Family Transitions

The end of summer is the time when adolescents who graduated from high school look forward to college or a job and when college seniors celebrate the completion of their studies and prepare for their entrance into the world of work or graduate school. Of course, it is also the time when millions of children begin a life of learning as they enter the world of kindergarden and elementary school. All parents know, even if they do not give much thought to their intuitive knowledge, that these steps are enormous transitions in the life not only of their children, but also in the life cycle of their family. All members of the family are affected by these transitions into a new life context.

Of course, we all recognize that weddings and the birth of a child are significant family events that present everyone in the family with an experience of change because a new member joins the family or has been brought into the world.

Other events that signal family transitions are less happy occasions. Separation and divorce of parents or the sudden death of a family member or the diagnosis of a life threatening illness of a child or the loss of a parent’s job or the foreclosure of the family’s home are all moments of considerable change in a family’s life. Equally unsettling can be the experience of a student failing out of college and returning home or a loved one getting the news of not having passed an important final examination.
For people who have reached retirement age the end of full-time employment is another very significant point of change.

We are accustomed to view these changes in the immediate or larger family network primarily as pertaining to the individuals directly associated with the events. So we look at the steps a high school or college graduate has to take to succeed in a new and unfamiliar context. We focus intently on what the young adult returning home after college or after serving in the military has to do to fit back into the routines and responsibilities the others in the family expect of her or him. Parents devote many hours to prepare their child for the first day in kindergarden or first grade in elementary school. When illness strikes a family member we focus on the medical needs of the family member and contemplate much less how the illness affects everyone else in the family and may change the relational dynamics in the family.

Any changes in a family, especially those that include modifications in the family’s composition, such as a new member entering the family (weddings, births, remarriage) or someone leaving the family (divorce, death), are better understood as transitions of the entire family to a new, often unaccustomed way of functioning and relating. Seen with a wider perspective these changes are never an individual event alone, they are relational events that alter the family relational pattern and affect everyone. So they are accomplished most successfully when everyone is involved and new ways of relating can be explored together. I remember, when a new spouse and stepparent entered a family, one of the kids expressed his experience: “At home, we all are circling the table like mad trying to figure out where our places are now!”

As couple and family therapists we see the applications of the principle, “Changes in the life of one person are transitions in the life of the entire family”, in multiple situations, some of them nodal events that profoundly change the course of other family members’ lives. These family transitions may unfold differently according to the composition, structure, and culture of a family and according to social class, religious affiliation or gender and sexual identity of some of its members. Most cultures acknowledge in their own way the significance of family network transitions with special rituals (often very elaborate) at nodal transition points such as births, initiation into adulthood, weddings, and death.

Consider seemingly “individual” events that affect everybody in a family, including the relationship of the spouses: A parent is going back to work after having spent several years raising the couple’s children. One spouse finally is firmly set on the road to recovery from alcoholism or substance abuse. A mother returns after an extended stay at a hospital for treatment of a chronic illness.

Similarly, children getting ready to enter school for the first time, kids reaching adolescence, young adults leaving for college experience individually the passage into a new phase of their lives. Yet, not only do they journey through those passages with the assistance and support of their family, their family as a unit itself is irrevocably altered by the transition.

I would like to focus on three passages in which the Western way of thinking, centered on the individual, easily can lead us to overlook the relational transition involved in the life event occurring to an individual.

A husband and father reached the end of his working life. The retirement party is over, he does not have to go back to work every morning, and he finds himself without any idea what to do next. In innumerable variations this man’s experience is very common. Something else, however, occurs: The spouses discover to their surprise how profoundly their relationship, indeed their life, has been altered because of the retirement of one of them. For both of them it will make all the difference if they can see retirement is a joint transition to a new phase in their and their family’s life. Embarking on this new journey together can tap the resources of an entire family, of a friendship network, perhaps of a new community. Jointly they will be able to accomplish what may be overwhelming for one of them: To construct a new life phase for themselves in a healthy and enjoyable way.

Here is another challenging situation where our society’s common assumptions lead to a narrow individualized focus that precludes us from perceiving solutions that are rooted in relational thinking. Fourteen year old Mary (as we shall call her), a star in middle school, has just completed the first quarter in ninth grade and the changes are obvious. Her report card shows mostly insufficient or failed grades, she has lost interest in swimming, her favorite sport, and appears moody, unmotivated, and difficult to reach not only for her parents, but also for her friends. She spends most of her waking time in her room. Advised by her guidance counselor, the parents set up an appointment with a psychiatrist who prescribes an antidepressant.

Family therapists perceive a much more complex picture considering that adolescence is a time of profound biological, psychological, and spiritual changes that involve a teenager’s entire family and social network. This broader relational view enables them to not only understand a teenager in trouble, but to view her transition through adolescence as a family process that opens relational resources not visible before. Parents and other family members in the extended family or friendship network can use their strengths and relational insight to create a support network for Mary that engages her own resilience. Psychoactive medication frequently hinders this process and may harm the brain. Mary may be struggling with the breakdown of an important friendship, with her image of herself, with painful conflicts in her family, with concerns about her gender or sexual identity, with the resurgence of long forgotten memories of past traumatic violence, with doubts about her ability to pursue her dream career or with any of the other multiple challenges that teenagers come across on their way to adulthood. Going through this transition with her, the family is able to provide an environment that maximizes the likelihood for Mary to thrive and mature.

Death is the ultimate transition, of course. Clearly, more than the other life changing experiences we discussed here, death is in part a solitary experience. Yet, it can and should be experienced within the community of the people who’s love connects them with the dying family member and with each other. The hospice movement grew out of the recognition of dying as a family and community event. So family therapists encourage family members to join with the dying family member in a final transformation that is respected, celebrated, and recognized by all cultures and religions.

Death also reminds us of a crucial aspect of all transitions to a new phase of our lives: Individually and as a family and/or community we are going forward into an open, uncertain, and sometimes mysterious future that is unknown to us. What is more important than being sustained on this journey by the people whose love connects them with us!

As always, please let me know your thoughts.

Norbert A. Wetzel