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No 'recipe' for healthy families, but some shared traits

Published: Tuesday, March 5 2013 5:40 p.m. MST

DALLAS — When they were kids, Gary Malone and his sister Susan sold potholders together. They also ran a swim school out of their own backyard.

But when it came time to choose real careers, they faced very different expectations. Their dad, a Freudian psychiatrist, planned that his three sons would accomplish great things.

He had few expectations for his daughter because she was, well, a girl.

"My bar was low," she said. "I had the opposite reaction to that; I wanted to do better than the boys. When that owned me, I was on dead-end paths. Since I have understood it, I have been able to use it to my advantage."

Gary Malone became a psychiatrist. Susan Malone became an editor and author who has also teamed with her brother on a couple of books, including the just-released "What's Wrong with My Family — And How to Live Your Best Life Anyway."

Gary Malone will tell you most families are a bit messy, the dysfunction sometimes mild, sometimes quite severe. But when you accept that fact and look honestly at your own childhood, you can figure out what you need to change so it doesn't pass down like a mutated gene.

No formula

He is a psychiatrist who admits he has seen some of the worst that family life can offer, from sexual abuse to alcohol, physical abuse to neglect. "If you don't address it, you will repeat it. But you can recognize and create the family you want," Malone said.

No recipe exists. But there are shared traits that most high-functioning families have. The Malones think three in particular make all the difference. Family is a place where a child experiences unconditional love. Individual family members are allowed to have their personal identity. And parents set boundaries and provide structure and consistency.

To that list, Craig Pierce would add paying attention. A marriage and family therapist, Pierce sums up family strength with a word he coined: "Attunetion." It's a combination of paying real attention and being attuned to what's going on with your kids. The views are not contradictory.

"Philosophically, like no other time, parents and everyone else is being bombarded with what to pay attention to," said Pierce, founder and CEO of the Southwest Family Guidance Center, which has offices throughout New Mexico. He just published "Parenting Without Distraction: The Attunetion® Approach."

"We respond, respond, respond. But we don't stop long enough to tune in to what matters most. We all need to tune in, past distractions."

Distracted

The Malones cite distraction as weakening families, too.

Even good parents are frequently distracted by all the things tugging at their time and vying for attention. Some parents check their kids' grades and make sure they're playing on the elite soccer team and call it good. That's not enough, Gary Malone said.

Distractions can be like sun shining in a driver's eye — it's hard to see what's out there. Pierce talks about a mom who harps at her son, 14, because he never cleans his room. If he does that, she figures, it will show he respects her, that he listens, that he's responsible. But she's so focused on that she misses other things, like the fact that his peers are changing to the negative, his grades are dropping, he comes home later and later, and his eyes are dilated. A messy room is pretty typical for a teenage boy. Missing those other things has much different impact.

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