Lesson 5 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance family

Q&A About Families

What You Need to Know

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/fam/qa.htm

Updated 03-22-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This brief YouTube video augments what you'll find in this article: The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site. I've reduced that to seven.

      This is one of a series of lesson-5 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance family. These articles build on Lessons 1 thru 4, and augment, vs. replace, other qualified professional help.

      I am a veteran family-systems therapist. My clinical research since 1979 suggests that typical adults are unaware of what a high-nurturance (functional) family is, and how to achieve one. This article proposes key questions about families that average adults need to research to meet family-members' needs effectively. For other Q&A articles, see this.

      This Q&A article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site, and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5,

  • this quiz about families

  • these Q&A items about relationships, and...

  • these traits of a high-nurturance family

  Questions you should ask about families

      Underlined links will take you to a new page. Plain links will open an informational popup or jump to a place on this page.

1)  What is a family? What is a nuclear family?

2)  What is a high-nurturance ("functional") family?

3Why have families existed in every age and culture?

4)  What's different between my family relationships and other ones?

5)  Is their a "best kind" of family?

6What is a family system, and why do I need to know this?

7What are family rules and roles? (separate article)

8What is a dysfunctional (low-nurturance) family?

9What causes family dysfunction?

10What often happens to kids raised in a low-nurturance family?

11Who belongs to a given family? What does belonging mean?

12What determines a family's identity, and why is it important?

13)  What is a family mission statement, and why is it important?

14)  How do typical families develop, and why do I need to know this?

15)  What are family grief and anger policies?

16What are the most common family problems? (separate article)

17)  What is family therapy?

18How does family therapy relate to couples' counseling?

19)  How can we pick an effective family coach or counselor? See this.

 If you don't see your question here, please ask!

1)  What is a family? What is a nuclear family?

      A family may be defined as "two or more people sharing common bonds, goals, interests, and perhaps genes and ancestries." A bio(logical) family is two or more adults and (perhaps) kids who share common genes, (usually) last names, (usually) dwellings, and ancestries. Psychological families don't share these.

      A nuclear family is all related adults and kids living primarily in one home. An extended family includes all other multi-generational members related by genes, marriages, names, ancestries - e.g. grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and inlaws,    


Q3)  Why have families existed in every age and culture?

      Primarily because no other group fills adults' and kids' mixes of needs as well as families do, over time. And families exist and persist because of the primal bonding between (a) mates, and (b) healthy parents and their children.   


Q5)  Is there a "best kind" of family?

      There are many kinds of family - e.g. biological, step, foster,  adoptive, single-parent, common-law, polygamous, homosexual, childless, psychological, and multi-racial. Each kind may nourish and/or stress its members, its community and society, the environment, and future generations. So I propose that the "best kind" of family...

  • consistently fills the primary needs of all its members in healthy ways;

  • intentionally strives to break the [wounds and unawareness] cycle locally and regionally;

  • improves its community and society rather than depletes them; and...

  • proactively conserves and protects the environment.

Would people who know your family describe it this way?


Q6)  What is a family system, and why do I need to know this?

      A system is a group of related things (elements) that interact ("behave") according to some rules, and are separated from other systems by a boundary. "Related" means that a change in one element or rule affects all other elements, like the parts of a mobile. Most (all?) systems are composed of two or more subsystems composed of their own elements, rules, and boundaries.

      In a family system, the "related things" are (a) adults, kids, and plants and animals they care for, and (b) the roles that each family member is expected to fill in various situations.

      The rules that determine their relationships are mixes of (a) human needs and reflexes (e.g. to survive and avoid pain), and (b) adult and social values and "laws" about acceptable behaviors - shoulds, musts, have to's, cannots, and ought to's.

      From molecules to galaxies, all living and physical systems seek balance or "equilibrium" (e.g. peace and harmony). Because families and societies ceaselessly change, family systems are often thrown "out of balance" - i.e. some members' needs are unfilled, causing "problems" and "stress."

      For more detail on family systems, see this. To diagram your family system, see this.


Q8)  What is a dysfunctional (low-nurturance) family?

       If the purpose (function) of any family is to consistently fill the primary needs of (nurture) each of its members well enough in healthy ways, then dysfunctional means "non-nurturing." All families and other human groups fall on a line between "low nurturance" (dysfunctional) and "high-nurturance" (functional). The traits of high-nurturance families and other groups are unmistakable. How many average adults do you think could accurately define these traits?

      Do you know the nurturance level (low > moderate > high) of your childhood family? Your current family? To answer this, you have to know the primary needs of each family member. Can you define them? Could the adults who raised you?


Q9)   What causes family dysfunction?

       Dysfunctional families are unable to consistently nurture their members' needs well enough, because of a cascade of factors - starting with public ignorance of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle that  is spreading down our generations. That means there are no current laws requiring evaluation of who's qualified to conceive and raise children. That causes many couples to make unwise courtship, conception, and child-rearing choices.

      This combines with couples' inherited psychological wounds and unawareness to cause low-nurturance (dysfunctional) families. The end of this toxic cascade is - their kids grow up psychologically wounded and unaware, and usually repat and spread this lethal cycle. This is passively condoned by our society, so far.

      This nonprofit educational Web site exists to help visitors become aware of this cycle and motivate them (you) to break it for the sake of living and unborn kids.


Q11)  Who belongs to a given family? What does belonging mean?

      Most healthy people need to belong to a group of other people - i.e. to be acknowledged, accepted, included, and valued by other members. Belonging provides security, identity, and companionship in a stressful world. Typical high-nurturance families welcome new biological, legal, and social members, unless they have serious values conflicts (like bigotry) or toxic behaviors like addictions, lawbreaking, or violence.

      Low-nurturance family members are prone to conflicts over membership. Reactive Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) who don't know how to communicate effectively can reject family members they clash with or dislike - e.g. they can exclude them from gatherings, ignore their needs and opinions, withhold support, and avoid interactions 

      Other family members can exclude themselves. Inclusion/exclusion disputes can cause loyalty conflicts, relationship triangles, and cutoffs among other family members, stressing everyone - specially kids.

      Family membership-conflicts are specially common in typical multi-home divorcing families and stepfamilies - partly because adults aren't clear on, or deny, their identity ("We are not a stepfamily, and your ex mate and his relatives don't belong in our family!") For more perspective, see this.


Q12)  What determines a family's identity, and why is it important?

      Your identity is the set of traits and characteristics that make you unique from all other people. Families have identities too, which set them apart from other families. Family identities also help answer "Who am I? and "Who are we?"

      Traits that distinguish families include last names, the ethnicity of ancestors ("My Mom's people came from Norway"), their degree of wealth, their home and neighborhood, race, religious and political preferences, the education level (blue or white collar) and professions of their adults ("We're a family of military people"), and their reputation and status in the community (e.g. prominent, troublemakers, drug users, bigots, fundamentalists, friendly, quiet, pleasant, activists, etc.)

      Family identities are important because they...

  • affect how members feel about themselves (pride, shame, guilt, anxiety, defensiveness...);

  • silently shape others' expectations, because of stereotypes ("If they're Irish, they probably love a good time, drink a lot, and are passionate.").

      And family identities...

  • affect members' acceptance in their community, and they...

  • may target or protect families from mass-marketing campaigns.

      Can you define your family identity? Would other members agree? Do you know how your kids feel about it? This is a good topic for a family meeting.


Q13)  What is a family mission statement, and why is it important?

      In the last 150 years, technology and the population explosion have made U.S. family life much more complex and hard to manage. Signs of family dysfunction are everywhere - divorce, crime, obesity, depression, welfare, abortions, homelessness, gangs, addictions, suicide, dropouts, runaways, etc.

      Many organizations include a vision or mission statement in their literature. These are succinct descriptions of "what we stand for and what we're trying to do." Well crafted, such statements provide inspiration and guidance in resolving complex internal or external problems, like the U.S. constitution has.

       As the Information Age explodes and the world accelerates and shrinks, keeping families focused on their purpose becomes harder and harder. One solution is for family adults to evolve a thoughtful mission statement to guide their members through stressful times. Doing this requires adults to take proactive interest in their family's operation and welfare. In this Web site, Lesson 5 focuses on growing high-nurturance families.

      For more on family mission statements, see this.


Q14)  How do typical families develop, and why do I need to know this?

      All living things bloom, grow, age, and die (develop). Families of all types go through a developmental cycle. They begin, evolve through predictable stages, and eventually die out or are replaced by the next generation. Some types of family have unique developmental phases, but all families follow the same basic course, starting with the union of two or more people and their relatives.

      As the environment shifts and families develop, the needs of their members change. To maintain a high nurturance level, family adults need to be aware of these changes in each member, and adapt their rules and roles to fill new needs as they emerge. For example, families with young kids have a different set of needs to fill than when the kids become teens or leave the nest, or when the adults retire.

      Expecting these developmental need-changes can help adults plan ahead and minimize conflicts among their family members. The key is adults' wanting to make awareness of their family members' needs and dynamics a high-priority habit. Is this true of the adults in your family mow? Are you teaching your young people to be aware?  


Q15)  What are family grief and anger policies?

      A policy is a set of beliefs, values, and rules that governs personal or group behaviors. Because all families need to grieve minor to major losses (broken bonds) across the years, the family leaders' attitudes and practices about bonding and mourning form an unspoken "grief policy." If the adults are (a) wholistically healthy and (b) informed on healthy-grief basics, their grief policy will consistently promote healthy mourning in all their members and supporters. This creates a pro-grief home and family, and raises the family's nurturance level.

      If family leaders are psychologically wounded and unaware of grief basics (the norm), they risk living from a policy that hinders or blocks mourning in some or all members. They also risk modeling and teaching unhealthy grieving policies to their descendents.

      Incomplete grief seems to be a major (unseen) stressor in typical low-nurturance (dysfunctional) families. It promotes personal problems like obesity, 'depression,' and addictions; hinders healthy bonding; and promotes premature death.

      Lesson 3 in this Web site focuses on "good-grief" basics, freeing up incomplete grief, and helping adults evolve pro-grief homes and families. Does your family have a healthy grieving policy? Note that "no policy" is a policy! For perspective, see this sample policy.

      All families and other groups form policies on how members are "supposed to" feel and express anger and frustration. Key parts of such policies are (a) whether family members differentiate anger from frustration; and (b) whether anger and frustration are seen as useful (pointing to unfilled needs) or "negative" (harmful and disruptive).

      Other important policy "planks" are (c) how adults and kids are "supposed to" respond to angry and frustrated people - empathically, defensively, combatively, manipulatively, submissively, scornfully, etc.; and (d) whether family members see anger as a healthy part of the normal grieving process or not.

      Are your adults and kids aware of your family anger policy?  If so, are they using it constructively?  Does it promote or diminish your family's nurturance level?


Q17)  What is "family therapy"?

      "Therapy" is a medical term denoting intentional effort to improve some aspect of personal or group health and functioning. So "family therapy" is skilled interventions aiming to (a) diagnose hindrances to a family-system's functioning well, and to (b) promote safe changes that will permanently reduce the hindrances and restore the family's harmony.

      In other words, family therapy aims to

  • identify which family-member needs are not being met well enough;

  • why; and...

  • what practical options exist for meeting those needs better, to all members' satisfaction.

      Family systems therapy seeks these goals by using systems theory - i.e. studying the dynamics between family members + the family's structure + the rules, roles, and boundaries that affect members' perceptions and behaviors. "Treatment" usually involves (a) assessing and educating all family members on key topics, and (b) inviting several or all members to change, not just one. Family-systems therapy with typical divorcing and stepfamily systems requires special knowledge and training to be effective.

      This is the polar opposite of individual therapy, which looks only at one person's unmet needs. An important exception is inner-family-system (IFS) therapy. This skillfully applies family-system principles to a person's unique group of personality subselves to identify and correct problems among them.

      Family counseling usually does not use system theory. It stresses education, and is often more superficial than true therapy. It still can be very effective in improving family relationships and functioning in some situations. The line between professional counseling and therapy can be vague and debatable.

      See these Q&A items about counseling and therapy for more perspective. 


Q18 How does family therapy relate to couples counseling?

      Significant relationship problems between mates affect other family members - specially minor kids. Where those effects compound the couples' problems, family therapy is best. Veteran family therapists can help couples resolve their problems with or without involving other family members.

      Marital therapists have special knowledge of common couple needs, problems, and solutions that some other therapists (e.g. Licensed Professional Counselors - LPCs) lack. Veteran clinicians with a "LMFT" credential (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist) should be adept at both.

      Many churches and agencies offer "couples counseling." This usually won't use family systems knowledge and techniques, and is apt to be superficial - specially if it's provided by lay married couples without clinical training.

      Pastoral counseling by an ordained cleric will provide religious and/or spiritual help to troubled couples and families, but may lack the power and depth of qualified family-systems therapy. Many pastoral counselors are also trained and experienced at marital and family therapy - so ask!

      Reality: committed mates are a two-person system, so a "problem" in one mate (like addiction, obesity, depression, "mood-disorders," and paranoias, always involves the other mate, and may well involve other family members too. The point: choosing any counselor or therapist with systemic training and experience is more apt to yield good outcomes than those without!

      Stepfamily therapy is much more complex, and requires special knowledge. See this.     


      This article provides brief, experience-based answers to questions all adults should ponder about their families. This Q&A article is part of self-improvement Lesson 5 - evolve a high-nurturance ("functional") family, and break the [wounds + unawareness] cycle. It is one of many Q&A articles in this Web site.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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