The Psychological Society of Ireland



The Psychological Society of Ireland,
Floor 2, Grantham House,
Grantham Street, Dublin 8, D08 W8HD.


14th May 2013 - Press release

Family Matters - Psychological Society of Ireland considers what matters for robust family functioning


With the United Nations (UN) International Day of Families taking place on Wednesday 15th of May the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) is offering advice to families on how to foster healthy family relationships. One in four children under the age of 21 live in a family that does not conform to the model of a child living with two biological parents. Bearing this in mind, the Society promotes the value of stability, security and predictability in family structure regardless of the makeup of the family unit. 

Caoimhe Nic Dhomhnaill, psychologist and member of the PSI, was instrumental in providing tips on how to promote psychologically healthy families. She stresses the importance of working with and accepting the family one has: “Families present as rich and varied, ranging from twosomes to threesomes to much larger groups, single parent families, step families, families with one or two gay or lesbian parents, adoptive families, foster families and reconstituted step families. It is important that whatever the particular family constitution that this is recognised and affirmed by its family members and by society. A deep acceptance of the size and shape of a given family relieves the suffering caused by a belief that there is something missing or lacking. Settling into the family life that one has and relinquishing the longing for something different can be freeing and allow a family to reach its full potential for creative functioning.” 

The following guidance is offered from the PSI in assisting the healthy functioning of a family:

  • All family styles have the potential to nurture psychological well-being
    The family, when it functions well, provides a secure base for its adults and children. Children can flourish in all kinds of families once the important ingredients of love and security are offered in a predictable fashion. Good early attachments support children to perform well socially, academically and emotionally. D.W Winnicott, a renowned paediatrician and psychoanalyst, spoke of the value of ‘’the nursing triad’’. He suggested that it is very hard for any mother to be ‘good enough’ unless she herself is also held and supported, either by the child’s father or other supportive adult. In single parent families this supportive adult could be the mother’s sibling, the child’s grandparent or some significant caring adult in the community or extended family.

  • It’s not all about family. It takes a village to rear a child.
    This old adage captures something of the tribal wisdom of drawing on resources outside of family.  For example, the life of a child of older parents might be greatly enriched by the availability of a young teenage babysitter, and the availability of supportive grandparents may resource families and allow them to manage emotional and practical challenges especially at points of transition. Conversations between children and grandparents can help the child construct his/her family narrative which enhances his/her sense of identity in the world.

    More urban families, and children in particular, create their own village by inviting others into the family unit such as friends and neighbours. The benefit of this is a dilution of intensity. Intense enmeshed environments create a breeding ground for neurotic familial patterns. A larger playing pitch promotes creativity and psychological space and encourages children to exercise all their psychological muscles.

  • The family is a vessel for holding ‘the good the bad and the ugly’
    John Kabat Zinn, a contemporary mindfulness teacher, has popularised the view of family life as “full catastrophe living”. Messiness goes hand in hand with family life. The family is a vessel for this messiness and when functioning well can hold and digest aggression, rage, envies and jealousies which otherwise leak into society in challenging ways. It is also a vessel for joy, contentment and excitement. The strength of this vessel can be enhanced if the vessel itself is held within a community or within a wider family network.

  • Embrace the ever changing scenarios of family life
    Family life unfolds with high and lows and children could be regarded as Zen masters who require of parents that they manage their own emotional states. Family life is seldom settled and yet many of us live waiting for settled times. It is this constant ebb and flow balancing and rebalancing that is at the core of family life – births, deaths, illnesses, marital separation, exams, depression, anxiety, and financial stress. All too often families live a life of feeling suspended waiting for unsettled periods to settle. Embracing the ever changing scenarios is of itself settling.

  • Family rituals can be beneficial when they are not imposed as ‘shoulds’
    Parents may value meals together while their children or teenagers may set a higher value on a shopping or bowling trip together. Both are equally valid and may serve the intended purpose of a family activity. Research indicates that there are at most 10 constructive minutes of interaction at any family meal and that children up to the age of 10 years respond best to activity based rituals. Beyond 10 years they are inclined to be cynical and dismissive of parents’ attempts to ritualise or regularise their lives.

  • Include sexuality as an on-going conversation
    Irish families are still inclined to pander to the notion of a once off ‘sex talk’ for their children. Instead it may be more useful to include sexuality as an on-going conversation. Rather than struggling with your child’s obsession with modern families why not use it as an opportunity for this ongoing conversation as such TV programmes constantly stir children’s questions and curiosity about sexuality.

  • A particularly useful metaphor for a parent- teenage relationship is that of parent as co-pilot to the young person
    Contrary to common perceptions, many teenagers remain close to their parents and their conflicts are around minor issues. Adolescence is a natural passage. Maturation is its only cure. When in the throes of rearing teenagers bear in mind that sometimes as parents we may have conflicting sets of values. On the one hand we may have inherited a value of harmony and closeness and yet we support and rear our children to be independent-minded and assertive. It is important that families are clear about how they prioritise their values as it is not possible to have a harmonious family life with assertive teenagers. If respect and promotion of warm and trusting family relationships is given a high value then this might compete with a more traditional model of parents in control of their children.

  • It is important to have a flexible mind
    Conflict within families generally arises from unacknowledged disappointment. When we have a fixed mind about how family relationships should be then we are more likely to be disappointed. Pausing to acknowledge privately that what arises is disappointing can avoid unnecessary conflict. Conflict strategies are generally about trying to ward off feelings of being let down and things not being as we had wished. When we have a flexible mind we are more likely to be experienced as easy to live with and open to being surprised and delighted.

    Conflict is particularly prevalent when parents live apart and it is important to bear in mind that children can have a healthy adjustment to parental separation whilst their adjustment to conflict is seldom healthy and generally has consequences that seep into their adult relationships.

Caoimhe Nic Dhomhnaill was interviewed on Newstalk Breakfast on Wednesday 15th of May with regard to the PSI tips. The interview will be available shortly.

Caoimhe was also interviewed on RTE's Morning Edition on Friday 17th of May with regard to the tips. To view the interview please click here (clip provided by Morning Edition).

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