Stages of Family Dynamics
All through our lives we maintain a bond to our family of origin or adoptive parents. This bond may strengthen or weaken in certain circumstances, sometimes remaining weak and in some other cases becoming severed altogether, at least physically. In reality, even when the bond appears permanently broken, the psychological impact of the early years within the family lingers throughout one’s lifetime.
The infant has very little knowledge of family dynamics. Mostly, his or her basic needs (food, warmth, hygiene, affection) are either being met or not met, and the infant notices the pattern of behavior by the primary caregivers. If basic needs are dependably met, the infant develops a sense of trust in the caregivers, e.g., the family of origin or the adoptive parents. Parents’ Divorce Impact at This Stage: Minimal.
The child is busy exploring the world. Most toddlers learn to exercise their will and do things for themselves, while some begin to doubt their abilities. Most preschoolers learn to initiate tasks and carry out plans, while some feel guilty about their efforts to be self-sufficient. Most children learn the pleasure of applying themselves to tasks, while some begin to feel inferior or inadequate. During these years, the child begins to perceive the quality of the family environment, which can range from completely peaceful, positive, and safe to highly conflicted, anxiety-provoking, abusive, and unsafe. Parents’ Divorce Impact at This Stage: Can be the most severe.
Most teenagers work at refining a sense of self by testing roles and then integrating them to form a single identity, while some become confused about who they are. Peer influence can tip the scales in either direction, and so can the teen’s innate temperament, emerging personality traits, and physical health. The teen is more oriented toward the outside world, but keenly aware of family dynamics–which they may join by taking sides in parental conflict or escape by pouring time and energy into a consuming personal interest such as sports or videogames, taking up drug or alcohol use, or by physically leaving the home as often as possible. If the family environment is mostly peaceful, the teen’s identity can benefit from the family as a safe haven or home base, from which to branch out into the world. Parents’ Divorce Impact at This Stage: Moderate to severe.
Most young adults successfully struggle through the unavoidable need to form close relationships and gain the capacity for intimate love, while some are less successful and may begin to feel socially isolated. The young adult is increasingly aware of the parents’ personality traits and family dynamics, i.e., what marriage looks like, what a couple does or doesn’t do, and how a husband or a wife behave toward each other. This awareness creates an either positive or negative mental model of marriage that is mostly internalized, i.e., silently absorbed into the subconscious. The young adult’s focus remains on their own intimate relationships, which are however influenced by this internalized model. Parents’ Divorce Impact at This Stage: Moderate.
The family of origin or adoptive family are left behind through a process of detachment that is effortless and healthy for most adults, while some struggle with continuing parental interference, misplaced loyalties, and an incomplete commitment to their own adult relationship with a spouse or significant other. The parents lose their aura as all-knowing mythical figures, if they ever had it, and become ordinary human beings with issues of their own. The adult child-parents relationship may experience significant problems at this stage. In most cases the origin of these problems can be directly traced to one of the preceding stages. Parents’ Divorce Impact at This Stage: Minimal.
Most middle-aged adults have by now discovered the joys of contributing to their world, usually through family and work, while some may feel a lack of purpose. At this stage, most middle-aged adults do not call on their family of origin for assistance in problem solving, while some struggle with the need for assistance from parents who may no longer be able or are reluctant to provide it. Parents’ Divorce Impact at This Stage: May be unexpectedly severe.
When reflecting on their life, most older adults feel a sense of satisfaction and positiveness toward their family of origin, while some may experience despair due to a sense of failure. Adult children now may take a more controlling role in their relationships with the parents, who have declined in ability to provide for themselves. Old conflicts and the impact of past traumas or poor caregiving may come to the fore for some families, with the children squabbling over the need to care for their elderly parents or refusing to stay engaged. In many cases, the positive relationship established throughout the previous stages bears fruit and the parents can enjoy the help of their children as they navigate the challenges of seniority.