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Tamara Afifi on Building Resilient Families

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For more than two decades, Tamara Afifi, professor of interpersonal health communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has studied how families communicate with one another in stressful situations. Divorce or extreme financial hardship can be damaging for families, but there are ways to overcome these challenges—and even treat adversity as an opportunity for growth.

Q: How can we help our families communicate better?

Families who nurture their relationships tend to communicate better in times of stress. They are less likely to view events as stressful in the first place. And when stressors do arise, they are more likely to develop creative solutions to their problems and communicate in ways that lift one another up. By proactively maintaining your relationships, you create a bank of positive emotions that you can draw from when times are hard. Nurture your relationships by spending quality time together, showing affection to one another, being present, and doing things to express your appreciation for one another.

Q: What helps families become resilient during hard times?

When we’re facing a challenge, we don’t want to feel like we’re alone. We want to know that somebody has our back, no matter what. If your family can achieve that sense of camaraderie, then you’re more likely to believe you can overcome anything.

One approach is to view hardships as a communal problem—something your family is unified against. If you view challenges as something you tackle as a team, you can create a sense that it’s “us against the world.” You’ll know that no matter what happens, you’ll be okay.

Q: How can we encourage communal coping in our families?

The language you use is important. Strong families tend to use a lot of positive, proactive “we” language. Tell your family, “We can get through this together, and we can come out of it stronger.”

You can also communicate your support of one another nonverbally through body language that shows affection. Remember to hug your children, kiss them, and hold their hand. This is especially important for adolescents, who tend to receive less affection from their parents than they did when they were little.

Sometimes, you may choose to support one another by doing things together and rallying around each other, without saying anything at all. If one member of the family is having a hard day, the rest of the family can come together to make their favorite dinner. This shows that you care for one another and strengthens the bond between family members.

Q: How can we support our kids through a divorce?

First and foremost, tell your kids you love them. They need to know that your feelings for them won’t change as a result of the divorce. Make it clear to them that you and your co-parent respect each other and that even though you’re no longer together romantically, you are still both committed to being their parents.

It’s also important to spend time together as a family. This can be with or without the other parent, whichever works for you. Quality time is a great tool for helping kids achieve a new sense of normal. Maintain routine activities like eating dinner together, going on walks, or having Friday movie nights. This helps your family stay connected, and it gives kids a chance to talk.

Q: What’s the best way to talk to our kids about how they’re doing after a divorce?

Sometimes parents take their children’s silence about a divorce as a sign that they’re doing well. But children often avoid talking about their feelings to prevent conflict or avoid making their parents feel sad. If you initiate the conversation in a way that is comfortable for your kids, that can help them heal.

It is often easier for children to talk about sensitive topics like divorce when they’re engaged in other activities and the conversation doesn’t feel as intense. For example, it might be easier for your child to confide in you while you’re making dinner, playing together, or taking a walk than it would be if you were sitting face-to-face. The distraction helps open up the conversation.

Q: How can families foster forgiveness?

The first step toward forgiveness is talking about your feelings. Make time for each member of the family to express how they feel about the hardship you’re going through together—and try to understand where everyone is coming from. Forgiveness may not come immediately. It often takes time for people to let go of hurt, anger, and sadness. But you can start by opening up the lines of communication.

Q: What does Option B mean to you?

Option B means accepting the hardships that come your way and finding how to communicate and evolve as a family in the face of them.

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