Change and the Family Life Cycle

It’s been said that the nature of life is to change, but the nature of people is to resist change. There exists a significant distinction between the way our natural world automatically changes and evolves and the way individuals often resist the change occurring around them. We see our natural world change every day, with the rising and setting of the sun, for example. As humans, we are changing every day as well. Babies grow into toddlers, teenagers grow into adults, adults grow into old age. Often these natural life changes are exciting and inspiring. But they can also be frightening and frustrating. Because these changes present unfamiliar situations, an individual may experience significant resistance to major life changes.

Feeling resistant to change is normal. It is the fear of the unknown that often contributes to this resistance. Questions individuals often ask themselves when faced with change may include – What will happen in the future and how will it affect me and my family members? Am I/we ready for this change? What if I/we don’t get it right? Just as individuals change throughout life, families change too. The intellectual and emotional stages a person passes through as a member of a family are considered the family life cycle. Generally speaking, there are six stages in the family life cycle:

• Independence/single young adults. This is a critical stage in the cycle that involves the development of a more individualized identity separate from the identity of one’s original family unit. Tools and characteristics that are more fully developed during this stage include initiative, work ethic, self-care, as well as important life skills such as budgeting, organization, and time management.

• Joining of families through coupling or marriage. This stage involves exploration of one’s ability to commit to a new family and a new way of life. This stage also requires the successful combining of one’s own skills, beliefs, and personal traits, with those of a significant other. In most instances, this requires a healthy amount of flexibility. Ideally, when a new couple comes together, each member is equipped with the skills and traits to combine two distinct ways of life and create a new third option that includes the individual ideas and desires of both partners.

• Parenting/families with young children. Not all couples enter into this stage of the family life cycle. But when they do, couples are often faced with a number of challenges, including the stress of caring for a child, the need to adjust the couple space to make room for a child or children, as well as the need to redefine relationships with extended family members to make room for grand parenting and other roles.

• Families with adolescents. What a challenge this stage can be! Parents who are used to having a great deal of say and control in regards to their child’s life, now must pivot in what may feel like extreme ways to accommodate the needs of the child, who is learning to move effectively in and out of the family system. As an adolescent begins to form his or her identity, family conflict can arise.

• Launching children. Typically, this stage begins when the first child leaves home and ends when the last child leaves home. Parents in this stage are now faced with an “empty nest” and must adjust to being “just the two of them” again. A refocus on the couple relationship is often needed and couples may find it challenging in this stage to find their way back to each other after years of focusing on their children. This stage may also involve developing healthy and meaningful relationships with adult children and the important people in their life, as well as caring for aging parents or other extended family members.

• Families in later life/retirement. Welcoming new family members, as well as seeing other members leave your family through death, are normal aspects to this phase of the family life cycle. This phase can be full of joy and happiness as one watches his or her family grow, but it can also be filled with sorrow as individuals deal with the loss of significant others and loved ones. Adjusting to life without a career, as well as a decline in one’s physical health are also challenges during this phase that require the utilization of tools and skills that have been developed in earlier stages.

During each stage of the family life cycle, family members are placed in positions in which they are required to utilize tools and skills that have been developed in previous stages, as well as a level of flexibility that can be challenging to achieve. And not surprisingly, families often find aspects of these stages difficult to navigate.

Clearly, understanding the family life cycle has its benefits. When an individual understands the challenges that he or she may face in each phase, he or she can more effectively develop the tools and skills necessary for transitioning to the next stage. If a person becomes “stuck” and has difficulty transitioning from one stage to the next, that individual is more likely to have difficulty with family relationships. Additionally, there are a number of things that can disrupt the “normal” family life cycle, such as death of a loved one, divorce, as well as remarried family formation. Every day stress, or a major life crisis, such as the loss of a job, can also contribute to added strain during any of the life cycle stages.

No matter your role in your family, spouse or partner, brother or sister, aunt or uncle, your experiences within each stage of the cycle will affect who you become. Keep in mind that, no matter your situation, skills and tools that were not acquired in previous stages, can certainly be learned at any time during your life. Seeing a mental health professional can certainly be helpful when faced with issues transitioning through life’s stages.

If you or a family member is finding it difficult to navigate life’s big changes, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced Orlando mental health counselors.


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