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The Family Life Cycle: Definition, Stages & Theory

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  • 0:07 Individual & Family…
  • 1:30 Family LIfe Cycle:…
  • 3:45 Family Life Cycle:…
  • 5:35 Cohesion & Adaptability
  • 7:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jade Mazarin

Jade is a board certified Christian counselor with an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy, and a certification in Natural Health. She is also a freelance writer on emotional health and spirituality.

What kind of phases does a family typically go through? In this lesson, we will examine the family life cycle, as well as learn about two measurements for family health: cohesion and adaptability.

The Individual and Family Development

As we all grow and enter different phases in our lives, we go through various challenges and conquer milestones unique to that phase. For example, in the first few years of life, a baby is dealing with learning to trust his or her caregivers, whereas the main task of a teen is the need to figure out their own identity.

The developmental steps that we go through have been explained by theorists like Erik Erikson, who proposed the previous examples of the psychosocial growth of children and teens, and Jean Piaget, who explained their stages of cognitive or mental growth. Knowing these individual stages of development is useful to counselors because it gives them a foundation for understanding what typical issues stand out in each season of one's life. This helps them pay special attention to an individual's progress or stagnation in this area, how that presents symptoms in the client, and how it may impact their later growth.

But, the stages an individual goes through during life is not the only type of growth that counselors should pay attention to. For counselors doing family therapy, it is also important to understand that the family itself has its own stages of development. This can be described by the family life cycle, or a series of developmental stages a family moves through over time.

The Family Life Cycle

1. Unattached Adult

The main issue occurring in this first stage is accepting parent-offspring separation. Rob Smith has just turned 20. He is in college, which means he is experiencing life on his own for the first time. The tasks that are critical for him to accomplish in this phase include: separating from family and connecting with peers as well as initiating a career.

2. Newly Married Adults

The main in issue in this stage is commitment to the marriage. Rob is 23, and he has just gotten married. He is learning how to no longer act for himself and now act for the welfare of his wife and their relationship. He is accomplishing the tasks of forming a marital system while continuing to address career demands at his job as a copywriter.

3. Childbearing Adults

Rob's wife, Penny, has just given birth to their first child and named her Becky. They are now accepting new members into the system. They need to make adjustments in their usual schedules, finances, and duties in order to care for this new child. They are also needing to make room for visits and interactions with their parents in their new role as grandparents.

4. Preschool-age Children

Becky has just entered a preschool and is full of energy, joy, and curiosity. And, while adored by her parents, she is also a bit draining. Now is the time for Rob and Penny to accept the new personality of their child, adjusting to it in whatever ways are best. It is also important that Rob and Penny make efforts to take time out as a couple - going out on dates, for example.

5. School-age Child

Becky is 8 years old, and the issue at hand now is for Rob and Penny to allow their child to establish relationships outside the family. This means they give Becky permission to go over to Megan's house for her birthday party or to have Miranda over to the house on Saturday. Along with encouraging social interactions, this time includes tasks like encouraging the child educationally and managing increased activities, like Becky's play rehearsals after school.

6. Teenage Child

This is a challenging time for Rob and Penny. Becky is now 15 years old and wanting more independence. The main issue is then increasing flexibility of family boundaries to allow independence. Rob and Penny need to shift to some degree in their parental role and provide opportunities for Becky's growth.

7. Launching Center

Rob and Penny find it hard to believe, but it is actually time for Becky to head off for college and live on her own. The issue now is for them to accept exits from and entries into the family. While Becky leaves home, she still comes back every several months to visit, so one of the tasks is to accept her leaving while also maintaining a supportive home for her to return to.

8. Middle-aged Adults

It is a strange feeling for Rob and Penny to be alone in the house again after all those years. They are now letting go of children and facing each other again. Now that their conversations are not focused on Becky, they are learning to share other things with each other and building their closeness. Becky is now 25 and married, so they welcome her back to their home for visits. The final task to face now is managing the continued aging and new illnesses present in Penny's father and Rob's mother.

9. Retired Adults

Rob and Penny have just moved to Florida because they thought it would be a great change of pace for their retirement. They are accepting retirement and old age, which means they are taking part in tasks like keeping up their own health, keeping in close touch with Becky and her family, and dealing with the grief of losing their parents.

While the life cycle of a family describes the proper development of a family, there is another way for counselors to assess family health, which is through considering their levels of cohesion and adaptability.

Cohesion and Adaptability

When a counselor talks about cohesion, he or she is referring to the degree of closeness members of a family share. There are four different levels of cohesion from lowest to highest: disengaged, separated, connected, and enmeshed.

Disengaged describes a family that is distant. Parents who do not show any affection to their children or avoid genuine communication with their teens are examples of a disconnected family.

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