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The emotional and
intellectual stages you pass through from childhood to your retirement years as
a member of a family are called the family life cycle. In each stage, you face
challenges in your family life that allow you to build or gain new skills.
Gaining these skills helps you work through the changes that nearly every
family goes through.
Not everyone passes through these stages
smoothly. Situations such as severe illness, financial problems, or the death
of a loved one can have an effect on how well you pass through the stages.
Fortunately, if you miss skills in one stage, you can learn them in later
The stages of the family life cycle are:
Mastering the skills and milestones of each stage allows you to
successfully move from one stage of development to the next. If you don't
master the skills, you may still move on to the next phase of the cycle, but
you are more likely to have difficulty with relationships and future
transitions. Family life cycle theory suggests that successful transitioning
may also help to prevent disease and emotional or stress-related
Whether you are a parent or child, brother or sister,
bonded by blood or love, your experiences through the family life cycle will
affect who you are and who you become. The more you understand about the
challenges of each stage of the cycle, the more likely you are to successfully
The stress of
daily living, coping with a chronic medical condition, or other life crises can disrupt the normal life cycle. Ongoing stress or a crisis can delay the
transition to the next phase of life. Or you may move on without the skills that you need to easily adapt and transition to the next phase of life.
assured, you can learn missed skills and improve your and your family's quality
of life at any stage. Self-examination, education, and perhaps counseling are
ways to improve yourself and your family life. These are also actions that can
help you manage other issues, too, such as going through a divorce or being a
part of a nontraditional family structure.
Independence is the most critical
stage of the
family life cycle. As you enter young adulthood, you
begin to separate emotionally from your family. During this stage, you strive
to become fully able to support yourself emotionally, physically, socially, and
financially. You begin to develop unique qualities and characteristics that
define your individual identity.
Intimacy is a vital skill to
develop during your independent, young adult years. Intimacy is the ability to
develop and maintain close relationships that can endure hard times and other
challenges. In an intimate relationship, you learn about:
You also learn who you are outside of your identity within
your family. Your ability to develop an intimate relationship depends on how
successful you were at developing your individual identity earlier in
If you are a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered person (LGBT), this stage may include making your sexual orientation known, or "coming out" to your family and friends.
Exploring interests and career goals is part of developing
independence. To live successfully away from your family, you must develop
financial and emotional independence.
You also begin to be
responsible for your own health in this stage. You become responsible for your
nutritional, physical, and medical needs. Developing healthy habits at this
time—such as good nutrition, regular exercise, and safer sex practices—is
important for lifelong good health and happiness.
You learn new
aspects of independence throughout your lifetime. Even when you have moved on
to another stage of life, such as coupling, you continue to learn independence
within the context of that stage.
During the independence stage,
you hope to:
Other important qualities you develop during this phase
next stage in the
family life cycle may be coupling. Using qualities such as trust that you gained in the independence stage, you can explore your
ability to commit to a new family and a new way of life. Although being in an intimate
relationship with someone does involve a
process of adaptation and relationship building, a marriage or committed union often requires unique
When you join families through a marriage or committed union, you form a new
family system. Your family system includes your personal ideas, expectations,
and values. These are shaped by the relationships and experiences with your
original family. When you marry or form a union, you combine your family system with your
spouse's or partner's. This requires reshaping your goals and your partner's goals. In the most
functional relationships, partners have the ability to take two different points of
view and create an option that neither person had considered. It differs from a
compromise in that it is not giving up something. Rather, it is creating a
third, better option.
You may find that some of the ideas or
expectations that you held in the past are not realistic at this stage. Some
common areas of adjustment include:
The ultimate goal at this stage is to achieve
interdependence, which occurs when you are able to fully enter into a
relationship with another person. Interdependence also requires that you share
goals and that you are able to sometimes place the needs of another above
your own. But before you can achieve interdependence, you must first have a high degree of independence.
The relationship skills
you learn in coupling serve as a foundation for other relationships, such as
parent-child, teacher-student, or physician-patient.
couple, you learn:
Most research shows that early on, a happy marriage is
full of passion and sexual intimacy, which can become less important in later
successful marriage. A satisfying marriage at this stage includes a high amount
of considerate or kind acts (such as doing something nice for the other person
without being asked) and praise.
The life skills you learn in
this stage are important in developing true interdependence and the ability to
have a cooperative and healthy relationship. Some of the challenges of this
You and your partner will have less stress if the transition
into a new family system is smooth. Less stress often means better
Your specific goals for this stage of the family life
At some point
in your relationship, you and your partner will decide if you want to have a baby.
Some couples know going into a relationship that they do not want children.
Parenting is one of the most challenging phases of the
family life cycle.
The decision to have
children is one that affects your individual development, the identity of your
family, and your relationship. Children are so time-consuming that
skills not learned in previous stages will be difficult to pick up at this
stage. Your ability to communicate well, maintain your relationships, and solve
problems is often tested during this stage.
Introducing a child
into your family results in a major change in roles for you and your partner.
Each parent has three distinct and demanding roles: as an individual, a partner,
and a parent. As new parents, your individual identities shift along with how
you relate to each other and to others. The skills that you learned in the Independence and Coupling stages, such as compromise and commitment, will help you move to the Parenting stage.
Along with the joy that comes
from having a child, you may feel a great deal of stress and fear about these
changes. A woman might have concerns about being pregnant and going through
childbirth. Fathers tend to keep their fears and stress to themselves, which
can cause health problems.
Talking about your emotional or
physical concerns with your
obstetrician, or counselor can help you deal with
these and future challenges.
Adapting children into
other relationships is a key emotional process of
this stage. You will take on the parenting role and transition from being a
member of a couple to being a parent. While you are still evolving as
individuals, you and your partner are also becoming decision-makers for your
family. Continuing to express your individuality while working well together as
a couple results in a strong marriage.
Your child's healthy
development depends on your ability to provide a safe, loving, and organized
environment. Children benefit when their parents have a strong relationship.
Caring for young children cuts into the amount of time you might
otherwise spend alone or with your partner. If you did not fully develop some skills in previous phases, such as compromise for the good of the family, your relationship may be strained. For example, divorce or affairs may be more likely to occur during the years of raising young children if parents have not developed strong skills from earlier life stages.
But for those who have the proper tools, this can be a very
rewarding, happy time, even with all of its challenges. Optimally, you develop
as an individual, as a member of a couple, and as a member of a family.
Specific goals when young children join your family
Parenting teenagers can be a
rough time for your family and can test your relationship skills. It's also a
time for positive growth and creative exploration for your entire family.
Families that function best during this period have strong, flexible relationships
developed through good communication, problem solving, mutual caring, support,
Most teens experiment with different thoughts,
beliefs, and styles, which can cause family conflict. Your strengths as an
individual and as part of a couple are critical as you deal with the increasing
challenges of raising a teenager. Strive for a balanced atmosphere in which
your teenager has a sense of support and emotional safety as well as
opportunities to try new behaviors. An important skill at this stage is
flexibility as you encourage your child to become independent and creative.
Establish boundaries for your teenager, but encourage exploration at the same
time. Teens may question themselves in many areas, including their sexual orientation and gender identities.
Because of what you learned when you developed your identity in the earlier stages of life, you may feel more prepared and more secure about the changes
your child is going through. But if you did not work through these skills at
earlier stages of life, you may feel threatened by your child's new
Flexibility in the roles each person plays in the
family system is a valuable skill to develop at this stage. Responsibilities
such as the demands of a job or caring for someone who is ill may require each
person in the family to take on various, and sometimes changing, roles.
This is a time when one or more family members may feel some level of
depression or other distress. It may also lead to
physical complaints that have no physical cause (somatization disorders such as stomach upsets and some headaches) along with other
relationship and your individual growth can sometimes be ignored at this stage.
Toward the end of this phase, a parent's focus shifts from the maturing teen to
career and relationship. Neglecting your personal development and your relationship can
make this shift difficult.
You also may begin thinking about your
role in caring for aging parents. Making your own health a priority in this
phase is helpful as you enter the next stage of the family life cycle.
Specific goals during the stage of parenting adolescents include:
The stage of
launching adult children begins when your first child leaves home and ends with
the "empty nest." When older children leave home, there are both positive and
negative consequences. If your family has developed significant skills through
family life cycle, your children will be ready to
leave home, ready to handle life's challenges. Free from the everyday demands
of parenting, you may choose to rekindle your own relationship and possibly your
Developing adult relationships with your children is
a key skill in this stage. You may be challenged to accept new members into
your family through your children's relationships. You may focus
on reprioritizing your life, forgiving those who have wronged you (maybe long
ago), and assessing your beliefs about life.
If you struggled with previous life phases, your children may not have learned from you all the skills they need to live well on their own. If you and your partner have not transitioned together, you may no longer feel compatible with each other. But remember that you can still gain the skills you may have missed. Self-examination, education, and counseling can enhance your life and help ensure a healthy transition to the next phase.
This is a time
when your health and energy levels may decline. Some people are diagnosed with
chronic illnesses. Symptoms of these diseases can limit normal activities and
even long-enjoyed pastimes. Health issues related to midlife may begin to occur
and can include:
You may also be caring for aging parents in this phase,
which can be stressful and affect your own health.
to reach at this stage include:
retirement phase of the
family life cycle, many changes occur in your life.
Welcoming new family members or seeing others leave your family is often a
large part of this stage as your children marry or divorce or you become a
This stage can be a great adventure where you are
free from the responsibilities of raising your children and can simply enjoy
the fruits of your life's work. Challenges you may face include being a support
to other family members, even as you are still exploring your own interests and
activities or focusing on maintaining your relationship. Many people are caring for
elderly parents at this time. You may feel challenged by their emotional,
financial, and physical needs while trying to help them keep their
You may experience declining physical and mental
abilities or changes in your financial or social status. Sometimes you must
deal with the death of other family members, including your partner. The quality of your life, in part, depends on how well you adjusted to the changes in earlier stages. It often also depends on how well you have cared for your own
health up to this point. Normal aging will affect your body, resulting in
wrinkles, aches, pains, and loss of bone density. The chances of having a
mental or chronic physical illness increases with age. But aging does not
mean you will automatically experience poor health.
can be a fulfilling and happy time. Becoming a grandparent can bring you great
joy without the responsibility of raising a child. But those who are without
adequate support systems or not well off financially may have a more
difficult time in this phase of life.
Specific goals to reach for
at this final stage of your family life cycle include:
This American Academy of Pediatrics website has information for parents about childhood issues, from before the child is born to young adulthood. You'll find information on child growth and development, immunizations, safety, health issues, behavior, and much more.
This government agency has information on parenting and
childcare, including adoption and foster care. ACF addresses issues of child
abuse and neglect, child support, and children with special needs. The Web site
also has information on building healthy marriages to provide a strong and
stable environment for raising children.
Other Works Consulted
McGoldrick M, et al., eds. (2011). The Expanded Family Life Cycle: Individual, Family, and Social Perspectives, 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Newman BM, Newman PR (2012). Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach, 11th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Rentfro AR (2010). Health promotion and the family. In CL Edelman, CL Mandle, eds., Health Promotion Throughout the Lifespan, 7th ed., pp. 171–199. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.
Current as of:
January 3, 2013
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
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