Home for the Holidays
Monday, November 23, 2009

By: Nancy L. Iben, MFT

Thousands of people travel to see their families during the holidays.

These family gatherings often include meeting new arrivals to the family and spending time with people we only see rarely. However, interactions between family members can range from affectionate to strained. How is that, when we go home for the holidays, old memories, both joyous and traumatic, seem like they happened only yesterday? How can we enjoy these family gatherings if they raise the past so dramatically?

Murray Bowen, the father of family systems theory, identified several issues that describe the family system. The first is that every family works to maintain some level of balance and stability. This is called homeostasis. It is similar to keeping the temperature at the same degree because everyone is used to it. Anyone who tries to move it up or down because they are uncomfortable is at risk of being reprimanded or forbidden to touch the thermostat. Each member of the family has his or her role to play, and there is pressure to maintain that role in order to preserve the stability of the family unit.

Why is it that your younger brother can never hold a job and is always borrowing money from you just as he used to borrow your sports equipment when he was a kid? Why is it that your older sister can’t accept your professional status in life and has to keep treating you like the little sister that she had to care for, but always put down? Why is it that the baby of the family continues to be the one who demands everyone’s attention at every family gathering? These and other scenarios are just a few of the patterns that get reenacted when we go home for the holidays. Often we feel unexplainable anxiety in making a step forward because our proposed growth will take us out of the roles assigned to us within our families. The uncanny thing is that these roles remain fairly well carved in stone even if we have little or no contact with our families. When we venture home for the holidays we are expected to put on our role as if it were a uniform.

Try to use these visits home as an opportunity to explore your own family tree to better understand your family dynamics. Bowen developed a chart he called a genogram to chart the family system. Begin with yourself and your brothers and sisters move to your parents and their brothers and sisters and then to their parents. By looking at the roles of oldest, youngest and middle children and the roles of males and females in your family and in the families of your parents and siblings we can often identify “transgenerational” patterns in families. This means that oftentimes behaviors, lifestyles, relational issues, abuse issues, etc. repeat themselves within families. Because of this the same issues are often reenacted in one generation and the next. We often can see in the “genogram” a history of mental illness, suicidality, depression, substance use, physical abuse, sexual abuse, health problems, etc. and often these are “transmitted” from generation to generation. Note any disorders or mental problems, any abuse issues, and relational issues, such as divorce, domestic violence, children out of wedlock, etc. in three generations of your family. Also note talents, who become the caretakers, which children are favored and which are the black sheep. Is there a pattern that the oldest children excel and the youngest have substance use issues? Is there a pattern that the oldest female child never marries and/or becomes caregiver for the parents? Is there a pattern that all the children locate their homes around the father’s home and the family life revolves around the grandmother or grandfather?

Through knowledge of your family’s generational history you could create the pathway out of the maze. You could break the family cycle but only if you are aware of its existence. It is fascinating to see that without awareness we can fall into the same patterns as our ancestors. We may think we have separated and individuated but we may still be carrying on family “traditions” without even realizing it.

Use your visit as an opportunity to start talking to aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents to get the information you need to fill in the blanks about your family. It may be hard to believe, but face-to-face contact with these family members may help bring positive change in your own life and in your relationship with your parents. People who become reactive in their families of origin also reenact the same conflicts in their present day lives, complicating current relationships. Wouldn’t it be nice to someday go home for the holidays and have relationships with your family be based on the real world present day happenings, as opposed to the regressed family environment, which we can only tolerate for short periods? This year when you go home for the holidays, hopefully it can be an opportunity for interpersonal and family growth. It’s time to truly enjoy the holidays!

Author : Nancy L. Iben MFT
Nancy Iben is a Marriage, Family Therapist, licensed in 1994 and in private practice since that time. She has also been the Clinical Director of the counseling center at The Boys and Girls Club of Venice for 5 years, supervising interns and seeing children and families for therapy. In 2003 she became Assistant Clinical Director of Airport Marina Counseling Serice for 1 year and then Clinical Director of Airport Marina Counseling Service for the last 5 years, retiring from that position in July of 2009. During that time she was not only managing the provision of clinical services at the agency but supervising interns and teaching a training class for new interns.

She is currently supervising and training interns and teaching a Family/Child Certificate Program at Airport Marina Counseling Service.

She is in private practice in Playa del Rey where she sees individuals and couples working on relationship issues. She sees adolescents with and without their families. Some areas of specialty are depression, anxiety, phase of life issues, grief and loss, childhood abuse issues, people recovering from substance abuse and psychology interns needing therapy for school.

To learn more about Nancy Iben please click here.