It’s critical, in any system, to define roles and responsibilities. This helps a system run smoothly.  The opposite is true as well: systems break down when members are confused about their roles or when they start impinging on other people’s functions. Family systems are no different.

In a family system, think about jobs like this:

  • Parents: establish safety through boundaries, validation, and empathy.

  • Children: explore and learn through experiencing and expressing emotions.

  • Parents should not control their kids’ feelings… and kids’ should not control boundaries.

  • Family systems often look messy on the surface (protests, crying, screaming) even when everyone is doing their jobs well. When reflecting on tough moments, focus on whether each person fulfilled their jobs rather than on the length or intensity of a tantrum or protest.

I love thinking about these Family System Jobs because it helps me evaluate the moments in my own house that feel hard.  When I tell my son that I have to go start work and then hear him screaming for me, I can think to myself: “The on-the-surface data would imply that things are a mess.  But wait… did we each do our jobs?”

Then I review:

  • I had said to my son in the time before separation, “Sweetie, I know it’s so hard for you when Mommy has to do work. That makes sense; you love being by Mommy’s side! You will be with Daddy, and I will see you for lunch. Mommy always comes back.”

    • I did my job. I set boundaries that felt right to me, expressed validation with my words, and communicated empathy with my tone.

  • My son protested. And screamed. And cried.

    • He did his job. He experienced and expressed feelings.

  • In response, I said, “I know it’s so hard, sweetie. You’re allowed to be upset.  I love you,” and then left.

    • I did my job. It’s all right there: validation, empathy, boundary.

  • Then I walked away.  My son cried.

    • He did his job. Again, experiencing and expressing feelings.

So… jobs well done, I suppose.  Now let me be clear: this wasn’t a “feel good” moment for me. No “Woohoo, that was awesome!” celebration.  But reviewing how each of us did, in fact, fulfill our jobs was very grounding and prevented me from having a self-blame moment (“Am I doing something wrong?”) and a child-blame moment (“What is wrong with my son that he still cries at my temporary departure?”).  This is huge.

With older children, the jobs stay the same. Older kids may express their feelings through talking back or rudeness, at which point you can set your boundary: “I won’t allow name-calling in this house,” and then follow up with validation and empathy: “You must be really upset, you must be not feeling great about some stuff in your life, to speak to me that way. I’m always going to be more interested in how you’re feeling than in how a feeling happens to come out in the tone of your voice. Maybe we can get some time together later and connect. We haven’t had much alone time recently. Let’s do something tonight.”

If your child continues to be rude (though honestly, few are after a parent sees through their behavior and into their pain), continue reitrating: “I won’t let you speak that way to me. It is totally unacceptable. You must find a different way to express your anger. You can use different language that’s not hurtful or you can write me a letter and tell me everything there. I love you and I want to understand what’s happening for you, but I won’t be able to if you continue to speak to me this way.”

Looking to feel equipped?

Right now, pause and think of a messy moment: maybe your child wanted to pour glue all over your couch, maybe your son asked you to use his iPad at a time that felt way too late to be reasonable, maybe your daughter was protesting after you took her away from her older sibling’s block building area to make sure she wouldn’t knock it down.

Think about Family Jobs. Did you do yours? Did your child do his? If not, where did this get mixed-up? If yes, but the situation still felt really tough, remind yourself right now: “I did my job. My child did his. It still felt hard. And yes, parenting is hard. So I guess I’m doing it right.”

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