When we think about families, we usually think about personalities — that your sister has a temper, that your brother is sensitive — or about interactions and emotional climate — that everyone argues all the time, or that dad rules the house, or that there isn’t a lot of affection. Or we can think in terms of roles — the martyr, victim, hero, mascot, loner, rebel.
But we can also look at families in terms of structure. This was the basis for structural family therapy, which was developed by Salvador Minuchin in the 1970s and is still used by family therapists today. From this perspective, there are healthy family structures and those less so. Here are the five basic types; see where your childhood family and current family fit.
1. Our healthy model.
This is Minuchin’s model of a healthy family. To help get you oriented here, we have parents represented by P, the children as C. There is a hierarchy in that the parents are on top having more power and control, the children on the bottom having less, and the solid line between them indicates that there is a clear boundary between the adult and child worlds.
The solid line between the parents indicates that they have a strong adult relationship where they are not only emotionally connected but also equally responsible. As parents, though their styles may differ, they are on the same page: They agree about expectations, consequences, and so on, in managing the children. And if this is a single parent rather than a two-parent family, the same criteria apply — there is still a hierarchy in place, and the parent is clear and consistent. Finally, the solid lines connecting the children means that even though there is some normal amount of sibling rivalry, the children get along and support each other.
Many families obviously fit this healthy model, but even the best can also struggle at times: They may have some gaps in their parenting skills — they don’t know how to best help their oppositional or ADHD child — or are struggling with stressors (e.g., Grandpa died, Mom lost her job). But this structure works overall because the parents’ being in charge and having clear rules and routines helps the children feel safe and cared for; because the parents are on the same page and have a healthy couple relationship, the children aren’t rattled and don’t feel pulled into parental drama.
2. Hierarchy, but parents disagree.
In this variation, the dotted lines between the parents indicate that they are not working together as a team, but instead are on different pages regarding parenting. In extreme cases, the parents are polarized in that one parent who is strict causes the other parents to compensate by being overly lenient.
Relationship problems may be projected onto the children:
“You just don’t understand how hurt Tom feels when you criticize him,” when it’s the partner who is the one feeling the hurt by the criticism. A host of other relationships problems and resentments may be dumped in the parenting garbage can, further fueling the power struggle.
What happens on the children’s side is that they are forced to live in a climate of anger, tension, and anxiety, where emotions may suddenly flare, where rules and routines are a constantly moving target depending on who is in charge at the moment. In order to cope in such an environment, one child may withdraw, another might walk on eggshells and be good to try and relieve the tension, and often, another will be constantly testing limits and pushing the boundaries in an effort to define them.
Or the children learn to work the system and squeeze through the cracks — knowing it’s better to ask Dad when Mom’s not at home about going to the sleepover on Saturday. Finally, the stress and anxiety in the family may cause the siblings to squabble more among themselves, hence the dotted lines between them, both copying the parents’ relationship and providing a way of discharging their own anxieties.
When we compare this structure to our healthier model, it’s easy to see what needs to be fixed: The dotted lines between the parents need to be replaced by solid ones: The parents need to work together as a team and get on the same page.
3. Isolated, disengaged parents; one parent uses a child as a surrogate.
P | P______C
Here we have parents who are disengaged from each other, represented by the vertical line, an emotional wall between them. They usually don’t disagree, but instead essentially live parallel lives, with one parent in charge of the children, and the other preoccupied, say, with work or career.
The children of such parents are aware of the distance, notice how it is different from their friends’ families, but because there is not the open conflict of the other model, their anxiety can generally remain in check. Later, they may carry this relationship model forward into their own adult family relationships.
But this diagram shows an added wrinkle in addition to the walled-off parents, namely a migration of one of the children across the hierarchy line, connecting with one of the parents.
The child has become a surrogate partner.
Here we could imagine one parent using a teen as a confidante and treating him more as an adult; the break in the hierarchy causes the teen to often feel overly responsible for the parent and/or entitled. This, of course, only increases the disconnect between the parents — the more isolated parent feels even more isolated and may have his or her own form of solace: We could imagine a horizontal going off to the left of the isolated parent connecting her to someone else in an affair or to addiction — for example, alcoholism or workaholism.
In still another variation of the same structure, we could also imagine a single parent who, for often a lot of good reasons, has moved an older child up to help support him emotionally and physically in caring for the other children. Understandable, but again, the danger for this child is that he takes on too many adult-like responsibilities, is often worried about the parent, or feels entitled.
Again, we can look at the gap between what we see and our healthy model: What needs to be fixed? The wall between the partners needs to come down, the surrogate child needs to be bumped back down to the child group.
4. One parent in charge, isolated; other united with child as a victim.
What we see quickly here is that one parent is alone and in charge, and the other parent is joined below with the children. This one-down parent is treated like one of the children by the one in charge, the children treat the disempowered parent as a peer, and sometimes the disempowered parent, acting as ringleader for the children, will lead periodic attacks against the other parent. While the controlling parent has power and may be a bully and abusive, what the diagram clearly shows is he/she is also isolated and alone.
What needs to fixed? The other parent needs to move up, regain power; they need to work together as a team and have a strong adult relationship.
5. Child in control, parents feel like victims.
This last diagram is in some ways the worst-case scenario. Here we have not a parent on top, but a child or, most often, a teen. The teen is emotionally running the family rather than the parents. Sometimes this occurs because the teen is filling in for incapacitated parents — there may be severe illness or addiction that keeps the parents from fulfilling their roles — but more often, it is the child is acting out, in charge, setting the emotional climate. The parents feel helpless, like victims, and the teen feels entitled to do whatever he wants.
What needs to be fixed?
The child needs to be bumped down. If the child is filling in for the parents because they are unable to care for themselves or the family, the parents often need outside adult support or treatment in order to fulfill their roles as caretakers and reduce the pressure and responsibilities on the child. When the parents are unable or unwilling to do so, the child and other children often need to be removed and placed in alternative care. If the child is acting out, entitled, and intimidating the parents, often the courts and social services need to get involved to support the parents in placing limits on the child.
Thinking this way and looking at these models provides a quick way of assessing the source and solution to many problems. That said, it’s always important to keep in mind cultural and ethnic differences: Some healthy families, for example, may be more patriarchal or matriarchal; others may be more child-centered, pushing the parents’ relationship as a couple to the backburner.
But the bottom line is the bottom line, meaning how well are all the family members faring?
Are the parents squabbling or disconnected from each other? If so, the children are at risk for anxiety or acting out for feeling pulled into the drama or worried about a parent. Are the parents in a caring way in charge and clear with the children about rules and routines? If not, the children can feel anxious, constantly test the limits, or one may hijack the family and take charge, causing many problems all around.
So how does your family stack up? What was your childhood family like? Are there cracks in your family structure that you need to take a hard look at and begin to fix?