Strong families stay positive in tough times

Editor's note: Ken Potts is taking some time off. In his absence, we are republishing a series of columns that first ran in 2003. This column is the ninth of 10 exploring the topic of healthy families.

Life is no picnic. Or, at least, mine isn't.

There are good times, and the more the better. That's what keeps most of us going. The fact is, though, that in every person's experience there will be illness, loss, tragedy, frustration and sadness. Wealth, charm, good looks, intelligence and talent may make our road a bit smoother, but none of us can avoid all the "potholes" of life.

As part of a family, we not only need to deal with the ups and downs of our own life, but those of our spouse and children as well. In this installment in our series, we will consider the final characteristic of healthy families: they deal with such crises positively.

According to the research, there seem to be two facets of such healthy "crisis management." First, families that work focus on the positive in a given situation.

Now, there is little positive to find in the critical illness of our spouse, for example. But what healthy families do is respond positively to such a crisis. We do absolutely everything we can to make this person comfortable, to keep him or her company, to deal with our children's fears.

Such a positive attitude is taking control of our situation, refusing to be victims, not surrendering to self‑pity. We do the best we can with what we have.

The second factor has to do with pulling together in a crisis situation rather than pulling apart. Healthy families close ranks when things get tough. Family members work together to understand, support and assist each other. They find that crises actually bring them closer to each other and build intimacy in the family.

Working to have a positive, take-charge attitude and to see things through together are how families that work deal with tough times. Unfortunately, there are other, less constructive, ways families sometimes deal with crises.

Some families seem to court disaster simply by their attitude toward life. "If it's going to happen, it will happen to us." Each change or challenge, no matter how small, becomes a crisis too big to handle.

Such families are perpetually out of control. No sooner do they escape the clutches of one major problem than they stumble into yet another. This negative, powerless approach to crisis is the opposite of the healthy family's attitude.

Other families just self‑destruct during a crisis. When our life gets a bit stressed, we all have a tendency to take out our hurt, our anger or our fear on the people close to us. Our problem gets to be as hard on our family as it is on us.

When we do this, it is hard to pull together or to feel very supportive of each other. Often we wind up having a second crisis in the family to go along with the one we started with.

Constructive crisis management involves most, if not all, of the other family strengths we've discussed in this series. And though some families just seem to naturally do a better job at it than others, it is something that can be learned by most families. If you and your family seem caught up in self‑defeating negativism, or if your family always seems to splinter apart when problems arise, you might want to seek a family counselor for a bit of help.

When times get tough, we all need families that work.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

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