Spring 2011
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A Recipe for Emotionally Healthy Families


Key Ingredients: Listening, Resolving Conflict and Play

Family structure doesn't play into the emotional health of children as much as you might expect. More important than whether a child is raised by parents who are married, divorced, same-sex, adoptive or single, a child's social and emotional adjustment are directly tied to the level of communication and trust within his or her family.

Research suggests that children raised in families that listen well and resolve conflict are less likely to suffer from depression or anxiety.

So how can you create this environment for your child?

Good Listening

Most parents listen with the intent to reply, even formulating their responses before their children have finished speaking. Empathic listening focuses on understanding the child's feelings and emotions in addition to the problem or situation he or she is experiencing. Parents who practice this, listen and label their children's feelings and offer help if the children want it. This active listening communicates to a child that his or her feelings are important.

"Children want to feel understood," said Dr. Jane Gray, child psychologist and director of the psychology training program at the Texas Child Study Center. "Practice listening without jumping to give advice. Pay attention to his or her emotions as your child describes a situation or problem."

Dr. Gray recommends opening conversation with your child by expressing that you have noticed his or her feelings. Here are a few phrases to help parents get started: "You seem upset; what's going on?" or "I can tell by your face you are upset and I want to help you. Tell me what happened." Dr. Gray stresses that while children's actions or behaviors are not always acceptable, their feelings are always OK.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution is another important skill in child development. From arguing over a toy to disagreeing about what to do next weekend, conflict is a normal and necessary part of life.

Parents play an important role in resolving conflict for their families. Some call family meetings to discuss an issue or sit down with a child to address a poor behavior or choice. Rather than avoiding conflict, resolving things in a calm manner builds trust with children and helps them feel more secure. Even disagreements among parents are healthy, if they remain positive and work to find a solution as opposed to arguing and shouting.

It is also important to remember that children can solve many problems on their own, especially teens who are more independent. While it's important for them to willingly accept help, parents should also empower their children to address some things on their own.

Well-adjusted children will know how to show emotions and cope with their feelings. They will recognize which problems they can solve on their own and will feel safe asking for help from a parent when needed.

Play Together

Having fun together is a great way to build trust and to be more accessible to your child. Plan family-focused time together, when electronics are silent and interruptions are off-limits.When families do things together and build fun into their family time, they let their guards down and really enjoy one another. Spending time together outside the home also models good social skills for children.

A few suggestions for family time activities:

  • Eat dinner together. Sit around a table, without television or other distractions.
  • Be active together. Go for a walk, play at the park or explore a new museum.
  • Play games together. Challenge each other to a board game or sports contest.
  • Socialize with other families. Invite another family to dinner or attend an event together with other families who have children close in age.

Keep Tabs on Emotional Health

Keep tabs on your children's emotional health by being aware of where your children are spending their time, what they are interested in and what challenges they are facing. As they get older, remember to adjust your expectations for control to show your children that they have built your trust.

By listening and showing interest in both their accomplishments and their struggles, parents will show their children that they truly want to understand them.

NOTE: The Texas Child Study Center is a collaboration of The University of Texas Educational Psychology Department and Dell Children's Medical Center to provide emotional and cognitive treatment for the youth and families of Central Texas.

Additional Resources

Steps for Listening Empathically
American Psychological Association Help Center
Texas Child Study Center
Austin Child Guidance Center
Austin/Travis County Integral Care

Emotionally Healthy Families

Good Health for Kids is produced by Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.