We know that strong family relationships are important for our children, and we hear constant suggestions about how to build those. Yet the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting children with trauma take a lot of time. So how do we find time in our busy schedules to build a healthy relationship with our kids? I found inspiration in the 80/20 rule, a business management tool that offers unique insights into how we can find a healthy balance in our family lives.

What Is the 80/20 Rule?

           The 80/20 rule comes from the work of Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who observed that in most societies, 20% of the population controls 80% of the wealth. Later consultants developed the theory into the “Pareto Principle,” which holds that 20% of activities lead to 80% of consequences, either good or bad.

           Since then, business consultants have applied Pareto's observations to recognize for example, that 80% of a business's revenue usually comes from 20% of it customers. Quality control managers look for the 20% of operational risks that might cause 80% of losses. Those ratios aren’t exact values. The point is to find the “vital few” things in a given area that have big consequences. Then you decide whether those few things are the right things to keep in your life.

           This universal principle works just as well in building family relationships. Using the 80/20 analysis can help us determine where we'll have the highest quality time with our families and where we need to spend less time.  More important, it helps us decide which of the choices in our lives can help us build a better relationship with our kids.

What Does the 80/20 Rule Tell Us About Relationships?

           The most common use of the Pareto Principle is time management exercises.  Deciding how much time to spend on which tasks can help busy parents, but the principle goes much deeper. It helps us evaluate the consequences of how we spend not only our time, but our emotional energy.

           If you research the 80/20 rule of relationships, you’ll also find discussion of the principle that you get 80% of your needs from healthy long-term relationships and have to provide the remaining 20% for yourself. Closely connected is the recognition that there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. If a relationship is great 80% of the time, the remaining 20% can be less than ideal. Both of those doctrines are very important, but neither of them is the point of this blog post. The point here is to use the Pareto Principle to decide where to make changes in your family habits.

           We can use the 80/20 rule to evaluate, for example, the things we do that build connections within the family. The rule also helps us find which conflict areas we can avoid. If, for example, you and your kids constantly fight about the state of their room, you can use the 80/20 principle to evaluate whether the consequences of those disagreements are worth the energy you spend on the issue.  The 80/20 analysis helps us realize that not every good thing is worth as much effort as we often put in.  

Start With Clear and Objective Goals

           The first thing we have to do is decide whom to involve in the process. It works best to have the adults in charge and get input from every family member. Your perspectives will differ, so be sure to have a way to listen and learn what is working for your children and what isn’t

           Then, figure out your goals. This decision matters because strengthening family relationships is not the same as, for example, having a peaceful family life. Family harmony is a side effect of strong relationships, but it is a very different goal. You can always have harmony if you’re willing to tolerate unhealthy communication styles. So be clear about which things are your goals and which are hoped-for benefits.

List How Your Family Spends Its Time

           The second step is to list the activities in your family and whether they have a positive or negative impact on your goal.  Don't evaluate the degree of impact yet.  Simply list the activities and note their impact.

           At this stage, you have to be willing to be objective and somewhat ruthless with yourself. For this reason, It usually works best to start this evaluation with just you and your spouse. You need to get family input, but the level of objectivity and ruthlessness that you need generally requires a lot of maturity and a very high level of trust. Besides, you and your spouse need to be on the same page before you open the process up to general discussion.

           How detailed you need to be depends on what you need to analyze. For example, if your morning get-everyone-to-school routine is neutral, then just list it as a single item. If it’s a point of conflict, then break it down in more detail, listing all of the parts that stand out as positive or negative.

           When making this list, don’t get distracted by what you think the impact should be. Just list your reality. Don’t get into how much better things would be if only the kids would cooperate, or if only everyone would follow your suggestions. Simply list what the impact actually is in the here and now.

Evaluate, Purge and Replace

           After you have your list, then start evaluating how strong each impact is. I always like to start with the positive impacts first before moving to the negative. Your goal is to figure out which activities have the biggest impact. Some people use a 1-5 rating scale, while others just start moving the list around to create rankings. Use whichever system works for you. The bottom line is to have some sort of consistent designation so you can have a valid basis of comparing each task to the others.

           Once you have your ranking, start analyzing which activities have the biggest impact. Use that ranking to decide which tasks to keep and which to delete or change.

           For the things that have high positive impact, work on ways to continue those or similar activities. Most families find that spending time together is very positive, but not every activity will meet your goals. Family game night may work for your family until the kids get older and naturally want less family time. A weekly dinner-and-a-movie might be a better way to get the same result with teens.  The important point is to find the most productive tasks within your family that build the best relationship possible.

           For the activities that have high negative impact, find ways to get them out of your family life. The easiest way is to start with those things that are optional. If there is a high-impact activity that you can just stop, then figure out a way to do that. Social media is one of those seemingly little things that can have a big impact on mental health.  Similarly, one of your kids may have a bad habit that bugs you, but isn’t actively dangerous or negative. It will take less energy for you to work on your attitude than to change your child’s behavior.

           Of course, we can’t delete every activity. If getting the kids to school is a high conflict time, we can’t just stop sending them. But the analysis does tell us that those are areas where we need to find a different routine. It also will signal us that something else may be going on with our kids besides how to brush their teeth.  We may need to look for the real reasons for the conflict, and work on putting positive things in place to counteract the trauma.  We can search a number of sources for suggestions about a different way of doing things. Friends, family, therapists, even online forums all can give us new ways of doing those things that we have to do.

           Even better, see if you can substitute something positive. Parents have instinctively done this for centuries. If our babies don’t want to try a food, we turn it into a game. Reward systems are common to get kids to brush their teeth regularly or get up on time. I always enjoyed taking my foster teens to Sunday afternoon movies as a reward for a good week at school. Other kids preferred dinner out on Friday evening as a reward, because it gave them a way to decompress from the week.

Make Room for More

           Finally, note the important tasks that may be missing from your list. We know that exercise, healthy meals, and regular sleep are very important, yet many of us (including me) struggle to include those into our schedules. By any measure, though, those three things have outsize benefits.  If we don't have them in our schedules, we need to find time to include them.

           Be certain that you make time in your schedule for self care. Raising children requires self-sacrifice, but if we sacrifice everything, we’ll have no resources to take care of our kids. So don't shortchange your own needs. Be certain that you have ways to replenish your emotional resources so that you can take care of your family.

           For the same reasons, keep time in your schedule to protect and nurture your marriage. It is the foundation of your family. If you and your spouse don’t have a solid and close relationship, then all of the other relationships within the family will be off-kilter.

           My point here is not to add to already full list. It’s part of the process of figuring out what small things will have the biggest positive impact on your life. Self care and a strong marriage are vital to strong family relationships. Cutting corners on either of them will have profound negative consequences.

           The 80/20 rule can be a helpful tool for our families. None of us can streamline our lives as well as we would like. But the good news is that if we can find the things that we do, or can do, that have the most positive impact on our family life, then we’ll have a great plan for building stronger relationships.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.