Consider the human body’s complexity and how a change in one physiological component alters and impacts so many other parts. The body’s ability to function at all depends on an intricate web of connectedness.
Now consider a family, perhaps a mother, father, and children, and think of them as one human body – an organism, or a whole. One component of the family, or one individual, simply cannot be separated or understood in isolation. One individual affects all others; everyone’s deeply embedded emotional and behavioural processes seamlessly wired together.
Family therapists describe the family as a complex and interconnected system. Problems are connected, and therefore likely to affect and create distress in other areas – if they not appropriately handled. When a change occurs in one part of the family, such as a mental health or behaviour problem with a teenager, you must appreciate how it affects the entire family to help the teenager regain healthy functioning. Additionally, the entire family can become plagued with problem behaviours so that the family itself seems to break down.
Family therapists therefore believe that: A family is a whole unit composed of interrelated parts; the behaviour of one family member is only understood by examining the family in which it occurs; Therapy must be implemented at the family level and take into account the relationships within the family system.
Much of the therapeutic work in family systems focuses on boundaries - not the physical boundaries of walls and borders, but psychological boundaries. These types of boundaries can’t be seen or touched, but instead shape themselves in the form of beliefs, perceptions, convictions, and understandings. Individuals form self-concepts, for example, based on beliefs regarding who they are, and these beliefs surround them like a boundary, distinguishing them from others.
Parents or couples also surround themselves with boundaries that separate them from their parents and their children. Children also form a subgroup within a family, forming a boundary around themselves separate from their parents. Ideally, the child subgroup holds less power than the parents.
Hierarchies are established for a reason, for the proper functioning of the family in order to delegate tasks and to ensure the proper checks and balances.
Family therapists confront families and situations where boundaries have become crossed, distorted, or nonexistent. These types of situations lead to problematic relationships. Examples of crossed boundaries include a mother complaining to her child about her the child’s father; a father who wants to relate to his daughter as a friend rather than a daughter; parents who expose information about their intimate problems with their children; or a teenage boy who thinks he must dominate his parents. These are examples of distorted boundaries that can lead to problems.
No family is perfect, and mistakes happen. Sometimes more is shared or not enough is shared among family members, but most families work for an appropriate balance. However, families who allow boundaries to be constantly, routinely crossed need help at re-forming these boundaries.
There are many types of boundary problems which can be placed along a spectrum between the extremes of being enmeshed or disengaged. An enmeshed family exhibits signs of smothering, over-sharing, and caring that reaches beyond normalcy. In enmeshed families, boundaries do not allow for separateness; they are too fluid, and have become crossed and often distorted. Boundaries are constantly crossed in numerous ways.
Families that share little to nothing, typically overly rigid families, are described as detached. There’s little to no communication – and no flexibility in family patterns to accommodate effective support and guidance.
Whatever the problems experienced by one individual in your family, it can be helpful to conceptualise the problem as a symptom of the family and to consider how the behaviour of other family members also contributes to the maintenance of the problem.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.