The Secrets Emotionally Strong Families Know

You know those families, the ones who seem to have it all together. Close bonds, loving relationships, and appropriate conflict resolution (well, at least most of the time!) Maybe it’s your neighbor or the lady on the soccer field, but we all know a stable family that make us curious and motivated. So what’s the secret?

My experience working as a family therapist helping to restore families has uncovered some common themes of families who seem to have deep, personal, and loving connections. Families who create and sustain loving bonds, appropriate boundaries, and value each member’s unique contribution to the family system are most likely to raise emotionally and mentally strong children and teens.  With all the information on different parenting strategies, cultural accommodations, and always changing technology, these themes remain consistent across generations of emotionally strong family systems:


Family is our first introduction to language, social interaction, and our first lifeline to begin deciphering the world that we are living in. As a parent, it is our job to guide and protect our children into becoming the individual they are meant to be; however, our never ending to do lists, busy work schedules, and lack of energy and sleep can frequently get in the way. To build emotionally strong children, parents need to send the message children are heard, understood, and also have a place in the hierarchy of the family system. Parents have a daunting task of balancing the role between authority and love, compassion and compromise.

Emotionally strong families have parents who validate their children. That means putting down the cell phone or email to listen about the mundane details of their day and “showing up” for the little moments of life. Many parents tend to confuse validation with encouraging our children’s every decision. Validation does not mean that you are agreeing with your child’s point of view, it simply sends the message “I hear you, and what you’re saying is important to me”. To add some validation to your family communication patterns, be mindful when your children may be looking for encouragement or acknowledgement. Spend time without phones and send the message that you are ready to listen if/when they are ready. 5 Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman is a great resource to identify the way your child best receives validation. Children require love and validation in different ways, and siblings likely have differing love languages. Getting to know your child’s unique needs and sending a message of inclusion is a key part of an emotionally strong family.

Clear Boundaries

Emotionally strong families have a unique balance between togetherness and separation that provides the boundaries necessary for a well-adjusted family system. One way to combat confusion is setting family guidelines or expectations. Notice I did not utilize the word “rules” because a guideline is something different. Guidelines, unlike rules, are created and enforced by the entire family system. For instance togetherness is an important part of keeping a family bond strong, but how you spend that time is unique to your family’s needs, schedules, and interests. Sit down with your family and discuss the feelings about your boundaries, allow each member to share their feelings on the time spent with family. You may be surprised the amount of insight your child or teen has into the communication patterns and their ideas. An example of a guideline may be every Sunday the entire family comes together for pasta night, or the last Tuesday of the month the boys get to decide the next family outing. This provides an opportunity for your children or teen to have some power in decision making, while also providing structure to their requests.

Don’t Treat Your Children as Fragile

Today our society is very focused on inclusion of all people, which is wonderful; however, it has created a fear of rejection that is becoming overwhelming to some degree. We are overly concerned if our children are fitting in, being treated fairly, and constantly making sure to catch them before they fail to a point of no return.  Although by doing this we may feel that we are protecting our children, we are actually hindering their ability to overcome adversity. Children are EXTREMELY resilient as these experiences of being the last to be picked on the soccer team, having an unfair detention or consequence at school, or struggling to create friendships shape them into empathetic, understanding and well-adjusted adults. Always coming to the rescue for your child will hurt in the long run, as you foster dependence and send the message that your child cannot effectively overcome adversity without your help. Inform your child it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to be angry, and it’s OK to have bad days. Talk about it, and teach coping strategies to let it go. Encouraging your child’s independence is an important strategy for emotionally stable families.

Parenting is one of the most difficult and least rewarded jobs in the world. There is no manual to becoming perfect family because guess what, there is no perfect family! Take the tips above and see how you can incorporate them into your unique family needs.

Michelle Smith MS, RMHCI

Talking to Children and Teens About Violence

Last week we witnessed one of the deadliest mass shootings unfold right in our backyard and once again lost precious human lives due to unnoticed mental illness. As a middle school guidance counselor and clinician, this incident left me feeling heartbroken and overwhelmed with emotion. The past week has consisted of conversations with students who lost family members in the shooting, are scared for their safety in school, or just need a safe place to be validated and comforted.Finding the right way to have age appropriate discussions with children can be tough; therefore, I have listed some tips below:

1. Reinforce That Your Child is Safe

This news can be very frightening no matter the age of your child. Your child needs validation and reassurance that they are safe in their school and at home. Allow your child to express feelings and be sure to normalize them. It may look something like, “Thank you for sharing that with me. It’s okay to be scared about what happened. It’s scary for mom too, and our schools and community work hard everyday to protect us and keep us safe”. It’s important to provide a safe place at home to discuss their fears. Once fears are brought into the light they hold less power.

2. Talk About It

This is probably the most important tip I can provide. As parents we want to protect our loved ones from the harsh reality of the world we live in today. We may turn off the news if our child walks into the room because it may be easier to dismiss the conversation than figure out how to address the tragedy appropriately. Although this likely will be a tough discussion with your child, it’s important you talk in your family about the tragedy that has unfolded. By dismissing the conversation, your child is receiving the message that this is something to be feared. This creates a mixed message or dialectical dilemma in the family system.

Allow your child’s questions guide the information you provide them. Notice signs that your child may want to talk such as hanging around the living room/kitchen. Younger children may express feelings artistically. You may sit down and ask them about the meaning of their artwork to prompt a discussion. Provide age appropriate responses. For instance, younger elementary students need less details than a high school student.

3. Notice Your Child’s Emotional State

During this time it’s important to be on the look out for changes in behavior patterns such as isolation, extreme anger or sadness, or anything out of the norm for your child. Look for changes in sleep or eating patterns which may indicate anxiety or emotional disturbance. If you do notice differences in your child’s behavior, let them know you are noticing in a curious way. Say something like: “I notice since we found out about the school shooting you’ve been spending more time in your room than normal. I’m curious how you are feeling and I want you to know I’m here when your ready to talk”

If your child’s abnormal behavior continues, it may be time to seek out a professional who specializes in children and adolescent counseling. Sometimes children hold information from parents due to concern that they will be a burden to your busy life. Allowing a third party to step in and provide a safe place to share is a great solution.

It is an unfortunate reality that our children are growing up in the midst of witnessing violence on the news, in their schools, and communities. As parents we have an important role to provide a safe and secure space for our children during this tragedy. In the upcoming weeks and months to come attempt to keep routines as normal as possible and reinforce the ideas listed above.

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, grief, or how to talk to your children about tragedy contact me for a free consultation to see if I would be a good fit for your therapeutic needs.

Michelle Smith MS, RMHCI

(405) 323-1786

Self Care and Work/Life Balance

Do you find yourself feeling tired, sluggish, pessimistic about your job? Have you felt “the grind” doing wear and tear on your relationships, mood, and social interaction? Have you lost the motivation and drive you once had when you began? If so, you may be missing a key aspect of work/life balance called self-care.

We are always being torn from one responsibility to another, whether it be home, work, or family life, to-do lists are always overflowing. It’s easy to allow this to become an anxiety provoking and create stress in your own life that translates outside of the workplace. Companies and organizations are always demanding more of your time, your energy, and your brain power to work for their own benefits. It’s time to stop and ask yourself, what have I done to protect my own well-being recently?

As a middle school guidance counselor, I provide support and encouragement to the entire school community. Frequently this includes helping our teaching staff becoming non-reactive with students, and understanding thoughts, emotions, and actions that are leading to conflict in student-teacher relationships. Speaking with my colleague the other day I realized many professionals struggle tremendously with creating healthy boundaries at work. We feel obligated to say “yes” anytime an opportunity is presented our way. Whether we believe this will be the next step to that promotion, or increase our annual performance evaluation we justify that it is, “the right thing to do” to be a yes person. I’m here to dispute this myth. Always saying “yes” when you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and are in need of some serious self-care can do more harm than good. Although you may feel you are doing a service for your company, if you are not in the right mindset you may actually be hindering the goals you are working towards instead of helping them.

During my guidance lessons, I speak tremendously about boundaries. Working with the middle school population, this is a very foreign idea for many of my students. I notice this is also foreign in the American workplace. Instead of giving ourselves time to reboot, recharge, and refuel, we stretch ourselves to the point of no return which eventually can lead to professional burnout. You may be burnt out if you feel apathetic at work, sluggish. and overall lost a sense of joy waking up to do what you love in the morning.

Luckily there is some simple steps you can do to stop being the “yes” person and begin being a contentious employee who sets clear and concise boundaries:

1. Make a list of one thing you are doing for yourself each day

It can be a large or small thing such as drinking your favorite tea, having a conversation with a friend, or treating yourself to a manicure. Everyday it is important to embrace the little moments we have for self care. Try to incorporate one each day, and transition to incorporating these moments throughout your work day. I enjoy beginning my day listening to an audio book on my drive to work, this gets me in a positive mindset. I create short “Brain Breaks” for myself such as 10 am coffee, a walk around the building, etc. to make sure I’m making the little moments count! Find what works for you a stick to it!

2. Say “No” more often

This may be the hardest step of self-care. As humans, we are created to be social beings. We care tremendously about relationships, our reputation, and how others perceive us. As you begin to set boundaries in your life and say “no” to working that third weekend this month you may feel a sense of guilt. Acknowledge this feeling by stating to yourself “I am feeling guilty right now, AND I am doing this to better myself to be a better employee overall”. Allow yourself to feel your guilt for a short period of time and then move on. Guilt can only be helpful to a certain extent before it can lead to anxiety and self-shame.

3. If you find yourself still struggling, think about talking to a professional

Sometimes an outside observer who is not personally invested in your journey can provide depth and understanding to certain situations. If you find yourself still struggling contacting a therapist is a wonderful step towards gaining your independence and vigor for life back! If you’re in a field that is no longer bringing you happiness, it’s OK to have a fresh start! After all, we spend most of our lives in our workplace! Make sure it’s a positive place that is fostering growth in your life instead of sucking you dry of your energy and happiness.
When you follow these steps, it may be shocking at first for your administration or supervisor at first to accept this transition. One piece of advice as you move towards creating healthy boundaries to remember is the word “No” is a full sentence. When we say “no”, we feel the need to justify or over explain the reasoning, when in reality we do not owe this to anyone. The feeling of guilt is designed to help us reflect and problem solve; however, when it becomes obsessive we tend to self-shame, become overwhelmed, and avoid the real problems. If your mind, body, and soul is craving some “me” time listen! At the end of the day, you are doing a service to yourself and your company to take a step back and preventing long-term career burnout.

If you are struggling with career burnout, work/life balance, and setting boundaries contact me at 405-323-1786 For a FREE consultation.

Michelle Smith, MS, RMHCI