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Signs that your family is at risk may be big events, but usually are not. For example, we were at the airport waiting on our plane. In the snack area, a father at the table next to us spilled his drink in his lap. He reacted with a mild expletive. His two-year-old son flinched and bumped the table. Mother reacted by smacking the child and telling him to shut up and be quiet. The youngster started crying; and the adults exchanged nasty words about how things were going as badly as they had expected.

This brief scene highlights the interrelatedness of marriage, children, and parenting. The marriage has problems when the adults are expecting things to go badly and exchange nasty words over a little spilled milk. Parenting is a problem when the first reaction is to smack the child. Since this was likely not the first time he had been hit over nothing, the cumulative assault to his self-esteem and emotional growth is scary. In less than twenty seconds, the family’s risk point had come and gone; and Dad, Mom, and the two-year-old were all worse off.

The Family System:

You can now use the signs, behavior, and attitudes presented in GETTING STARTED to go beyond simply saying that the family’s interaction at the airport was unfortunate. You can point to specific behavior and attitudes that tell you the family is at risk. It is important for you next to expand your understanding to include the family as a system. What does this mean?

The easiest way to understand your family as a system is to think about the people in your family. Each of you has his or her interests and preferences, typical behavior and attitudes, personal values and beliefs. Your family is more than its members, though; and understanding takes more than knowing about each person and his/her behavior and attitudes. You need to understand how you get along with each other.

Seeing how people get along with each other is a little complicated. It is not as simple as looking and describing what you see.

A convenient way to think about this is to divide getting along into areas. Figure One is a chart showing you the main areas and how they fit together. Down the side of the chart you can see the four main areas of getting along. These are relationships, communication, problem solving, and decision making. Across the top you can see the most important dimensions of getting along. They are behavior, emotions, and values. Somewhat simplistically, behavior is what people do. Emotions and values combine to form their attitudes.

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