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Traveling Through Time
on the Family Life Cycle

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.


This article is presented in two parts, due to its length. Part One took the reader through the stages of becoming a couple, raising young children, and raising adolescents. Part Two below includes later stages of the family life cycle and a special section on creating your own family stages stress composite for trouble shooting stages which predict increase stress for your family.


It is at the stage of launching the youngest child from the nest, that the couple has to again face one another, shifting their focus in the relationship to a new level. Realignment of their relationship without the everyday needs and interaction of other dependent family members is the next order of business on the ever-changing family life cycle.

Reestablishing new and different interactions with children that are now outside the home require an adjustment to adult-to-adult relating. Eventual marriage and grandchildren invite yet more adjustments to incoming members of the family, while death or disability of the oldest generation may loom. The stress of this period is determined by the ease or difficulty inherent in adjusting to a new family definition. If the marriage is basically sound, it can be a time of renewed honeymooning, while if children have filled the void of a strained relationship, the absence of children from the home can produce profound emptiness. Likewise, the level of satisfaction with work and career will reverberate renewed enthusiasm and energy for the job or boredom and stagnation. (Or something in between-depending on where you are on the spectrum of job satisfaction!)

Dealing with a variety of expansions and contractions, as children leave and return home for economic or educational reasons, for varying amounts of time can also stress the system. Establishing adult household rules for all family members can help ease these transitions, and maintain the adjustments to adult status for the temporarily returning adult child.

Still, it is a time when parents may review their decisions, take stock of the choices open and available to them, which may be quite different from the opportunities of their own parents at this stage. Experiencing new pathways, envisioning new possibilities and engaging in new activities or hobbies are common avenues for growth at this time.


This stage of the family life cycle is largely defined by what age you were when you had children. If you had children in mid-life, this stage is shortened and pertains more to retirement, enjoying life while accommodating to the changes of age and becoming interested in passing information on to the next generation. There is a certain change that occurs as we face the end of life, our death, that requires a shift in perspective. Judith Viorst writes about this shift in her book, Necessary Losses.

However, for many of us who had children earlier, mid-life without children in the nest may have resulted in a change or deepening focus on career, or some other major change which continues late into life as a primary focus. In either case, adult development continues, with grandchildren and family enjoyment experienced as an ongoing network of growing family relationships and opportunities for bonding to the latest generation. It may also be useful to remember that we are also models of what is possible to the younger generations. What kind of person you are as a grandmother or grandfather can have far reaching effects on inspiring the young. Breaking the traditional stereotypical role of what a grandmother is or "does" (Tina Turner, for example) can provide younger people with expanded visions of life in later years. Continuing your personal development and enjoyment of life, in whatever capacity that is realistic and fulfilling continues. And perhaps changes in what is considered "respectful or proper" in past generations will be changing as baby boomers bring their own unique vision to later life!

Nevertheless, strain in this period of the life cycle may be precipitated by adjustments to retirement that leave a void or throw a marriage into a strained balance due to greater time together. Difficulty in shifting status to the next generation ( such as a grandparent refusing to turn over decision making power despite the strain of his maintaining it) can cause stress as can older people unable to help themselves, or refusing needed help.

The devaluation of the elderly culturally makes it difficult to care for older parents with ease. Though elders are not able to provide the way the younger generation does, they still have more years of experience in living which often goes untapped as a resource in the family. Depression in the elderly is a significant problem in our culture and women are prime targets because of their statistically reduced income compared to males at this period of the life cycle. One quarter of elderly women live in poverty. And half of women, compared to one in five men, have median incomes of under $5,000. Dependency needs of aging parents also resurface childhood wounds for adult children who care for them. Unmet dependency needs in childhood can accentuate the stress of caring for parents when they become dependent on you. However, being aware of the reason for ambivalence can ease guilt and increase your ability to adapt to the situation.


Many family therapists use the family life cycle as a map for assessing trouble in a family, and for making the appropriate intervention. For example, a common glitch that can occur in single parent families, is increased difficulty launching a child, due to worry about how the parent will fare alone. Talking through these emotional issues of separation can increase the likelihood that a child will be able to fare well in their new independent endeavors (college,etc.) when they are assured by the parent that they can manage without them at home. Likewise marriages that have been held together "for the sake of the children" may present with the youngest child's continual return home due to failure in the world outside the family. Communicating about these situations may help a family move through the launching stage and get "unstuck".

Parents may also find themselves under increased stress when they travel through a part of the family life cycle in which unresolved feelings from childhood are buried. The following exercise will help you to trouble-shoot potential stages that may put you under increased stress. Getting help, professional or otherwise, to talk through these stages in your past will help you adjust to the present family's tasks when it passes through the same stage.

For example: If you lost a parent at the age of 3 , you will experience feelings related to this loss as you travel through the stage of raising young children. Research by Paul and Paul 1 demonstrates that when grief goes untreated, families present in counseling with the threat of marital dissolution. By taking a family history, this loss can be revealed. Research shows that the trajectory towards divorce is halted, and present family issues are resolved when the parent suffering the early loss experiences a full release of his or her previously suppressed emotional pain. Resolving past loss allows families to remain intact at a statistically significant rate.


Draw an "x" on each stage in the life cycle that represents a period of increased stress in your childhood due to losses (parents' divorce, death of a significant relative, stressful move or parental job change) or in other ways was particularly stressful (abuse in adolescence,unresolved strife and conflict at any given period,a period when physical or mental disability in a family member first appeared).

unattached| coupling | pregnancy  | raising young |  raising    |launching| later life
adult                   & birth       children      adolescents  children

If you are doing this exercise with a spouse, interview one another about these stages, prompting the partner if he or she forgets to name something you know about in his or her family history that you feel is significant. Plot one another's significant childhood stressors in the appropriate stage when each initially occurred, below:


unattached| coupling | pregnancy  | raising young |  raising    |launching| later life
adult                   & birth       children      adolescents  children


unattached| coupling | pregnancy  | raising young |  raising    |launching| later life
adult                   & birth       children      adolescents  children

Finally, if you are doing this exercise as a couple, you can combine all of the stressors that appear on both lines and plot your family life cycle stage stress composite below:

unattached| coupling | pregnancy  | raising young |  raising    |launching| later life
adult                   & birth       children      adolescents  children

This composite will give you a sense of which of the family life cycle stages may be the most stressful for your family. Knowing this can help you obtain a larger perspective and avoid the pitfalls of tunnel vision when a particular stage is harder than the previous one. You will be more likely to wonder about the impact of your own childhood on your present moods and determine whether you feel you are reacting appropriately to the situation or charging it with unresolved tension from your past. It will be easier to get help if you need it and to talk through your feelings instead of overreact to situations. Armed with this overview, you are more likely to help each other navigate the family life cycle through rough as well as smooth waters. The diagram below illustrates an example of one couples' family stage stress composite.

Bill and Susie: family stage stress composite

unattached| coupling | pregnancy  | raising young |  raising    |launching| later life
adult                   & birth       children      adolescents  children

In the above example, Bob experienced the loss of his mother who died soon after he was born from complications of childbirth. His wife, Susie experienced the loss of her mother's presence soon after her birth due to postpartum depression which necessitated her mother's hospitalization for a period of 3 months. Susie was cared for by her grandmother and father during that time. Therefore, Susie and Bill may have increased stress above and beyond the usual adjustments to new parenthood. Such additional stress at this time could prove overwhelming if they were not aware of the fact that this stage of pregnancy ,birth and postpartum adjustment will be tinged with sadness from the past. Knowing this however, Bill and Susie are likely to understand and forgive one another more easily and to seek help from one another or others sooner. As the adjustment takes hold, they will also have an opportunity to heal old wounds in a way that can strengthen their bond and bring them closer as a couple and as parents, rather than lapse into withdrawal or depression, thus deadening their connection with each other at this important stage of their own family's life cycle.

Susie's parents divorced when she was 13, and her father moved away from the family home. She continued to see him several times a year in her teens. Therefore, Susie may experience increased stress when her children become teenagers and she is reminded of the age this loss occurred for her in her childhood. Knowing this will help her grieve any renewed or previously unexpressed sadness about that loss, allowing her greater clarity in her own relationship to her teenagers and husband at that time. Without this overview, she may have struggled in her marriage, pushing her husband away to recapitulate loss of her father. When grief is expressed below the level of consciousness, it gets projected onto current life relationships. Many family therapists believe this happens because the younger part of ourselves has been traumatized by loss, becoming "frozen" or forgotten in the past. When travel through a particular familiar stage of the life cycle stimulates this trauma, the younger part of us "thaws" a bit and seeks expression of suppressed emotions. It is natural for us to project the reasons for our feelings onto our spouses or our children when we are unaware of the true origins of these emerging feelings.

By plotting these stressors out on the family life cycle composite, Susie and Bob will be more sensitive to their own needs and to the needs of their partner. Alienation and isolation can be circumvented when deep feelings from the past are not unwittingly projected onto our loved ones. It will be easier to travel through these stages with love and support instead of unintentional polarization.

Once you have finished your joint family composite and discussed it with one another, put it in a place for safe keeping. Take it out for review and updating as you travel through the family life cycle together. Once in a particular stage, you will find you may remember more about what these stages were like in the past. Discuss feelings that arise around the "x"s you have placed in particular stages and feel free to add events that you may have left out previously. Making a tradition of sharing feelings in the present will secure your bond with one another in the future. And being able to predict feelings that might otherwise surprise and confuse you, can be a real benefit to you on your journey through the family life cycle

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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