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Courageous Conversations

Children’s outcomes and family systems

When a child acts out, parents can gain insight by considering the family as a whole.

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A Tracy parent posed a frequent inquiry: Why are my children so different from one another? How is it possible that I raised two or more kids, in the same family, with the same genetic makeup, and one is successful and the other turns out less so?

Lisa Hill

Lisa Hill

Throughout my career as a probation officer and family therapist, parents of multiple children have asked this question. Some parents have even boasted about the achievements of their other good child as part of their parental resume supporting their good parenting skills.

A child who is brought into a detention center is often considered an anomaly and very different from the other children in the family. A child who is brought into a clinical office as a patient is usually considered the one who is a disruption to an otherwise stable family. Families readily identify an individual contributor to the family problem rather than conclude that the entire system is problematic. After all, if the whole family system is broken, all the members need to be addressed. But once the “real patient” is identified, working on the entire family is considered a waste of resources because the other family members are performing well. As the saying goes, if it is not broken, there is no need to fix it.

Some parents attribute a problem child’s behavior to birth order. Birth order theorists believe that children’s personalities are formed based on their position in the family. Firstborn children are motivated and high achievers. Last-born children are charming and social. This leaves the middle child, who supposedly suffers from a syndrome that is characterized as feeling left out and rebellious. The theory lacks validity because these birth order characteristics are not reflected in all families.

A psychiatrist, Dr. Murray Bowen, introduced family systems theory in the 1970s. The theory posits that no individual operates in isolation in a family. All members of the family form an intense emotional unit, and each member impacts the needs, feelings and behaviors of the others. Systems theory suggests that there are subtle, subconscious and complex interactions between family members. Each member behaves with the others systematically and predictably. Although the degree of interconnectedness differs in each family, this dynamic is operating. Therefore, when a family system is not functioning properly, one member may assume more of the stress of the family and, as a result, may act out in various ways. This family member may be addicted to drugs, engaged in illegal activity, emotionally disturbed, sexually promiscuous or acting out in school, to name a few behaviors. Family systems theorists believe that the only reason everyone else in the family is functioning properly is that the identified problem person is carrying a disproportionate part of the stress of the dysfunctional family system.

The stressed-out family member may show up in emergency rooms, therapist’s offices, jails, residential drug facilities, principal’s offices and prisons. Doctors, clinicians, police officers, probation officers, parole officers, school teachers and principals begin their work on that person in hopes of eliminating the problem, in isolation of the family unit, in hopes that they will be healed.

I must courageously advise that it is not that easy. The problem behavior usually did not begin in isolation, so it cannot be addressed unilaterally. Systems work is challenging. Instead of asking someone what is wrong with them, ask, “What happened to you?”

Returning to the original question: Why are my children so different from one another? My response: Because the system in which your children were raised may be different for each of them. In other words, each child has their own story of what life was like growing up in the same family. Let’s explore that.

Remember, parents do the best that they can, at any given moment, with the resources they have.

Lisa Hill is an associate professor in criminal justice at California State University, East Bay and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She worked for county and federal probation departments for three decades and in 2018 published a book inspired by her career, “Keeping Kids In the Home and Out of the System.” She and her husband have lived in Tracy for 31 years and have four children. Contact her at courageousconversations209@gmail.com.

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