Brave, Crisis, Individual Development and Family Systems

Looking at the title you’d think I was writing the research of some gazillion dollar project.

Anyway, I was watching Brave with the family tonight and got to thinking about families and crisis.  This post isn’t really going to use that movie but before I get on with it, Brave is the princess movie they should have made 40 years ago.  It also provides, I think, a really nice example of what this post is about.

Crises are a necessary series of events that push our psychosocial development from one stage to the next.   The popular understanding of the “mid-life” crisis is, in part, based on Erickson’s stages of development.   The stereotype of a middle aged person buying a sports car and attempting to relive their younger years speaks to behaviors rooted in stagnation.    With this in mind, we can begin to understand the difficulties involved with keeping family systems stable and healthy while acknowledging the awesome power that families have in supporting individual members through these crises.

How a family system responds to an individual’s developmental crisis can have a lasting impact on both the individual and the system.   Let’s use eating disorders as an example. The onset for most folks with an eating disorder is usually during adolescence and most family theorists view the disorder as a set of behaviors used to communicate messages in conflict-avoidant families, as a means of asserting control in families that are rigid and enmeshed or as a means of achieving proximity and cohesiveness in families that are chaotic and disengaged.   If you think about adolescence, that would make perfect sense; it is a time when communication is critical because it demands that the family system re-negotiate boundaries, roles and expectations.

The eating disorder is a symptom of the family issue that activates during a crisis through the member primarily experiencing the crisis.

The crisis can have two possible effects depending on how a family reacts.   Well, thats silly. It could have many; but for the sake of this post I’ll keep it to the two extremes to illustrate a point.

(1) The crisis can push a family to entrench in old patterns in order to maintain homeostasis but given the nature of the crisis this only makes things worse-that entrenchment further legitimizes the use of the maladaptive coping skill in getting the need met.

From here things can get horribly bad, maybe so bad that they get better.

(2) A family in discovering the eating disorder or in failing to resolve the “problem” of the eating disorder may become so desperate that they seek help from outside supports and become open to change.   In fact, it usually takes some pretty hard stuff to shake up rigidly enmeshed families.   The crisis becomes a catalyst for positive change within the family system which can reduce the need the individual has to engage in the negative behavior.

Families are made of resilient stuff, they all go through multiple crises and most of them come out of it better than they went in.   The key to a family’s success in resolving a crisis is flexibility.

Flexibility is so important because individual members are always changing. If a family’s expectations, roles, etc remains unchanged while individual members move through the life cycle, the family system runs the risk of individual members resorting to maladaptive coping skills or destructive communication patterns to address what really are healthy needs the system is refusing to acknowledge.

That does not mean that hierarchy and expectations go out the window. It should mean the family figuring out a way to maintain the changing needs of individual members in a manner that is consistent with the systems needs and values.  Higher accountability to the family system is typically a greater value in family systems that are healthy and successful.

So flexibility is really about a family’s ability to examine how they operate during times of crisis and act in a way that seeks to influence effective change.  Flexibility is not re-writing the game plan to meet every whim and fancy nor does it mean only being open to cosmetic changes.

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