MODULE SIX | Family Matters: Self Care for Family Members of Humanitarian Workers

PART SIX | Thriving as a Family With Children

“For me, my family is everything. Without my husband and children I could not keep doing this. I know I spend a long time away from them, but they are always there where my heart and spirit lie. My parents, my brothers and sisters, all my aunts and uncles, all those people Europeans call cousins. These are my family, my community, my life.”
— (Huyen, from Vietnam) 13
“Family? How do we keep in touch?! You work long enough for the UN and you don’t have a family. Problem solved.”
— (Anonymous UN employee) 14


To think and discuss…

  • How has the involvement of one or more family members in humanitarian work impacted the whole family? Has it impacted different family members differently?
  • What are two of the greatest challenges facing your family?
  • What are two of your greatest strengths as a family?

Strength factors for thriving as a family

Just as with couples, keep in mind that thriving families can look quite different across cultures, and even within the same culture. But here are seven things research suggests often characterize thriving families 15

  • Communication: Speaking and listening that is open, clear, affirming, mutual, consistent, empathetic, and honest.
  • Commitment: Working toward shared goals and an environment of trust and dependability.
  • Connectedness: Receiving support from and contributing to extended family and friendship communities.
  • Cohesion: Fostering emotional closeness and practical interdependence, balanced with respect and support for each member’s uniqueness.
  • Adaptability: Balancing stable roles and traditions with the flexibility to change course and adapt to changes.
  • Spirituality: Believing in and acting on a positive sense of purpose and meaning and a value system beyond self-interest.
  • Resource management: Managing time, money, and the pursuit of personal and family goals in a manner that is balanced, competent, and coordinated.

To think and discuss…

  • What else would you add to this list, and why?
  • Which of these do you think are particularly helpful in coping with the pressures posed by humanitarian work?
  • Think about your own family. In which two the seven traits above are you naturally strongest right now? In which two are you weakest?
  • For each of the seven traits listed above, write down two specific ways your family builds strength in that area.

Caring for your family

Most family strengths are made, not born, and every family is different. You and your family are in the best position to figure out practical strategies to care for your family by building important strengths. As you think about this, here are some particularly important areas to consider.

Planning ahead

How good at you at planning ahead and scheduling time to accomplish your priorities in caring for your family? Be proactive about devoting time to your family, just as you are in honoring work and other commitments. At least once a week close out the rest of the world and get some family time. Do whatever it takes to prioritize it, schedule it, and protect it.

Family fun times

What does your family do for fun together? Try to identify at least some activities you can enjoy together that also have positive spinoff benefits for physical or emotional health (e.g., walking or hiking, cooking, creative hobbies, storytelling or memory-sharing games).

Family celebrations and traditions

What milestones or accomplishments do you celebrate in your family? How? Can you think of other ways to add creativity or humor to ordinary and special events? Celebrating is an important part of affirming family members and focusing on the positive in life, even in the face of hardship.

Family routines

What routines connect you as a family? Do you eat certain meals together, have nighttime rituals, enjoy certain radio or TV programs, or have regular family meetings? Routines are an important part of providing a sense of groundedness and predictability in life, particularly for children.

Family involvement in decision making

How are decisions made and communicated in your family? Do you have regular family meetings? Would children feel like their input and opinions matter? Feeling heard and understood is an important part of feeling genuinely part of a cohesive and connected “family team.”

Family boundaries and discipline

Are there clear boundaries and expectations of children in the family? Are parents consistent and united in discipline? Children thrive most in a family environment that includes clear expectations of behavior and contributions, and boundaries that are enforced when necessary.


How do you acknowledge and address questions of meaning and purpose as a family? Do you discuss these issues openly? Are you involved in community service and/or religious communities? Believing in and acting on a value system beyond self-interest is an important part of thriving.

Social support

How do you foster family connections to extended family and friends? How do you encourage and enable your children’s peer relationships? Social support from outside the immediate family is very important, particularly in times of high stress. Build strong relationships by regularly spending time with relatives or friends living nearby. This issue is particularly important to pay attention to if your family has moved, or moves frequently.

Family strengths are made, not born, and every family is different. Use what you know to identify practical strategies for investing in your family.

To think and discuss…

  • Think about the strategies listed above, and whatever else you would add to that list. In which of these areas is your family strong? What broader “strength factors” are these areas related too?
  • In which is your family weaker? What broader “strength factors” are these areas related too?
  • Ask your children what they think are the “best things” about your family? What do they “like doing together most”? What do they want to do more often?
  • What are three strategies for caring for your family that you would like to develop further? Think about the next month. How and when will you do that? Be specific. The more specific you are the more likely you will follow through.

Spotlight on extra resources:

Look up the following on (this will also lead you to related books): The 7 habits of highly effective families, by S.R. Covey (1997). You can also use Google to search for resources on specific topics such as problem solving as a family; tips on discipline for children; and guidelines for family meetings.

Caring for your family while you’re apart

Frequent or extended travel is fairly common for humanitarian workers, even those working in their own country. The impact of this on families with children is significant. Although that impact is not necessarily all negative, it is worth being intentional about how you care for your family before, during, and after times of separation. Whether you are the one going or the one staying, there are things you can do to ease the impact. As you think about this, here are a couple of tips:

  • The periods around leaving and returning can be very disruptive, as everyone must transition between routines. The one who is leaving is usually transitioning into a period of intense focus on work. The one who is staying is adjusting to parenting and coping solo. Children can find the changes in routine and the shift in authority and discipline dynamics unsettling. Realize that everyone’s mood and behavior might be unusual during this time, and try to make appropriate allowances.
  • Help children bid farewell and address or resolve any tension in the relationship. If you’re leaving, take time to affirm them before you go and let them know you respect and love them. Listen to any worries or fears children voice about your departure. Treat these concerns seriously, but provide reassurance. If you’re staying, provide children with extra connection and reassurance during this period.
  • If you or your partner travel regularly, look for ways to develop family routines related to traveling. For example, you could:
    • Leave cards under children’s pillows on departure days;
    • Send regular postcards or emails while away;
    • Connect regularly by phone
    • Have special treats for kids to look forward to during these times, like outings or special meals;
    • Bring back small gifts with stories attached.
  • Stay connected. Whether by phone, or email, or both, find ways to help everyone feel as connected as possible to the absent parent and vice versa.
  • Do something fun to celebrate a return. It’s a good idea to schedule this in advance so that it doesn’t get lost in the busyness.

To think and discuss…

If you are the one that usually travels, ask your partner:

  • What do they particularly appreciate about what you do to care for the family before you leave, while you’re away, and after you return?
  • What else could you do?

If you are the one that usually remains at home, ask your partner:

  • What do they particularly appreciate about what you do to care for your family before, during, and after a trip?
  • What else could you do?

Ask your children:

  • What they “like” and “don’t like” about having their parent(s) away?
  • What do they find “hard” about it? Their answers may give you clues on what’s important to them and how to reach out to them in ways that they will value.

Spotlight on extra resources:

Visit the Headington Institute’s module on Understanding and coping with travel stress. Also, look up the following on (this will also lead you to related books): A parent’s guide to business travel: Practical advice and wisdom for when you have to be away, by C. Hudson (2003).

© Headington Institute 2009