So maybe you came from a family where your parents were arguing all the time, or maybe your dad was alcoholic and there was always a sense of tension. Or perhaps although your dad was nurturing, your mom was always moody and preoccupied, and you never felt close with her or cared for.
It’s pretty hard not to walk out with some black and white picture of your childhood family. Even if it is good, and you do your best to recreate it, invariably it doesn't turn quite like you hoped simply because you are building on your limited childhood impressions. And if it was not what you hoped – too tense or abusive, too neglected, too simply weird at times – you lacked the good role models to make something better.
Here is something better: A map for creating a good, functional family structure. Solid like a house, yet with plenty of room for personality and change. We’ll map out the ideal and then talk about the potential variations that you’ll want to avoid. Here we go:
Ideal – Hierarchy, Parents United, Both Involved with Children
This is called the ideal for a reason – this is what you want to shoot for. Let’s break the diagram down: The Ps represent parents and the solid line between them means that they no only have a good relationship but they are working as peers, have a equal amount of power. While their parenting style may differ due to personality, they are also on the same page about values, expectations for children, rules, bottom-lines.
The longer solid line represents a clear line between the parents and children – there is a hierarchy, kids are kids and have less power, adults are adults and are in charge. The kids have solid lines between them – sure there is some sibling rivalry but they are connected to each other, support each other and get along.
And if you are a single parent, the basic diagram is the same -- you on top, in charge, a hierarchy, the children connected on the bottom. What's missing is other adults for support; the challenge is to reach out to family and friends so you don't feel like you are doing everything alone.
Hierarchy, Parents Disagree, Children Confused / Testing / Splitting
P- - - - - - - - - - - - P
This is common deviation. While there is a hierarchy in place, the parents, as represented by the dotted line between them, are not on the same parenting page. One of the most common forms of this is polarized parents – one parent is easy because the other one is tough, the other is tough because the other is easy. The parents argue, the kids aren’t sure what the rules are, they feel anxious and are always testing the boundaries, or they go to the easy parent, skip the tough one, the tough one feels angry, isolated, and gets even more tough and authoritarian.
Hierarchy, Other Parent United with Children as Victim
Here one parent runs the show, sets the tone, and is often demanding and abusive. The other parent has little power, and actually feels like one of kids himself. He and the kids become their own pack of victims, and hang onto each other for support. The lone parent on top is alone and isolated and only gets attention is negative ways.
Isolated Disengaged Parent, Other Parent Uses Children as Surrogate / Support
P | P______C
Here one parent is wrapped up in the children, treats the children essentially as peers, and gets his emotional needs from them. By choice or by default, the other parent is emotionally cut off from the rest of family, is at risk for addictions or affairs, and her isolation further fuels the bonding of the others, creating a negative loop.
Parent Use Child as Surrogate
Another variation where one parent pulls in one of the children to essentially act as a partner. This is easy to happen with a single parent and a teen, where the parent leans on the teen for support and co-parenting of the other children. Two parents can do this with each leaning on one of the children for emotional needs. Again what is missing is the parent-partner connection and the presence of a hierarchy between parent and children.
Child in Control, Parents Feel Like Victims
This in some ways is the worse case scenario. Here a child or the children are in charge, setting the emotional climate. The parents, though connected to each other, feel like victims. You can see a lot of this on Dr. Phil - kids gone wild - where teens, or even younger, do what they want while the parents feel helpless. Obviously what is missing is a strong hierarchy and parents who are... parents. The parents often need community or professional support to stand up to the kids, and the kids needs consequences to help them stop being so entitled and return to being kids.
What we have here is a less-than-healthy structures measured against some standard of health. This is similar to what your doctor does when you come in with a medical problem -- compares where you are -- blood levels, range of motion, etc -- against some norm, then sees what needs to be done to get you there.
So is there something you need to do to get your family where they need to be? Get on the same page with your partner? Speak up, push back so you feel less frightened or victimized? Create clearer boundaries between you and kids? Beak down walls of isolation? Decide where you are and then where you ideally would like to go.
Then map out concrete action – increase couple time, have a sit-down with your partner about some agreement on family rules; stop relying on your oldest to step up and take on things she doesn't need to; take charge of the out-of-control controlling child, and if you need help, go get it – a parenting class, individual, couple, or family therapy.
Don't accept what you got, instead build what you want.