Family & Parenting

This page is information on Family and Parenting

What can we do to improve family relationships?

A problem, here, is that, nowadays, British cultural life is short of events that adults and children can enjoy together. There is a lot of scope here for creative problem-solving! We can look developing your own communication skills, creativity and assertiveness. We can look at your pattern of communicating within your family. Consider who you talk to, and what about and how. If communication consists mainly of criticism and complaining, we will look at ways in which you could change that. We can look at what’s happening now and how issues have been dealt with in your family before and work with that. We will examine your expectations of your family. How realistic are they? How much is your way of reacting to them a habit, rooted in the past, and to what extent does it reflect who you are now? Therapy may help you to come to terms with childhood events and past losses that may be affecting family relationships. If your relationship with your partner is a source of distraction we can look at individual, couples and if needed family therapy. If you don’t feel heard in the family or your kids are driving you to despair we can help with the way you communicate.

What do we understand by ‘family’?

Families are often thought of as mum, dad, and 2.4 children, but, in fact, that is only a small part of the picture. Families include grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, stepparents, and others to whom we are related by blood or marriage, or with whom we have a close bond. Families vary. Family life could mean, for instance, the life of a commune with over a dozen members who all share a household, but who are not necessarily related to each other by blood. It could mean a ‘blended’ family, where you have a father and his kids, plus a mother and her kids, plus kids of both father and mother. Perhaps the children don’t all live there full time. It could also include a same sex couple and any children they have.

Families come in many shapes and sizes; there’s no ‘right’ structure. Different families and different cultures have different needs and values, and express this in their patterns of relating. Families also differ in how they relate after divorce. Some separated or divorced fathers lose all contact with their children. Others are able to arrange shared child care with their ex-partners, in a relatively friendly way.

Coping with family life is a complex business. We may feel our families are too much with us, or else that they are not there at all. It’s possible to feel both at once! We can be with our relatives most of our lives, and yet feel that they do not understand us or see us as we really are. On the other hand, they may, literally, not be there. We may be separated by space, because they are living in another city or country, or because they have had a serious disagreement or quarrel. There is often a scape goat, the one with the problem that neede to come and see us as the rest of the family are fine.

Perhaps many of us expect far too much from our families. We want them to make up for the hurts and stresses of life outside for example when a relationship breaks down or a work situation becomes very stressful. Family members may behave as though they are entitled to make enormous emotional demands on one another, and to expect unquestioning loyalty and obedience.

Each generation will have very different ideas about the right attitudes and behaviour, as will people from different cultural backgrounds. This may result in conflict. For instance, a person may wish to choose his or her own partner, when their parents may think that only an arranged marriage is acceptable.

We may harbour the unrealistic expectation that family life will be ‘happy ever after’; that when we have won our partner all will be well. It’s very hard, but very maturing, to wrestle with the reality that our spouse or partner is only human, and makes mistakes – just like we do – and to forgive them for it.

The very nature of family ties adds to the stress and strain. These are often the people who changed our nappies, fed us, read or told us stories and held our hands crossing the road, when we were children. The length and intimacy of these ties explains why our feelings are so mixed. We both love our relatives and get furious with them. We may even feel we hate them, at times. We want our families to be a support, a shelter against life’s storms. But, at the same time, we don’t want to be confined or tied down by them. We are also deeply attached to them and need them for our emotional wellbeing. Yet, we sometimes have to separate ourselves from them. However much we may dislike them, move away from them, geographically, or refuse to speak to them, they are facts in our lives.

Why is family life more difficult nowadays?

 Smaller households

Most people live in smaller households, and at a greater distance from their extended families than, say, 50 years ago. This means that feelings within the home, both good and bad, are more intense. The people who might once have dissolved tensions – aunts, uncles or cousins – live further away. Our communication often isn’t face to face with the internet making communication still possible, just different and have we caught up emotionally?

Community breakdown

Few of us enjoy the support of a close community of friends. Even neighbours may be strangers. As we rely more on the private car for transport we can perceive the streets as more dangerous for our children. We have to keep them indoors, the media confirms that.. Local shops close and we shop more in large supermarkets. We no longer meet people we know, as we walk around our neighbourhood to the shops, or keep an eye on each other’s children, at play, in the street. We may have to move house to another place, to follow our own, our partner’s or our parent’s job prospects, increasing our isolation.

A fair division of labour

Nowadays, there is much more of a split between the worlds of work and of home. At work, ‘important’ things happen, money is made, and the tasks performed have money attached to them. At home, on the other hand, children are reared, no money is made and tasks are performed ‘for love’.

Traditionally, ‘work’ has been seen a male sphere, and the home as female. Housework – the many daily hours spent cooking, cleaning, shopping, decorating, washing, ironing, tidying up, mending things, caring for sick and elderly relatives and minding the children – is not usually counted as work. Or, only if it’s being done for money for someone else’s family (when, it’s paid badly and has low status). It is endless, private, and invisible.

The sphere of ‘work’ is very different. Work has a beginning and an end, it’s public and it’s paid. The hours worked and the rate of pay attached to them may be the subject of dispute, but the work is visible. The pay gives the worker power and status within the family.

There are now more women than ever doing paid work. However, men are not showing a comparable enthusiasm for sharing the unwaged and constant labour involved in housework. This is hardly surprising. But it means there are more disputes over money and housework and sex – three of the major causes of family breakdown, according to marriage guidance counsellors.

Money pressures

When it becomes harder to earn money – for example during an economic recession – it makes things more difficult both at home and at work. At work, many people are made redundant, and many more become afraid they will be too. Shops may close and whole neighbourhoods may become run down. Libraries and other community facilities suffer financial cuts, reducing or worsening public services. These all make the tasks of running a home more difficult, at the same time as more stress is being brought into the home from the workplace. We are currently experiencing a crisis financially as this has an effect on relationships.

More surprisingly, perhaps, economic growth can also make family life more difficult. A work promotion may involve uprooting your family from one place and taking them to another. Having a better life than your parents (more money, a bigger house, and further education) can be very difficult. You may feel guilty, or feel you can’t communicate across the generations any more. Sometimes, one partner benefits more from, or may react differently to, the changed economic circumstances.

What makes families work well?

Families who are able to develop the following characteristics seem to be happier and more successful at nurturing all their members, generally speaking.

Coping with change

Families need to develop the capacity to cope with change. Change is central to life, as we move from being infants to claiming our old-age pension. Lack of change is stifling. But people differ in how they feel about coming changes. For some families, who are open to it, change is welcome; others find all change frightening. Most of us are somewhere in between.

All changes involve loss as well as gain. When we move house, we not only gain a new one (however desirable), but we lose the old. When our child starts to walk, we lose our babe-in-arms. Marriage for example is a positive step for those entering it, yet it also means a loss of perceived freedom, a name maybe and of living as an individual or within a family.  We often acknowledge this aspect of life by having a party – to say goodbye to friends when we move, or to mark leaving school or a job. But if we fail to mark these events, and especially if we have other unacknowledged losses in our past (perhaps a traumatic move in our childhood, or the death of someone close that has not been fully mourned), changes can bring on depression. This can then make us resistant to further change that others close to us want. It can make us repressive, as parents, and lead to family tensions.







Open communication

The ability to communicate with each other is crucial. We will look at how you communicate, how that has worked for you and what patterns and traps you may have fallen into The more we express our feelings, the more we are able to understand each other. This means there’s more chance of everyone being satisfied with family life. This is not easy to achieve! All families have some forbidden behaviours that are taboo or unthinkable – ‘bad’ feelings such as anger, envy, lust, and associated ‘bad’ behaviours.

It’s often easier to see – or imagine we see – this kind of feeling or behaviour in other people. It can be comforting to believe that ‘people like us’ don’t have drink problems, or extra-marital sex, or become angry and use violence, or fall in love with someone of the same sex, or abuse children. People who do these things are ‘them’. ‘They’ are of a different class, or gender, or race. ‘We don’t have any of that where we come from’. In a family that holds on to this kind of delusion, things will be very difficult for a family member who does the taboo thing or expresses the forbidden feeling. It may cause a permanent split. Either the family member concerned will split away from the family or, if this is too hard, they may ‘split off’ the part of themselves that wanted to break the taboo. Both outcomes cause great pain, on either side, although often it isn’t possible to admit this. Family taboos often have a history to them, of which the person who challenges them may not be aware.

Another outcome is possible. The family may adapt or soften the taboo, so that the challenging family member can stay as part of the family. This outcome is enriching for both sides, as it widens the range of emotional expression that is allowed within the family. Where tolerance is practised, this kind of devastating conflict is less likely to happen. Even if it does happen, it’s more likely to be resolved with the least possible emotional hurt.

Asserting yourself

Assertiveness is the skill of letting others know what you want and how you feel. If you don’t have it, you can have huge problems in your family life. For example, a woman is angry with her partner, because he doesn’t spend much time with her or do any child care or maybe housework. However, she doesn’t like to admit this, even to herself, as she has always been taught that good women, especially mothers, don’t get angry. But she is just not interested in sex any more… Meanwhile, the man is feeling she is just too preoccupied with the children and not giving him enough attention, or appreciating how hard he is working. After all, he has been brought up to believe that a father shows his love for his family by going out to work and providing for them. So he spends more time at work, to show her.

This situation could turn into a vicious circle of misunderstanding. We can look at expectations and communication and enable the relationship to change.

Of course, what is troubling this family is not just the lack of assertiveness between the parents. They are wrestling with the daunting tasks and responsibilities of being parents, in a culture where children’s needs have low priority and communities are fragile. They would benefit not only from better communication, but also from more practical help. They need more adults to be around during the day, a nursery place, shorter working hours and more places for the children to play, that isn’t always possible so managing expectations of yourself, others and partners, children is an area we will look at again.

Having fun

Creativity can enhance family life in various ways. It can be applied to thinking up shared treats, meals, outings or other events. One of the most important aspects of creativity is a sense of humour, the capacity to make others laugh – a vital survival skill. It can also be an avoidance method and again we can look at that.

Creative activities work, ‘The family that plays together, stays together’. Activities can also express and confirm the values the family hold in common, a way of affirming their sense of who they are.


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