What Makes A Family Tick? Part I

Happy Family with LifelineThis is the first of a multi-part series that examines the workings of a healthy family. It’s meant to be a sort of how-to guide that can help you create the family you always dreamed of.


They say Eskimos have a hundred words for snow. One for flakes that are wet and slushy and another for those that are dry and powdery. There’s a word to describe the stuff that falls fast and hard and another for the snowflakes that fall softly and silently to the ground. Since it blankets their landscape for most of the year and is such an integral part of their day-to-day life, they are quick to recognize the subtle distinctions that you and I might miss. But at the end of the day, regardless of the specific type, snow is snow and Eskimo or not, you know it when you see it.

 Same thing with families. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, too and include everything from the traditional, straight, married, two-parent kind to the one headed by a gay, single, adoptive parent. But just as all the different kinds of snow share characteristics that make it snow instead of rain, families share certain characteristics that distinguish them from a club or a mere houseful of roommates.

And if you look a little closer, you can’t help but notice that some families seem to hum along while others tend to lurch from one crisis to the next. But why? Is it luck? Magic? Good karma? Are some families just destined for success while others are doomed to fail? Or is there some kind of matrix that can be developed in every family that will help them grow strong, steady and better able to weather the lifelong challenges that inevitably arise?

The good news is that there are definite, essential elements that all families need in order to thrive. These elements can be seen, known and understood and every family can work to incorporate them. There is a rhyme and a reason for why some families operate well, regardless of their composition, while others, despite the best intentions of everyone involved, fail again and again.

The key lies in understanding the nature and function of the family structure, its unique life cycle, and its specific stages of growth and development. Before we can really understand the reasons why some parenting styles don’t work, it’s important to figure out what does work and why.

 So what exactly are those essential elements that help families flourish? To begin with, all families, from Mr. Rodgers’ to Osama Bin Laden’s, have a structure, a way of existing and operating in the world that’s unique to them. Sort of the way a house—with its walls, roof, floors, and windows—has a structure that optimally allows for safe, comfortable living.

But besides the brown shingles, wood frame and brick chimney, there’s a separate network of systems operating behind the walls that bring that house to life. The “guts” of the house—the heating and cooling systems, the wiring and plumbing—work with the more visible parts to make it functional and pleasant to be in.

Whether a house is a tiny, cozy duplex in the heart of the city or a storybook mansion high atop a tree-covered, suburban hill, a home inspector goes through the same basic list when he assesses its soundness. If termites have made a meal of the front porch, or the wiring is shot, or the pipes have corroded and no longer bring water in, then the people who live there will have to make some improvements before they can call it “home sweet home.”

Families are like that, too. On the outside, there’s the typical cast of characters involving some combination of parents and kids that everyone can see. But what makes each family a one-of-a-kind is partly based on the slew of operating instructions that have evolved within it over time.

Every family has a chain of command, for example, a way of getting things done and making decisions and a whole set of rules, some spoken and some implied, that dictate everything from when it’s okay to cry to who takes out the garbage. There are also boundaries that surround and protect the family as a whole and each individual and subgroup within it. All of these invisible elements form the family structure and work together to make it strong and healthy or weak and prone to problems.

Strangely enough, this structure is usually set in place without any deliberate planning by anyone involved. Somehow a hierarchy develops, rules are established, and family members take on a variety of roles and responsibilities that go along with them.

Before you know it, certain decisions have been made: Saturdays are for grocery shopping, paying bills and hanging out; the oldest child takes the dog out every night at 9:00; you can leave the bathroom door partly open when you’re using it, unless company is over; Mom pays the department store bills and Dad pays the mortgage and utilities; arguments can get loud but never physical; family vacations happen with your brother and sister-in-law except for “February Break,” which is when you visit the grandparents in Florida; a teen’s 11:30 P.M. curfew is really a 12:00 curfew; no one talks about Uncle Steve’s drinking problem; serious discipline is doled out by Mom, Dad is the pushover; medical problems are never discussed with anyone outside the family except Mom’s best friend Julia; any grade below a B results in a “talk”; and when Mom gives you “that look” the discussion, whatever it is, is over.

The result is the emergence of a unique family system with it’s own distinctive language, culture and set of instructions. But unique does not necessarily mean good. Without some careful thought and discussion, the structure that appears might be more Jerry Springer than Walt Disney.

Next Week, Part II: Connecting the Dots

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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