As with individual development, family systems can be seen as a developmental process that evolves over time. Developmental models of family life include the family life cycle, the family life spiral, and the family genogram.

The Family Life Cycle

Jay Haley (1993) offered the first detailed description of a family life cycle. He identified six developmental stages, stretching from courtship to old age. Haley was interested in understanding the strengths families have and the challenges they face as they move through the life cycle. He hypothesized that symptoms and dysfunctions appear when there is a dislocation or disruption in the anticipated natural unfolding of the life cycle: "The symptom is a signal that a family has difficulty in getting past a stage in the life cycle" (p. 42).

Over time, tension inevitably emerges in families because of the developmental changes they encounter (Smith & Schwebel, 1995). Family stress is most intense at those points when family members must negotiate a transition to the next stage of the family life cycle (Carter & McGoldrick, 2004). On one level, this stress may be viewed as part of the family's response to the challenges and changes of life in their passage through time; for example, a couple may encounter tension while making the transition to parenthood with the birth of their first child. On another level, pressures may emerge from the family's multigenera- tional legacies that define the family's attitudes, taboos, expectations, labels, and loaded issues; for example, over several generations a rule that men cannot be trusted to handle the money may impose stress when the women are absent. When stress occurs on both levels, the whole family may experience acute crisis.

Family therapists can find it difficult to determine the exact sources of stress on a family. Papp and Imber-Black (1996) presented an interesting vignette describing the power of illuminating a wide spectrum of stressors for a family. In this vignette, the authors connected what was viewed as the developmental struggle between a mother and an adolescent son to a three-generation theme of "footsteps." In this case, the adolescent's grades had plummeted and he was both depressed and argumentative. Furthermore, he had engaged in some stealing activity. On the surface, these behaviors can be understood as either symptomatic of family life with an adolescent or symptomatic of life after creation of a blended family. However, by teasing out a specific theme, Papp and Imber-Black discovered that the family's fears emerged as a story about the son "following in the footsteps" – in particular, the footsteps of a drug-dealing father and a larcenous grandfather. The therapists skillfully challenged three generations of the family to tell the family myth about their men who chose the "wrong path." Sorting out the current stressors on the family through the lens of the family scripts encouraged the adolescent to leave behind the old stories to develop his own story. The process also helped his mother to realize how these historic scripts hid her son from her. This multigenerational storytelling intervention worked to free the young man from a catastrophic prophecy while bringing all members of the family into better communication.

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