No matter how harmonious you may want your family life to be, some disruptions and disturbances are inevitable. When they occur, they can be stressful for every member of the family. Here are some of the most common events and circumstances that can interfere with the normal course of family life.
Illness and Injury
Whether it is a parent or a child who becomes ill or injured, the entire family is affected. While even a short-term illness like the flu can disrupt the normal activities of a family, a chronic disease (from cancer to epilepsy) can create lengthy and even permanent disturbances in the way a family functions.
For a youngster in middle childhood, reactions to illness depend on a number of factors, including the nature of the illness (its severity, course, and treatments), her previous experiences with medical problems, her overall ability to cope, and the support she receives from the family.
You may need to do some adjusting to the illness as well. With a short-term disease you might feel stress and annoyance until the condition disappears. With a chronic illness your reactions may be more severe. You might experience guilt, fear, anger, helplessness, and hopelessness. You may need to set aside time for treatments as well as conferences with physicians and other health-care professionals. You will need to learn as much as possible about the illness and its care.
Also, with a chronic or long-lasting disease, you need to comfort your child. Explain the condition as honestly and fully as possible, and what she can expect by way of treatment and cure. Be realistic; do not make promises that can't be kept. Encourage your youngster to express her feelings, too; not only should she feel free to talk with you about anything on her mind, but she should be able to trust her doctor. Discuss how to communicate about the illness with friends, classmates, and teachers. If it appears that your child is having strong emotional reactions or troubling behavior, she might also benefit from some counseling.
Parental Mental or Substance-Abuse Problems
If you or your spouse are depressed or have another mental or emotional illness, your child is growing up differently than her peers. Depression in a parent affects all family members and colors their relationships with one another and with people outside of the home. Depressed parents tend to create a less positive emotional tone in the way their family interacts. They do not respond as quickly or as appropriately to the emotional needs of their children. They are also more likely to be controlling and coercive in relating to their youngsters, rather than discussing and negotiating issues.
Many children of depressed parents feel rejected and develop low self-esteem. They may have problems relating to their peers and thus are less likely to become involved in social activities. These children can often benefit from close relationships with adults outside the family and from professional counseling to help them develop ways of coping with the stresses within their families.
The children of alcoholics and other drug abusers may have similar problems. Although family experiences vary, these youngsters often grow up with more negative life experiences, and a decreased sense of togetherness and open communication. Drinking is also tied to a greater incidence of parental depression, family violence, and marital problems. Active participation in school and extracurricular activities can go a long way toward helping these children achieve success and happiness. In the meantime, affected parents need to seek professional help for their drinking and drug-abuse problems.
Arguments and Conflicts
Disputes between you and your children are inevitable in family life. If your family never has arguments, it probably means that issues are being avoided. To become productive adults, children need to be able to voice their opinions—even if they disagree with yours—and feel they are being taken seriously. Even so, you can and should keep the negative impact of arguments to a minimum by adhering to the following guidelines:
- Be selective about the issues you fight over. When a potential problem arises, decide if it is really worth the battle; some issues probably are not. For example, if your child wants to wear an old pair of sneakers to school rather than the newer pair you recently bought her, or if she wants to wear her hair a little longer than you would prefer, you might decide to let her have her way, choosing to take a stand on more important matters instead. Pick your battles carefully.
- As long as arguments stay within certain boundaries, they are an accept able and productive form of communication. They can continue as long as they are under control, respectful, and are moving toward a solution. But discontinue them if they degenerate into name-calling, if calm voices are replaced by shouting, or if you and your child are going around in circles without progressing toward a resolution. Never laugh at your child, no matter how ludicrous her arguments sound to you; by laughing you are essentially ridiculing her and what she is saying.
- If you are unhappy with the essay your child wrote about the Civil War for school, for example, the two of you can discuss what you perceive to be its shortcomings. But remember, it is her school assignment and her responsibility. Her teacher is the ultimate judge. If the dialogue between you and your child starts to get personal ("You don't know what you're talking about!"), then it's time for a break. Tell your child: "This discussion isn't going anywhere. We need to stop, cool down, and come back to it later." Resume the dialogue later in the day, when one or both of you might have a new approach to the problem.
- Some families actually schedule these follow-up discussions. A parent might say, "Come back with five points to support your argument, and I'll have five to support mine." Families can even create a format for these dialogues: The child speaks uninterrupted for five minutes, and then the parent responds during the next five minutes; after another round of five minutes each, you might find areas where you can agree or compromise.
- Let your child win sometimes. When you and your youngster argue, you need to do more than listen to her point of view; when she presents a persuasive case, be willing to say, "You convinced me. We'll do it your way." Let your youngster know that you value her point of view, and that through communication, conflicts can be resolved—and that sometimes she can win.
- If conflicts about particular issues recur again and again, take a look at the root causes. Think deeply about why you and your child are arguing about these matters, and try taking some preventive action. For example, if your youngster rebels against going to bed each night, she may be using her outbursts as a way to stay up a little longer, or to get more attention. Or if she repeatedly argues about doing her homework, try to put an end to these conflicts by actually writing up a contract stipulating the expectations, responsibilities, rewards, and punishments for doing and not doing homework. Remember that the homework assignment is made by the teacher and is your child's responsibility. She may not do it your way, but if she is satisfying the school's requirements, you should not turn it into an issue at home. Both you and your child should sign the contract, agree to abide by it, and (hopefully) end the disagreements about the subject.
- Do not forget that children learn how to handle disagreements by watching their parents' example. How readily do you and your partner have "good" arguments, which end in successful reconciliation? Or do you stay angry, or avoid fights altogether? Your children model themselves on you.
Departures and Returns
Do you or your spouse frequently travel on business? These can be disruptive times for your child and for the family as a whole. To minimize problems, prepare your youngster for these out-of-town trips. Spend as much time as it takes to explain where you are going and why.
Your child may be sad, anxious, angry, or all of these before and during your travels. You need to acknowledge and accept her feelings: "I know you're going to miss me. I understand that you feel this way. I'm going to miss you too." In addition to missing you, your child may also feel inconvenienced, insecure, unsafe, or worried about how you and she will fare during your absence.
Remind your youngster that you will be back soon. And while you are away, maintain contact with phone calls (each day if possible), as well as postcards or letters. Once you come home, make your return special; spend some extra time with your child and do something together that she enjoys.
What happens when you lose your job? Or when the family has financial problems? These disruptions can be very unsettling for your child, particularly if you are not honest and do not help her deal with the situation directly.
If the family is having financial difficulties, for instance, your youngster does not need to know all the specifics; however, she deserves an explanation of why she may not be able to return to the same summer camp she attended last year, or why you may not be able to buy her the exact pair of sneakers she wants. Children need to know: "Mom lost her job, so we're going to have to reduce our spending until she finds a new one."
Children can be just as concerned about disruptions in the extended family—for example, the news that her uncle and aunt are getting a divorce. Don't be surprised if she asks what exactly is happening and how it might affect her relationship with her cousins. She also might ask you: "Are you and Dad going to get a divorce too?"
It is unwise to protect your child from these kinds of family problems. Keep in mind that if she sees you becoming anxious, without an obvious reason, she may misinterpret it ("Oh, no, is Mom upset with me?"). Keep the channels of communication open, encourage your child to express her own feelings, and explain how you and your spouse are trying to get the situation back on track. And reaffirm the importance and the stability of your family: "Even though Dad has lost his job, we are all going to stay together as a family and we are all going to be okay."