Inner Workings of a Family
Family, the first group of people we know. We depend on our family to help us create a sense of self. Our Family gives us anchor in a crazy world.
Think of someone you know who has suffered a heart attack. The immediate response is not to shame the heart for stepping out of line. We do not ask the kidneys or the liver to pick up the slack. We certainly don’t kick the heart out until it changes its behaviour and try to go on with out it. We don’t blame some external force for the heart attack.
To effectively treat a heart attack, we examine all aspects of the body, internal functions & external forces to create a well-rounded plan to prevent further episodes. We look for ways to reduce both internal & external stressors. We improve our diet, our physical exercise and work to reduce the toxins going into the body. We find ways to reduce our stress at work & at home. A heart attack is a symptom of a much larger problem – lifestyle. To prevent another episode, we change our life-style.
The same can be said for how we address challenges within the family. A struggling child is merely a symptom of a dysfunction within the family. These dysfunctions can be addressed quickly providing the family as a whole is willing to look at both the internal & external stressors and adjust the lifestyle of the family to prevent further episodes. But how do we do this?
Let’s first begin by defining your role. I’ve met many families where roles are reversed – the man is the mom and the woman is the dad, or same sex parents, or platonic friendships raise the children, whatever your family looks like, let’s first figure out who you are.
- Nurturer – provides the soft, emotional guidance to children
- Nester – creates a loving, stable environment
- Sustainer – provides essentials to sustain life – nourishment, medical care
- Teacher – promotes transition of milestones – sitting up, first steps
- Soft skills – interpersonal relationships, empathy, critical thinking
- Emotional – guided by gut instinct and emotions
- Provider – earns the most money
- Protector – creates a level of intimidation to outsiders
- Gatherer – brings in food, clothing, shelter
- Disciplinarian – teaches the hard lessons – natural consequences
- Hard Skills – problem solving, using tools, maintenance of home/car, catch a ball
- Logical – guided by reason & logic
These are just guidelines. The Mom may be the nurturer, the nester, the sustainer, the provider and the teacher of hard skills. My point is, which one best describes you and your role in the family?
As we continue in this post, these are the terms I will be using, not the stereotypical mom is a girl, dad is a boy.
Roles of the Children
The children take on various roles as well. Depending on the level of conflict in your home, your children will adapt to their surroundings. Psychologists have studied family dynamics and determined that there are 4 personas a child will develop to manage their family situation.
|The Lost Child||
Murray Bowen – The Bowen Centre for the Study of Family
“It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.” People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and upsets. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree.”
This “emotional skin” that Bowen speaks of explains a lot about what happens in your family. When your teenager screams something very hurtful at you, you take this personally. She has rocked you to your core. No-one will ever hurt you as much as a member of your family because you all share the same deep-rooted emotional connection.
When your children were little, you could see that their emotions mirrored that of the emotional parent. They were learning from you how to react to situations. If you were scared, they were scared, if you were stressed, they were stressed. You eventually picked up on this and tried to shield your emotions from your children. But it always seemed as though you had a fussy child at the most inconvenient time. Temper tantrums would erupt when you had to race around to complete errands, meet deadlines, clean the house and put on your happy pants because the in-laws were coming for dinner. Today was not the day for this child to be miserable – you did not have time!! The reality of this scenario is that your child was simply mirroring your stress & frustration. Their little worlds were out of balance because you were out of balance. You ask them what’s wrong and the usual answer was “I don’t know.” How could they know, they were just picking up on your emotions and reacting the only way they knew how.
During times of adult stress, we tend to focus our attention on the stressor; bills, errands, relationship, politics or world drama. We create space between us and our children to shield them from these stressors. Our role as parents is to protect our children. However; we have unknowingly created the opposite effect. As we will discuss in a future module, the connection between family members is so strong that it will predict future outcomes. Children develop a sense of self by watching you. They learn what scares them, what pleases them and what nourishes them. Their likes, dislikes all come from the family.
“The less developed a person’s “self,” the more impact others have on his functioning and the more he tries to control, actively or passively, the functioning of others. The basic building blocks of a “self” are inborn, but an individual’s family relationships during childhood and adolescence primarily determine how much “self” he develops. Once established, the level of “self” rarely changes unless a person makes a structured and long-term effort to change it.” – Murray Bowen
In short, if a parent is unable to truly connect with a child, this alters their sense of self, their place in the family. They will search for ways, either actively, or passively to find a connection – to someone or something. This is the root of family issues. This is where the regression started.
“In a regression, people act to relieve the anxiety of the moment rather than act on principle and a long-term view.” – Murray Bowen
Let’s fast forward to today. You are sitting here desperately seeking information on how to help your teenage child. They have lost their way. They are struggling, and it is manifesting in a variety of ways; poor grades at school, victim of bullying, hanging out with the wrong crowd, lack of motivation, experimenting with substances, self-harm or addicted to technology.
You are a strong parent and your child is not living in line with the values you tried to teach them. You taught them to respect others, do their best, and be a productive member of society. So where did it all go wrong? How did we get here?
Think about the emotional connection you have with this child, the connection they have with other members of the family. Could it be that they feel a disconnect? Whether or not it is physically present, could they perceive themselves as an outsider, or not worthy? Was there a time, when your attention was focused elsewhere?
I want to take some time here and explain that I too had a child that acted out. She was the Lost Child, spent most of her time alone, engaged in self-harm and lacked enough drive or determination to pursue her own goals in life. I spent countless hours searching for answers. We spent years going from one psychologist to another, treatment programs, emergency rooms, and I eventually had to take a year off work to care for her after a rather serious attempt at suicide. I felt as though I had failed her. She was this vibrant, beautiful little girl with an infectious smile, and somehow, she became withdrawn and highly introverted.
In my years of research, I discovered several helpful hints and an equal number of not-so-helpful hints. My goal is to spare you the years of searching for answers. I may not have them all here, but this will be an excellent place to start. This will give you the foundation to move forward.
Like you, while I was raising my children, life happened; abusive relationships, divorce, single parent, job loss, and older daughter became seriously ill and was involved in a potentially life-threatening car accident. These are things that I couldn’t control. I now know, that these are all considered trauma. Traumas that I did not have time to deal with. Traumas that I pushed aside for the betterment of my children. This is where my younger daughter lost her connection. I am very happy to report, that we have worked hard to re-establish her sense of self & her sense of connection. We still aren’t perfect, but we keep trying.
Today, all my children have tools that will serve them well as they become parents. We have learned to openly, respectfully & effectively communicate. We have learned to lean on one another and rally to support each other. Together, we have created a legacy that will continue through future generations. You can do this too.
I can’t promise you it will be easy, but it will be worth it!!
It is my hope that you have a greater understanding of how you got to where you are. My intent is not to blame you for the position you find yourself in, but to create awareness. Dr. Phil, and so many others like him, tend to blame the parents for the mistakes of the child. This is not my intention. My intention is to create awareness that while you were busy, parenting, working and reacting to the situations before you, things happened. Things that are not apparent in the beginning. Sir Isaac Newton said, “Every action has an opposite & equal reaction.” This is what happened. You did not fail your child or your family, you simply reacted with the information you had at the time.