What matters most for our family relationships

Photo by Eye for Ebony

As a parent, I often feel like I have a handful of checklists I need to follow. I like checklists; they make me feel organized and productive.

Of course, parenting is hardly a simple list of tasks. For one, our kids are experts at surprise and instability. What they mostly need from us in the midst of all their own change, researchers tell us, is our stability and consistency. Our family relationships aren’t fostered through lists, but rather by our presence, attentiveness, and willingness to be responsive to emerging needs.

As researchers at the Search Institute continue decades of studying kids and teenagers and what helps them thrive, they have turned their attention more and more to families. What emerges is the importance of quality family relationships—and yes, there is a list of areas for us parents to focus on.

What matters most in our relationships: 5 key qualities

While we know intuitively that family relationships matter, we’re learning more about why and how they matter, and what we can do to improve them. It turns out that family relationship quality impacts a host of other outcomes related to thriving in young people.

Of all the factors that influence our kids, family relationship quality impacts a host of outcomes related to their thriving. (tweet that)

According to Search,

The quality of the relationships in the family predict thriving and build character strengths much more than demographic factors. A large number of strong relationships in a young person’s life correlate with a decrease in high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and tobacco use. And youth with strong family relationships tend to be more resilient in the face of stress and trauma.[1]

Reading more deeply into the research, demographic factors like our level of income, race/ethnicity, and family makeup impact thriving less than the strength of our relationships, and these relationships build resilience to help kids face instabilities.

This, of course, is where the list comes in. Based on their research, the Search Institute has developed five key strategies for building strong relationships with youth, and focused them in on families. Their Developmental Relationships framework asserts that truly transformative relationships involve these five essential actions that together contribute to the holistic development of the young person.  

Three relationship strengths to keep building

If you’re like most families, you are probably already doing three of the five well. You can celebrate your current efforts and keep building on these strengths:

1) Express Care. “Show me that I matter.”

This cluster of actions is about trust, listening, valuing, and showing family warmth. Our kids’ perception of this care is what’s important here, so from time to time we might want to ask a question like, “What are some things I do or say that remind you that you matter so much to me? What do you wish I would do or say more?”

2) Challenge Growth. “Help me keep getting better.”

This is related to building perseverance and effort, the stuff of grit. We expect the best, and we help kids learn from their failures. While parental challenge can turn into overwhelming pressure, the right amount of expectation and accountability is critical for inviting kids into their potential.

3) Provide Support. “Guide me and keep me on track.”

The situations and systems of life can be tough to navigate; supportive family relationships provide navigational tools and, at times, guardrails to young people as they grow. Limits and boundaries fit in this category, as does advocacy when our kids need help finding their voice and speaking up for themselves.

Two areas where most families are weak

The last two actions on Search’s developmental relationships framework list are parenting strategies with which you might be struggling if you’re like most families. This is precisely why they deserve our attention. And it turns out that these actions are less about control and more about trust. In other words, they’re beyond our checklist approach to parenting altogether.

1) Share Power. “I have agency.”

Similar to challenging growth, sharing power is about valuing each other, but it goes a step further. When we share power, we both treat kids with respect and give them a say in decisions that affect them. Search Institute describes sharing power through the set of statements below; consider how much your kids would agree that these descriptors apply to your family:

  • We take each other seriously and treat each other fairly.
  • We involve each other in decisions that affect each person.
  • We work together to solve problems and goals.
  • We give each other chances to make decisions and take the lead.

Here’s a quiz you can take to see how much you’re sharing power now with your adolescent son or daughter. When I took the quiz keeping just my 15-year-old in mind, my grade was about a “C.” Not particularly impressive. Turns out that while I like and support the idea of sharing power, in actual practice I’m not doing it as well as I’d hope. According to Search’s research with parents, only 41% feel like they are sharing power well, so apparently a lot of us are in this boat together.

Overcoming the barriers of time, energy, and intentionality

When I’m short on time, which is most of the time, it’s much harder to slow down enough to collaborate or to let my kids lead. More often I feel like I’m pushing from behind, or far out in front, dragging them along at my speed.

And time is directly related to energy. When I call the shots, things get done more efficiently. I take the shortcuts I know, and decide what to prioritize and what to cut. Plus, my wife and I barely have the time or energy to talk through all the decisions that need to get made on a regular basis that affect our family. Involving kids in more decisions feels like work we don’t have capacity to add.

Finally, most of us aren’t intentional enough to look for opportunities to share power with our kids and help them take steps toward maturity by being involved in meaningful collaboration and work.

We can move past these barriers by choosing one area to start sharing power. Maybe it’s inviting older kids into a discussion about chore distribution and how household work gets done. Maybe it’s talking through weekend plans and asking for input from kids before making decisions. Perhaps it’s looking at processes like preparing for a driver’s permit test or beginning to search for a college, and letting our kids know that they will take the lead and we will check in from time to time to see what kind of support they need.

2) Expand Possibilities. “Help me see beyond right now.”

Young people need adults in their lives who help broaden their worldview. If you can remember your own experiences as an adolescent, you may recall feeling trapped in the immediacy of your life. The anxiety and boredom of the endless school routine. The short-sightedness of your thoughts about relationships, decisions, and the future. The comfort or chaos of your family environment, depending on your particular situation. You have more perspective now, but as a teenager you likely saw the world through rather narrow lenses.

Now think about an adult who may have helped you see past the day-to-day, see beyond your current relationships, or who sparked an idea about your future that helped you see from a new angle. Perhaps it was someone who presented a different cultural perspective, who had traveled to or lived in different parts of the world, or whose life experiences were markedly different from your own.

Search Institute’s research found power in relationships where possibilities and perspectives are not limited to the particularities of one family, community, or set of expectations about the future. Unfortunately, this is also one of the less-practiced aspects of developmental relationships in families. It’s an area where some of us might want to focus attention.

Consider to what extent your kids would agree with the following statements about your family:

  • We inspire each other to be hopeful for the future.
  • We introduce each other to people who can help us grow.
  • We expose each other to new ideas, experiences, and places.

One key to expanding possibilities is connecting our kids to other meaningful adults. While this was the least-practiced action in the study, research across disciplines (including our own Sticky Faith research) affirms the critical importance of 3-5 nonparental adults in a young person’s web of support to contribute to their overall thriving. These adults might be formal or informal mentors; they might be someone in your own generation, a twentysomething, or a seventysomething.

Take a few moments to write out the adults your own kids most connect to, and add a few ideas of adults who you might intentionally invite into that web. If there’s not much diversity of ethnicity, gender, or life experience on that list, consider who might expand your teenagers’ perspectives in new ways. Note a relationship or two on the list that might have capacity to go deeper, or maybe even take a simple step of inviting some of those adults for dinner over the next couple of months.

We all get to change

One of my beliefs about this journey of raising kids is that parenting is a reciprocal relationship through which all of us are changed. This is a mystery. No checklist will help us solve that mystery. What I love about the less-practiced actions is that they invite us more into the mystery of parenting by lowering our control, giving away our power, and expanding the web of support surrounding our kids.

For people like me who love lists and control, this is good news. If that describes you, too, it’s good news for both of us.

More Resources

Family Relationship Checklist with 20 actions for building strong relationships

ParentFurther “The Power of Relationships” resources


[1] Relationships First: Creating Connections that Help Young People Thrive (www.search-institute.org/relationships)