In the last three to five years, family resilience gained significance in therapy sessions. The pandemic posed unique challenges, both at an individual and a family level. Families, parents and people in partnered relationships felt that their capacity to deal with difficult situations at a family level was being compromised, leading to a breakdown in communication, interpersonal conflicts and unhealthy styles of managing such conflict. This resulted in feelings of resentment and hurt.
Life events such as marriage, the birth of a child, job transitions, buying or moving into a new house, young children transitioning into adult years and grief can all impact the existing equilibrium and, often, our capacity for family resilience. Froma Walsh, an American clinical psychologist and the foremost authority on the topic, defines family resilience as “the ability of the family, as a functional system, to withstand and rebound from adversity”.
On a day-to-day basis, we face unique situations that challenge our family resilience, such as arguments around discipline with children or conflict between couples in relation to household chores and invisible work. Even planning holidays and festive celebrations can become a time when family members find themselves feeling worked up and exasperated with one another.
While all families deal with adversity and challenges it is crucial to observe how family members show up for one another and how they choose to collectively work towards dealing with demanding situations.
The good news is that research has shown that we can mindfully work towards family resilience and there are key protective factors that go a long way in maintaining the emotional health and resilience for the family.
Often when I conduct training sessions or work with families, I focus on qualities that can be cultivated to strengthen family resilience. One of the key factors that shapes our individual and family resilience is self-care. It’s important to understand that self-care can look different for different people.
It is important to create time for self-care, communicate to each other what self-care looks like for them, and clearly articulate the need for it when one feels emotionally disregulated or overwhelmed. Just as anxiety can rub off on one another, so can a state of calm.
Families who choose to acknowledge and talk about their emotions are more in sync with each other and attentive to one another’s emotional states. The absence of communication around what emotions are being felt can often lead to misunderstandings, and feelings of not being seen or heard. Sometimes, it can make people feel neglected.
Mindfully choosing to spend time together as a unit and engaging in activities that allow for togetherness helps. If these activities are built around fun, playfulness, exploration, they provide for lightness and a chance for immersing oneself and being fully present.
At one of the workshops, a participant mentioned that he and his wife meditate regularly as self-care, and have turned it into a family activity. Their five-year-old has also grown into it: sometimes he falls asleep, other times he sits quietly. Being together for meditation had taken the form of a ritual: a time to relax and then sit and talk with one another.
Other ways to build such positive family rituals for bonding and resilience include going to the park or for a walk together, watching a movie, reading, playing board games, doing art and craft, swimming or cooking together.
The work of building family resilience is an ongoing and continuous one. Our families and those we love deserve the effort we make as we work towards building the resilience that keeps us together.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.