By Joshua Essery, PsyD, ABPP
Many families are made up of what clinicians refer to as a “multi-generational family.” This means that as a parent you have your parent(s) or older family members living in the home with you, your partner and your child(ren). When this occurs every member of the family faces challenges about how to live together in harmony. It can be harder to have clear and consistent roles as well as structure in a home where there are multiple generations present. Parenting roles and authority can easily become unclear and confused. Whether your parent disagrees with a parenting decision you make in front of your child or you disagree with your parents, these types of dilemmas and dynamics are difficult for children. As a result, children who experience these types of family scenarios can exhibit a number of emotional and behavioral problems.
That being said, there are many ways to define a healthy family or healthy family dynamics. Multigenerational families thus are not inherently wrong or bad. In fact in many cultures they are the norm! Most family therapists view a family’s health by considering how well families communicate, work through conflicts, as well as how individual members of the family feel about the rules, structure and roles in the family. It is important to recognize that there are no perfect families, nor is there a universally correct way for a family to function. However, multigenerational families can provide many challenges. I will discuss some of the common ones in this article and provide some direction for how to respond if you find your family experiencing these difficulties.
Why did we do this again?
For many families, having several generations live together really helps:
- Financial responsibilities are shared and everyone benefits from lower individual costs.
- Child related tasks can be divided, benefiting the child (who has more access to adults who can help) as well as the adults (who don’t have to do it all alone).
- Members of the family may feel more support and do not feel isolated from one another.
- In some circumstances it may help families navigate the tasks associated with caring for an aging parent.
So what’s the downside again?
While there are benefits, multigenerational families can also be complex, especially for children. Here are some common obstacles children may face:
- Children may not know who the “real” authority figure in the home is. Having a clear authority structure helps children feel safe and secure.
- Children may feel like an equal to adults in the home because they see adults disagree and undermine one another.
- Children may feel that they have to choose sides between family members or even learn to take sides in order to get what they want.These situations are referred to as “loyalty conflicts.”
- Children may learn that if they act up it will cause conflict between adults in the family and in turn the child may gain something that they desire (i.e. expressed love, loyalty, attention, a parent giving in, etc.).
- Parents may feel poorly about their ability to parent and the quality of their interactions with their child may suffer.
So what do professionals say about multigenerational families?
There are a few concepts drawn from family therapy that are important to keep in mind when living in a multigenerational home.
Structural family therapists focus on what is called family hierarchy and the generational boundaries. Structural family therapists believe that there should be a clear power structure in families that is divided by generational boundary lines. In layman’s terms this means that parents should have authority over their children and that children should have a clear understanding about this. In a structural family model, this power hierarchy is maintained through what is referred to as generational boundaries.
For structural family therapists, adults in the home should all be in agreement about their different roles in the family. Adults should be responsible for things such as decision making, parenting, managing finances and working through disagreements without children in the home being unduly exposed to adults working out these issues. In addition, children should have some access to discuss questions and feelings with parents and adults but not to an extent where they are burdened with worries, concerns or conflicts of the adults in the family.
If a child is either overly exposed or lacks access to input regarding the parenting or adult functions in the family, structural family therapists view this as being related to a problem with boundaries between generations (i.e. either too rigid or too loose). In multigenerational families, these boundaries and the associated clarity of roles can at times be harder to maintain than in other types of families.
Given these concepts here are some main points to focus on if you are an adult in a multigenerational home:
- Work out adult matters between adults, in private. Minimize fighting or arguing in front of children. Don’t burden children with adult matters such as anxiety about finances, etc.
- Know everyone’s role with parenting tasks and stick to them as much as possible. Make sure adults in the family are in agreement about who is responsible for parenting tasks and this is communicated to children. Do not reverse or disregard a decision or consequence made by another adult – this can create doubt and confusion for kids.
- Make sure children in the family have the opportunity to ask questions and talk about their feelings to adults in the family.Children tend to become upset if they simply feel commanded, controlled and as if they have no say in things.
- Avoid asking children to take on adult roles or tasks within the family. This can be very confusing for a child who is asked to be in a parent role one minute and in a child role the next.
A second concept to keep in mind when living in a mutigenerational family is what many clinicians refer to as individuation and/or differentiation. These concepts are drawn from psychodynamic family systems approaches which are heavily informed by developmental psychologists studying how children become their own person as they grow up. A major task in any family is knowing how to remain in a good relationship between parents and children as the child grows older. Many families have a hard time dealing with the feelings that result from a child leaving the home or becoming their own person, especially if it’s different from what the parents desired for the child.
On the other hand, many children struggle to manage feelings, such as guilt and anxiety, which come when they try to become more independent from their families. These processes are often especially complicated when parents and children come from differing cultures or value systems. For example, a parent may have grown up in a different country where children are expected to take care of their parents as they age while their child grew up in the U.S. and adopted a strong value for independence. The potential for conflict is clear in this scenario. Each family has to find a way to balance the often conflicting needs to 1) remain in a good relationship and feel close to one another while 2) each family member has their own individual life and identity outside of the family.
In multigenerational families these tensions may contribute to conflict between generations and difficult dynamics between children and adults as they grow up. Here are some things to consider:
- In your family can everyone feel free to be different from one another without fearing or experiencing rejection or criticism?
- Do members of the family know how to have their own life apart from one another, or is this hard for some reason?
- Does anyone in the family experience guilt or anxiety for wanting a more independent lifestyle?
- Do family members seem to be too afraid and overprotective of children in the family? Does this lead them to restrict children from exploring?
How do I know if my child is being negatively impacted?
If you are living in a multigenerational home you may be concerned that your child is being negatively impacted by some of the dynamics that I have described in this article. Here are some signs that the family patterns could be negatively impacting your child:
- Your child may overtly question adults’ authority or resist redirection from adults
- Your child may seem to lack respect for one or more adults in the family
- Adults in the family are fighting a lot about matters related to the child or parenting tasks
- Your child seems sad and anxious about adult matters such as finances, adults’ health, the status of a parent’s happiness or the quality of adult relationships in the home.
- Your child may seem to act like they are a parent or an adult within the family
What can I do if I want help for my family?
If the ideas and suggestions in this article leave you with concern about your family, seeking a consultation with a family therapist would be a good first step. Many clinicians have training in family therapy and clarifying if a clinician provides family therapy services at when making an appointment is important. Family therapy can be a way to increase everyone’s understanding of one another, improve communication and overall family relationships. Clarity Child Guidance Center has several clinicians trained in family therapy and offers one time consultations to obtain psychology staff’s treatment recommendations through the First Step program.