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Dr Shelagh Wright - Systemic and Family Psychotherapist and Family Mediator

I've Been Thinking - Dr Shelagh's Blog


As with individuals, couple relationships and families go through a life cycle, this is a reasonably predictable series of events that most relationships will navigate and negotiate between the partners in the relationship or members in the family. At each transition point in this life cycle problems may arise through difficulties in negotiating the necessary change to move easily through the transition. There are a series of recognized stages in the family life cycle as follows:

The family life cycle model attempts to capture this notion of changing evolving process in order to chart some of the major changes or transitions that family life presents. Families need to continually adapt and adjust to deal with these tasks, but particularly at these critical transitional points. Each family is seen as developing ways of dealing with the tasks facing them – attempted solutions -. In turn the choices they make are shaped by the beliefs they hold as individuals, as a family and they hold in common with wider society. The recursive combination of tasks, attempted solutions, outcomes and beliefs constitutes the family system.

It is possible to see a family evolving and changing as it proceeds through the life cycle as needing to develop and negotiate its way through three distinct but interconnected areas:

Developmental Influences on the Family

Developmental Influences on the Family

The vertical flow in a system includes patterns of relating and functioning that are transmitted down generations in a family – it includes all the family attitudes, taboos, expectations and loaded issues with which we grow up. One could say that these aspects of our lives are like the hand we are dealt they are a given it is what we do with them that is the issue for us.

The horizontal flow includes both the predictable developmental stresses and those unpredictable events 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' that may disrupt the life cycle process.

It has to be noted here that there is a lot of criticism for these models as they contain assumptions about healthy family functioning endorsing inequality for women etc. Systemic neutrality it has been argued is not possible and disguises a range of patriarchal middle class white assumptions.

In defence it is like everything in life, it is less about the issue itself but more about what you do with it. In addition we do live in a world where these ways of interacting and functioning are a very real part of our lives and are obstacles that we have to overcome.

What we understand family & family life to be is influenced by the ideologies and discourses inherent in the society we live at a particular historical point. An analysis at the level of society and culture suggests that family life is shaped by dominant ideologies or discourses about what family life should be like. The most familiar being 'nuclear family' along with stereotypical male female roles.

Impact of Illness on the Family

Impact of Illness on the Family

Symptoms in families evolve in the context of interpersonal isolation, characterized by conditional acceptance and efforts to control one another. As family members struggle to eliminate or control the symptoms, their preoccupation with the symptom leads them to neglect other important aspects of their relationships with each other. As the family relationships deteriorate, all family members, particularly the symptomatic child/adolescent experience an increasing sense of isolation.

The more the family members focus on the child's symptomatic behaviour, the more they are liable to see the child as 'the problem' leading her to feel misunderstood and increasingly isolated from the rest of the family. As efforts to eliminate the symptom repeatedly fail the family members feel increasingly helpless and frustrated. In this context of isolation and alienation, symptoms tend to escalate. This 'symptomatic cycle' whereby isolation fuels symptoms and symptoms further fuel isolation constitutes the basic process driving symptomatic behaviour.

There are some key principles to remember when meeting with a family:

These principles are designed to address some of the criticisms of the family life cycle model and engage with the family on a level that is useful to them.

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