Q: Describe what your book is all about.

Current and comprehensive, How’s Your Family Really Doing? is a guidebook that helps readers build strong, loving, and happy families for the new millennium. Weaving together contributions from psychology, neurobiology, systems theory and spirituality, it also draws from extensive new brain research to highlight 10 essential keys that define successful families. After completing a 50-point questionnaire, parents receive feedback about their family’s strengths and areas for improvement. Providing dozens of practical tools for families in any stage of the life cycle, it is concise, engaging, and designed to capture the interest of working moms and dads who are often too busy to pore through lengthier works.

Q: What is unique about this book?

This book is written by a husband-and-wife team and expresses both male and female perspectives. In addition to being parents ourselves, we each have more than 35 years of experience in treating families from all walks of life. It is also unique in that we’ve integrated the latest findings of studies on families and brain research into dozens of tips and tools that can be easily learned and applied.

Self-help books keep flying off the shelves, almost all with a particular focus on symptoms that one or more family members may be experiencing—such as anxiety, depression, school problems, out of control behaviors, or addictions. But parents buying books about fixing specific problems are often frustrated when trying new techniques without success. That’s because these books fail to include what else may be going on in the family that can create or even encourage problem behaviors. In contrast, How’s Your Family Really Doing? provides readers with a checklist of the most important, underlying family factors that can add to their efforts at change.

Q: How did you become inspired to write How’s Your Family Really Doing?

The inspiration for this book came from the thousands of families that reached out to us for help over the last 35 years. We have been asked the same question over and over: “Why didn’t we learn this information in school?” We’ve been able to uncover and synthesize the essential characteristics of healthy families to apply them in our practice, teaching, training of therapists, and in our own family. This is the course that we all wish had been offered in high school or college. Imagine the mistakes that could have been avoided had anyone taught us the essentials of healthy relating…

Q: Describe how you have used scientific research in your quest to present this material.

Research has demonstrated that successful families can achieve the task of raising children who live independently and establish stable and harmonious relationships. They can create a sense of closeness, a positive sense of family identity, provide support and encouragement through times of stress, and allow for the uniqueness of their members. Buried in piles of professional literature, we have uncovered the 10 Keys—the common factors or essential threads that are needed to build successful and lasting relationships.

Q: Is it just a parenting book for young parents, or more?

Our book was conceptualized and written to be more than just a parenting book. It can be used as a reference—like an encyclopedia of family relationships that can be turned to at pivotal moments in the family life cycle. The tips and tools can help family members regardless of whether the kids are still growing up or have left the nest. Equally appropriate for families with toddlers, teens or grandparents, evaluation and change in families is aided by the input of as many players and generations as possible. It can be used as a pre-marital tool, as preparation for the birth of a child, at a time when a child is symptomatic and the family wants to know why, at the blending of two new families, or at a break-up or a geographical move.

Q: How did you develop the Family Assessments?

As psychotherapists co-directing a training institute for the past 30 years, we have had the privilege of hand-picking and sponsoring dozens of workshops that featured internationally-renowned clinicians, researchers and experts on families. Add to this our own roles as professors, consultants and trainers. The responsibility for overseeing the well being of literally thousands of families has provided the impetus for our quest to understand how we can best help. Just as a blood test provides an objective means of evaluating physical health, we saw the need for assessing the strengths and needs of families in treatment. Once we had identified the 10 Keys that underlie healthy relationships, the specific questions became more obvious. We also borrowed from a number of assessment tools that have been used for research on healthy versus dysfunctional families.

Q: What is the essence of family systems theory and why is it so important?

There is a saying that resonates with many parents that “you can only be as happy as your least happy child.” This feeling comes from the fact that our health and well being are so closely connected to that of our loved ones. Systems theory explains how and why individuals are best understood within the context of the family, by examining the important patterns, rules, roles and dynamics in relationships. Knowing about these influences helps everyone learn how to bring out the best in each other.

Q: How did you find the process of writing this book as a couple?

Writing a book, alone or with a co-author, is an intense experience. To be honest, we probably could not have done it successfully until we had learned to put the 10 Keys into practice in our own relationship. We have learned about teamwork and collaboration, conflict and consensus, and respecting each other’s differences through our prior collaborations: the raising of our two kids and the co-directing of The Family Therapy Institute. It was certainly a struggle at times, but the good news is that we’re still married and in love!

At the practical level, we bring different strengths and interests to our projects, and divide tasks in ways that work for us. We really each contributed 50 percent of the effort. Don provided the ongoing inspiration and motivation, and the addition of very practical tips and tools, while Debra is more the academic, who loved to pore through the research to expand and validate the concepts. She’s also the one who carried the content into a more poetic and flowing form. We’ve even included one of her poems as an inspirational message and conclusion to the book.

Q: Can you share a story from your own family’s experience?

We share a number of personal stories in the book, but one of the most significant events in the life of our family occurred when our younger son, Cree, was in a near-fatal mountain biking accident. We faced, as a family, the trauma of his coma, traumatic brain injury, five months of hospitalization and subsequent years of outpatient treatment. In order to help with his care, Deb’s mother moved to Santa Barbara from the area where she had lived her entire life, and our older son transferred his job to live back home with us until his brother was back on his feet.

We learned in the deepest way about the importance of teamwork, family and community connections, accepting help from others and what happens when a family is struck with loss or tragedy. Now grateful for his recovery, we live with more awareness of the fragility of life and treasure each moment that we have with loved ones.

Q: Many families find strength in their shared faith, but others take comfort from other sources. Is there a spiritual component to your book?

One of the essential threads of our book is the importance of a shared set of values, beliefs, and ethical practices in families. This topic is addressed primarily in the eighth key, “Seeing the Positive.” Uncovered as an emphasis in every religion we studied, we talk about the Golden Rule as a universal principle that helps us honor our connections to all of humanity and to the earth herself.

Q: Why do you also include an assessment of the reader’s family in which they grew up?

The Family of Origin Assessment offers ways to examine the similarities and differences between current family and family of origin patterns. This process highlights how we can either repeat or make unwise compensations for childhood experiences. Sometimes we’ve buried old feelings as a way of avoiding the pain associated with them. Unfortunately, the “unfinished business” from our childhood and previous relationships also tends to get projected onto and played out with our partner and/or children. It is sad but true that the people we love the most in the world become victims of this process.

Q: How do you see this research and material being used in the future?

Beyond the book, one dream is to get this information out there to teens before they get married and have children. Think of the problems and heartache that could be prevented! Perhaps it could be integrated into high school or college curricula in the form of a course that could include an animated series of DVDs—first taking students through the assessment process and then highlighting and teaching each of the keys.

Another goal is to have this information available in graduate schools of training as well as to clinicians in practice. We would love to give therapists the opportunity to improve their rates of success with clients.

Q: Is the book designed to be read and used once or over and over?

Our hope is that How’s Your Family… becomes well worn and dog-eared with use over many years. Part of what makes it different is that it can be read from beginning to end, or start with the test and then flip through to the keys that need immediate attention. It also can be pulled off the shelf to look up a book in our list of self-help references. We hope that folks will take notes in the margins, track their progress, and share it with friends.

Q: What is the music that is connected to your 10 Keys?

In addition to being a child psychologist, Don is an award-winning songwriter and producer of children’s music. In order to make these same concepts accessible to young children, the keys have been adapted into songs and activities that are ideal for 3-to-8 year-olds (but beloved by kids of all ages). They provide a fun and entertaining way for children to learn and apply these same concepts in their own lives. Links to companion songs for each of the 10 Keys can be found at HowsYourFamily.com.