Q: Dear Dr. Wes & John: What do you see as the three top reasons for family strife today? - Online Chat Participant
A: Dr. Wes: This one really made me think, especially trying to narrow it down to three factors. I decided to choose the three things I most commonly wish I could go back in time and change about families I've seen during 13 years of clinical practice. Here's what I came up with:
¢ Early or swift coupling followed by premature pregnancy. I realize that sounds like two answers in one, but they tend to go together. Couples who get pregnant before they are prepared to do so are at extremely high risk of family problems down the road. There's really no age barrier on this one. I've seen it among people at any childbearing age. However the younger the couple is, the more the resulting problems are multiplied.
In general, a couple has to be a couple - and work out all the problems therein - before they can be highly successful parents. Babies don't just need to be wanted, they need to be desperately wanted. An unplanned pregnancy can turn into a lifelong love, or it can turn into a focal point of resentment and rejection. Of course, I've seen people make the best of this difficult situation and pull it off. I admire them and learn from them BECAUSE the odds were stacked against them. Among the families that struggle, this is a very common denominator.
¢ Underinvolved parents. Whether they're married, divorced or never married, families function best when two cooperative parents offer substantial time and attention to their children. We ran an essay on Father's Day this year that illustrated a child's pain when one of her parents goes missing or becomes uninvolved after a divorce. The same can be true for parents who are still married but don't take active interest in their children. I really respect solo parents (married, single or divorced) who strive to make up for the lack of a co-parent. However, their children often remain haunted by the thought that they were not good enough or important enough for the absent parent to care for. And the workload for the remaining parent is more than doubled. There are also cases when both parents are too involved in other activities to be active in their children's lives. This may become particularly apparent in adolescence, when parents erroneously feel they have put in their time and can now relax while the children supervise themselves.
¢ Substance abuse. I have seen families in which an alcoholic or drug abuser held it together well enough not to damage the rest of the family - but they were few and far in between. In general, substance abuse is problematic because it creates an environment that is unpredictable, chaotic and anxiety-ridden. It also tends to replicate from parent to child. Peer pressure is not the best predictor of teen substance abuse; parental use is.
There's my three. I invite readers to consider and even submit their lists. I'm curious how others see the topic.
John: Here's my list:
¢ Divorce. The average divorce costs $20,000, not including the increased costs of living afterward. There is ample evidence to suggest divorce is emotionally costly, too. Children of divorce are twice as likely to drop out of school and six times as likely to feel alone. Forty-nine percent are likely to get divorced as adults. With 53 percent of marriages ending in divorce today, couples should take steps to avoid this grim future. One way is through premarital counseling, in which couples discuss tough questions about their plans and learn about the squishier elements of their future. Others include being engaged for at least six months, living separately until the wedding and waiting until adulthood to tie the knot. Some authors suggest waiting as long as your mid- to late-20s.
¢ Financial issues. Money is a staple for all families, and poor financial planning is a major cause of family anxiety. The average household carries $8,000 in credit card debt, and personal savings are at the lowest rate since the Great Depression. When it comes time to pay the bills, some families fight over who is at fault for spending too much. The working parent may wish she earned more, but when she does get a raise the family simply increases its rate of spending.
Instead, families need to work together to develop a realistic budget that includes all the essentials and limits wasteful spending. Financial discipline is difficult at first, but it pays huge dividends once mastered. In their high school and college years, teenagers should learn to balance a budget, without resorting to quick-fix credit.
¢ Communication. It sounds like a cliche, but poor communication is the root of many problems facing American families. This week, Time magazine reported average Americans spend nearly three times as much time watching television as they do socializing. Time constraints aren't the problem here; priorities are. Family members should seek first to understand one another's feelings, then state their own views on important issues. If each member feels his or her views have been heard and respected, he or she will feel much more comfortable with the final resolution.
Next week: Why am I so jealous of my boyfriend?
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.