The Family's Life Cycle


Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.
— Jane However

How did your parents react when you left home? Did your mother want to camp out in your dorm room to make certain you were okay and wouldn't make a mistake she was sure would ruin your life, and did she keep your room just as you left it, a shrine to your childhood, and a place you could return any time you wanted? Were you glad your mother was always there to do your laundry and were you eager to tell her everything you did because you knew it made her happy to know?

On the other hand, when you left home for college, did your mother breathe a sigh of relief, wish you all the luck in the world, and turn your room into her study? And were you glad to be out of the house, away from all her rules and regulations, and were fairly mum about your activities, and didn't ask for her opinion on what courses you should take?

Each family approaches the transition from living-at-home to launching-into-the-world a little differently. As a family moves from one stage of life to another, they have to navigate new territory in which the rules of the game have shifted. It can be very stressful.

During the middle of a stage within a family's life cycle, patterns of behavior become comfortable and everyone rather knows what is expected of them. Then, seemingly suddenly, there is a shift. A "child" (though now in her twenties or, often these days, even in her thirties) begins her own family and the parents need to back away. Intrusions into their daughter's life may be welcomed by her, because she is used to relying on her parents for support. But in-laws butting into her life may not be welcome by her new husband. Such is the making of mother-in-law jokes.

Few of us make the transition from one stage to another seamlessly. But it is helpful to know that there is a pattern of life that flows through all families. Of course, the age at which an individual leaves home and the time when he or she enters into a relationship and has children will vary considerably from one person to another, and from one culture or era to another. Nevertheless, the stages of the family life cycle remain the same.

The following description of these stages is based on my own graduate school work and a variety of resources, such as Family Therapy: An Overview by Goldenberg and Goldenberg.

Stage One: Single young adults leave home

Here the emotional change is from the reliance on the family to acceptance of emotional and financial responsibility for ourselves. Second-order changes (see sidebar) include differentiation of self in relation to family of origin. This means we neither blindly accept what our parents believe or want us to do, nor do we automatically respond negatively to their requests. Our beliefs and behaviors are now part of our own identity, though we will change and refine what we believe throughout our lives. Also, during this period we develop intimate peer relationships on a deeper level than we had previously and become financially independent.

Stage Two: The new couple joins their families through marriage or living together

The major emotional transition during this phase is through commitment to the new system. Second-order change involves the formation of a marital system and realignment of relationships with extended families and friends that includes our spouses.

Stage Three: Families with young children

Emotionally we must now accept new members into the system. This isn't hard initially because babies come to us in sweet innocent packages that open our hearts. Unfortunately, in the middle of the night we may wonder what we've gotten ourselves into. Nevertheless, we adjust the marital system to make space for our children, juggling child rearing, financial and household tasks. Second-order change also occurs with the realignment of relationships with extended family as it opens to include the parenting and grand-parenting roles.

Stage Four: Families with adolescents

Emotional transitions are hard here for the whole family because we need to increase the flexibility of a family's boundaries to include children's independence and grandparents' frailties. As noted above, second-order change is required in order for the shifting of the parent-child relationship to permit adolescents to move in and out of the system. Now there is a new focus on midlife marital and career issues and the beginning shift toward joint caring for the older generation when both children and aging parents demand our attention, creating what is now called the sandwich generation.

Stage Five: Launching children and moving on

This is one of the transitions that can be most emotionally difficult for parents as they now need to accept a multitude of exits from and entries into the family system. If the choices of the children leaving the nest are compatible with the values and expectations of the parents, the transition can be relatively easy and enjoyable, especially if the parents successfully navigate their second-order changes, such as renegotiation of the marital system as a couple rather than as simply parents. Other developmental changes include development of adult-to-adult relationships between us and our grown children, inclusion of in-laws and grandchildren, and dealing with the disabilities and death of our own parents. (See Letting Go of Our Adult Children: When What We Do is Never Enough for what can happen when transitions in this stage become particularly bumpy.)

Stage Six: Families in later life

When Erik Erikson discusses this stage, he focuses on how we as individuals either review our lives with acceptance and a sense of accomplishment or with bitterness and regret. A family systems approach, however, is interested in how the family as a unit responds and sees the key emotional principle as accepting the shifting of generational roles. Second-order changes require us to maintain our own interests and functioning as a couple in face of physiological decline. We shift our focus onto the middle generation (the children who are still in stage five) and support them as they launch their own children. In this process the younger generation needs to make room for the wisdom and experience of the elderly, supporting the older generation without overfunctioning for them. Other second-order change includes dealing with the loss of our spouse, siblings, and peers and the preparation for our own death and the end of our generation.

© 2002, Revised 2015 Arlene F Harder, MA, MFT