Healthy versus Unhealthy Families

Written by Dr. Sidney Langston

There is no perfect family. We can, however, distinguish two broad categories of families: healthy and unhealthy.

As early as the original family of Adam and Eve, Scripture gives us many examples of what an unhealthy family looks like. Perhaps God purposely left us with these examples of what dysfunctional families look like, what they do to one another, and how these actions affect each family member. With this instruction, believers can learn from example and avoid the same pitfalls in their own lives. Praise God that Jesus went to the cross so that families can be redeemed and don' t have to continue to live in the muck and mire that they have created or inherited.

Healthy (functional/nurturing) families generally approach life from a positive perspective. They have stable, growth-oriented, growth-promoting expectations of themselves and one another. Healthy families—despite problems, weaknesses and pain—are willing to see themselves clearly and make changes where indicated.

Unhealthy (dysfunctional) families are locked into patterns of behavior that prevent the recognition of problems and obstruct growth. Their difficulties may result from living with unresolved problems over a long period of time.

What characterizes healthy families?

  • In healthy families, members feel free to talk about their feelings, and all feelings are okay. Feeling frightened or angry is acceptable. Any subject can be discussed. A child having problems can safely express frustration and expect support from both parents and other family members. Unhealthy family members compulsively protect their feelings and only certain feelings are okay. Many topics are taboo and there are always secrets. But secrets can kill you (example: unexposed addictions). If the secret involves sin and is not dealt with, Scripture says the sin will be passed on to future generations (Ex. 34:7). On the other hand, God tells us that if we instruct our children in the truth (Deut. 6:6-7), righteousness will also be passed down (II Kings 10:30; Deut. 4:40, 5:29, 7:9; Luke 1:50; Prov. 13:22).
  • In healthy families, the individual is more important than his performance. Each person is valued for who he is, not what he does. The reverse is true in unhealthy families: you internalize that your family's love is based on your performance and is not unconditional. Nevertheless, you must always keep in mind that God accepts you for who you are, not what you can do (Rom. 5:6-8).
  • In an unhealthy family, everyone must conform to the strongest person's ideas and values. They know that if they don't conform, family life will become miserable for them. The message, "Do as I say and not as I do" is taught. However, in a healthy family, each person is responsible for his own actions (Rom. 2:1). Individual differences and opinions are accepted and applauded; family members are allowed to think for themselves. An emotionally mature approach says, "We can agree to disagree and still be friends."
  • Healthy families have few shoulds, oughts, musts, if onlys, buts and whys. Without the use of these words, which convey negative feelings, we are better able to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
  • Healthy families provide respectful criticism; maintain clear, flexible and consistent limits; and administer appropriate consequences for misbehavior. Unhealthy families have rigid, inconsistent rules. They don' t know what they value or why values are important. Harsh treatment and shamings (put-downs) are a way of life, rather than positive statements serving to validate a person's significance to the family (Eph. 4:31-32).
  • In healthy families the final responsibility for the family rests with the parents. Children's opinions and wishes are considered, but they are not allowed to dictate family policy (Col. 3:20).
  • Parents in healthy families, model their values in daily life, with the result that children are more likely to pay attention to them. Parents are willing to personally demonstrate self-denial, honesty and commitment to God. Children will repeat the patterns demonstrated by their parents, so it behooves the parents to walk in righteousness (Psalm 78:5-7). After all, parents are children's God-given models.
  • In healthy families, parents work in unison. Children are not allowed to play one parent against the other (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). In dysfunctional families, there may be a coalition between one parent and child against the other parent. Or one parent may domineer, rigidly assuming the role of absolute authority.
  • Healthy families face stress and conflict and work through them (Pro. 14:29; Eph. 6:4). They don't allow problems to build into insurmountable obstacles (Eph. 4:31). Healthy families know how to problem-solve and teach their children to do the same.
  • Unhealthy parents discourage growth. They want things to stay the same, the children to stay small, etc. This results in immature and dependent relationships. Healthy families celebrate growth. They applaud every milestone in each other’s lives. This leads to Godly, healthy, self esteem which then produces physical, mental and spiritual health. Our individual worth to God is expressed in the following passages (and many more): Gen. 1:26-28; Psalm 8:4-8, 34:7, 56:8, 119:73, 139:13-18; Isaiah 40:26, 43:4, 44:24, 49:1-5; Jer. 1:4-5; Matt. 6:26, 10:29-31; and John 14:2-3.
  • Healthy families create an atmosphere which is relaxed, joyous (Isa. 55:12) and loving rather than tense, angry and fearful (Isa. 51:11; Rom. 14:17; Gal. 5:22). "For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind," (II Tim. 1:7).
  • Perhaps the expectation of growth is the primary benefit of living in a healthy family. Personal and family growth require the ability to change, and change cannot occur if we hold on to old habits and ways of thinking (Eph. 4:31). Admitting the need to change is an emotionally and spiritually mature and responsible action (Eph. 4:22). We shouldn’t aim for perfection, an unattainable goal (Eph. 4:13; Phil. 1:6; Heb. 7:19). Rather, we should aim for change and improvement where it is indicated (I Cor. 5:7). Openness to new experiences enhances understanding and communication, and will bring new health to the family (I Cor. 9:24). A healthy, nurturing family will lift up Christ before the world . . . growth is the natural result (I Cor. 13:11).

This is God's goal for us.


Copyright 1996, El Rophe Center, Inc.