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Issues or Patterns: What is the Problem, Really?

Issues or Patterns: What is the Problem, Really?

Author: Marlene Johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand that in family conflicts, relationship patterns or specific issues may be factors generating conflict. 

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Issues or Patterns: What Is The Problem, Really?

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When there is conflict within a family, it can erupt from a variety of sources. There might be a single instance or issue that causes the conflict, or it might be a pattern of events that have happened over time that lead to this particular conflict. So I'm Marlene, and I'd like to talk with you more today about issues and patterns in family conflict.

So families. We all know what it's like to be part of a family. We're born into families. We have our own families. The relationships in our families are long-term, they can be intense.

So they're affected by three things I've written here. Norms, systems, and ripple effect.

The norms, the cultural norms we grow up with, influence what we think is proper and right for a family behavior. And then within our own families we have our own individual ideas about what a family is supposed to be like, what the relationship should be like.

And this can differ from family to family. We may have a particular norm within your family about celebrations. Everybody gets together for holiday celebrations, birthday celebrations. And we always have these big celebrations.

Or communication. When people leave the home, they communicate, they stay in touch, whether it be through email, through text, through personal phone calls, through Skype. This is just considered normal.

Now, there are families who would do it completely differently. Perhaps celebrations over the holidays or for birthdays aren't that big a deal. You don't feel compelled to gather back and join into them.

Or communication. Once you leave the home, you might not communicate with some family members for months on end, and that's just normal. It's the way it is in your family.

The way you communicate within the home can differ. Some families may find that when there's upset in the family, people yell. They say what's on their mind. They might even throw things.

Other families, they want to keep it nice. They avoid conflict at all costs. Nobody says anything; it's very nice.

And so those are differences in what might feel normal to any particular family member depending on what the assumptions and beliefs were in their family. This is also true for roles. The particular role you play in a family will differ depending on what your family thinks is appropriate and right.

So when a family member violates one of these norms, whatever they are, it's going to shake up the family because a family is a system. And as we know, a system is made up of individual components.

And each one of these components behaves in a particular way, whatever the system is. And if one component changes the way it behaves, it has this ripple effect. OK?

The ripple effect. It effects every other component in that system. So if you think about this in terms of families, if one family member changes the way they behave, it's going to have a ripple effect.

Or if something comes into this system to change it, whether it be a birth or a death, it could be any event, it changes the system. It has a ripple effect.

So when we think about conflicts here, we know that a conflict can emerge from violating a norm. It's going to affect the system. It has a ripple effect.

And it's interesting to look more closely at conflicts. Do they come just from an individual issue? Somebody did something? Or is it a pattern over time?

So I'm going to write these two words down, issue and pattern. OK.

An issue, of course, is just a single event, something happens. And a pattern is a series of events that happen over time.

So for example, let's say there are a couple of children within a family. We'll call them Terry and Neil. And Terry has always gotten good grades, done very well, no problems with Terry, good student in school.

Neil has a learning disability and some just other issues, always has had since he was born. So one day parents get a call, and Terry has skipped class. And the teacher said, yeah, he's not doing so well.

So there's conflict. And dad comes up to Terry and says, what's this I hear about you skipping class?

Terry says, well, I wanted to go to the mall. You know, I figure why not? I'm going to go to the mall with my friends. I have a right to do that. I want to go to the mall with my friends, and there was something going on there, and we went.

And dad says, well you can't just skip class and go to the mall. You're going to start getting worse grades, and you're going to fail. You can't do this. And there's this conflict over the fact that Terry skipped class and went to the mall.

So that was the issue. But is it really the issue or was there maybe another pattern here? Something causing the conflict?

So let's say that my mom and dad and Terry sit down and they have some conflict resolution, and as they begin to talk they discover that Terry is feeling kind of left out, ignored because Neil is getting all this attention.

Mom and dad are paying a lot of attention to Neil, because he needs a lot of assistance, a lot of help. So Terry acted out, skipped class, went to the mall, and what Terry's real interests here are is some attention from mom and dad that he's feeling that he's not getting. It wasn't necessarily that he needed to go to the mall, but he does need this extra attention.

So there's a pattern here of feeling as though as long as he's doing so well, maybe he's not going to get the attention. Maybe he needs to act out a little bit or not do so well, like his younger brother Neil, and he'll get more attention. So this might be a pattern in the family system that is actually caused this event here to erupt with Terry.

Or you might find another instance. There's a family gathering, a holiday gathering, and you don't show up. You just don't go to this gathering. And there's conflict.

Well, why didn't you come home for the gathering? You always come home. We come home for the holidays. Why didn't you come home?

You say, well, I was really busy. I'm sorry, I couldn't make it. Maybe next time.

So there's this issue here, this conflict, with you missing this event that you said you were going to come to and then at the last minute you cancelled. But is that really the reason? Was it just that issue or is there an underlying pattern here?

Perhaps after some more discussion you share that you don't like coming home because, inevitably, mom and dad start fighting. There's always some fighting that goes on, and you just didn't want to be part of it. So these family gatherings are not enjoyable.

You don't like the fighting that happens. There seems to be a lot of tension around that holiday gathering, and you decided not to be there because of that pattern.

So in the family conflict, because families have these norms, ways of behaving, operate as systems, oftentimes a conflict might reveal an underlying pattern. Not always, but certainly there's that possibility. And the pattern can cause something particular to happen.

And, of course, there are times when maybe it is just an issue, something happens. But it's always interesting, and helpful as the intervenor if you're called in to do family conflict resolution to when you are talking to the parties and hearing their positions and uncovering the underlying interests to see if indeed there are patterns there as well as specific one-time issues.

So thank you for joining me, and I look forward to next time.

  • System

    A set of components whose behaviors affect one another causing a sequence of related events leading towards an outcome.

  • Ripple Effect

    A means of describing how a change to a system creates alterations of behavior or relationships throughout the system as a whole.

  • Cultural Norm

    The variety of behaviors and perceptions considered "right", "true" or "proper" by a culture.