The family interviewed is a nuclear, upper-class family of six who reside in one of the affluent neighborhoods in the state. The father (Mr. Anderson), a fifty-eight year old man works as a manager at an automobile manufacturing company. A mechanical engineer by profession, he sometimes doubles in the designing of automobiles for the company. He is a highly respected person in the automobile industry, as he serves in various leadership capacities on various boards. His primary responsibility is meeting the family’s financial obligations. Currently, he is paying for all his children’s school fees and upkeep fees for the three children currently enrolled in various higher education institutions. Conversely, the mother (Mrs. Anderson), a fifty-year old woman works on a part-time basis at one of the state’s top accounting firm. An accountant by profession, she is meticulous about how she runs the household. The fact that her work is part-time gives her plenty of free time to oversee the daily running of the household, which is her primary responsibility. Her income; therefore, supplements her husband’s, and is used to foot bills incurred by daily amenities. The eldest of the children (Alvin), a twenty-six year old boy, is currently in his final year of medical school at one of the state’s prestigious universities. Due to his highly engaging academic course and nature of his work, he lives closer to the education institution, which is in close proximity of the hospital he is undertaking his residency. Despite his hectic schedule, he visits his parents every fortnight. The second born (Grace), a twenty-three year old girl, is currently in her third year of a four-year program studying economics. She also does not live at home, as her school is slightly far away from her parents’ place of residence. Unlike her brother, she visits her parents each weekend. The third born (Nicole), a twenty-year old girl is currently a freshman undertaking an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering. Her demanding course also compelled her to opt to live in school. She moved out of the household six months ago after it became difficult to commute to school daily. At the start of the course, she opted to live at home, as the education institution was not too far away. She visits each weekend, which allows her to visit her parents while concurrently giving her an opportunity to see her siblings. Tom is the lastborn. Thirteen years of age, he is currently a freshman at private school. Still a child, he relies on his parents for everything. However, over the weekends, he works part-time as a shop attendant at the mall.
Summary of problem
After interviewing five out of six members of the family, it became apparent that the thirteen-year old boy, who is the lastborn of the four children, suffered from conduct disorder, which affected his academic performance and interactions with the other members of the family. Tom, who is currently a freshman at a private school located minutes away from the family’s place of residence has in the last six months exhibited deviant behaviors that have mandated the school’s administration to sanction disciplinary action. According to Tom’s parents, these behaviors started about six months ago when he began rebelling against simple instructions. They admit that at first they simply did not take Tom’s behaviors seriously, as they blamed the mood fluctuations and unpredictable behaviors on the complex processes (erratic hormonal changes) common in adolescence. They only took notice when the school’s principal summoned them twice in one week to address Tom’s disciplinary problems. They were more perplexed with Tom’s blatant disrespect and lack of concern and remorsefulness when confronted about his behaviors. The interview with Tom’s siblings also highlighted their confusion pertaining to the sudden change in Tom’s behaviors. According to them, Tom had always been a pleasant boy, eager to please both his parents and siblings. At present, Tom prefers spending a large percentage of his free time cooped up in his bedroom. He avoids situations that require him to interact with the other members of the family. Despite the three siblings being away at different higher education institutions across the state, they have all noticed Tom’s aloofness whenever they visit their parents over the weekend. Although they are unsure as to what might have triggered Tom’s conduct disorder, they concur that the problem is attributable to the stage of development (adolescence). In fact, they think that his behaviors are simply a ploy to get attention from all the family members. All the parties interviewed were unable to pinpoint any relevant incident that occurred six months ago, which might have predisposed Tom’s conduct disorder.
Overview Family systems theory
Developed by Bowen Murray, the Family Systems Theory presumes that it is impossible to understand an individual independent of the context of the family (Bigner, 2014). He theorized that families are emotional units characterized by the interconnection and interdependence of members. As such, it is impossible to isolate any individual in an attempt to understand aspects about their behaviors, attitudes or beliefs. Within the greater family system, subsystems exist and they include parental sub-system, sibling subsystem and spousal sub-system (Bigner, 2014). The spousal subsystem encompasses both spouses whereby they complement each other in the execution of their parental roles (Bigner, 2014). It is the most fundamental sub-system, as it establishes the foundation for other subsystems. Dysfunction at this level automatically causes dysfunction in all other subsystems. For example, spouses with a horrible relationship are unable to agree on anything because of their deplorable communication patterns, as such they send out conflicting messages to their children, a situation children can choose to exploit in a negative manner. The parental subsystem encompasses the relationship between the parents and the children. Its successful functioning depends on the creation of a healthy power dynamic whereby the children need to understand that the parents have the final say. Despite this, parents have to remain flexible in order to accommodate their children’s valid opinions about some situations. Finally, the sibling subsystem constitutes the relationship between children (Bigner, 2014). All children have an equal right to express themselves within this subsystem without parental interference; for example, overt favoritism of a specific child’s opinions by a parent is likely to interfere with the sibling subsystem.
Bowen inferred that roles and rules dictate interaction between family members. Rules are implicit, explicit, negotiable, or non-negotiable in nature (Bigner, 2014). Explicit rules refer to clearly stated, obvious and well-known rules that govern behaviors among family members; for example, rules that govern dress code and dining etiquette. On the other hand, implicit rules are implied, not clearly stated; however, family members are unconsciously aware about their existence; for example, behaving in a courteous manner while addressing each other. Negotiable rules are amendable (such as rules governing curfews or dating) whereas non-negotiable rules are set in stone, more stringent, therefore, not open for discussion (such as behaving in a disciplined manner across all contexts). Rules and roles establish boundaries, which further limit interactions between family members (Bigner, 2014). Different boundaries govern various relationships; for example, boundaries define the type of relationships had between spouses, parent and child, or between siblings. By adhering to the rules, executing one’s roles and observing one’s boundaries, a state of equilibrium (homeostasis) is created in the family allowing optimal functioning (Bigner, 2014). Change in roles leads to role confusion disrupting the state of equilibrium, and in turn causes dysfunction in the family. Adopting healthy communication patterns; for example, embracing positive reciprocal feedback loops is pivotal in restoring homeostasis in cases of dysfunction (Bigner, 2014).
From the interview, Tom’s parents and siblings blamed his deviant behaviors on the stage of development (adolescence) and other dispositional traits such as a ploy to seek attention. They failed to account for their roles in predisposing Tom’s behaviors. Reflecting on the Family Systems Theory, it is evident that each family member had a role to play in Tom’s manifestation of deviant behaviors. In my assessment, Nicole’s (third born) decision to relocate to school triggered Tom’s conduct disorder. The situation served as a family stressor. Family stressors disrupt the normal functioning of the family, as it alters roles of family members or compels the amendment of rules, which govern the family. Nicole’s departure altered Tom’s role in the house whereby he became the only child living in the house permanently with his parents. Trying to feel the emptiness created by the departure of his three older siblings might have been overwhelming for Tom. In addition, his parents might have unconsciously been behaving in a manner that exerted more pressure on Tom to fulfill their other children’s roles. Before their departure, each child had a role to play in the household to ensure the day ran smoothly. With each child’s departure, the children left at home took on these roles. After Alvin’s departure, Grace, Nicole and Tom shared the responsibilities equally making it easier for the members of the sibling subsystem to cope in a well-adjusted manner. The same thing happened after Grace’s departure. This was not the case with Nicole’s departure. Tom was left alone to take on all his siblings’ responsibilities. The fact that Alvin, Grace and Nicole made a point to visit each weekend only served to aggravate the situation whereby Tom was left confused about how to execute his new roles.
Tom struggled with his loss of autonomy and adopted an unhealthy coping mechanism (conduct disorder). His maladjusted behaviors were the only aspect of his life he felt he had control over. Despite his behaviors serving as a coping mechanism for Tom, they destabilized the family’s normal functioning. The subsystems affected included the parental and sibling subsystems. Both parents were at a loss about how to handle Tom’s recent display of deviant behaviors. In addition, his older siblings perceived Tom’s behaviors as those of a spoilt adolescent. The new label altered the power dynamics of the sibling subsystem whereby the other siblings ganged up against Tom, further isolating him. The newly withdrawn Tom found himself more preoccupied with engaging in maladaptive behaviors. The entire situation destroyed the family’s state of equilibrium. In order to restore the family’s state of homeostasis, the family systems perspective mandates that each family member understands their role in predisposing the current state of imbalance. Each member must take responsibility for disrupting the family’s normal functioning and avoid assigning blames to other members. In doing so, they realize that the family operates as a single system whereby all members are interconnected and interdependent on each other.
In addition, the family systems theory advocates for family members to adapt to changes in their environment. Due to the problems likely to arise from changes, it is crucial for family members to be more flexible in the adjustment of their roles, amendment of their rules and boundaries. Adopting healthy communication patterns would go a long way in helping the family through the transition. Healthy communication refers to the use of positive reciprocal feedback loops. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson should create an environment where each member of the family is able to communicate their thoughts and feelings openly without fear of negative judgment. For example, such an environment would allow Tom to discuss openly his reservations about all the siblings leaving him all alone without the fear of his family members labeling him negatively. The other family members should also respect Tom’s declarations whether they agree or disagree with them. It is apparent that the Anderson’s are driven, independent people who work towards pursuing successful ventures, which leaves little to no room for displays of weakness. Prior knowledge of this will enable them to exercise flexibility in how they handle displays of weakness. Reciprocal feedback loops provide an avenue for the Andersons to learn about the family’s dysfunctional way of dealing with weakness; therefore, adopt less dysfunctional ways of dealing with such situations. The family systems theory remains one of the most useful perspectives on understanding family dynamics (Bigner, 2014).
Bigner, J.J. (2014). Parent-child relations: An introduction to parenting (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice.