The Family Life Cycle

by Jan 27, 2022Family Counseling

Today’s blog post will take a look at the six stages of the family life cycle. It is helpful to conceive of family as a system that will go through various predictable stages comprised of tasks and responsibilities. Problems may arise when families don’t understand the stage of life in which they find themselves, or when they get stuck in a stage. Below we will give an overview each stage. Later, we will discuss some unhelpful family dynamics.

The First Stage – Moving Outwards

During the first stage, the young adult enters into a more other-focused period. This is a time when young adults forge new relationships outside of the family-of-origin, and spend time and energy on school, work and social matters.
The young adult will be continuing to develop self and identity through the taking-on of responsibilities and activities beyond the limits of any previous previous roles. Thus outward focus will help the young adult gain new understanding through feedback from peers, educators and professionals.

The Second Stage – Developing a New system

The second stage occurs when two young adults marry and/or begin thinking or starting their own family. This couple is involved in developing a new system for themselves. This system will be interacting with two separate and distinct families-of-origin or family systems.
The couple will be growing and supporting their own family, while also navigating in relationship to other family systems, organizations and clubs. Friends will also figure into how this new family develops its identity, attitudes, beliefs and character.

The Third Stage – Incorporating Others

The third stage sees families nourishing new members, like children, within the system,. Tasks during this period include:

  • making room for the children, nurturing and supporting them;
  • designing ways to cooperate on child-rearing practices;
  • deciding how to financially manage the new additions to the family;
  • splitting up how to delegate household chores; and
  • realigning relationships with other family systems so that the new, growing system can best utilize these other family systems’ resources and supports.

The Fourth Stage – The Open Door

The fourth stage may have a family with adolescents, and grandparents who are in the aging process. This stage must exercise some fluidity around boundaries to allow the adolescents room to come in and go out of the system. Adolescents can benefit from increased freedom since it helps them prepare for leaving the home.
The nuclear couple will begin to turn back towards each other and reevaluate the partnership. They may also tend to their aging parents’ needs. Should the couple be separated for whatever reasons, the primary caregiver may be navigating incorporating a new partner into the family.

The Fifth Stage – Testing the System

The fifth stage launches children into the world. In this stage, exits and entrances test the system. Children leave: they go off to school or decide to live on their own. Grandparents might also leave as they move into various settings. Perhaps grandparents downsize to smaller dwellings, or move into independent and assisted living facilities, or skilled nursing facilities, or hospitals.
The nuclear couple is now renegotiating their own couple-dom as they themselves welcome in grandchildren,. This couple will also be engaged in facilitating adult-to-adult relationships with their own grown children. This will also hold true for a parent who is sole caregiver.

The Sixth Stage – New Roles, New Identities

using the sixth stage, or families in later life, the older couple will be exploring new roles in the community. New identities may have to emerge due to losses through death and illness. In many cases, these older adults may be supporting elders, and will be navigating how to do so without over-functioning for them. Finding meaning and purpose will be important.

When Families Get Stuck

Enmeshment occurs when families have diffuse or poor boundaries, and experience intense togetherness. This kind of hyper-involvement may lead to family members subsuming their own unique identities into the identity of the family. Family members may not have the capacity to go against family beliefs, opinions and traditions. These family members have become entangled with one another emotionally; this entanglement, or enmeshment, can show up as conditional love and support.
Emotional fusion is characterized by how family members react to others in the family, or extended family. This type of reaction is automatic and emotional, and doesn’t allow for the intellectual system to mediate thoughtful responses. Any kinds of stressors can initiate anxiety and emotional reactivity.
Enmeshment and fusion are alike in that they impede the individuation/differentiation process. Enmeshed families may bully or cajole a family member into a certain identity from which the family member is not allowed to deviate or leave behind.
Fused family members who automatically react to each other, and to outside stressors, may end up completely leaving the family system. Even after leaving and taking on independent identities, these family members could still remain chronically anxious.

Family Therapy

Family therapy can help family members better understand their own role in how the family functions. When family members can gain emotional objectivity and see themselves as an integral part of a system, it is more likely that they can remain more calm when interacting with other family members. As a result, the entire system may calm down. The family can then enjoy a comfortable environment, even when stressors arise.
The family therapist may help a caregiver within the family to emotionally bridge a gap which may have occurred with that person’s family-of-origin. Maybe there has been physical and/or emotional cut-off. Gaining perspective helps the parent/partner/caregiver better understand the past. This caregiver, parent, or partner will be able to utilize new insights to better understand self.
When we understand ourselves and what has shaped us, we can find more inner peace and acceptance.

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