Our family is our first exposure to the world and the members of this small group shape our very being. Our caregivers hold the power of life and death and just as importantly the power to show us we’re loved. And while our caregivers shape us we struggle to find ourselves. Striving to know our own independent identity we gradually push our childhood into the background. Finally, as adults, we embrace the notion that we are the masters of our own identity, unaware of the backward pull exerted on us by unresolved issues with childhood and family.
In every group we belong to we act out the lessons we learned from our family, about who we are and how we behave with other people. Whether we yield to others or seize control, are somber or clown around, feel like victims or givers, we express the imprint of our interactions with our caregivers and siblings.
To separate ourselves from this backward pull we may try cutting off pieces of ourselves, rejecting our religion, our culture or members of our family but no matter how hard we deny it our origins influence us. Understanding our past points the way towards a powerful opportunity for change. When we are ready to unravel habits we wish we didn’t have, we can grow by returning to our roots and peering into our family of origin.
But even though we are influenced by our past we don’t need to feel trapped by it. By observing our interaction with our family, we gain insight into the subterranean sources of our own patterns. Empowered by this understanding we can modify our approach and improve our harmony and effectiveness in the world.
Family and cultural roots
We can learn even more about ourselves by learning about our family’s history. The circumstances in which mom and dad grew up paved the way for their own attitudes and difficulties, and can help us understand why they treated us the way they did. Their lives were deeply influenced by their ethnic roots. Even in countries where cultures rapidly blend, specific cultural roots affect their and our view of gender roles, the way we express emotion, our attitude towards food, education, alcohol and much more.
With media giving us an image of how we’re supposed to look and sound, and a desire to blend into the predominant culture, children often try to erase the culture of their history. This creates family problems when children reject their cultural roots, while the children see their parents as stuck in the past. Such culture clashes follow us into adulthood, influencing the harmony and cohesion of our extended family, and influence us as well. By distancing ourselves from our family’s past, we cut off part of ourselves.
The family we are raising
When we raise our own family, we bring the patterns of our childhood with us. Our attitudes towards the hardness or softness of discipline, towards gender roles, risk taking, learning, physical affection, praise, communication, in fact, all the details that go into our day to day raising of our children are to a large extent based on the things we learned from our own family. As our family forms around us, we influence each other’s mind and harmony, gathering to ourselves outside what we carry around inside.
Improving family life by improving ourselves
Our culture tends to look at parents as the shepherds of fully formed little humans, as if the child picks up his hopes, dreams and habits from some mysterious place. Based on these prevalent ideas that parents are simply caretakers of a fully formed person, it’s not surprising that parents feel helpless to change their child. However, by looking more carefully at the enormous influence the caregivers have over the shaping of their children, parents can look within themselves to find deeper wisdom and create positive change for their family.
More about the weaving together of family
We don’t learn much about a child when we look at him as an isolated individual. To learn about our children we must learn more about our family. In families, things are often not the way they appear. Johnny gets sick, partly because mom is paying too much attention to his sister. Mom is getting angry at the kids partly because dad is late again. Sally sulks because her father’s rules are so rigid she feels trapped. Bobby desperately throws himself in to school because he believes if he doesn’t get all A’s his parents will stop loving him. Children may seem anxious or depressed not because of issues in their own young lives, but because their parents aren’t getting along with each other. In the intimacy of family life, we all affect each other.
Siblings, birth order
When we closely consider the influences that shape us, we realize siblings and birth order play an important role. Oldest kids were more competent than their little brothers and sisters. They were also “in charge” expected to look out for the little ones. As a result, they grow up comfortable being in the lead. Youngest kids realize the older ones are always one step ahead. As a result, youngest kids grow up without experience as leaders, and typically expect others to make the decisions. Only kids don’t experience the give and take with siblings, and must learn to fend for themselves. When they grow up they may experience general uneasiness in organizations.
The tearing apart of a family turns its members upside down. The emotional intimacy and vulnerability of their home, has been ripped asunder, and now they must regain their footing under new circumstances. Each parent may pursue a new intimate partner, introducing new emotions into their children’s lives. The children may have to move, suffer financial loss, and become participants in the struggle between biological parents. The turbulence of divorce, like any traumatic event, will fade into the past, but what lasts in the present are memories, as well as the choices that went into the new course of life.
If power sharing between the biological parents remains healthy, and the children feel that each parent provides a safe haven, their trauma is reduced, and they may even find an expanded base of support. If one parent leaves altogether and the other parent provides a safe supportive environment, again the children may be left in a good situation. However, all too often children are embroiled in the pain of divorce, either becoming pawns in a battle for control, or moving into a chaotic or unsafe environment. Later in life these children must continue to grow out of the problems that were introduced during their formative years.
When two families are joined in remarriage, the children of each family must unlearn old roles and define new ones with respect to parents and siblings. While it’s hard enough for the new couple to adjust to each other, the kids have extra challenges. Not only do they have a new parent, new rules and perhaps a new house and even a new school. They have a new pecking order with their siblings. The oldest child in one family may be bumped down to a lesser role, or may suddenly inherit new responsibilities. Each set of kids grew up with different rules and emotional support systems. Such radical change within the intimacy and vulnerability of their home, demands major emotional adjustments.
More about family systems
When we look at the things that make families tick, we see that some patterns are more effective for promoting harmony than others. One of the founders of family therapy, Murray Bowen, described some of the classic family patterns that cause problems.
Bowen observed that when two people in a family are in conflict, they draw in a third member to take sides. A typical triangle might involve two parents who use their child as a diversion to avoid tension between the couple. Such triangles can make the child feel that he is responsible for holding the couple together, or he may feel like he’s being asked to choose sides, forcing him to split his loyalty. Intense triangles consume their members, pulling energy into the needs of the triangle, and undermining the needs of the individual. Typically a child who is caught in such a power struggle is unable to express his fears and concerns, so he gets sick or acts out, or shuts down becoming a “good child” until he is old enough to express his own needs.
Families are astonishingly intimate units. We live together in close quarters, but more important than our physical proximity is our emotional connection. We are all so dependent on each other in every way. And yet, despite this involvement with each other, each individual also needs to know his own boundaries. Parents must support their children’s need to become independent people who can learn to stand on their own. They also must make clear and healthy distinction between the children, so that each child feels loved for being himself, not as an interchangeable unit among the siblings.
Boundaries also protect the generations. In other words, kids, parents and grandparents respect their well-defined roles. These generational boundaries are broken when kids are forced to take become parents to their siblings, or to become emotional companions or caregivers to their parents. Grandparents may become too involved with their grandkids, side stepping the parents, and violating the boundaries of their own roles.
Healthy boundaries are crucial for the health of the family. When boundaries break down, and people become too tightly intertwined in each other, they lose the healthy distinction of themselves as independent individuals. This condition is called enmeshment. Enmeshed family members speak and think for each other.
A disturbed system disturbs the people in it. Learning how to bring their family back into balance can promote the happiness and health of individual members.
Stages of the family
When the couple gets together the family is “born.” The stages of the family’s life proceed from birth of children, death of grandparents, and children leaving the nest. And even more transitions take place if the family breaks apart through death or divorce, and come together through re-marriage. The family changes not only in time, but in space as well, as children or parents relocate, spreading the family unit across the globe. All these transitions affect the life of the family and every member in it. To best understand who we are and how we can grow, we can benefit from learning about the whole system that shaped us.
As we understand our relationship to our own family, we should extend the range of our curiosity beyond just the parents and siblings. Our parents are powerfully influenced by their own siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, and so the changes that affect these extended members also change us.
Expressing bottled up feelings
When kids don’t feel it’s safe to express their feelings in words they clam up, and then express themselves in other ways. They may act out and get in trouble, or just as commonly act in, devouring themselves in their own tension. “Good” kids, who don’t make problems at home, may be holding back more than they can handle, paying a price for their obedience and silence. Such kids may end up in the nurse’s office expressing with the body what they weren’t able to express with their words.
When bottled up feelings eat kids from the inside, parents must work on improving the emotional intelligence of the family. That means getting their kids to speak openly about their emotions in a nurturing, safe environment. By simply learning how to listen, openly and actively, parents can help their kids speak more freely. And by learning to respect their children’s emotional world, parents show kids how to work constructively with emotions.
But such changes may not be so easy because we may have deep patterns that make it difficult to pay attention to our kids. In fact, the parents themselves may not feel safe, either because of a chaotic relationship, or their own emotional or substance abuse issues, and may need to work on their own lives before they can improve the lives of their children.
Listening so kids will talk
Parents start out being the ultimate authority figure. Caring for their newborn infant and then teaching their young child everything he knows, they are used to being the dispenser of all knowledge. As the child tests limits, parents become bossy, deepening their habit of telling rather than listening to what’s on the child’s mind. As the growing child tries to share more about his feelings and observations, it’s hard for parents to escape the habit of thinking they already know what he is going to say. Realizing he’s not being heard, he stops saying anything meaningful. Later, parents complain that their kids never tell them anything.
As we grow up to become adults, we discover to our dismay that our parents are still not listening, responding to us in predictable ways as if from an old script. We in turn may not be listening carefully to them. Even though we’re adults, we stay stuck in the idea that the parent is the powerful one, and as a result, we seldom take the time to listen to the emotions behind their words.
To maintain open communication, we must listen to our parents and our children carefully. Listening means letting the other person finish what they were saying, and rather than offering solutions, we acknowledge what they said, and even verbally repeat it, to make sure that what we heard accurately matches what was said. Slowing down and really listening to the other person opens up doors of intimacy that will last for life.
Open communication requires that we understand the emotion behind the facts. Rather than “why did you do that?” we ask “What were you feeling when you did that?” Rather than saying “Deal with it” we say “Let’s figure this out together” and then we brainstorm and negotiate, using our words to pull us together rather than push us apart.
If our little girl comes home fretting because one of her playmates snubbed her, a parent’s automatic reaction might be to tell her she’s okay. That denies the little girl’s own feelings because she knows she’s not okay. Or since they are already in the habit of correcting her, they might place the burden back on her. “If you did something to offend your friend you should apologize”. Or they may say, “If she’s that upset, she’s not worth being your friend,” offering a “solution” that blocks emotional connection.
The response that leads to the most emotional learning and growing is to ask the child what she wants to do, and then listen carefully. If the parent then has an additional suggestion, this can be presented not as a command, or as the “right solution”, but as something the child could consider along with the other suggestions she has made. By coaching a child, including honoring her own thought process, we’re preparing her to face her own issues wisely. And in addition, we build bridges of mutual trust that will grow increasingly sophisticated and valuable.
In a baseball game or a wrestling match, if one wins, the other loses. Such thinking seems natural in sports, but in relationships it doesn’t apply. If we win at the expense of our partner, we diminish the joy and safety of our relationship. For relationships we need a different model that encourages everyone to win. By helping each other achieve victories we create an environment of mutual support. Through our support, our partner comes to feel safe and energized, increasing the safety and intimacy of the relationship.
When we feel down or vulnerable, we may fall into old habits of self-defense and attack. Blaming family members seems appropriate from our old win-lose mentality, pushing them down to prove we were right. But blaming hurts everyone. The best approach to healing family issues is to work together towards everyone’s success.
The family group, when left to its own momentum, tends to follow its familiar patterns of communication, rules and attitudes. Working with a counselor, we can break new ground and discover veins of wisdom hidden beneath old patterns. We can explore the way our patterns affect other people, and learn to see ourselves in their eyes. Family therapy, a specialized form of group therapy, brings all members of a family together in one room, and with the coaching of a counselor, helps them communicate more clearly, and understand each other more clearly than they have been able to on their own.
Group therapy is especially important after remarriage, when two families are inserted into the middle of each other’s stories, suddenly shifting self-concepts and rules of life. Children, unable to adjust gracefully often fight back, trying to hang on to their familiar ways. To rebuild harmony, both parents need to establish rules of open communication. But they may not have the sophisticated skills they need to help reframe each member’s expectations. Family therapy can help get them over their transition into a more integrated whole.
Roles within the family group
Every member of a family assumes a role in the family. The smart one, the athlete, the responsible one, the sick one. These roles become strong habits, not only within the family but later in every organization in which we participate. We can break out of old habits and help our family grow more resilient and more harmonious by understanding the roles we assume in the family. And later in life, we can learn about our habits in other organizations by looking back to the way we behaved in our family.
As we enter organizations, we assume a role, such as leader, follower, victim, entertainer, outsider, and so on. These roles are based on our self-image, an image we formed as members of our first organization, our family. The way we handle ourselves at work, in our religious group, clubs, or any other group reflects the way we handled ourselves at home. For example, if we were the baby in the family, we will usually feel more comfortable following others rather than becoming leaders.
If caregivers feel trapped in a frustrating relationship, their tension affects the kids. When harmony is missing, the adults should work towards improving their communication, seeking counseling to get over their blocks.
However, even when caregivers do get along with each other, they must extend beyond each other and focus their attention on the children. Raising kids requires energy, time and attention. So in addition to having a healthy relationship, parents need to learn as much as possible about parenting, through reading, workshops and counseling, and bring this knowledge to their family.
When the family can only offer limited affection, siblings must fight among themselves to get their meager portion. This sense of competition creates cross currents that sabotage harmony. To create a harmonious environment, parents need to provide plenty of affection and create an abundance mentality in their home.
Our family was governed by many rules. Who took out the trash, who managed the money, who decided which movie to see, who controlled the television remote, who decorated the rooms, who decided on the kids’ curfew and so on. While the rules were important, even more important was how the rules were made and changed.
In an ideal world each member of the family explained their thoughts, and then together they decided what was best for the family. In the real world, rules are seldom created with such wisdom. Sometimes there is an authoritarian parent who sets out rigid rules, and a lenient parent who lets the child off the hook. Or rules may be chaotic, changing drastically with mood and whim.
As adults, our attitudes towards rules and rule making are shaped by our family experience. We may feel that rules are made to be broken, or that once a rule has been made, we must hold to it for dear life. We may hate rule makers or want to become one ourself. We may feel that rules are unfair and make our lives miserable or that rules are valuable and help maintain balance. Our attitudes about rules have a deep impact on our relationship in society, at our work, and in the family we raise. And to understand more about our relationship in these organizations, it helps to understand the way our family handled rules and power as we grew up.
We wish we had grown up in a perfect family, with complete empathy for each other’s needs, and total harmonious communication. But in real life, our family had imperfections. We survived our imperfect family life by learning how to cope, but the habits that helped us survive then may now prevent us from experiencing joy, intimacy and other healthy goals. We may find keys to unlock these doors within ourselves by learning more about our relationships to our family.
We have highly charged emotional connections with our mate, our siblings, parents, and our own kids. And we connect with friends and co-workers, and other key people in our lives. The way we relate with these people profoundly affects the quality of our lives.
One of the best ways to gain insight into ourselves and the way we relate to others is to understand the way we relate to our family, and in particular to our parents. Our family interactions are far more important to us than just a group of people who happened to be born under the same roof. These are the people who shaped us. By delving deeply into these powerful connections, we become wiser about ourselves and our relationship to the world.
Families with problems, individuals with dreams of meeting their maximum potential, parents who want their children to be the best, should learn as much as possible about their family interactions in the past and present.
See also: Children/Childhood, Child within, Couples, Divorce, Groups, Identity, Leadership, Organizations, Teenagers
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families : Building a Beautiful Family Culture in a Turbulent World by Stephen R. Covey, Sandra Merrill Covey
Get out of my life but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall? A parent’s guide to the new teenager by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.
Raising an emotionally intelligent child by John Gottman
How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
The Changing Family Life Cycle, (textbook) edited by Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick