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Strength in Systems: Understanding Family Systems and Finding Your Strengths

I have this great hourglass that belonged to my grandfather. It floats in a clear glass pyramid, surrounded by the various pieces and parts of a clock. A real image to illustrate that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.

Aristotle was onto something and many psychological theorists have used this basis to better address and support families. The way I see it, the “whole” earns its identity as a function of the parts coming together uniquely. Take away one gear in the clock and it is a broken clock, shifting its identity.

Family systems theory is one that suggests that individuals are best understood in relation to their family system, that families are systems of interdependent people, none of whom can be fully understood in isolation from the system or from one another.

Horticultural therapy, or even simply gardening, is another concrete way to understand all of this. There are parts that make up the whole: the roots, leaves, stem of the plant and the nutrients of the soil, the amount of water, sun or shade; the health and make up of each impacts how the system, i.e. the plant, or even the whole garden, functions.

As you try to learn more about the health of your family system, it is hugely important to understand the strengths and unique characteristics of each of the people involved. While one member might view something differently than you, it is through honoring those unique perspectives that your family gains its identity. It can help to examine different situations through which you identify the roles people play.

As an example, and this of course, is purely hypothetical and not based on any situation that my family of origin was ever in…. okay, let’s say you are in a minivan trying to find your way home, from Disney World to Miami. One person might focus on getting the navigational system to work; one might ask if there is a map in the rental car; one might suggest you look at the highway signs. One person might appear angry or frustrated and not ask for help while another suggests that you work together and remember to enjoy the trip and that getting lost is not the biggest deal. One person might be reading comic books in the back seat, staying out of it all together while another might take on the role of “clown.” One person might…you get the picture.

Through examining the day to day situations, you can see who in your family tends to solve problems with logic, who tries to keep the peace, who feels stuck no matter what the situation is. By better understanding this, and by getting to know each other, you can better set your family up for success, based in your strengths.

Finding Strength

Get to Know Each Other

Picture this: An alien race lands on the planet with intent to destroy. Each family is given the chance to prove its worth and thus save themselves, which is illustrated by seeing the strength in the system. It is a three tiered process of observation:

  • Can the family introduce other members of the family in a way that illustrates they intimately know each other?
  • Can the family work together to accomplish a task WHILE helping each other feel valued?
  • Do individual members listen with the intent to respond or with the intent to genuinely understand?
  • On a scale of 1-5, 1 representing the “not so good” end, how would your family fair, keeping in mind age-appropriate expectations, which of course are understood by the aliens? What could you each do in order to build strengths in each of the above areas?
Find Your Values

We each have a best self and a worst self, and likely several iterations in between. When we function as one or the other of these, we prioritize a different set of values. As my best self, for example, I value flexibility and not taking things personally. As my worst self, I value selfishness. As parents, it is your job to identify the values that you want to prioritize and to create a lifestyle and structure that supports them.

One family who reached out to us for help identified the lack of time they had together. As we addressed their schedules and where they could be flexible, they realized that they allowed their family to prioritize television over time together. Not just watching TV but each individual had their own shows that they liked and were unwilling to miss them or set their preferences down to watch someone else’s show if they did not like it (this was the parents as well, not just the kids). They each watched on their own device in a different room in the house. I asked them to repeat the statement, “I value my TV show more that my family” and asked them if it rang true. Luckily, the answer was “no.” They reprioritized the value of spending time together and the parents addressed ways to shift their tunnel vision and their rules at home to truly live within their values.


We each yearn for validation and for people to see our strengths, even if we are in a rut of struggles. It can help to know what strengths to look for and validate in each other, in order to build a sense of belonging, gratitude, connection and unity. Some examples of strengths to notice, taken from positive psychology’s strengths and virtues:

Creativity, hard work, flexibility, social empathy, kindness, humor, humility, perseverance, curiosity, love of learning, courage, stewardship, forgiveness, self-control, organization, follow through, willingness to ask for help, hope, gratitude, spirituality, open-mindedness.

Check out Martin Seligman explain the Positive Psychology Movement in this Ted Talk.

Find Your Groove

Finding a routine or a rhythm that fits your lifestyle, and with which you can be consistent, has been proven to work wonders for family health. These days, we often find that families seem to live an “every man for himself” lifestyle, each individual managing their own chaos of commitments and things to do. It is so important that your rhythm focuses on supporting your values because ultimately, finding your groove is about building new habits and don’t you want your habits to be in line with your values?

It’s not a secret that routine and healthy habits can decrease stress over time, even if it feels stressful to get that routine established right now. It is our animal instinct to avoid feeling discomfort that is the biggest obstacle to families following through with this…don’t let your animal brain (limbic system/amygdala) run the show! It is hard and your kids or your wife or your husband might complain but it is worth it!

This does not mean you have to have every minute of the day scheduled. The goal is to find a healthy middle ground with flexibility and routine, with an eye on the bigger picture of living your values. For example, a rhythm could be everyone in the morning taking the approach of “do what you need to do before what you want to do.” Or your rhythm in the morning could be “care for each other before chaos takes over,” which could simply mean that everyone makes sure to say good morning or ask if others need help before diving into the chaos of getting ready to go. Your evening rhythm could be more structured with a system such as having the kids set the table while the parent is making dinner… a habit that can help the kids learn to shift between tasks (they have to set down what they are doing, even if it is homework, to help) thus enhancing mental flexibility.


(Sung to the tune from “Fiddler on the Roof!”) Have traditions or routines that really define your family. My family, for example, has a yearly “Yes Day” holiday, where we each say yes to whatever the others suggests, within a set of health parameters…the kids can eat with their hands, can have as much junk as they want, stay up until midnight watching movies (they are 8 and 11). We have eaten chocolate covered grasshoppers on yes day and we have found homeless folks to share our lunch with. What is great, is that most of the requests from the kids are about doing fun things together that we do as often as we can anyway, such as playing basketball. But “Yes Day” is ours and it is part of what defines us.

Part of my upbringing that drives my value set included lots of volunteer work. So, as we aim to build traditions that also encourage our family to live toward our value set, another tradition is putting together food on Thanksgiving and Christmas to bring to the local homeless populations. Not only do the kids help out with the prep, but we also are sure to have them involved in the handing out and prayer that is said, with everyone standing in a circle holding hands. There are many aspects of this tradition that help our children develop values and perspective.

Setting up Success

The simple key here is being very intentional with what you ask of your family and why. When do you say “no” without thinking about things and does that build trust from others that you are the thoughtful person who deserves to be in charge? Here are two simple examples of setting things up for success that we hope you can translate into situations specific to your family.

When my 8 year old step-son was about 5 and we finally got tired of his battle of wills around finishing dinner, a revelation occurred. It was a time when we were trying to find ways to set him up for success, as he was the younger brother who was constantly overcorrected by his older brother (sigh, yes, and by us, ugh!) and he was on the path to finding lots of unhealthy ways to gain a sense of power. The simple success set up: put less food on his plate. We weren’t worried about how much he ate, as he was a generally healthy eater. It was just those pesky veggies (which he actually likes) they he would not finish when he did not like the flavor of how they were cooked. So, we were mindful about putting only the bare minimum on his plate and then, if he wanted more, great. He started finishing his meals with little trouble, feeling proud and we were less stressed by “the dinner dance.” We set him up for success.

The boys in my family tend to, ummm, lose track of things let’s say. We lost too much time and heartfelt connection through the frustration of always looking for homework or books that they needed for school. On top of this, I tend to get my buttons pushed when there is too much clutter and so that emotion would feed into my parenting approach each time the great search began. And so, my husband and I get a set of wooden shelves with baskets, one belonging to each boy. When they are done with their homework, they now have the habit of tossing it all into the basket. It doesn’t have to be neat or in a folder or whatever…just tossed into the basket. And now, each time the question comes, as it appropriately still does, “Where’s my reading book?” We can all simply say, check the basket. 8 times out of 10, that is where it is.

In the end, it’s simply about Strength

Find your strengths and the strengths of your family members, create some routines that can fit and set yourselves up for success. Along the way, develop your own courage to look honestly at your personal struggle areas and claim them. Through honest reflection and awareness we can each show up more often as our best selves for the ones who matter most.

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