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How to Help Your Family Thrive: The Essentials

Part 1: Family morale and cohesion—essentials for a happy, healthy home.

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.

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.

 Forrest Talley 2009
Forward Operating Base Paliwoda, Iraq
Source: Forrest Talley 2009

When cohesion and morale 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 straightforward (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.

1. 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.”

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.”

2. 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.

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.

3. 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.

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.