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Family structure can change dramatically in some instances

Published on -12/8/2013, 3:00 PM

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This is the first in a series about the ripple effect of divorce and remarriage on family systems.

Q: What is family structure and what are the changes in family structure during the past two or three decades?

A: In an article titled "An Overview: The Changing Family Life Cycle" by Betty Carter, MSW, and Monica McGoldrick, MSW, the authors emphasize caution about defining family systems and family life cycles too narrowly. In contemporary families, the aim is to present views of families that provide inter-generational connectedness. The family life cycle perspective frames problems in terms of family's past history, present tasks and future plans. The individual's life cycle exists within that of the family life cycle.

The authors Carter and McGoldrick focus on three aspects of the family life cycle in the context of human development. The first of these stages is the predictable so-called normal development of the traditional middle-class family at the end of the 20th century. Included are the difficulties families experience during transitions in life developmental stages. The second aspect is the changing patterns of the family life cycle in current times and the shifts in what is called normal. A third emphasis by the authors is the view of family therapy as regarding the restoring of a family system to a normal, rather than a dysfunctional, developmental path.

Carter and McGoldrick analyze family systems through time. They emphasize the family is different from all other systems. New members are added by birth, adoption or marriage and leave only by death. Although the nuclear family is considered the dominant family style, the family system is at least a third- or fourth-generation picture.

Membership into family systems is not voluntary except through marriage. Divorce does not alleviate the parent-child responsibility: only death does that. However, each generation affects others. One generation moves toward old age, while the next generation is moving into the empty-nest stage, the third group is young adults starting careers, forming intimate relationships, having children, and the last group is children and grandchildren born into the family.

Researchers have shown symptoms of dysfunction appear most often at life-cycle transitions. The most common events precipitating life stage crises are additions and losses of family members. Also significant is the assessment of functions in the light of the past history of the family system. Stresses in one generation coupled with stresses between generations increases anxiety in the family system.

Environmental conditions interact with generations in family systems. The political, economic and social context in which family systems interact is influential for family systems. The cultural factors play a large role in defining family life cycles. These cultural phenomena are important because minority cultures differ from the predominant cultures in a society. The conflicts among minority generations might be prominent in family generations that immigrated to the country with the second and third generations born here.

Families commonly magnify problems when they are overwhelmed by anxiety. They focus either on current issues or on dreaded future changes. Future changes that are positive also might cause stress, such as weddings, childbirth, moving or starting new jobs. The life-cycle definitions of the past were different from the present definitions. Cohorts from differing generations differ in fertility, acceptable gender roles, mortality, patterns of migration, education, needs and resources, and attitudes toward aging in families.

Changes in family life patterns have escalated rapidly because of lower birth rates, longer life expectancy, the changing roles of women, and the increasing divorce and remarriage rates. Child-rearing no longer occupies the majority of the adult life span, now encompassing half of the adult life span. The changing roles of women is the change most responsible for the changes in family life patterns. The primary role for women in past family life cycles was to provide for the emotional needs of the family: raising children, caring for elderly family members, and maintaining the social activities within and between family generations.

The current generation of young women is the first to insist on the right to the first phase of the family cycle: the young adult leaves the parental home, establishes life goals, starts a career, might or might not marry, or might marry much later than past generations of women, and have children during a two decade span or more. Old age has become a stage predominantly for women because they live longer than men and their longevity has increased.

Other societal changes have made a definition of family life cycle today difficult. More couples are cohabiting rather than marrying, and others are having children when cohabiting. The number of adult homosexuals who come out of the closet is increasing, more women choose to be single (12 percent), 25 percent will not have children, 50 percent will end their marriages in divorce, and 20 percent will divorce twice. Add to that the number of families who have family members die before old age, family members who are chronically ill or handicapped, or alcoholic family members, and the number of so-called normal families is even smaller.

Both families and mental health counselors tend to hypothesize about past family stability and a return to the "Leave It to Beaver" culture. The American family culture has passed the 1950s and never can return to that model because life is too complex and family systems have too much variation. Cultural values and norms have, of course, changed along with family structures. In many cases, people change their behavior to fit their needs, and those changes bring about cultural changes in values and roles.

* Next week's article will continue with a discussion of the effect of changing family systems on wives, husbands and children.

Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.

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