A family is as complex as a machine and as delicate as china. When it works it’s
wonderful, but it’s also easily damaged. Dr Nicola Davies explores the complex issue
of family dynamics
Family dynamics are all about the roles various individuals play in a family ‘system’.
Imagine your family as a baby’s mobile – when one piece moves, the whole mobile shifts.
The family systems theory suggests that individuals can’t be understood in isolation,
but rather as a part of their family, as the family is an emotional unit. Families
are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be
understood in isolation.
Any change in one family member affects the whole family or system. Here we take
a look at the criss-cross of relationships that make up a family unit.
PARENTS IN PARTNERSHIP
With the arrival of children, the focus of a couple shifts, sometimes to the detriment
of the relationship. ‘So much attention is directed to the physical, mental and emotional
well-being of the children, that the focus moves away from the couple itself,’ says
Patterson, mother of two-year old Sammy.
The immense exhaustion of parenting a baby and raising children can test even the
strongest of relationships. Creating a work-life
balance is often the biggest challenge. Many parents take a
‘divide-and-conquer’ approach when it comes to household chores,
parenting and work. Others take a ‘doing-it-all’ approach, with joint
responsibility for daily tasks.
Regardless of the approach you choose, ensure both parents agree
to adopt that approach to create a positive home environment that fosters strong
emotional bonding with children.
Managing stress related to parenthood is important. When parents
are less stressed, they are more able to devote time to each other. Regular and uninterrupted
time together – whether it is an hour every day or a night out once a month – is
for parents individually can also help to lower parenting stress.
SIBLINGS WITHOUT RIVALRY
Having two or more children often means dealing with sibling rivalry daily. Jealousy,
fights, wanting the same things and craving attention are just some of the manifestations
of sibling rivalry.
Causes of sibling rivalry include insecure parental attachment, perceived different
treatment by parents, individual child personality, and birth order. Many parents
have an unconscious habit of making comparisons between siblings, which children
may see as favouritism. For instance, Emma is the arty one, and Jake the scientific
‘Regardless of age, don’t compare!’ advises Gen Matthews, mother of five year-old
Nathan and seven-year-old Claire. ‘Nothing sets off a sibling fight faster than a
comparison with a sibling, even if a parent feels it is a completely harmless one.
It leaves them feeling
bitter towards each other.’
It can be hard to avoid making comparisons, because there will always be something
that one child does better or differently. But comparative remarks can lead children
to take on certain roles that only act to perpetuate sibling rivalry.
For instance, an older sister may take on the ‘hero’ role when parents always highlight
how well she is setting an example with her grades or behaviour. At the other end,
the younger brother may take on the ‘scapegoat’ role where he feels insecure about
living up to his parents’ expectations. Children who feel boxed
into contrasting roles will find it more difficult to get along.
It’s important to embrace differences in siblings and tailor your behaviour to match
each individual personality. But although you need to tailor your behaviour to the
needs of each individual child, you do need to keep any stereotypical attitudes out
parenting style. Maybe your son is more emotionally sensitive than your daughter:
in this case, don’t highlight it through comparisons, but nurture the difference.
All children crave attention and providing them with periods of
undivided attention can help to dispel some of the sibling rivalry. Individual time
for each child provides undivided bonding time for parents and children.
Mum-and-child dates or dad-and-child dates work like magic. Pick an activity you
and your child like to do and make an event of it. Drawing, fishing, reading, camping,
cooking…. literally any activity can be turned into a bonding experience.
Often, when children return from a one-on-one date with a parent, they are nicer
towards (and more tolerant of) their siblings. Do also remember that each child needs
to spend some alone time, away from their siblings: make sure they have space to
do just that.
10 tips for a strong family
• Create positive goals for your family.
• Prioritise family time.
• Time together is quality over quantity – when it happens,
focus entirely on your family, free from distractions.
• Bring laughter in with silly stories and jokes.
• Have regular family meetings and include your children
(when old enough) in making decisions.
• Say something positive to each family member every day.
• Make partners feel special by devoting time to them.
• Always come together at mealtimes and engage in
• Plan a trip together – even a day trip.
• Learn something new together as a family.
THE MOTHER FIGURE
According to Family Systems theory, mothers typically take on the role of the nurturer
– the one who invests heavily in the family’s health and wellbeing, at times doing
so at the expense of their own emotional health.
This can backfire as maternal mood and behaviour directly impact child development.
Society has set an impossible standard for mothers today.
‘In this day and age of information, mums are expected to know and do everything,’
says Gen Matthews. ‘From their family’s physical, financial, mental and emotional
well-being to their environmental impact and societal contributions, we have to think
of it all! Added to this, we are expected to be working too. Mums today are too stressed
to care for themselves.’
So, overdoing things and not looking after yourself isn’t the best
for your child – or you and the rest of the family. Taking time out from their many
family commitments is crucial to keeping mums sane, because their role in maintaining
the balance in the family unit is absolutely central. Unfortunately, not overdoing
remains a struggle for many mothers.
Most mums also take on the role of educators in early childhood,
particularly learning through play. In today’s society, they are encouraged to introduce
play activities that develop personality, promote independence and encourage siblings
to get along.
But quite unconsciously, mothers may still perpetuate gendered
stereotypes between sons and daughters by using more emotion laden language with
daughters than sons. This can give the message to children that emotions are more
acceptable for girls than boys.
All children, sons and daughters, benefit from having a healthy level of emotional
intelligence, so it is important to develop an emotional closeness with your child
regardless of gender.
THE FATHER FIGURE
The father typically takes on the role of a disciplinarian laying down rules to protect
the family in the Family Systems theory. All children benefit from having someone
imposing a sensible discipline structure. But dads need to be wary when emotions
are high, as disciplinarian fathers have been known to set irrational rules.
Through infancy and early childhood, fathers are often play companions to children.
Interestingly, the type of play may be different from the mother’s. It tends to be
largely exploratory, encouraging free play and nurturing curiosity.
Sons and daughters view fathers differently, yet all kids benefit from having a close
bond with their father. A son looks to his father as a male role model, while a daughter
tends to learn
confidence and independence from her dad.
Emotions and fatherhood seem to make a volatile mixture when it comes to relating
with kids. A recent study shows that fathers talk more openly about emotions with
daughters than sons, and they are also more likely to respond to a cry for help from
Also, the themes of winning, achievement and pride recur more in
father-son conversations than father daughter talks. Dads need to be careful not
to gender stereotype to prevent rivalry. They also need to take care to provide equal
attentiveness to girl and boy siblings.
Modern day dads may be changing family dynamics. A 2016 American Academy of Paediatrics
(AAP) report coined the term ‘new fatherhood’, based on fathers becoming more hands-on
with childcare and household chores. For instance, more dads are
taking on the role of the stay-at-home parent and taking up post-childbirth paternal
James Askew, father of five-year old Daniel made sure he took time off during his
son’s first year of life. ‘I feel that work isn’t worth it if I can’t spend time
with my son,’ he says.
Each and every family member has an impact on the family system and can help to make
their family stronger, or weaker. By recognising individual strengths and accepting
unconditionally, every member of the family is more likely to thrive. This is what
makes family activities a must – allowing family members to bond and to appreciate
each other’s very special