A family is where we can feel wanted, cared about, understood.

A family is where we can experience pain, confusion and fear.The nature of families generally means there is a full range of emotions and experiences. The best of families can have problems; the worst families can have some redeeming qualities.

But for a long time, we have tended to focus on family problems, says Thomas R. Lee, family and human development specialist with the USU Extension Service. That's because family problems -- such as alcoholism, child abuse, violence, teen pregnancy, suicide, runaways and eating disorders -- can be severe and can overshadow the other joys and successes. These problems do need attention.

"But in the last decade, we have started to look at families that are doing well, to focus on family strenghs," says Lee.

And just as there can be cycles of family problems there can be cycles of family strength.

"In our families, we form the basis for our success in life -- including how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about others , how we relate to others, and how we dealt with problems that confront us. If these important building blocks have been positive and constructive, they work pretty well to help us achieve that goals we have for a loving a strong family."

But the important thing to remember, he says, is that fulfilling family relationships don't just happen. They take work.

"Many families are capable of assessing thier strengths and weaknesses and taking steps to help if they are given tools to work with."

Too often, he says, if our family life in not how we would like it to be in some areas, there is a tendency to say, "It was the way I was raised." Or, "It's too late to change now." but change is possible.

"If your family life is not how you would like it to be, don't get stuck there," says Lee.

While there is no one "secret" to family success that applies to every family, research has identifies seven key characteristics of strong families. Healthy families are those that: have fun, share decision-making, have family pride, have family values, care about each other, communicate and have confidence.

You can use the Family Profile checklist on this page to identify the areas where your family is strongest and weakest.

There are things you can do in each of these areas to build family strengh, says Lee. And that's the idea behind the Family Connections program.. Family connection was initially developed as part of a program in collaboration with The Cottage Program International.

The program features booklets with insight, information and self-help exercise in each of the seven areas. Families are asked to sign up with their County Extension office. The families are asked to identify four areas to work on, and receive materials once a month. At the end of four months, they evaluate their progress and then receive the other booklets to use on their own. Cost is approximately $6 plus postage for materials.

For more information, check with Your County Extension Agent. *****

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Seven keys to strong families

1. FAMILY FUN: Healthy families enjoy spending time together and plan activities so that they can. Togetherness is no left to chance.

2. FAMILY DECISIONS: Healthy families are able to share power and decision-making among their members, including the children. Explanations for family rules and discipline are clearly explained. The healthiest families are neither too rigid nor too flexible.

3. FAMILY PRIDE: Healthy families are committed to the family's welfare. They think highly of their family and are proud to be a part of it. They have traditions and a sense of family history.

4. FAMILY VALUES: Healthy families have a strong moral base in values and spiritual beliefs. They have shared goals and ideals.

5. FAMILY CARING: Healthy families care about each other, and express positive feelings and appreciation for each other's efforts and accomplishments. Family members trust and support one another

6. FAMILY COMMUNICATIONS: Communication is open and clear in healthy families. It is dirct buy not deliberately unkind. Family members speak for themselves and don't blame others for their feelings.

7. FAMILY CONFIDENCE: Healthy families believe in their ability to meet problems and solve them. They believe in the future and in their ability to be successful as a family in it.