PUBLISHED IN THE SCMP : Sunday, 13 May, 2012.
Scott and Janice have been married for 17 years and have been considering separating. They have a 16-year-old son Brian, who is getting into trouble at school for taking drugs and bullying. They also have a daughter, Shelly, 13, who has a weight problem and sometimes refuses to go to school. Their family is starting to fall apart and the parents are unable to deal with their children's problems and the continual stress on their marriage.
A healthy, functioning family can handle crises and deal with change. If a child is having problems, this will usually make the family stick together, particularly the parents, to collectively work it out.
But in some families, problems can lead to dysfunctional responses. In Scott and Janice's case, rather than bringing them closer together, their children's problems have resulted in them growing further apart. Families need to develop their resilience to help them cope with issues and return to a healthy way of functioning. Often when a child is struggling in some way, it's a reflection that the family is unbalanced and encountering problems.
The most important part of the family structure, which indicates whether the family will be able to grow and sustain itself, is the state of the couple. But in this case, Scott has distanced himself from Janice and this has caused an imbalance in the family structure. Their relationship lacks any intimacy.
If a parent becomes distanced from his or her partner, it can lead to that parent becoming over-involved with the children to fill the loneliness. But this can lead to one parent being more dominant than the other. To help their children with their problems, and if they decide to stay together, Scott and Janice must first deal with the difficulties they are encountering in their relationship.
When family life is organised around a dominating and controlling parent, as has happened with our example, it leads to dysfunction. Power stifles adaptability and communication. Janice complains that Scott is extremely dominating and controlling. 'He is always telling me and the children what to do and he doesn't listen,' she says.
A good relationship is based on equality and a balance of power. But there is a big difference between power and hierarchy in a family. A hierarchy is essential, and its establishment is helped by having family boundaries.
It is good to have boundaries for the marriage, whereby the couple work on their relationship without outside interference and talk directly to each other, not through their children. Boundaries for children include expectations from parents as to how children are to behave. It helps if parents make executive decisions about their children together.
The parental unit is defined through being a team, which ensures the parents' station as head of the family and helps to provide feelings of security for all members. Clearly defined family boundaries help to firm up the family structure and lessen the impact of stress when it occurs, thereby reducing the likeliness of family dysfunction.
Shelly says her mother is always looking through her things and she cannot express her feelings because it upsets her mum too much. 'I feel suffocated and controlled by mum, and she always wants to know everything that is going on in my life,' Shelley says.
Some families become too enmeshed in each other's lives. This is not healthy and affects personal boundaries. Members of a family should feel emotional freedom, so that they can be close without being so affected by the others and are able to move away at times without feeling guilty.
Janice and Scott are attending couples counselling, where they have learned to support each other, and have decided to stay together.
They are learning about unconditional love and how to appreciate their differences. They now have a relationship based on equality and spend quality time each day talking to each other, which has improved their feelings of closeness.
They take responsibility for their happiness but are growing from the love they receive from each other; and their children are reaping the benefits. They also attend family therapy where they are learning how to differentiate themselves and establish boundaries. As their family is becoming healthy and functional, the children are developing strong identities and everybody is learning to relate to each other in more meaningful ways.