Dr. Leverentz has taught in higher education since 2003 and has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, a M.A. in Clinical Psychology, and a B.A. in Psychology and Women's Studies.
How Families Function
Each family has its own unique way of functioning. Sometimes life events occur that disrupt the functioning of an individual in the family or the family system as a whole. The family system simply refers to the interaction between each member of a family and the specific roles each family member plays within the family. Many of us have experienced many serious changes, and each can have a negative impact on the family.
There are many events that can precipitate a crisis in a family. It is inevitable that families will experience at least one of the following.
- The birth of a new child, while often an exciting and welcome event, can also cause extreme fatigue, anxiety, fear, and disruption, regardless of how the baby enters the family, whether biologically or through adoption.
- A diagnosis of a chronic or severe illness can cause increased stress, anxiety, and fear for every family member and physical changes in ability for the ill family member.
- All families deal with aging and the changes that affect us physically, emotionally, and cognitively. These changes are often considered typical results of aging; there are also chronic diseases that are aging-related.
- The death of a loved one can be extremely disruptive, causing family members to grieve the loss of the family member and have to move into new roles in the family.
Negative Impacts on the Family
One impact of these events on a family is the changes in roles that individuals experience. Each individual family has their own unique social roles that members hold within the family system. These roles are related to the parts each person plays based on how the environment influences them. Life events can cause changes in the practical roles that each family member takes. These roles may be physical, such as who pays the bills; cognitive, such as who remembers to schedule dentist appointments; or emotional, such as who other family member's lean on in a crisis. When these practical roles are disrupted, it may leave the other family members off-balance and unsure as to who will step into that role.
Life-altering events can also have impacts on the health of family members. Stress has been shown to negatively impact health, increasing people's susceptibility to illness and injury, and each of these life-events brings a great deal of stress. Caregiving has also been shown to increase the risk of physical illness, in part because caregivers often fail to take care of themselves through good nutrition, adequate sleep, and exercise.
Professionals may use a rating scale called the Social-Readjustment Rating Scale that counts the number of life events experienced in the past year and gives them each a numerical rating. Each numerical rating is then added together for a life stress score. The higher the score, the more likely it is that the person will experience physical illness from the impact of the stressor.
Grieving the changes brought about by these events is another impact that the family will likely experience. We often think of grieving when we think of the death of a loved one, but grieving refers to any kind of loss such as the loss of health, of mobility, or what your life was like before the life changing events. Even a welcome arrival of a new baby involves loss: loss of sleep, loss of freedom, and loss of spontaneity; family members may grieve the loss of these things while simultaneously being happy about the addition of the new baby. When dealing with these types of life-altering events, we must experience the grief and learn to adjust to the losses.
Finally, finances are another area that is often impacted by major life events. Even with health insurance, childbirth and illnesses can be expensive. Without health insurance, they can be positively overwhelming. Adoption is typically an expensive endeavor. Funerals are also typically very expensive. These expenses can cause stress, particularly for families who are not financially equipped to meet the added expense and are often added on to the list of responsibilities that other family members must now meet.
All families will experience a life-changing event at some point, such as the birth of a child, a diagnosis of a serious or chronic illness, aging, or the death of a loved one. These events can affect the family system, which is how the members of the family interact with each other. One way to calculate the effects of these stressors is through the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, with higher scores being related to greater risk of physical illness. These changes can impact families in terms of the social roles they hold within the family, negative impacts to their health, grieving the loss, and a decrease in their financial well-being. The good news is that many people have experienced these events, so if a family is in crisis because of them, there are many avenues to explore for support.
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