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Creating a Resilient Family

Resilient families have characteristics that anyone can cultivate.

Key points

  • How a family responds to challenges will depend on their resilience and ability to adapt.
  • A family's resilience in the face of challenges is based on their belief system, organization, and communication, among other factors.
  • Families can cultivate these characteristics intentionally, strengthening the bonds among the members.
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This semester, I am teaching a course titled “Family Transitions, Stress, and Resilience.” A major recurring theme in this class is the factors that contribute to resistance to stress and that enable individuals and families to recover from stressful experiences. Froma Walsh (2015), writing about family resilience, identifies a number of characteristics that predict families’ ability to be resilient in the face of challenges. These include the family’s communication, organization, and belief system.

Communication and Resilience

Communication among family members is obviously crucial for a family’s ability to solve problems and meet the challenges they encounter. “Say what you mean and mean what you say” is excellent advice. Some conflicts arise because one person misinterprets what the other said, then reacts to that rather than to what the other actually said. Clear communication helps families avoid this unnecessary difficulty.

Another aspect of communication is the rules that families have around emotional expression. Is the free expression of emotion frowned upon? Is it encouraged? Is emotion regulation a factor in the family’s communication? The ability to openly express emotions without doing so in such a way that hurts other family members builds trust and confidence, which aids a family in being resilient. It is difficult to connect with and trust those who either hide or suppress their emotions because you never know what’s going on with them, or those who are so emotionally volatile as to make being with them feel unsafe.

Finally, communication processes that include problem-solving strategies are very valuable. Not only do they allow families to identify and resolve problems they encounter, but the presence of these strategies also provides a means to resolve and manage conflicts. Without these communication skills, a family faced with a major challenge will be at risk.

Organization: structure and flexibility

Organization is another characteristic that’s important in enabling families to be resilient in the face of challenges. Connection and flexibility are key. Structure can be very helpful: Everyone knows what chores are theirs to do, for example, and this simplifies life together.

But if the family structure is so rigid that the family cannot adapt to change, then the structure becomes a problem rather than a help. For example, if there are several children in the family with different start times at school, the family will develop a strategy for getting everyone where they need to be on time. However, if the family is too rigid about this strategy, then when the schools change their schedules so that the children’s start times are now different, their inability to adapt to this change will create difficulties for them.

So far, the communication and organizational features we have covered focus within the family. But structure extends outward and reflects the social and economic resources available to the family. It turns out (probably not surprising to anyone) that income is associated with happiness. In fact, this varies across countries, and there is a point beyond which more income does not equate to more happiness (Jebb et al., 2018). These researchers found that the tipping point is higher for life evaluation (what people think about their lives) than for emotional well-being, two parts of subjective well-being. One finding of these researchers may be surprising: In some parts of the world (5 of the 10 regions explored), additional income above that point results in lower life evaluation. Economic resources are not the only factor: Social resources are also important for families facing challenges.

Social resources can come from several different sources. These may include extended family, neighborhood friends, a faith community or civic organization. Sometimes these can be critical in a family’s or an individual’s success.

For example, I had a student who was struggling financially because of family difficulties. The student had scholarships, so the school tuition was taken care of. But there were still basic necessities, like rent, food, etc. She wanted to work but had no transportation. A local church heard about her situation, and members collaborated together to provide her with a car, at no expense to her, even paying the insurance for the first year. Social resources can supplement or step in to replace economic resources under certain circumstances, and can be critical for navigating challenges.

Belief system

Finally, a family’s belief system an is important key to a family’s resilience. By this, Froma Walsh is referring to having a positive outlook, being able to make meaning of adversity, and having a sense of transcendence and spirituality. Human beings have a need for significance. This can come from a variety of sources. Historically, people have found this in faith communities, as well as family identities.

One aspect of a belief systems that enhances resilience is the values they provide. Values give a family principles that help them decided what is right and wrong, how to act appropriately in different situations, and what the family’s priorities are, among other things. This enhances family resilience in several ways: The process of articulating their values leads to shared understanding and commitment. As the family agrees on and adopts core values, their unity is enhanced. As they are confronted with challenges, their values can guide their responses to successfully navigate the challenges and maintain their cohesion as a family.

Key takeaways

These three factors of family function (belief system, organization, and communication) require a family to be intentional. By working to establish these factors for themselves, family members learn more about each other, make decisions about how they will respond to their world and its challenges, and thus strengthen their bonds and their resilience.


Jebb, A.T., Tay, L., Diener, E., & Oishi, S. (2018). Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world. Nature Human Behaviour. 2, 33-38.

Walsh, F. (2015). Strengthening Family Resilience, Third Edition. NY: The Guilford Press.

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