Family Development

Families are not static entities. They change and develop. Among the considerations the therapist working with a family must take into account and is where the family is in its life cycle, for families have life cycles, just as individuals do. Moreover, many family problems prove to be associated with difficulties in proceeding from one stage of the life cycle to the next.

The family life cycle has been described and subdivided in a variety of ways. In summary, however, it is generally as follows. The starting point is arbitrary:

• The single adult person.

• Two single adults get together as a couple. Traditionally they get married, but in many societies nowadays a formal marriage ceremony is not required. This may be termed the childless couple stage.

• The couple have a child, often going on to have several more. We now have the couple with young children.

• The oldest child starts school. The family enters the stage of the couple with school-age children.

• The oldest child enters adolescence.

• The first child (it need not be the oldest) leaves home. This is the family launching its children into the wider world.

• The last child leaves home. This is the start of the "empty nest'' stage.

• Retirement, aging, and grandparenthood.

The above is necessarily an oversimplification. Clearly, a family can be, and indeed will often be, in

Family Therapy several stages at the same time. Some children may be in school while others have not started; some will have reached adolescence and others will not have. The parents may even have retired before all the children have left home. An additional complication is that many families do not follow the above course. We see, for example, family groups that have only contained one parent from the start; others disrupted by divorce or the death of one parent; blended families of various types; homosexual couples, with or without children; families in which it is the grandparents who are caring for the children.

What the family therapist must do, with every family that presents, is determine where the family is in its life cycle, and whether it is encountering any difficulty in moving from one stage to the next. It is often found that a family has functioned well at one stage, perhaps before the arrival of children, but does less well at the next, for example, when a third member, in that case a newborn child, is added. But any transition can present a challenge, as can single parenthood, blended family situations, and other special circumstances—for example, the incarceration of a family member.

The family therapist's work becomes even more complex when families have become split up because of separation or divorce, an increasingly common scenario in many contemporary societies. The children's time may be divided between the separated parents, whose conflicts and disagreements may persist despite the separation or divorce. Emotional problems, conflicts of loyalties, financial hardship and disputes, and custody and access issues may be sources of stress to all concerned. Often the children suffer most, and they sometimes come to play the role of pawns in ongoing "battles" between their parents. One or both parents may be in new relationships, which can complicate matters further.

In these situations the therapist may come to play the role of mediator, maintaining a neutral stance and being careful not to become overidentified with the point of view of any party. At the same time the well-being of all concerned, especially the children (who tend to be most at risk), must be the primary concern of the therapist. In these often unfortunate, even tragic, situations therapists may need to cast their nets wide and involve more than just the specific family grouping that has initially sought help—regardless of who is paying.

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