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The Family Life Cycle

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Thus we have a positive approach to the family as a multi-generational system, and now we add another complication--the system moves through time. Most of us, I assume, are familiar with the idea of life cycles as applied to individuals--we're born, grow up, grow old, and die. Our children, and their children and so on, repeat the cycle, hopefully learning from our experience (and the experience of earlier generations), and hopefully our kids make less of a muddle of it than we do.

Families have a life cycle too--a set of predictable stages that pretty much all families go through. Here's a well-accepted model of the family life cycle.

The Family Life Cycle

    1.   The young adult
    2.   Marriage
    3.   Family with young children
    4.   Family with adolescents
    5.   Launching children
    6.   "The family in later life."

Source: McGoldrick & Carter in Normal Family Processes, ed. by Froma Walsh

Note that the life cycle of the family is expressed in terms of developmental stages. The period within each stage is relatively calm and stable, evolutionary, characterized by what might be called "gentle growth." When the time approaches for a new stage to begin, the family system enters a transitional state that is almost revolutionary. The family system experiences intense pressure to restructure. What is the revolution about? 

Each stage focuses on the entry or exit of a family member into or out of the system. Whenever that happens, relationships have to shift and realign. Parents have to relate to adolescents with less control (less control--not "no control") than when the kids were younger, for example. Or think of how  things shifted in our earlier example when grandmother died. It is when families can't make the leap, can't see each other and connect with each other in new ways-- when they get stuck in a particular stage despite mounting pressure for change from individuals within and a multitude of forces outside the family--that's when they start to develop symptoms, and look for or get referred to family therapists.

Now remember that the family life cycle doesn't replace individual life cycles, so that as a son or daughter prepares to leave home by entering college, an older child may be getting married or having children. Meanwhile, parents may be aging, needing more from children and possibly dealing with one or more of the losses we tend to associate with aging:  loss of health, financial resources, mobility, or even the loss of a spouse. The nuclear family may have to adjust to support efforts to help aging parents. All of this occurs simultaneously with our growth as individuals, and with changes in the larger society.

The stage of leaving home (for the family, the launching of the single young adult) is the cornerstone--the beginning of the new life cycle. In Carter and McGoldrick's words (the originators of this life cycle model), how this transition is negotiated "most profoundly influences who, when, how, and whether the young adult will marry, and how they will carry out all succeeding stages of the life cycle."

Finding a balance between retaining some control and responsibility, while being dispassionate, supportive, and respectful, isn't easy, especially when parents may feel judged and criticized by their children and others. This is a time of loss for the family--the loss of the child. Is it any wonder that both parents and children are ambivalent about letting go? Should we be surprised that this is an angry time for many families, when we know that a little anger makes goodbyes so much easier?

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Jonathan P. Levine, CSW
2300 West Ridge Rd.
Rochester, NY  14626
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Updated on 05/30/2002
2002, Jonathan P. Levine, CSW