Family dysfunction is not a problem; it’s an opportunity. It becomes a problem when families get stuck in patterns of behavior beyond the initial adaptive phase and their members descend into self-defeating or harmful behaviors.
Before that point, I prefer to call them stress-adapted families because they have responded to a situation with the best resources they have at hand. These families are creative and show a level of flexibility that's conducive to survival.
My focus today is on how family members in flux or crisis (or just because of the way they were formed) can delegate responsibilities downward, upward, and sideways as needed.
Downward Delegation: Kids Taking on Adult Responsibilities
Downward delegation occurs when the demands on adults in the family exceed their ability to deliver. If they don’t have the option of asking other adults to help, they turn to their children. Typical cases include families with an addicted parent(s) or the disability of a parent through physical injury, or severe or prolonged illness.
In these instances, the boundaries, roles, and relationships change to accommodate the needs of the system. One common example is when teens of unemployed or underemployed parents are forced to earn money to help the family make ends meet. Some must drop out of school or they work so many hours that it interferes with school performance.
The Sock Drawer
Sometimes the adaptations are temporary and relatively minor. I grew up in a family of 10 and at one point my grandmother stayed with us because my mother was hospitalized due to an auto accident.
My mother was a considerable domestic force, able to keep up with the demands of eight children mostly by herself. Almost immediately my grandmother was overwhelmed with the number of meals, laundry loads, etc. that she had to deal with.
She was especially frustrated with washing socks for everyone and then placing them in the right dresser drawer for each of us. She responded quickly by finding a large drawer in the kitchen where she kept all the clean socks. She informed us we would have to find our own. We adapted quickly and I didn’t think much of it until a friend saw me grab a pair of socks out of the drawer and he asked me why we kept socks in the kitchen.
In a matter of weeks, my mother recovered and, although the sock drawer remained, it did not alter the pattern of my life or the lives of my siblings. As adults, we do not have sock drawers in our kitchens but we have that in our domestic repertoires if we ever need it.
Other times the effects of downward delegation are severe and permanently damaging. A teen client of mine was four years old when his mother and father began to leave him and his one-year-old brother alone for days at a time. When the local social services agency checked on them, they found burn marks on the four-year-old that he had acquired trying to boil water to prepare a warm bottle for his brother.
When I worked with him in an inpatient mental health facility he would interfere whenever staff were disciplining other patients. Other times, he would seem to bond with staff only to suddenly become violent towards them or himself. His rage was triggered whenever he started to feel connected to one of us. His inability to maintain connection was pathological to the point he could not live in a foster home or with his adoptive family.
A parent who is dependent on their child emotionally can generally cause lasting harm, but there are exceptions as well. In divorce, children may rally around a distressed parent and help them cope. This is not necessarily harmful unless it interferes with the child developing their own relationships later. One mother I treated was extremely jealous of the time her 17-year-old son spent with his girlfriend.
Emotional incest is more common and more problematic then we sometimes like to think. Divorced or single parents can do a great job of parenting if they have healthy ways of getting their own needs met.
Upward Delegation: Adults Doing Stuff for Kids or Other Adults Unnecessarily
As a college counselor, I would occasionally interview a student with their parents or one parent present. When I would ask the student a question, the parent would answer. Sometimes the student was annoyed about this pattern but other times they were perfectly comfortable with it. Sometimes pointing it out was enough, but other times, I had to ask the parent to leave the room.
A former client told me about the first date she had as a single mom. It had been years since she had been out with a man and dinner at a nice restaurant seemed like a good choice. At one point while they were eating, her date gave her a confused look. She asked him what was wrong, and he replied, “Do you realize that you’re cutting my meat for me?” She was unconsciously starting the relationship in a caretaking role before any discussion or negotiation occurred.
One family I worked with knew they were in trouble when one of the children, a seven-year-old, asked his mother, “When did you have Daddy?” The father provided no domestic help whatsoever, so the child naturally considered him to be the oldest child.
This arrangement worked for years because he worked two jobs to provide for the family and she was a stay-at-home parent. As the kids got older, the mother wanted to start working, but the father was slow to adapt to a more domestic role, even though he had been able to decrease his work hours. He had become so stuck in the “provider” role that he couldn’t even visualize himself doing domestic tasks. He was also somewhat infantilized by being the youngest of several siblings growing up. He was used to being taken care of and change wasn’t going to come easy.
Sideways or Co-Delegation: Sharing responsibilities between equals.
The basis for healthy adult relationships, or for families with emerging adult members, is co-delegation. These responsibilities are not assigned; they are negotiated. This requires good faith and trust.
When I worked with couples who argued or fought about family duties, I would often ask them to start over in developing a system. Phase one would be a discussion about what each of them liked to do or didn’t mind doing. These would be divided up accordingly. Phase two involved negotiating the rest.
Of course, couples who believed in gender equality were able to be less biased in their choices, but even then, having an egalitarian philosophy and consistently doing unpleasant or mundane chores are two very different things. Plus, couples often have different standards for domestic work. One couple laughed as they agreed that they “might have to lower the standards to get the consistency up.”
With teens/emerging adults in the home, it requires that they have enough buy-in to the idea of shared responsibilities before negotiating. With this approach, they are learning to take responsibility and learning about good-faith negotiation at the same time. Hopefully, they have had some practice as younger children, but that may not be necessary since, as teens, they are more cognitively developed, and they may see the necessity of it more than they did earlier in their development.
The wonderful thing about the sideways delegation experience is that it is a gateway to developing the capacity for real intimacy. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about family work or emotional maintenance of a relationship. Without stressful situations and conflicts to resolve, we cannot learn how to deal with and appreciate differences.
In order to reduce conflict and address serious dysfunction, we have no choice but to disclose how we really feel. Families who have been through a crisis or two may have the upper hand, or shall we say they’re likely to be more even-handed?