Understanding Family Dynamics
Close family relationships afford a person better health and well-being, as well as lower rates of depression and disease throughout a lifetime. But in many families, getting along isn't a given. The interaction between various members is at the core of these complicated dynamics. We may joke about the stereotypical sources of disharmony—the obnoxious uncle and the ne'er-do-well son—but factors like environment and sibling rivalries do emerge when considering the viability and stability of family networks.
For more on sibling bonds, visit The Sibling Relationship.
Nowadays, society accepts and condones the many types and forms of family. The single-parent household, for example, was frowned upon as a travesty of civil society, but 22 million children live with a single parent, more of whom are women. The only-child family was also seen as a sad and lonely configuration. However, these children are hailed as creative and resilient and doing just fine.
We also have blended households, with a mash-up of step-relatives, in brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and whoever else comes with them. The amalgamation of relations is not easy on its members. The questions of discipline and bias and rules come into play with more heartache than simplicity. In addition, there are the families that we choose: A grandparent or aunt may be head of the household. Or perhaps a couple chooses not to have children, and they have the right to call themselves family as well. And don’t forget, close friends are sometimes way closer to us than any family member can ever be.
For more on making a family, visit The Families We Choose.
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In a functional family, parents strive to create an environment in which everyone feels safe and respected. A positive home requires parents to set and uphold rules, but not resort to overly rigid regulation of any one person's behavior. In a healthy household, slights and misbehaviors are readily addressed, and boundaries are clear and consistent, all of which help avoid disharmony in the longer term. While this sounds easy, it can be hard to achieve in practice.
In a stable family, positive emotions are infectious. And in an unstable family, the anger felt by one person can reverberate throughout an entire household. In fact, negative emotions are sometimes even more contagious than positive ones. Growing up in such an environment often leads to difficulty in identifying and regulating one’s emotions later in life.
Boundaries can be physical (don’t hit your brother) emotional (stop blaming me) perhaps even digital (no, Mom, you cannot post that photo of me). For healthy family boundaries, every family member has a right to their privacy (stop walking in without knocking) a right to their belongings (stop borrowing my iPad) a right to their opinion (I am voting for my candidate, not yours) a right to their values (I am an atheist).
Setting limits and defining what is okay and not okay makes you feel stronger because you're standing up for yourself; it also communicates to others that you know your needs and aren't afraid to state them. As uncomfortable as setting limits may be, they are good for relationships, not bad.
To set limits, you need to know your thresholds. This starts with healthy self-awareness and what you value, both of which are important when you’re dealing with young family members who are only starting to learn about themselves and their needs. Boundaries also bring out hot-button emotions, and the ability to regulate those emotions is a necessary skill.
Some therapists map genograms, which track behavior patterns across generations. They find that some children replicate the behaviors of their dysfunctional parents when they themselves become adults. Others, when grown, cultivate behavioral patterns that are the opposite of how their parents behaved; it's not uncommon to find a teetotaler who has an alcoholic parent.
Peace and harmony may be the goal for most families, but dysfunction is common and insidious, and arrives in many forms. Family quarrels, grudges and estrangement can have lasting effects, sometimes following members into old age. When one family member contends with a problem such as alcoholism, the entire household is impacted. In a dysfunctional home, there is normally no sense of unity or empathy or boundaries, and members can be highly critical of one another.
The reasons for conflict are many and varied. The dysfunction may start with something as simple as a parent who models unhealthy behavior. This is a no-brainer, if Mom allows herself to eat the entire bag of Oreos, she shouldn’t bother hiding them from the kids. Another obvious reason is poor communication, unstable households rarely enjoy positive interaction. The unsteady home is not a safe place for its members. Often dysfunctional households suffer any number of problems, including domestic violence, substance abuse, neglect, or untreated mental illness.
Just one member can tilt the family dynamic into dysfunction, or worse, estrangement. Often, it is the parent who behaves destructively. The parent may have underlying personality traits that result in harmful family dynamics. The destructive parent may try to manipulate others; demand support but offer no support; remain inconsistent with rules and operate unfairly. They can also be judgmental, critical, and unaccountable. All of which harms the family unit, maybe for life or even generations.
Enmeshment is when two or more members become overly involved with and reactive to one another. Relationships that have few boundaries can become enmeshed. For example, if a mother becomes emotionally needy and dependent on her child, her role as a parent is blurred and confused. The child is afraid to separate from Mom, which would make her feel abandoned.
Enmeshment masquerades under the name of unity, family love, filial piety, or loyalty. However, enmeshment comes from fear, not love. A genuinely supportive family is one that empowers a young person to forge their own life path. The child should not be bound to conditional love at the expense of their sense of agency. They should not be their parents’ only source of happiness and well-being, nor should they have to absorb their parent’s emotional pain.
Family therapy addresses the entire family. Family therapists work collaboratively with parents as a team. Each family member is not just an individual, they are part of their family system. And any one member’s behavior is influenced by his family—parents as well as siblings. Not every member of the family attends every session. The therapist may see the parents without a child, a parent and a child, a teenager and a sibling, or other variations. This allows the therapist to see the full picture.