I’ve been quite influenced by family systems theory (FST), I’ve found it a helpful tool for understanding social situations and for knowing how to achieve positive change in relationships and groups. Lately I’ve been thinking about how it applies to families themselves.
One of the most powerful insights FST offers into social networks is that stress is an important factor to be considered. Stress is a negative commodity that can be shared around, amplified, guarded against, etc in relational networks such as families. Pumping up the stress levels in a group is generally destructive. But FST encourages what it calls non-anxious presence: where a person stays engaged in the relational set, has clearly defined boundaries, and stays calm about it all. This calm is a big factor in achieving change in the network. When the others in the group realise that you are not going to apologise for who you are, that you are willing to put up with temporary conflict or disagreement and not be intimidated or manipulated into backing down – when that becomes clear, the whole network will readjust itself around you until it reaches a new equilibrium. Non-anxious presence is a powerful agent for change in family systems.
I think you find an awareness of these issues in Scripture, just using different terminology. In particular the important biblical idea of ‘peace’ (Hebrew shalom), while a complex concept, certainly includes the sense of ‘low stress situation’. And Scripture repeatedly encourages us to aim for peace in relationships:
Seek peace, and pursue it.The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Blessed are the peacemakers
So far as it depends on you, live at peace with all people
These passages are teaching us to conduct ourselves in a way that lowers the emotional temperature in heated situations. In other words, to think about issues relating to stress.
So I want to think about how the above insights from FST about stress might help in parenting. No doubt this has been done better elsewhere, but I haven’t seen it, so let me know if so, and meanwhile I’ll have a go here.
Here’s a proposition for you:
if parents can identify key areas of heightened stress in their family life, and practice being a non-anxious presence at those points in particular, they should achieve maximum change in the family with minimal effort.
Sound simple? Yes, simple, but maybe not easy! Let’s make a start.
Step one would be to become sensitised to the issue of stress. Not everyone is! Sometimes we can be yelling at our family and still not notice that we are stressed, or that we are injecting stress into the system. In fact, some people live with such constant stress in the home, that they have trouble noticing it at all. But it still has its destructive effects! And all the more because it is allowed to do its work unchecked.
So we need to start looking out for this. When are my children stressed in the home? When is my husband/wife stressed? What are the signs? What do they do when they are stressed? And the hardest one to notice: When am I stressed? What are the signs of that? What do I do at those times?
Don’t worry for the moment about causes. It’s enough to start by noticing the presence of the thing: of stress in your family system.
Before too long you should be able to come up with a top five of stress situations in your family life. Here are some for my family:
- Leaving for school in the mornings – last 15 minutes
- Meal times
- Before guests arrive – last 30 minutes
- Transitions in general
- Administering discipline
Ok I got six. We have plenty to choose from around here!