A few months ago I did a short presentation at an educational retreat. During my presentation, I was asked, probably because of my wordiness, for some overall, key points that families should adhere to as they proceed with raising their children.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s cut to the chase.” I have been a child and adolescent psychiatrist for many decades and have worked with or supervised the family therapy of around 40,000 families.
So here goes: These eternal truths that I’ve found are consistent throughout all families that invariably impact the wellbeing of young people and their families.
The House Divided…Parents working together is essential. While families are complex units, when it comes to raising kids, regardless of whether they are living together or not, parents have the most influence. Working with countless families where there is delinquency, anorexia or floundering young people, I find, at the center, invariably the parents do not agree. This disagreement can be subtle, for example, a mother furiously telling her child that he or she has to stop their bad behavior, and a father sitting there impassively, implicitly undermining his wife.
In other words, the functioning of parents as a coherent unit in all aspects related to the child is crucial to your kids doing well.
A large number of families are single-parent families. In some single-parent families there is no other parental figure. Here that parent needs support from another adult.
Turn, Turn, Turn—for everything there is a season. As the song says, all living things change in predictable ways. In psychology, it’s referred to as development. Development has a great impact on families. However, it is important to recognize that development does not just refer to your child. We adults also develop in regular, even predictable stages. As we react to our children leaving home or having a big birthday, such as 40. And families as living units also go through predictable developmental changes such as marriage, the first child-the second child, our kids becoming adolescents, then leaving home, caring for our ageing parents. The death of our parents. The family itself transforms—it changes and accommodates the changes.
Families go through regular development, getting married as a developmental passage is profound not only for the couple but also for their parents. Birth of the first child, birth of the second child, the late Nora Ephron in her book Heartburn said introducing the second child to the family is like throwing in a hand grenade. Adolescence also involves a huge adjustment for the child and impacts massively on the rest of the family.
Symptoms have functions. One of the great discoveries of family therapy is that families function as systems, where everything is connected. Research shows that when parents have marital anger, children activate, manifesting symptoms. As the parents focus on this, their tension is diminished. Think of your own experience. Have you ever been angry at someone—and how the tension vanished as you focused on a third person. It's a circle, however,—to the extent that the parents then focus on the symptom, the child and the parents’ issues are not addressed…..and to the extent that the issues are not addressed, the system focuses all the more on the unresolved parental issues.
I do not say this to blame parents but rather to alert parents to the emergence of behaviors that take their attention away from and diffuse the conflict that ultimately they should be resolving.
Refer to my book—You Can Fix Your Family for more on navigating parenting. The most important job we ever have.
- Development is like an undertow—we are mostly unaware of it but it instantly transforms our lives. A client came to see me because his wife had left him. I inquired about the family developmental passages and it transpired that her father had just died. When I saw her she spoke about how her life was bereft, she needed something else, she was suddenly in touch with her own mortality.
- Family systems need appropriate boundaries relevant to the developmental stage of the family members—the closeness between a mother and a child of four is different to the closeness between a mother and a child of 18. Often in systems that I see there can be inappropriate boundaries. For example, too great a boundary between the father and the children.
An important lesson in family life is flexibility, the family system needs to change as the young people enter into different developmental stages. The rules and boundaries in place for an eight year old will be and should be very different to the rules and boundaries in place for a 17 year old. However, rules and boundaries are still necessary.
Leo Tolstoy said happy families are all alike, unhappy families vary. In my experience it is the other way around—I increasingly find great creativity and variability in happy families. It is the unhappy families that have strict rules and do not introduce flexibility.