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Traveling Through Time
on the Family Life Cycle

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.


This article will be presented in two parts, due to length. Part One will take the reader through the stages of becoming a couple, pregnancy and birth, raising young children and raising adolescents. Part Two will include later stages of the family life cycle and a special section on creating your own family stage stress composite for trouble shooting periods which predict increased stress for your family.

Sociologists have attempted to research and describe the continuous process of growth that a family experiences as it travels through the family life cycle. Newborn babes are raised to adulthood, only to join with new adults to reestablish their own families. The ever-changing flow of life through the generations has some predictable growth pains which we as parents may do well to understand from a larger perspective. There is argument regarding the number of stages, but most professionals agree that some knowledge of the life cycle stages can help parents to glimpse an overview of life's tangled web, which might otherwise prove sticky when we become too myopically focused on one point in time.

Oftentimes, the stages on the family life cycle that are troublesome can be predicted because they are the same stages that our parents had difficulty helping us travel through, leaving unresolved emotional pain. We may find ourselves at a loss as parents to provide our children with what they need because we do not have childhood role models who were successful with a particular stage of the family life cyclic. For example, if you left home early as a teenager (before high school graduation) you may have difficulty sustaining your teenagers through the "launching" stage. Becoming aware of the particular markers or psychological tasks of successive stages enables us to provide opportunities for our children that we may have missed in our own development. Without such an overview, it is likely that we will pass on emotionally unmetabolized legacies, such as premature launching in the above example. By increasing awareness of what is needed at various stages, we are more likely to learn from others, thereby changing what is passed on to future generations. Armed with knowledge, we can develop new and healthier patterns for growth.

For our purposes, the middle class family of the 20th century will be the focal point for description of the family life cycle as family researchers describe it. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty do alter these stages , as do cultural variations. Other naturally occurring processes on the family life cycle include divorce, single parenting, remarriage and stepparenting. These transitions offer new variations of stages on the family life cycle, and will be dealt with in future articles. For now, let's take a look at the basic stages of the family life cycle, as sociologists describe them in middle class 20th century American culture. Case vignettes are included to help you clarify your own development and how you experienced these stages in the past as well as the present.

A section on "trouble shooting" (in part two) will elucidate where you and your partner may experience difficulty on the family life cycle, based on unresolved traumatic stages in your own individual childhood histories. You will be better able to deal with sensitive parenting issues when you are aware of the larger perspective of the family life cycle stages.

Unattached young adult stage

As we make families, this part of the life cycle is a period of time in which we form an individual sense of self. Living on our own, we establish peer relationships, intimacy with others outside of our families, and initiate some endeavor which will establish us as independent adults economically. It is important that we feel ourselves as separate individuals from the original family so that we can join with another adult, unburdened by any role we might play in our childhood family system. When marriage occurs without enough sense of separation of self, the new couple system can become secondary to the needs of the previous generation, causing difficulty in securing a new family unit. Bill and Mary had this problem:

Bill and Mary got married when Bill had graduated from college. However, the year of his marriage, Bill's parents divorced after having stayed together "for the kids". Bill's role in the family had always been to make Dad feel better when he felt sad or angry with his wife (Bill's mother). When the divorce took place, Bill was unable to focus on his marriage,instead spending every weekend with his father. He still felt it was his job to keep his parents together. He ignored his wife's pleading to stay home with her on weekends. Finally, Bill's job took them to another part of the country which prohibited him from actively trying to play the role of marital mediator for his parents. However he and Mary never resolved the damage done to the marriage as a result of his overriding loyalty to his parents' troubled marriage. Bill and Mary did not discuss the alienation that had occurred at that time, as neither was clear about what their commitment to one another should look like, anyway. Mary felt somewhat guilty that she was asking for Bill's attention at such a difficult time for his parents. Further symptoms of unresolved family loyalty showed itself in the fact that they spent every Christmas with his father . Even though they had 2 children of their own, it was not until the children were teenagers that they spent the holidays in their own home. They had never developed any traditions of their own, and by the time their eldest was 14, Bill became more argumentative and verbally abusive to his children, resulting in Mary seeking help from a family counselor regarding the viability of her own marriage .

The above case briefly illustrates that the first stage that the couple had gotten stuck in was an initial lack of differentiation from their own families. Bill was stuck in the role of saving his parents, leaving him little time or energy to establish his marital bond with Mary. Mary did not see her role as his wife as a legitimate avenue for meeting her own needs for intimacy and forming family. She retreated into her own world, dealing with him peripherally for years, until his verbal abuse of the children became overbearing. This leads us to the next stage of the family life cycle.

The Establishment of the New Couple System

The psychological tasks of this stage is to establish appropriate boundaries which reflect that the couple is forming their own bond regarding the decision making that goes on in their system. Though they may enjoy help and suggestions from in-laws and others, they are getting to know one another and hashing out their own differences, finding their own solutions. Their energies are primarily focused on establishing their own family unit and cohesiveness.

A kind of "realignment" occurs, as family and friends accept the primary bond of the couple and include the new spouse in their social circle. Loyalty and commitment to the other in the couple system becomes the first priority. Ideally, couple bonding when it is established is respectful of the fact of intimacy between partners, but inclusive of others as a supportive network. However, an "inner circle" is created which consists of the newly formed couple system with appropriate boundaries.

In the above example of Bill and Mary it is clear that the second stage of the family life cycle was compromised because the first stage was not established beforehand. Stages must be resolved positively, or they do reflect on the growth necessary in the next stage. The stages are successive and depend on resolution of the preceding stage. Given Bill's (and perhaps Mary's) unresolved unattached adult stage, the next stage which required a consolidation of the couples' bond could not be established, as energies were divided.

Mary coped by taking care of the children as they arrived on the scene, and Bill coped by devoting himself to his job as a traveling salesman, which took him away from the family on frequent and prolonged intervals. They continued their marriage with specialized roles in the family which did not require much couples' communication and a minimal amount of joint decision making. They stayed out of each others' way.

Pregnancy and Childbirth

Although no family researcher to my knowledge has included the period of pregnancy and childbirth as a separate stage on the family life cycle, I feel that it is of singular significance due to the incredible potential of this period for growth and change in a family. Even when couples have not bonded well, or have been drained by their loyalties to their families-of -origin, pregnancy and preparation for labor and childbirth can bring a couple together. It is during this period that couples' may reflect on their own parenting styles, and talk at length about how they want to raise their own child. Preparing for the labor and planning the circumstances surrounding the birth can provide opportunity for realigning the couple system. Active involvement in the childbirth can empower a previously burdened couple to focus on their own beliefs and family experience. Even when there has been trouble due to split family loyalties from the beginning, a second baby can help a couple to establish a strong bond and new efforts at communication. Such was the case of Tom and Sarah, expecting their second child.

Sarah was 6 months pregnant, suffering extreme nausea with her second child. She had hoped for support from her mother and her in-laws, moving temporarily to be geographically close to them for help. Her 5 year old son traveled with her, while her husband stayed behind to work at his job, in a city 5,000 miles away where they had been living together as a family. Because of extreme nausea, Sarah's obstetrician recommended no airplane travel, once her situation had stabilized with medication. Return home to her husband was impossible until after the birth. Through this period of time, Sarah became disillusioned with the support she had thought she would receive from relatives, and sought counseling. She became aware of how she and her husband had remained loyal to their family-of-origins emotionally, rather than depending on one another for their main nurturance. Communicating by phone daily with her husband established a deeper connection and they were able to talk together about their disillusionment with his parents and her mother, discovering for the first time how each felt about the fact that they had not developed a strong couples' bond which included her depending on him in this situation. By the time they were reunited, prior to the birth, Tom and Sarah were able to recognize their need to form a strong couples' bond , and began to realign their boundaries with both of their families more appropriately. This new communication strengthened their own sense of family and commitment to the needs of each other. They not only established new guidelines for interaction with relatives that created less disappointment, but freed up energies that had previously been spent accommodating others to attend to the primary needs of their own family, as a first priority.

Raising Young Children

The psychological tasks of this period of family life includes maintaining a relationship with your spouse while integrating the new roles and responsibilities of parenthood. No easy task! Making room for the children is important, and making room for one another is important as well. Afterall, your couples' relationship is the garden in which your children grow. They will reflect and bask in the genuine bond of love and affection you show to each other.

Two difficult situations are possibilities, which may complicate this stage. If a marriage is weak to begin with, the couple may turn to the children for filling the void. This happened with Bill in the above example. He filled the void that his father felt in the marriage. By helping his father to "feel good" Bill compromised himself. The other pitfall is a marriage that enjoys such a tight relationship with the other spouse that there is no room for children. Couples who are overly involved in each other, perhaps taking primarily separate vacations from the children, being unavailable due to heavy career and work demands, can leave precious little time for children's needs. The unwillingness to accommodate to spend time on child focused activities is a symptom of a couple system that has not adjusted well to making room for children.

A balanced couple system accommodates to the young child's needs, limiting adult centered activities, both in work and socially to make room for these new family members! These new members are welcomed and enjoyed. Family traditions are established. Together parents celebrate and commiserate in their new lifestyle of having children. Other families with children are affiliated with, and a whole new social support network develops to embrace the needs of the growing family.

Major stress in this stage is establishing family values, especially with respect to the division of the workload by the parents. Gender roles and expectations in the family weigh heavily, and children benefit from a family that values nurturance over work in the early years of development. Respect and value for the work of nurturing as well as the importance of economics and work outside the family will be an issue the parents must resolve together. The level of satisfaction that each spouse feels as a result of how work in the family is shared will foreshadow the success or failure of their marriage. Traditional roles in which mothers do all the nurturing and fathers withdraw into outside work activities, leave mothers overly responsible for the emotional health of all members. Today's family researchers recommend sharing the role of nurturing, as it leads to healthier and happier families. Traditional roles are identified as contributing to dysfunction due to the alienation of the father in the emotional life of the family and the over functioning of the mother in an impossible attempt to make everyone happy.

But in the midst of all this change, the couple must not forget their primary and intimate bond is with each other. When the time is right they take weekends away to be together, and nights out to nurture the intimacy that they alone share. As lovers and as friends, it is important for the couple to protect the primacy of their bond which is the foundation of their growing family. It is this relationship that will teach their children how to love their husband or wife when they grow up to marry and have children of their own!

Raising Adolescents

The key emotional task in this stage is the crux of the "identity crisis" for the teenager, and the transformation of the family system to include the child's growing independence. Parents have to adjust to their child as a "beginning adult" in many ways. Adolescents still need guidance and much support, even intermittently on what may feel like a younger child's level (forgetting homework, etc.) The extreme ambivalence about their own independence and vacillation between polarities of independence and dependence make this period a stress on all families. However, the main focus should be on helping him or her to make their own decisions and discussing social responsibility and ethics as a backdrop for the task of establishing an identity, which is the adolescent's work at this time. Most adolescents will make decisions in their best interests, or learn readily from their mistakes if they have appropriate support and guidance. However, due to the extreme physiological, emotional and cognitive changes that are going on simultaneously at this time, adolescents are vulnerable to symptoms of depression, anxiety, fatigue and societal dangers.

Discussions regarding safety and established guidelines for communication are paramount. Parents who worry about their children's well-being often agree that a teenager may call them at any time they are in need, with no questions asked at that time. The agreement between parent and teenager is that if your adolescent does find him or herself in a compromised situation, such as being driven home by an inebriated friend, your teenager will call you for help with no questions asked that night. You and your child agree that safety is more important than an argument about the situation. Further discussion can take place, but safety is given priority at a time when teenagers are stepping out of the previously protected boundaries of the family system.

Adolescents precipitate a transformation in the family system, as they are preparing to leave and establish themselves on their own. The current family system is no longer caring for children, but also subject to new and independent ideas, styles and philosophies for living. This pressures the parent to evolve toward a new understanding of the differences of individuals in the system, especially where poignant issues of sexuality, career choice and academic and social achievement are concerned. Unlike younger years, teenagers are making choices that will have an effect on the rest of their lives. The stakes are getting higher. The protected period of childhood is beginning to fade.

Parents, too may be experiencing pressures of their own involving their identity. Mid-life issues may arise to be grappled with, and new career choices may loom for parents as they look forward to the rest of their lives after their children leave the nest. Couples' intimacy issues reach a peak of intensity at this time, if marital conflicts remained unresolved while the children were growing up. And as if that were not enough----parents may be experiencing pressure of dealing with aging parents of their own! Unresolved dependency needs from childhood can surface for parents who have functioned well as providers of younger children, but are reminded of their own freedom looming at the horizon. The need to focus on their own growth and development as adults can become salient at a time when they are "sandwiched" in between the needs of the younger and the older generations simultaneously.

In the earlier example of Bill and Mary, the entry into the stage of raising adolescents was the breaking threshold in the marriage for accumulated stress of previous stages added to the challenge of the current one.

To Be Continued...

Part Two: Launching Children and Later Life with a special section on Trouble Shooting

The Second Part will include later stages of the family life cycle and a special section on creating your own family stage stress composite for trouble shooting periods which predict increased stress for your family.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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