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 Q: My girlfriend comes from a family that spends most of their time putting each other and their friends down. They even laugh and ridicule strangers walking on the street. Do you have any ideas about this? It seems strange to me, but my girlfriend just thinks I am too sensitive.

A: Families either teach respect or they do not teach it. Respect for others needs to be modeled and learned. In healthy families, respect is a very important element. It sounds to me like your sensitivity reflects your awareness that a certain amount of respect is missing in your girlfriend’s family. Over time, she too will have exposure to other people and families to learn a healthy sense of respect for herself and others. The two go hand in hand. The following outlines ways that healthy families encourage and demonstrate the development of respect:

1.      Individuality is special and honored in a healthy family. Diversity is seen as bringing richness into the family.

2.      Self-respect requires that one knows oneself and feels respected enough to have the confidence to act on certain principles. A lack of self-respect makes one vulnerable to “going along with the crowd” to gain acceptance by others.

3.      Healthy families show a willingness to respect individuals while not necessarily implying approval of their behavior. One of the most difficult responsibilities parents have is to teach their children to respect the rights of people they may disagree with because of religion, race, of politics.

4.      Individuals in healthy families are encouraged to make decisions appropriate to their age and to live with the consequences. In unhealthy families or marriages, individual decisions are met with criticism and belittlement that erodes self worth and respect.

5.      Respect for the property of others is taught in healthy families. The family members ask before using or “borrowing” another’s property. Destruction of other people’s property or petty shoplifting is not tolerated. They take the time and effort to get this kind of behavior stopped immediately if it should start.

Respect for others begins in the home where individuals are respected for their uniqueness and it grows from there.