Families with Multiple Problems through a Bowenian Lens

By Hurst, Nancy C.; Sawatzky, D. Donald et al. | Child Welfare, November/December 1996 | Go to article overview
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Families with Multiple Problems through a Bowenian Lens


Hurst, Nancy C., Sawatzky, D. Donald, Pare, David P., Child Welfare


This article examines family processes in 17 families with multiple problems through a Bowenian perspective. It was hypothesized that the parents in these families would demonstrate lower levels of differentiation than a norm group of adults drawn from the general population. It was also predicted that these families with multiple problems would manifest distinct patterns of multigenerational problems. Parents of families involved with child welfare were interviewed and genograms drawn up. The parents also completed a questionnaire that reflects aspects of differentiation characterized by Bowen [1978] as the degree of emotional separateness within a family. The study uncovered a high frequency of multigenerational problems, consistent with Bowen's theory.

Ms. K is a 32-year-old single mother with two children referred for family counseling by child welfare authorities because her 10-year-old son claims she has been beating him. He has been stealing and setting fires. His 12-year-old sister has been having violent temper tantrums.

Ms. K's three long-term relationships have ended in breakups. Her first husband was an alcoholic. She left a second longterm common-law relationship because her partner was physically abusive. Recently, her seven-year lesbian relationship came to an end. Ms. K's parents divorced when her mother discovered that her physically abusive, alcoholic husband was sexually abusing Ms. K.

Each gentle probe into Ms. K's background seems to uncover more stories of mental illness, violence, neglect, and abuse. Problems are woven into the fabric of Ms. K's life. They extend deep into her family roots, and are now bearing fruit in behaviors that speak ominously of struggles yet to come.

Experienced family therapists and child welfare workers may well feel a sense of deja vu in the story of Ms. K and her children, one of the families involved in this study. Kagan and Schlosberg [1989] refer to families with multiple problems such as the K family as being in "perpetual crisis." In dire need of assistance, such families are often caught in cycles of denial, aggression, and self-destructive behavior that perpetuate their problems. They have histories of involvement with agencies, courts, hospitals, and child protective services [Schlosberg & Kagan 1988].

These families usually have a "complicated premorbid history, replete with examples of failed attempts at treatment, symptom development in family members other than the identified patient, multiple family crisis, occupational instability, and seriously impaired interpersonal functioning" [Schlosberg & Kagan 1988: 475]. Their family structure is continually vulnerable to breakdown as a result of apparently minor situations. In effect, the families are eternally dealing with crisis after crisis, rendering them fearful, angry, distrustful, and expectant of blame.

Much research has been conducted in recent years on the inheritance and transmission of deeply entrenched patterns of destructive behaviors like those evident in families with multiple problems. Although multigenerational research is plagued by confounding factors of genetics and the limits of retrospective research, strong transgenerational patterns have been revealed in the study of particular events, ranging from incidents of physical and sexual abuse to alcoholism, mental illness, and divorce [Fuller 1989; Greenberg & Nay 1982; Kalmuss 1984; Midanik 1983; Murphy & Wetzel 1982; Weissman et al. 1984]. Given the evidence regarding the multigenerational transmission of family problems, our task as professionals is doubly urgent. As well as helping to relieve the current symptomatology, we are faced with arresting a recurring cycle that breeds distress. In the case of families with multiple problems, perennially in the grip of crisis, it is a formidable task.

A number of theorists have attempted to account for the multigenerational transmission of family problems [Bandura 1973; Boszormenyi-Nagy & Ulrich 1981; Bowen 1978; Bowlby 1980; Kagan & Schlosberg 1989; Framo 1981; Paul & Paul 1975].

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