This post was written in collaboration with The Family and Youth Institute.
Do you have a parenting resolution for the new school year? What about having a more positive environment at home? In this article, The Family and Youth Institute present findings from Yaqeen Institute’s survey on the home environment and mental health. We conclude with strategies that you can implement in your home to improve your family’s mental health and well-being.
Written by Dr. Madiha Tahseen, PhD and Issra Killawi, BA.
You may have heard about how your physical environment impacts your mood–things like the lighting, organization of the space, and clutter can all make you feel better or worse. But, have you thought about how the non-physical part of your home environment – the feelings in the air, support or conflict you experience, relationships with family members – can have a very real impact on your mental health?
Extensive research shows us that home environments in which there is a lot of conflict and less warmth lead to greater anxiety and depression. Living with family members who constantly display anger, shame, and criticism and do not provide support and compassion can increase anxiety and depression in children and adolescents. A preliminary survey by Yaqeen Institute sheds light on how these relationships work in the Muslim American home. The survey asked about three dimensions of the home environment:
- Cohesion: the degree of commitment and support family members provide for one another,
- Expressiveness: the extent to which family members are encouraged to express their feelings directly, and
- Conflict: the amount of openly expressed anger and conflict among family members.
We analyzed each dimension and how it’s connected to anxiety and depression. For each dimension, you’ll find strategies you can use to create a more positive environment in your home.
The subsample for the analyses presented here was 74% female, 67% were college graduates, and 84% were between the ages of 18 and 44. The sample was 6% White, 7% Black, 56% South Asian, and 15% Arab. Respondents answered questions about the home environment, anxiety and well-being.
Cohesion in your family is about a sense of togetherness and support family members provide for one another.
In our family there is a feeling of togetherness.
In our family we really help and support each other.
We found that greater cohesion in a family predicts lower rates of anxiety and depression. In other words, having a more cohesive home environment lowers your level of depression and anxiety.
How to create a feeling of togetherness and cohesion in your family:
1) Together, come up with family traditions for weekends, family nights, Eid, etc
While younger children may take your lead, teenagers will want to have a say in what you do as a family. Brainstorm ideas together and come to a consensus about how you’ll spend family time. Take turns trying different traditions and discuss what you liked about each experience.
2) Have different ways that you spend quality time together – praying together, being active, or going out for ice cream on Friday night
Make sure it’s quality time where you are talking, listening, and doing things with one another. Movie nights are okay, but they shouldn’t be the only way that your family spends time together. Quality time may also differ from child to child–keep this in mind as you plan together.
3) Take on tasks as a family, like making dinner or planning a family vacation
Make sure each member of the family has a role to play. This will help your children feel they are a part of something larger than themselves, and that they have opportunities to contribute to the family as well.
4) Remind your family that Allah puts barakah (blessings) in doing things together
It’s often easier to do a chore/task alone than doing it together, but Allah (SWT) calls us to good collectively: “And help one another in acts of righteousness and piety.”
Expression is the extent to which your family members are encouraged to express their feelings and open up to each another.
In our family we can talk openly in our home.
In our family we sometimes tell each other about our personal problems.
Based on the analyses, we found that greater expression in a family predicts lower rates of depression. In other words, having a more expressive home environment lowers your level of depression.
How to encourage more openness and expression in your family:
1) Ask open-ended questions for more meaningful conversations
“What do you think happened?” or “Tell me what makes you say that.” As you listen, remember how the Prophet (S) modeled the best listening skills by turning his body towards the person speaking to him, keeping eye contact, listening with empathy, and asking questions. Give your children space to explore their ideas and opinions. Create opportunities for them to voice their questions and curiosities and be mindful of how often you are speaking at them rather than with them. This builds their trust that you will hear them out and they will come to you when big issues come up in their lives.
2) Avoid reacting – be curious instead
This is especially important during disagreements, or when your teenager says things like “My life is horrible!” Instead of reacting, take a few deep breaths and approach the conversation with a genuine desire to understand where they are coming from. “I’m sorry to hear that, tell me what’s going on. I’m listening.” Practicing active listening and curiosity creates openness in your relationship with your family and sends the message that you are there for support.
3) Initiate conversations about taboo subjects
Difficult conversations have the potential to create distance or build closeness in your family. Initiating these conversations with your children signals to them that they can come to you with questions about anything. It gives them the chance to be curious and ask questions in a safe space and allows you to guide the way they think and the choices they make. Most importantly, it builds the trust and connection in your relationship. Without this trust, your child may turn to friends or social media for answers or feel the need to hide their curiosity from you.
Conflict is the amount of openly expressed anger, disagreements, and aggression among family members.
In our family we often put each other down.
In our family we lose our temper often.
Based on the analyses, we found that greater conflict in a family predicts higher rates of depression and anxiety. In other words, having more conflict in the home environment increases your levels of depression and anxiety.
How to Manage conflict in healthy ways to have a positive home environment by using these strategies:
1) Normalize emotions
Even the most righteous people experienced a range of emotions in strong ways – like Prophet Musa (S) who was angry with his brother at one point, or Prophet Yaqub (S) who was grieved by the loss of Yusuf. When your child is experiencing strong or uncomfortable emotions, teach them that this is a part of human nature by acknowledging and helping to name the feeling/emotion.
2) Set boundaries for your family
Set boundaries for your family around what’s appropriate when someone is angry. Make sure that everyone sticks to these rules (adults too!). Anger or frustration should not be an excuse to lash out, say unkind words, or use violence. Help your children find appropriate ways to express their feelings. “Are you feeling overwhelmed? Would it help if you took a sip of water?” Or “I know you are angry, but it’s not okay to yell or be rude. Let’s pause this discussion and try again later tonight.”
3) Model how to make amends
It’s important to re-establish love, security, and trust with family members after a conflict. Teach your children to practice humility, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. Remember that the best way to teach this is to practice it in your relationship with them. Taking ownership for a mistake and apologizing is not easy, but the best of people are those who try to rectify their mistakes with Allah (SWT) and with anyone they may have hurt, intentionally or not.
Even though these strategies may seem simple, they can have a big impact on your home environment and on your family’s overall wellness. As the new school year begins, commit to practicing one or a few of these strategies regularly. Tell us which strategies you’ll try by tagging us on Instagram with the hashtag #WhatTheResearchSays
 We analyzed the data using simple univariate regressions. A linear regression is an analysis that provides a simple understanding of the relationships between two variables. Because of the underlying analytic technique and calculations, one variable is considered the predictor or explanatory variable and the other variable is considered the dependent or outcome variable. For more information, please email [email protected].