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Focus here is on the six variables and twenty-four descriptors included in the above activity.  The first variable focuses on the relationships within the family, on how family members relate to each other.  This can be understood at two levels.  First, understanding can be developed in terms of the pattern of interaction; and second, understanding can be developed in terms of the function or value of the interaction to the individuals and to the family system.  Each of the four descriptors relates to both levels.

Fragmented relationships show very little pattern and reflect little continuity or consistency over time.  They are, thus, not continuously available to family members and serve little useful function within the family system.  In fact, fragmented relationships are incompatible with a systemically functioning family insofar as the relationships or connections between people need to be relatively continuous in order for the interaction of the individuals to develop as a functioning system.

Fragmented relationships represent the most dysfunctional level of family functioning.  A somewhat improved level of functioning is seen in families where relationships are characterized by a protective pattern and function.  At this level, the pattern is such that family members are fairly continuously available to each other, with that availability primarily characterized by an orientation to protecting family members both from other family members and from external influences and factors.  This is basically a defensive orientation and may be characterized by a clinging quality where family members relate to each other as a way of protecting both themselves and each other from perceived threats or factors that are generally understood as out of their control.  When thinking about the family as a system, this level of functioning at least serves to protect and maintain the components – family members – of the system and serves to further the continuation of the system.  As can be seen, the relationships at this level do, at least, serve a useful function for the family and its members.

At the next higher level of functioning, the protective aspect of relationships continues but those relationships also serve a supportive function for the family members.  At this level, relationships facilitate positive interpersonal gain and the family relationships serve both the interest of the system and the interest of the family members in terms of their activities, involvements, and participation within and outside of the family.  Families functioning at this level might say, “We help and encourage each other.”

At the highest level of functioning, family relationships are best described as interdependent.  At this level, the pattern reflects a truly systemic interactive pattern within the family.  The functions of protection and support are still present; except family relationships have extended to incorporate the full range of needs and interest of each family member.  Family members can comfortably and confidently count on each other and also understand that the welfare and well being of each family member is significantly dependent on the welfare and well being of the family and the other family members.  At this level, relationships might also be described as complimentary and additive.  The strengths and abilities of each family member are understood as resources available to all family members, with the less strong areas for each family member finding compensatory support in the abilities and capacities of other participants in the system.

At the optimal state, the “self” of each family member is a function of her autonomy combined with her membership in and participation in the family.  At this level, families might say, “We are all very unique individuals but are also part of our family.  Both parts of who we are must be understood and recognized if you are to know us well.”

A similar hierarchy of functioning levels applies to extrafamilial relationships.  At the most dysfunctional level, these relationships are best characterized as disconnected.  The parallel to fragmented intrafamilial relationships is obvious.  In extrafamilial terms, relationships are simply not such that there are good connections with external resources, institutions, support systems, or other individuals or entities that might serve the interest of the family and its members if they were more readily available.  Here, relating to a consultant is problematic insofar as the family and its members have difficulty developing a relational connection with the consultant.

At the next higher level of functioning, extrafamilial relationships may be characterized as alienated.  Here, the relationships exist but do not serve the needs and interest of the family and its members.  The perception is one of alienation or nonbelonging – nonparticipation.  The family and its members are fairly constantly turned off or rebuffed by external individuals and entities or at least perceive themselves in these terms.  Families who operate at this level tend to take a somewhat fatalistic approach to dealing with anyone outside of the family, having very low expectations for those relationships and connections.

At the next higher level of functioning, extrafamilial relationships may be understood as reciprocal or characterized by mutuality.  It is a quid pro quo orientation to the external world.  For example, a reciprocal orientation might operate in a specific situation in this way.  A youngster is having difficulties in school or is in need of special services.  The parents’ orientation to the school is from the perspective that the school “has to” provide the services or respond to the needs because the parent pays taxes and the laws say that that the school must do what is needed.  The same client working with a consultant may think that the consultant is being nice and trying to be helpful simply because she is getting paid to do so.  One helps one’s neighbor because neighbors help each other as a reciprocal requirement for being neighborly.  The same orientation then holds for other interactive experiences between the family and family members on the one hand and external entities and individuals on the other hand.

At the highest level of functioning, extrafamilial relationships may be best seen as coordinated.  The idea is to coordinate external resources, opportunities, and interests in ways that respond to the needs and interest of the family and its members.  Here, the consultant is nice and is helpful because that is who and what the consultant is.  That resource then matches up with the needs and interest of the family.  Arrangements are then made that enable the consultant to consult and the family to receive the consultation services.

At school, the child is helped because that is or at least ought to be the nature of the professional resource.  If some resource exchange is required in order to facilitate the coordination, the exchange will be made, e.g., the payment of consulting fees.  At this level of functioning, the family’s paying the consultant is only incidental to the process.

Communication is the next focal variable.  At the most dysfunctional level, communication among family members is random.  Again, note the parallel with fragmented relationships.  Random communication is, of course, ineffective and inconsistent in relationship to the family as a system.  To the extent that the primary linkage or connection between family members is in terms of communication, random communication represents an absence of any identifiable pattern, of any significant systemic interaction within the family.  People may talk and interact in both verbal and nonverbal ways.  Nonetheless, these episodes of communication serve no dependable, continuing, or particularly useful function, although it may help the people avoid becoming bored and totally alienated from each other.

At the next higher level of functioning, communication is ritualized.  Here it will help to draw the analogy to other types of rituals, such as social rituals.  People are communicating out of habit, as a function of the accepted patterns or procedure, or by following the unwritten family rules.  For example, in families where ritualized communication is the norm, one quickly gets the feeling that everyone has heard and participated in the conversation before.  In addition, each family member is well schooled in terms of her role and expected participation in the communication of the family.

At the next higher level of functioning, family communication is best described as serial or searching.  Conversations tend to drift and usually do not maintain any clear focus for long.  If the topic is important or of interest to the participants, one gets the impression that family members are searching for ideas, feedback from others, or new ways of thinking or perceiving.  Ordinarily, though, the process does not go beyond this searching-exploratory activity.

At the most functional level, communication is best described as congruent.  Here, there may be some ritualized communication, an initial pattern of searching or exploratory communication, but the end result of the process will be the development of congruence.  People are talking about the same thing at the same time in approximately the same terms.  At this level, one also notes a real capacity to focus on particular problems or issues, the needs and interest of specific family members, or other topics of interest to the participants.  It is as if the communication process leads to a collective consciousness, a collective capacity to think about and deal with the problem, opportunity, situation, or other specific topic.

Decision making enters the family system as the next variable.  At the most dysfunctional level, decision making within the family system may be described as paralyzed.  Problems and issues come up from minor to major, with those in authority simply being unable or unwilling to make necessary decisions.  Frequently, decisions are made simply by default or as a function of not deciding; or actions taken are based on impulse, minimal thought, and are generally unrelated to the family’s overall welfare or well-being.

At the next higher level of functioning, decision making is simply autocratic.  In this sense, decisions are frequently arbitrary and seldom take into consideration the feelings and interest of the family and of its members.

At the next higher functional level, decision making is participatory, with family members having a voice in the process.  At this level, the participants in the process generally make the final decisions, although the autocratic approach is still sometimes used.  At the highest level of system functioning, decision making is task-centered.  At this level, the decision maker and the process depend on the specific task or purpose for the decision.  Generally, the individual having the direct responsibility for the effects of the decision will make the decision.  Much of the time, decisions are simply made by the person who needs the decision at the time.  Of course, the participatory process and occasionally the autocratic process also operate; but the preponderance of decision making rest with those most directly involved and effected.  As a variation on the task-centered theme, the decision making process may also be categorized, with specific family members making decisions within given categories, e.g., household decisions, minor financial decisions, major financial decisions, business-related decisions, and within other categories important to the specific family.

Central to the life of the family system is problem solving, with this important aspect of family life being best describes as “none” within the most dysfunctional family systems.  Problems are simply not solved in any active and intentional way and especially not in any way that takes into consideration the needs and interest of the family and its members.  At this level, problems tend to accumulate and intensify purely as a result of nonattention to them.

At a somewhat more functional level, problem solving within the family is best described as mechanistic.  The process is somewhat mechanical and incapable of innovation, novel solutions, and highly individualized solutions to new or unfamiliar problems.  Also, the same solution tends to be given for the same problem even if the special conditions or circumstances at the time should reasonably be expected to call for an individualized solution.  At the next higher level of system functioning, problem solving becomes explorative.  Here, note the parallel to the “searching” level of communication within the family systems.  At this level, the family continues exploring for solutions to problems and for resolutions of difficult situations.  The exploration continues until a solution is developed that seems to fit or respond to the problem.  The result is not necessarily what would have been the best solution but represents a very adequate solution on a one-problem-at-a-time basis.

At the highest level of problem solving, the appropriate descriptor is flexible.  Here, all of the processes discussed may be used with the addition of the capacity to flexibly use different approaches to different problems.  It is a little like having a problem-solving tool kit.  The flexible approach says that if pliers do not seem to fit the problem, a screwdriver may be tried.  Also, this level of functioning allows for the use of new tools that are not already in the problem-solving tool kit.

Perhaps planning is the variable that most typifies the family style and the level of functioning of the family system.  At the most dysfunctional level, there is no planning and things just tend to happen.  The family and its members begin to take on a somewhat chaotic pattern of interaction and a somewhat fatalistic philosophy of life.  At a somewhat improved level of functioning, planning becomes expedient.  At least here thought is given to what will work or get the family where they are going in the short run.  The planning takes in few issues beyond the immediate need or interest; but at least that need or interest is usually responded to at some level.

At the next higher level of functioning, planning may be described as synthesizing.  The needs and interest of the family and its members are added into the process as they develop and are responded to in terms of the available resources, given those things to which resources are already committed.  Here, resources include money but also include time, energy, and available motivation.  At the highest level of functioning, planning is best described as integrative.  Here, the needs and interest of the family and its members are identified, prioritized, and considered in relationship to all aspects of family life.  New pieces are not simply added to the existing list.  They are carefully considered in relationship to all current aspects of family life, the history of the family with similar needs and interest, and – here is the key – in relationship to all anticipated needs and interests of the family that may develop in the future.  Any new piece that enters the family system is then part of the system as a whole and not something that has been appended to an already existing and in place system.  Of course, not all can be anticipated; and part of the integrative planning process is to allow enough flexibility to always be able to respond to the unexpected, within limits.

(Note) The above discussion focuses on the family as a whole, the family as an entity.  As has been noted, families functioning within the most dysfunctional range are, in fact, not operating as viable, positive systems.  They are, rather, operating as a collection of loosely related individuals.  In contrast, families functioning at the higher levels represent true systems in the interdependent, interactive sense of the term.

As you assess families, though, there is an additional factor to keep in mind.  Even though the family itself may be quite dysfunctional, there may be family members or specific relationships within the family that are significantly more functional than the family as a whole.  For example, a family with a chemically-dependent member may be quite dysfunctional when looked at as a single entity.  When other family members are considered individually, though, it may be that their functioning levels are atypical in reference to the family as a whole.  Similarly, some of the specific relationships within the family may be quite positive and viable.  For these basically dysfunctional families, the educational approach may be most appropriately used on an individual basis with more functional members or in terms of specific focus on the more functional relationships.  Understanding the family as a system leads to the positive factor that, enhancing or improving the function of any element within the system has a net positive effect for that system.  Helping specific family members and working on specific family relationships will have a net positive effect even for highly dysfunctional family systems.

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