Family relationships are essential to the development of children's physical, emotional and social capabilities. The purpose of this hot topic is to provide a range of insights into family relationships and to provide practical strategies to help build these relationships.
What is a family?
Families are a vital part of children's and young people's lives as this is where they are loved, nurtured, cared for and develop to become independent adults. Family has a huge influence on children's wellbeing and emotional development as well as on their ability to cope with situations, challenges, relationships and living.
Families and their makeup have changed greatly over time, and so have the roles and responsibilities of parents. Families come in all shapes and sizes, including:
- single-parent families
- blended families
- immediate families
- extended families
- non-residential parents
- married couples
- defacto couples with or without children
Today, a family or family member can be anyone you define and consider to be family. In some families, all the members are biologically related, while in others there may be a merging of different families. Some families have:
- a mother and a father
- either a mother or a father
- two mothers or two fathers
- foster children or foster parents
- extended family members e.g. grandparents, aunties and uncles
Cultural factors also influence how a family is made up. For example, some Indigenous families involve a more extensive network of relationships compared with non-Indigenous families.
Parents' role in a family
Regardless of the structure of a family, the parents' and carers' role is critical for children. This role is to love, care, nurture and respect as well as to provide support and guidance for children and young people, and to foster their independence so they become fully functioning adults.
Having good and healthy relationships between family members will assist the child/young person to feel safe, secure and loved. A child needs this kind of emotional environment to learn and grow.
In particular, parent-child relationships have a crucial impact on child development outcomes. Warm and supportive parents tend to be associated with positive cognitive, behavioural, emotional, and physical child development outcomes. In contrast, parents who are harsh, abusive, and/or emotionally neglectful can cause their child to experience emotional, behavioural, mental and physical health difficulties in childhood and in later stages of life.
Tips for growing stronger family relationships
The following strategies can be used by parents and carers to help develop healthy and strong relationships in their family.
Show warmth and respect - Being warm and respectful is a great way to show children and young people that they are cared for and loved. This may include expressions of affection and sharing warm and positive feelings. Expressing warmth and respect will support the healthy development of a child's wellbeing, self-esteem and confidence, and will nurture trust and closeness in your family relationships.
Focus on communication - Good communication is crucial for good relationships. Communicating is about both talking and listening and will:
- help each person meet their own, and each others' needs
- help resolve conflict
- improve your bond with your child and encourage them to listen to you
- assist your child to develop and form relationships with others as well as foster their own positive self-esteem
Communicate through expressions of love, appreciation and encouragement using words, gestures and affection. For more information, check out our hot topic on Communication.
Set expectations and boundaries - Children and young people need clear expectations and boundaries that are appropriate for their age and stage of development. Boundaries are usually about setting limits and rules about behaviours and activites, and generally work well when everyone in the family can participate in discussion about the boundaries, and have a clear understanding of what is expected and what will happen the boundaries are not adhered to. Bear in mind that a few clear and specific boundaries are likely to work better than an endless list of rules.
Give attention to healthy and appropriate behaviour - Praising children and young people for things they do well is as important as setting boundaries. Praise is something we all love to receive as it makes us feel good about ourselves. It is good for self-esteem, self-worth and confidence, where as too much criticism will lower it. Specific praises are much more beneficial to the child than general ones.
Be attentive to your children and involve them in family life - Being listened to and being involved in family life is a necessity for every child and young person. Provide your child with opportunities to express their opinion and also to be part of household decision making. It will help you understand their point of view and will help them feel like part of the family.
Spend quality time together - spend time together doing things that you both enjoy, such as playing games, going to the local park, etc. Use the time you spend together, such as at mealtimes, for conversation and a good laugh. Make sure your family does fun stuff together on a regular basis. When planning family activities take into consideration all family member needs.
Give space to your child to express their independence - It is important to know what's going on in your child's life, but they also need to have their own personal space and autonomy suited to their age, stage of development and maturity.
Find out about children's development - Children and young people change a lot as they grow. Knowing what behaviours are typical for their age can help you understand why they are doing certain things, what the appropriate response is, and whether you should be concerned.
Read bedtime stories - Reading with your young child on a regular basis is a great way to develop their reading abilities as well as having time together. This in turn will strengthen the parent-child bond and will provide your child with a great head start at school.
Look after yourself and your relationships - Good parenting is also about looking after your own needs. This includes spending time with your partner or other people you are close to. Feeling supported will help you to cope with various parenting challenges along the way. Eating right, getting enough sleep and taking time to relax and socialise will also help you look after yourself physically and mentally.
Support each other - If you have a partner or an ex-partner who is also involved in parenting your child, it is important that you work together in order to get the best outcome. Children and young people do better when parents and carers are working towards a shared goal rather than in conflict with each other and trying to do different things.
Get support - If you are having relationship difficulties and you feel it would be helpful to get advice, contact your State's parent counselling service. These services may be able to give you some ideas on how to handle particular situations or may give you reassurance that what you're doing is OK.
Who can I contact for more information?
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
- Raising Children Network
- Parenting and Child Health
- Family Relationships Online
- Communication Hot Topic
- Australian Government - Australian Institute of Family Studies. (2006). Snapshots of Australian Families with Adolescents - Facts Sheet for the National Families Week 14-20 May 2006. Melbourne, Victoria.
- Baxter, J., Gray, M., & Hayes, A. (2009). Diverse Families Making a Difference - Facts Sheet for the National Families Week 10-16 May 2009. Melbourne, Victoria: Australian Government - Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Raising Children Network - The Australian Parenting Website. (2006). Families that work well. Retrieved from: http://www.raisingchildren.net.au
- Rigg, A., & Pryor, J. (2006). Children's Perceptions of Families: What Do They Really Think? Children & Society, 21, 17-30.
- Robinson, E. (2009). Refining our understanding of family relationships. Family Matters, 82, 5-8.
- Raising Children Network - The Australian Parenting Website. (2010). Building good family relationships. Retrieved from: http://www.raisingchildren.net.au
- Waylen, A. & Stewart-Brown, S. (2009). Factors influencing parenting in early childhood: a prospective longitudinal study focusing on change. Child: care, health and development, 36 (2), 198-207.
Published: 9 July 2012