The truth is, every family is different. Even the semantics of what “family” is for each person and group is diverse. For instance, my family consists of me, my husband, and one male 16 year old that we conceived together. And six cats, two dogs, and a fish, but who’s counting? I have been married before, but am widowed. This is my second husband’s first marriage, but he was in a long term common law relationship with another woman for three years before meeting me.
Take a friend of mine. She is on her second marriage to a wonderful woman. She has a 15 year old son from her first marriage with a man, 2 stepchildren from her wife’s past relationship, and they have a young child they adopted together.
Any family can be a bit confusing if you don’t know the background and understand the “reconstitution” of a family unit (Ferguson, 1979, para. 3); however, family units of numerous configurations are much more “normal” than ever before (Laureate Education, Inc., 2008).
Really, there is no “normal.” Every family is normal in their own way. What is truly important is the story of the family and what they understand to be normal. Understanding the expectations, dynamics, and stressors of that particular family unit is another important factor. We can never make assumptions about what a family is or should be.
As a counselor, my job is to pay attention to the interaction between the family members and between the counselor and the family (Laureate Education, Inc., 2008). Flexibility, neutrality, and putting biases aside with complete acceptance is always at the forefront (Thomlison, 2007).
When working with families, an understanding of the family life cycle approach is helpful. Ferguson (1979) explained this concept as looking at each family as a “product of overlapping individual life cycles of the members of two or more generations” (para. 6). A counselor must take into account the different cultural foundations, ethnicity, habits and expectations, and the ever-changing form of each family through the ages. Ferguson (1979) explained crises that families go through as merely “exaggerations or distortions of normal transitional phenomena that occur when families must negotiate shifts from one phase of the life cycle to the next” (para. 2), so awareness of the systematic functioning and changing dynamics of a family are vital. Putting a name to the experiences of the family and recognizing the stress it can cause, while also providing techniques to help maneuver through the various stages, is pertinent. Giving families tools to use to respond to such events and attached feelings can be empowering even when the stressor is still present.
For instance, when a woman finds herself pregnant at 15 years of age versus 32 years of age, you are still talking about the same stressor (being pregnant), however reactions to that stressor are likely to be incredibly different. Depending on the family and one’s immediate situation, either occasion could be a cause for alarm or happiness. As a counselor, we cannot assume to know which one is which. We simply cannot know how this event will be interpreted until we comprehend the dynamics of the family itself. We can use the life cycle pattern as a kind of normative backdrop, but most of a counselor’s skills will come from observing the interaction between family members in order to learn how to help (Laureate Education, Inc., 2008). There is simply no right answer for each event that a counselor and family come across. Is being 15 and pregnant an acceptable practice in this family? Is it a welcome event or is it not? Is being 32 and not married or being married or being single or living together or being in separate homes okay with this particular family? Does sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture, or life circumstances have anything to do with the possible outcomes or attitudes? Is this pregnancy something that was planned and hoped for or came at an unexpected and unplanned time? Does that make a difference in the feelings about the pregnancy? What are the thoughts from the family regarding what should happen next versus what IS happening now or next? Getting these types of questions out in the open – all asked, answered, and discussed by the family members themselves – will guide the family in knowing what goals and avenues to solidify.
This requires a re-examining of a counselor’s own views of what he or she feels about the situation and remaining neutral regarding his or her own morals. By remaining both flexible and nonjudgmental while taking into account the family’s structure, life cycle pattern, and the importance of the family in relation to their issues and requirements for success – only then can a counselor help a family in need.
Ferguson, L. R. (1979). The family life cycle: Orientation for interdisciplinary training. Professional Psychology, 10(6), 863–867. Retrieved from the PsycARTICLES database. (AN pro-10-6-863)
Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2008). Introduction to couples and family counseling. Couples and Family Counseling. [DVD]. Baltimore: Author.
Thomlison, B. (2007). Family Assessment Handbook: An Introductory Practice Guide to Family Assessment (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
Dr. Melissa Lee-Tammeus is a licensed mental health counselor in private practice in Jacksonville, Florida. She specializes in LGB couples, anger, and grief and trauma. To learn more about Melissa, check out her webpage at www.possibleselfcounseling.com