Simi Valley Family Magazine --

Fall 1999 Edition

How to Have a Healthy Family

by Deborah Tucker, MA

Who among us doesn't want to have a healthy family? We all want to take the best of what we learned growing up, discard what was negative, and create something better for our children. As we all know, this is easier said than done. We get married, have children, and find ourselves doing and saying exactly the same things we swore we never would. It's as though there is a tape set off in our heads, programmed for certain situations, and out come the words. Even more mysterious can be the repetition of patterns that can happen generation after generation, where one sibling always seems to be the black sheep, where there is an unplanned pregnancy of a very young daughter, where a father leaves his family or alcoholism develops. What causes all of this to happen, and how can we change it.

Family therapists have been studying these processes for decades, but it's been difficult for families who aren't in therapy to get an understanding of what might be going on in their particular situation. Maggie Scarf, in her book Intimate Worlds: Life Inside the Family, gathers together an incredible amount of information and presents it in a warm and personal way, telling the stories of several families who are functioning at varying levels of health. In the limited space we have here, I'd like to present a overview of a few of the concepts presented, in the hopes that they may be thought-provoking and helpful in understanding your own family process.

The basic idea is that those old issues which we do not confront and resolve will inevitably resurface, and those issues that remain buried and unconscious will resurface in ways that don't seem immediately connected. Many times one person in a family will seem to carry all the symptoms. For instance, all the kids will seem "fine" except for the one "black sheep", who gets in trouble, uses drugs, or fails in school. Or one spouse is alcoholic, and seems to be causing all the trouble for the rest of the family. Families are intricately connected systems, and if one person is hurting or showing symptoms, it is safe to assume that everyone is affected. Sometimes, the other family members are actually in more pain than the one who is the "squeaky wheel". So, the basic principle is "the identified patient is rarely the only one who is hurting, and is not the only one who needs help".

Sometimes what's going is best described by a process known as "projective identification". I know, the term like psychobabble, but what it means will make sense. When we have parts of ourselves that are very uncomfortable, or that feel like they're unacceptable, we may cut ourselves off from them. What we tend to do next is find, or even create, those parts in people around us. This is the chief mechanism by which the old issues come back to haunt us. For example, if I was raised to believe that anger was totally unacceptable, if I was even taught that "no, you're not really angry, you're just ….", then I am not going to be able to accept the feeling of anger in myself. But anger exists, like it or not, and a frequent occurrence is that one of my family members will end "holding" all the anger for the family. They will likely act it out, in ways that are disruptive and impossible to ignore, until finally the family is forced to confront the issue one way or another.

The same process can happen with positive qualities, too. How many young adult children, entering college or the workforce, feel an almost tidal pull to go into a certain field because they are supposed to be "the doctor", or "the smart one", or "the successful one". Please realize that these processes happen all the time to a small degree. It's when they become absolute and unconscious that they cause trouble. Again, that which we don't deal with comes back in some form to demand acknowledgment.

One way to get in touch with your particular old family issues may be is to draw a "family genogram". This is nothing more than a family tree, but with special attention paid to the generational patterns -- who was especially close to or distant from whom, who left the family too soon or too early. Ask yourself where the family conflicts were, and where the family skeletons are. Then ask yourself how those issues may be duplicating themselves in the present.

Another thought-provoker is to ask yourself a couple of questions -- what could be child do or be that would make me really uncomfortable? What aspects of their personality actually do make uncomfortable? Why? It's the answer to why that will be the most difficult to come up with, and probably the most telling. We place a lot of our hopes and dreams in our children. Much of that is good, but some of it may be a burden made up of our own old baggage. Sorting it out can lighten everyone's load.


Expectations and Relationships

Karen McQuade, M.S.

Conflicting expectations cause many arguments and relationship problems. Expectations are things we believe will occur or should occur or based on our life experiences, culture, and our beliefs about how life is. One common basis for relationship expectations is how the couple's parents related. Couples often feel surprised about their conflicts over relationship issues they thought they both agreed on because they never examined their expectations together before they were married. Just because you haven't done it before you were married doesn't mean you can't do it now. Unexamined expectations cause many conflicts between couples. In my studies and clinical experience I have found the same types of conflicting expectations again and again. Let's look at some examples of typical types of conflicting expectations based on numerous couples.

Take for example typical newlyweds, Jaime and Diane. Jaime's mother was the emotional one in the family. She nurtured the children, and got nervous and worried when there was financial trouble. Jaime's father was the calm, strong one. He calmed his wife and made light of their problems. Yet when Jaime did that with his wife Diane, she became more upset, feeling he didn't truly recognize how serious their problems were. He learned by looking at his family roles that his mother was the one who expressed emotions, and his father did not. He expected that he should be like that with his wife and that would show he was a strong husband who could handle her feelings. Diane came from a family in which everyone was emotional. They expressed their feelings intensely. Diane expected that Jaime would express emotion about things he cared about. She expected that the more intensely he felt the more intense his expression of emotion would be. Therefore, when Jaime acted quiet, strong, and calming as he expected emotional women wanted, Diane became even more upset. As they talked about their expectations about men and women and emotions, Jaime and Diane realized they had been pulling in opposite directions. Diane realized Jaime was trying to be strong for her when she was upset and that he was not cold and uncaring as she had feared. Jaime realized his wife was not neurotic as he had feared, but was just getting more emotional so he would understand how important their problems were. He realized also that she had felt alone in their problems even though he had been trying to support her. Together they worked toward talking more about their problems in a way that Diane could hear Jaime's concern and feel supported even though Jaime might never be as emotional as her family was.

Newlyweds Ruben and Anna had a major disagreement. Ruben expected that his wife would cook and clean because his mother, a stay at home mother, did all the cooking and cleaning. To him, part of being a wife might be doing the cooking and cleaning. He sees this as how his wife expresses her care for him. In his culture, that is how people understood a wife loved her husband. On the other hand, Anna, whose grandparents were from the same country as Ruben, had lived in the United States for years. Anna, was very American. She was raised by a working single mother, and all the kids pitched in with cooking and cleaning. So for her, working together as a team was how people in a family express care for one another. She saw her new husband asking what's for dinner every night and complaining about how the house should be cleaner as self-centered and uncaring. A fight erupted within a month over who was responsible for what and why. As they examined their expectations, Ruben and Anna came to the conclusion that they had to find a different way of doing things and looking at things that fit their life together rather than their parents' experience. Both Ruben and Anna worked. Both were tired. They decided to cook meals together on Saturday mornings once a month that they would freeze and defrost during the month. They also decided to use bagged salad rather than make it from scratch. Twice a month Anna cooked Ruben a traditional meal that he enjoyed and twice a month he chose among barbecuing, making a simple meal for them or taking Anna out to a restaurant. Sometimes he ordered a Pizza. Anna didn't mind those choices since Ruben was not a very good cook. Both found this was a solution they could live with once they understood and adjusted their expectations.

Paul and Gwen are another typical couple. Paul was raised in a family that was very close. He expected that when he got married that family life would include a lot of contact with his family. The family got together not only on holidays, but every Sunday for dinner. His family was also used to just dropping by one another's homes. It felt warm and hospitable, and no one in the family had any problem with it. In fact it felt nice to be so informal with one another. Gwen on the other hand had no such expectations. Her parents had moved to California from the east where their families lived. They were very independent people. They loved each other, but called a few times a month and got together only on holidays. They considered it rude to just drop over without calling. Both Gwen's parents had very busy careers and were often glad for time they got to spend alone with each other. It was a special time for nourishing their relationship. Gwen's mother often told Gwen how special it made her feel to have her husband want to be alone with her. Gwen expected the same type of relationship when she married. In fact she and Paul spent a good deal of time alone together before they were married which she expected would continue. When they got married, Gwen felt very intruded upon by Paul's family. Paul felt proud of his family and thought Gwen would feel happy to be in such a close family after growing up in a family that he considered cold and detached. Gwen felt all their free time was taken up by Paul's family and that they had no privacy. She didn't feel special to Paul at all. After two months of living together, Gwen blew up. Paul was shocked and hurt by what he saw as her rejection of his family. After examining their expectations about their extended families, Gwen and Paul saw that they had come to their marriage with totally different expectations about boundaries with families and time alone. They worked out between them ways of relating to both families that respected Paul's high value of time with his family and Gwen's high value of time spent alone in their family unit. It was a bit hard, especially on Paul's family who at first misunderstood how Gwen felt about them, but eventually they all found a comfortable balance between time spent with family and time spent alone. Paul's parents even began occasionally having "special time" alone when they asked the kids not to come over.

Examining expectations can improve relationships and help a couple understand their conflicts. Begin by each looking at how your parents handled things like finances, in-laws, friends, socializing, housework, sex, emotions, and spiritual commitments like church or synagogue. What did you learn about your mother's responsibilities from this? What did you learn about your father's responsibilities? What attitudes and expectations did you develop as a result of growing up with your parents or from your culture or life in general? Which do you accept and which do you reject? How can you work together to understand your relationship expectations? It doesn't matter how long you've been married; you can improve your marriage by examining your expectations.


Back to School at Last ... It's Time to Relax!

Cheri West, M.A.

Well, another summer finally draws to an end as our little ones (mine grew 2 pant sizes!) return to the daily grind of school. At least I know I am well prepared to face a new school year. Supplies, clothes, and backpacks have been purchased and organized, new bike lock combinations memorized, and a fridge full of lunchable goodies. Did I forget anything? Nope! Time to relax at last! Or is it? Have you ever felt as if you are going through school again for the 2nd time? This year let’s take an honest look at our well-planned efforts, examine our pitfalls and learn to experience success and, hopefully, more free time.

School year re-visited: Every year most parents send their children back to school fully loaded with shiny, new supplies hopeful that this will be the year of low maintenance and successes. Then, almost immediately, we are bombarded with school projects, homework wars, teacher battles, daily routine breakdowns, carpool hell, need for more supplies, cooler clothes, etc. By the end of each school day, we are more exhausted than our children and counting days until the first school vacation!

Suggestions: It is impossible to plan ahead for every hurdle our kids will have to jump during the school year. One day at a time is a lot less work and stress in the long run. Ask yourself, and your child, what the priority is for today and concentrate on only that priority. try to let go of the anticipation or worry about what is to come since it hasn’t arrived yet!

Establish a home routine at the beginning of the school year and modify as needed. Consistent structure will reduce your stress and that of your child. Set up a “spot” for your child to dump their backpack, books, etc. every day when they come flying through the door. Make sure they always put things in the “spot” before running off. This will help to avoid the “I can’t find it” syndrome. Have a brief check-in period to ask about their day and, most importantly, do they have everything they need for homework. If not...back to school and do not pass go! (If you are a working parent, this can be done via telephone check-in). Allow a 30-minute break after school for snack and rest but only at outside play yet. Then, begin homework. Give breaks after each completed assignment for 5 minutes (or every hour at least). Allow no major distractions during homework time (telephone, TV, loud music, visitors). Set up a homework “spot” in your house with little distraction and have all your child’s materials available there so they won’t have to get up every 2 minutes to retrieve something. try to avoid sitting with your child to do their homework. Instead, make yourself available, if possible, for any help they might need or have them set aside problems until you get home and move on to other assignments they can complete independently. Once homework is completed, have your child check-in again to let you know they are done (it helps to see the completed work and praise them for their brilliance at this point). Have them put everything back in their backpack ready for the next school day. Then, they are free to go outside, watch TV, talk on the phone, etc. (establish a structured routine for evening as well i.e., dinner, shower, 1 hour TV, bed, lights out).

While this routine sounds fairly basic, it is the lack of structure and follow-up that causes most of our stress at home. Be firm, supportive, and consistent. Your child will eventually fall into the routine and function more independently.

Set up transportation plans and always have a back-up plan in case you need it. Meet your child’s teacher, or counselor, within the first few weeks of school and establish a supportive relationship you can tap into if needed. Tell them about your child’s strengths and weaknesses and allow them to know you a bit. This speaks volumes about supportive parenting and establishing a positive home/school relationship. Get to know the office staff on a first name basis. They are the truly the backbone of every school and can really help simplify school procedures for you.

Lastly, make sure you are consistent about taking your own down time in the daily routine. Parents need to rest and relax daily in order to be ready for tomorrow! Remember, take the school year one day at a time and encourage your child to do the same


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