“Is my family normal?” That’s a pretty common question for a family therapist to hear. It’s one of those questions that therapists politely avoid by asking another question: “Why do you ask?” or “Do you have questions about your family?”
The truth is, there is no “normal” family. The term “normal” assumes a comparison to most other families and, frankly, a significant proportion of families in our society have serious problems. “Normal” also assumes that there is some standard model that we compare to, a measurement of what something “should” be like. There is no ideal prototype of the prefect family, families are different in many wonderful, positive ways. So there is no ideal by which we measure a “normal” family.
A much more meaningful term is “functional”. What’s functional family? When something is functional, it accomplishes its purpose. A better question is “How functional is my family?” We may not know what normal is, but we do know a family’s job!
A family has three general functions. These functions revolve around meeting the needs of family members in three areas:
Maintenance needs – food, clothing, shelter, safety. These needs involve basic physical survival. When these needs are met, children have a sense of safety and stability, and a foundation for developing basic trust and security.
Nurturance needs – Encouragement, acceptance, affirmation, affection. These needs involve having people around who value and enjoy you. People who comfort you, reassure you when you’re frightened and praise you when you succeed. When these are met, children develop a sense of personal value, self-esteem, and dignity.
Guidance needs – Training, role modeling, educating. These needs involve helping member’s function outside the family. Morals, ethics, spiritual values, as well as management of behavior and emotions. When these needs are met, children develop a sense of competence and self-reliance as well as a context for independence, success and courage.
When a need is unmet in a child’s life, that child develops a method of coping, they learn to adapt in some way. They learn to lie or hide or pretend. They learn to act aloof or angry when they feel unloved. They learn to act superior when they feel inferior. They learn to intimidate or withdraw, to get big or get invisible. They learn to pretend they don’t care when they are dying emotionally. To some degree, each of these coping methods works in childhood. They protect the child from experiencing the agony of unmet emotional needs. Each of us developed coping mechanisms of some sort.
We carry these adaptations with us into adulthood, where, in many cases they are no longer needed; often they are destructive to our closest relationships. Unfortunately, we’ve been practicing them since childhood (when they served a purpose). Long ago we learned to accept them as “normal”. Today we’re not even aware that they are a part of us.
No family is perfect. This means that no family fulfills its function completely. In other words, no one grows up with all his or her needs met all the time. Every family is, to some extent, dysfunctional. Therefore, each of us enters adulthood with these coping mechanisms. In adulthood, these are deficits. We all have them (as will our children). Of course, some family dysfunctions are more damaging than others. Abuse, neglect and adondonment leave huge emotional chasms, which impact us throughout life, if unresolved.
Regardless of the nature or extent of our family of origin dysfunction, each of us is personally responsible for our own growth as adults. Our deficits may be the result of our parent’s imperfection, but resolution is always up to us. While the roots reach into our history, the fruit is picked today. The more we understand about those roots, the better we will be to deal with the fruit we produce.