along the lines of “I’m really sorry but if you had not done X then I would not have done Y…” just stop. That’s pathetic. It’s not an apology, it’s an excuse. Provide a genuine apology. End of story. Trust me, you’ll feel better.

Two: Forgiveness   The flip side of this is that generous portions of forgiveness are also needed to restore family morale and cohesiveness. Providing this element within a relationship will be harder for most people than offering an apology. Even so, an attempt should be made. As I’ve written about elsewhere, forgiveness is often a process rather than a single decision point.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that forgiveness is a feeling. It is a decision: feelings have nothing to do with whether you forgive someone. Forgiveness means you wipe away the debt owed to you by another for an injustice that person committed. That debt may have been incurred by something they said to you, stole from you, betrayed you, or failed you – forgiveness simply means they are no longer in your debt on that account. You will not hold that against them with regard to your relationship.

Forgiveness does not mean that what the person did is of no consequence. Nor does it mean that you pretend it never happened. If your child let’s you down by taking the car on a joy ride in the middle of the night you would be a poor parent to pretend it never happened. Forgive your teen, but also do a better job of tracking the car keys.

Three: Compassion   Consideration and kindness expressed toward one’s children and spouse also goes a long way to restoring family unity.  More specifically, extending compassion toward an offending family member promotes healing of wounds. This does not mean that their behavior is excused, but it does provide a bridge for reconciliation.

Parents who demonstrate a sense of mercy with regard to mistakes provide their children with invaluable lessons. They learn that when someone falls short, it need not destroy a relationship… rebuilding is possible, although not a guarantee.

Children who are on the receiving end of mercy are also more likely to feel a sense of gratitude, and more secure in their place within the family. It is important, however, that mercy be extended in response to genuine contrition. When consistently applied without any regard to whether the person takes responsibility for his/her error, it can catalyze a sense of entitlement and arrogance. 

Four: Persistence   When family morale has taken a hit, and cohesion is only a fond memory rather than a current event, it is easy to lack the motivation to continue with family traditions, get togethers, and the like.

Nevertheless, it is at these very times that it is most important to pull the family together and engage in these sorts of activities. This takes grit. Persistence. The discipline to lean in and do what needs to be done even when you would rather do nearly anything else.

Levi and Jennie Lusko had a tradition. Every Thursday they had a ‘date night.’  It was important for helping their marriage to flourish. They also reasoned that their children benefited by seeing their mother and father enjoying one another’s company even after many years of marriage.

When tragedy struck, and their five-year old daughter Lenya suddenly died, the family was engulfed in a period of profound grief. Moreover, because their little girl died as a result of a severe asthma attack she had while they were on a date night, this tradition became saturated with painful emotions.

Despite their heartbreak, the Lusko’s soon resumed their Thursday tradition of dating. It required them to initially meet in the morning rather than evening, and to hide the ever-present tears by wearing sunglasses while in restaurants during their date. Nevertheless, the tradition continued, and at least in some small measure it helped the parents cling to one another, and lift their morale if only incrementally.

Jennifer Daffon, a psychologist in private practice in Mountlake Terrance, Washington, aptly observes that “When there’s been some sort of relational rift or break, these rituals serve as a sort of relationship buffer and prevent too much damage from being done.” Put somewhat differently, family traditions and rituals have the dual role of being like shock absorbers and glue. They soften the impact of interfamilial hurts, and bind family members one to another in times of distress.

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Bottom line: when cohesion and morale have suffered a severe blow, it is time to lean in on family traditions and routines, especially those that were previously helpful in maintaining a healthy/happy family spirit.

Conclusion

Family’s thrive when the individual members feel a strong emotional bond, a sense of connection, shared purpose, and devotion. This in turn leads to high family morale, a happier home, and a fuller life.

But a strong sense of family cohesion and good spirits does not emerge accidentally. Intentional efforts aimed at building family traditions, explicitly affirming one another, and insisting that individuals shoulder family responsibilities are important for building this sort of healthy climate.

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Every family will, in time, face challenges that severely test and sometimes degrade the cohesion and high morale that had been built within the home. This is not the end of the world. In fact, these occasions are opportunities to teach children how to repair broken relationships. When parents take the lead in confidently making efforts to restore the old order of things, cohesion and morale emerge again. Often stronger than before.