Don’t get excited or overwhelmed here. We’re not talking raising your kids with manners or 12 ways to spend quality family time. This is all about structure, the emotional and behavioral framework of the family that you want to have to stay on the healthy course. We’ll start with the ideal so you have something to measure and map against, and then talk about variations. (While I’ll use he in these descriptions, all these dynamics can obviously apply to both sexes)
Here’s our ideal:
Hierarchy, Parents United, Both Involved with Children
To help orient you: The Ps are parents, the Cs are children. The solid line between Ps and Cs means they are on two different levels—that there is hierarchy in the family with the parents obviously on top. The solid line between the parents means that the parents are emotionally connected and are on the same page about parenting. The solid lines between the kids means that even though there is some sibling rivalry, the kids get along and care about each other.
Think of this in the same way your doctor thinks in terms of standards of health. He compares you to others like you and measures the differences. What makes this the gold standard that we have a solid family foundation. Because the parents are on the same page in terms of parenting standards and expectations (though their actual styles may be different), they back each other up, and the kids are not confused or tempted to play one parent against another. The solid line also means that the parents are connected to each other as a couple, and the hierarchy boundary helps here—because there is separation between the adults and kids. The couple sees themselves as a couple and are able to put their relationship on the front burner. They are not just parents coparenting and essentially just living in the same house.
Finally the kids feel less anxious and more safe because they know their parents are in charge (rather than one of them) and have clear routines and rules to build their lives around.
Now we look at variations:
Hierarchy, Parents Disagree, Children Confused / Testing / Splitting
Okay, what is different here? That dotted line between the parents. Here the parents are not on the same page. One is tough, the other easy. The kids get confused or are pushing the limit all the time because they don’t know what the rules are. The savvy or older kid has got it down and knows how to split—don’t ask mom if I can stay out late, I’ll just ask dad. And while the kids can often get along, sometimes sibling rivalry ramps up. They act out the tension in the home or one child sides with mom, another with dad. High sibling rivalry is a clear sign of severe marital problems.
What needs to change to bring this up to our ideal level? The parents need to get on the same page.
Hierarchy, Other Parent United with Children as Victim
You undoubtedly know families like this. One parent is clearly “Head of Household” and running the show. The other parent has slipped down to the kid level and is now feeling like one of the kids. This is fairly common in addictive or abusive families, where the dominant parent’s emotions and control set the household tone 24/7. While the one-down parent feels victimized, sometimes he’ll become a ring-leader for the kids or pushes one of the kids to say what he feels—go ahead and tell your mother how you really feel. Periodically he may lead an emotional, short-lived revolt by threatning divorce or to call the police. But it quickly dies when the dominate parent promises to play nice.
What needs to change? The problem is that the parents are not equals. The disempowered parent needs to be empowered to step up and cross up and over the hierarchy line, just as the dominate parent needs to step down. This can be hard to do, especially if that parent has a childhood history of abuse and subsequently a high tolerance for it. He usually requires lots of support, professionally or with family and friends. If bad enough, sometimes divorce is the only way out.
Isolated Parent, Other Parent Uses Children as Support
P | P______C
Here the solid vertical line between the parents means that they are emotionally separated, not a couple, not coparents. The isolated parent is…isolated. He doesn’t feel part of family life. Sometimes he is having an affair or is workaholic or addicted. The other parent is feeling lonely; one of the children (generally the oldest) steps up to be the parents confidant and support.
What needs to change? Obviously the parentified child needs to be able to bump down and be a kid again. The parents need to break down the wall between them or, if not, at least the engaged parent needs to find other sources of adult support rather than leaning on the kids.
Other variations on this is where there is a wall between each parent, and each leans on one of the children for support or they essentially branch off and form two separate families: I hang out with the boys all the time, you with the girls; we are essentially two single parents in the same house.
Child in Control, Parents Feel Like Victims
This is in some ways the worse case scenario: here, usually an oldest child, is essentially running the family. He acts up; he pretty much does what he wants and the parents feel like the victims of his demands and emotions.
What needs to change? We need to reverse the diagram. The parents need to step up and be parents. The kid needs to become a kid rather than some dictator. Often in such situations the community needs to step in—the kid who is cutting school finally gets busted for truancy; rather then staying out till midnite, the court steps in, puts the kid on probation, and family therapy focuses on helping the parents take charge.
You get the point. Kids need parents to be parents. Parents need to be on the same page around parenting. Parents need to be able to get their emotional needs met through each other, rather than one of the kids or someone / something else.
So how do you match up against that standard of health? What’s the difference between this ideal and your own family structure? What is the one thing you can do to help close the gap?
Start it today.