Focus here is on the six variables and twenty-four
descriptors included in the above activity.
The first variable focuses on the relationships within the family, on
how family members relate to each other.
This can be understood at two levels.
First, understanding can be developed in terms of the pattern of
interaction; and second, understanding can be developed in terms of the
function or value of the interaction to the individuals and to the family
system. Each of the four descriptors
relates to both levels.
Fragmented relationships show very little pattern and
reflect little continuity or consistency over time. They are, thus, not continuously available to
family members and serve little useful function within the family system. In fact, fragmented relationships are
incompatible with a systemically functioning family insofar as the
relationships or connections between people need to be relatively continuous in
order for the interaction of the individuals to develop as a functioning
Fragmented relationships represent the most dysfunctional
level of family functioning. A somewhat
improved level of functioning is seen in families where relationships are
characterized by a protective pattern and function. At this level, the pattern is such that
family members are fairly continuously available to each other, with that
availability primarily characterized by an orientation to protecting family
members both from other family members and from external influences and
factors. This is basically a defensive
orientation and may be characterized by a clinging quality where family members
relate to each other as a way of protecting both themselves and each other from
perceived threats or factors that are generally understood as out of their
control. When thinking about the family
as a system, this level of functioning at least serves to protect and maintain
the components family members of the system and serves to further the
continuation of the system. As can be
seen, the relationships at this level do, at least, serve a useful function for
the family and its members.
At the next higher level of functioning, the protective
aspect of relationships continues but those relationships also serve a
supportive function for the family members.
At this level, relationships facilitate positive interpersonal gain and
the family relationships serve both the interest of the system and the interest
of the family members in terms of their activities, involvements, and participation
within and outside of the family.
Families functioning at this level might say, We help and encourage
At the highest level of functioning, family relationships
are best described as interdependent. At
this level, the pattern reflects a truly systemic interactive pattern within
the family. The functions of protection
and support are still present; except family relationships have extended to
incorporate the full range of needs and interest of each family member. Family members can comfortably and
confidently count on each other and also understand that the welfare and well
being of each family member is significantly dependent on the welfare and well
being of the family and the other family members. At this level, relationships might also be
described as complimentary and additive.
The strengths and abilities of each family member are understood as
resources available to all family members, with the less strong areas for each
family member finding compensatory support in the abilities and capacities of
other participants in the system.
At the optimal state, the self of each family member is a
function of her autonomy combined with her membership in and participation in
the family. At this level, families
might say, We are all very unique individuals but are also part of our
family. Both parts of who we are must be
understood and recognized if you are to know us well.
A similar hierarchy of functioning levels applies to
extrafamilial relationships. At the most
dysfunctional level, these relationships are best characterized as
disconnected. The parallel to fragmented
intrafamilial relationships is obvious.
In extrafamilial terms, relationships are simply not such that there are
good connections with external resources, institutions, support systems, or
other individuals or entities that might serve the interest of the family and
its members if they were more readily available. Here, relating to a consultant is problematic
insofar as the family and its members have difficulty developing a relational
connection with the consultant.
At the next higher level of functioning, extrafamilial
relationships may be characterized as alienated. Here, the relationships exist but do not
serve the needs and interest of the family and its members. The perception is one of alienation or
nonbelonging nonparticipation. The
family and its members are fairly constantly turned off or rebuffed by external
individuals and entities or at least perceive themselves in these terms. Families who operate at this level tend to
take a somewhat fatalistic approach to dealing with anyone outside of the
family, having very low expectations for those relationships and connections.
At the next higher level of functioning, extrafamilial
relationships may be understood as reciprocal or characterized by
mutuality. It is a quid pro quo
orientation to the external world. For
example, a reciprocal orientation might operate in a specific situation in this
way. A youngster is having difficulties
in school or is in need of special services.
The parents orientation to the school is from the perspective that the
school has to provide the services or respond to the needs because the parent
pays taxes and the laws say that that the school must do what is needed. The same client working with a consultant may
think that the consultant is being nice and trying to be helpful simply because
she is getting paid to do so. One helps
ones neighbor because neighbors help each other as a reciprocal requirement
for being neighborly. The same
orientation then holds for other interactive experiences between the family and
family members on the one hand and external entities and individuals on the
At the highest level of functioning, extrafamilial
relationships may be best seen as coordinated.
The idea is to coordinate external resources, opportunities, and
interests in ways that respond to the needs and interest of the family and its
members. Here, the consultant is nice
and is helpful because that is who and what the consultant is. That resource then matches up with the needs
and interest of the family. Arrangements
are then made that enable the consultant to consult and the family to receive
the consultation services.
At school, the child is helped because that is or at least
ought to be the nature of the professional resource. If some resource exchange is required in
order to facilitate the coordination, the exchange will be made, e.g., the
payment of consulting fees. At this
level of functioning, the familys paying the consultant is only incidental to
Communication is the next focal variable. At the most dysfunctional level,
communication among family members is random.
Again, note the parallel with fragmented relationships. Random communication is, of course,
ineffective and inconsistent in relationship to the family as a system. To the extent that the primary linkage or
connection between family members is in terms of communication, random communication
represents an absence of any identifiable pattern, of any significant systemic
interaction within the family. People
may talk and interact in both verbal and nonverbal ways. Nonetheless, these episodes of communication
serve no dependable, continuing, or particularly useful function, although it
may help the people avoid becoming bored and totally alienated from each other.
At the next higher level of functioning, communication is
ritualized. Here it will help to draw
the analogy to other types of rituals, such as social rituals. People are communicating out of habit, as a
function of the accepted patterns or procedure, or by following the unwritten
family rules. For example, in families
where ritualized communication is the norm, one quickly gets the feeling that
everyone has heard and participated in the conversation before. In addition, each family member is well
schooled in terms of her role and expected participation in the communication
of the family.
At the next higher level of functioning, family
communication is best described as serial or searching. Conversations tend to drift and usually do
not maintain any clear focus for long.
If the topic is important or of interest to the participants, one gets
the impression that family members are searching for ideas, feedback from
others, or new ways of thinking or perceiving.
Ordinarily, though, the process does not go beyond this
At the most functional level, communication is best
described as congruent. Here, there may
be some ritualized communication, an initial pattern of searching or
exploratory communication, but the end result of the process will be the
development of congruence. People are
talking about the same thing at the same time in approximately the same
terms. At this level, one also notes a
real capacity to focus on particular problems or issues, the needs and interest
of specific family members, or other topics of interest to the
participants. It is as if the
communication process leads to a collective consciousness, a collective
capacity to think about and deal with the problem, opportunity, situation, or
other specific topic.
Decision making enters the family system as the next
variable. At the most dysfunctional
level, decision making within the family system may be described as
paralyzed. Problems and issues come up
from minor to major, with those in authority simply being unable or unwilling
to make necessary decisions. Frequently,
decisions are made simply by default or as a function of not deciding; or
actions taken are based on impulse, minimal thought, and are generally
unrelated to the familys overall welfare or well-being.
At the next higher level of functioning, decision making is
simply autocratic. In this sense,
decisions are frequently arbitrary and seldom take into consideration the
feelings and interest of the family and of its members.
At the next higher functional level, decision making is
participatory, with family members having a voice in the process. At this level, the participants in the
process generally make the final decisions, although the autocratic approach is
still sometimes used. At the highest
level of system functioning, decision making is task-centered. At this level, the decision maker and the
process depend on the specific task or purpose for the decision. Generally, the individual having the direct
responsibility for the effects of the decision will make the decision. Much of the time, decisions are simply made
by the person who needs the decision at the time. Of course, the participatory process and
occasionally the autocratic process also operate; but the preponderance of
decision making rest with those most directly involved and effected. As a variation on the task-centered theme,
the decision making process may also be categorized, with specific family
members making decisions within given categories, e.g., household decisions,
minor financial decisions, major financial decisions, business-related
decisions, and within other categories important to the specific family.
Central to the life of the family system is problem solving,
with this important aspect of family life being best describes as none within
the most dysfunctional family systems.
Problems are simply not solved in any active and intentional way and
especially not in any way that takes into consideration the needs and interest
of the family and its members. At this
level, problems tend to accumulate and intensify purely as a result of
nonattention to them.
At a somewhat more functional level, problem solving within
the family is best described as mechanistic.
The process is somewhat mechanical and incapable of innovation, novel
solutions, and highly individualized solutions to new or unfamiliar problems. Also, the same solution tends to be given for
the same problem even if the special conditions or circumstances at the time
should reasonably be expected to call for an individualized solution. At the next higher level of system
functioning, problem solving becomes explorative. Here, note the parallel to the searching
level of communication within the family systems. At this level, the family continues exploring
for solutions to problems and for resolutions of difficult situations. The exploration continues until a solution is
developed that seems to fit or respond to the problem. The result is not necessarily what would have
been the best solution but represents a very adequate solution on a
At the highest level of problem solving, the appropriate
descriptor is flexible. Here, all of the
processes discussed may be used with the addition of the capacity to flexibly
use different approaches to different problems.
It is a little like having a problem-solving tool kit. The flexible approach says that if pliers do
not seem to fit the problem, a screwdriver may be tried. Also, this level of functioning allows for
the use of new tools that are not already in the problem-solving tool kit.
Perhaps planning is the variable that most typifies the
family style and the level of functioning of the family system. At the most dysfunctional level, there is no
planning and things just tend to happen.
The family and its members begin to take on a somewhat chaotic pattern
of interaction and a somewhat fatalistic philosophy of life. At a somewhat improved level of functioning,
planning becomes expedient. At least
here thought is given to what will work or get the family where they are going
in the short run. The planning takes in
few issues beyond the immediate need or interest; but at least that need or
interest is usually responded to at some level.
At the next higher level of functioning, planning may be
described as synthesizing. The needs and
interest of the family and its members are added into the process as they
develop and are responded to in terms of the available resources, given those
things to which resources are already committed. Here, resources include money but also
include time, energy, and available motivation.
At the highest level of functioning, planning is best described as
integrative. Here, the needs and
interest of the family and its members are identified, prioritized, and
considered in relationship to all aspects of family life. New pieces are not simply added to the
existing list. They are carefully
considered in relationship to all current aspects of family life, the history
of the family with similar needs and interest, and here is the key in
relationship to all anticipated needs and interests of the family that may
develop in the future. Any new piece
that enters the family system is then part of the system as a whole and not
something that has been appended to an already existing and in place
system. Of course, not all can be
anticipated; and part of the integrative planning process is to allow enough
flexibility to always be able to respond to the unexpected, within limits.
The above discussion focuses on the family as a
whole, the family as an entity. As has
been noted, families functioning within the most dysfunctional range are, in
fact, not operating as viable, positive systems. They are, rather, operating as a collection
of loosely related individuals. In
contrast, families functioning at the higher levels represent true systems in
the interdependent, interactive sense of the term.
As you assess families, though, there is an additional
factor to keep in mind. Even though the
family itself may be quite dysfunctional, there may be family members or
specific relationships within the family that are significantly more functional
than the family as a whole. For example,
a family with a chemically-dependent member may be quite dysfunctional when
looked at as a single entity. When other
family members are considered individually, though, it may be that their
functioning levels are atypical in reference to the family as a whole. Similarly, some of the specific relationships
within the family may be quite positive and viable. For these basically dysfunctional families, the
educational approach may be most appropriately used on an individual basis with
more functional members or in terms of specific focus on the more functional
relationships. Understanding the family
as a system leads to the positive factor that, enhancing or improving the
function of any element within the system has a net positive effect for that
system. Helping specific family members
and working on specific family relationships will have a net positive effect
even for highly dysfunctional family systems.