Family Crisis
Family Crises Defined - Hill's ABC->X Theory

Family stress comes in many forms.
There are normal stressors, such as getting married, adjusting to living in a new group, having babies, unemployment, and so on, which are experienced by most families from time to time. There are also abnormal stressors, such as famine, war, natural disasters, massive economic collapse, murder, assault, incest, and so on, which tend to occur in selected families, sometimes happening at random, sometimes happening to families with special weaknesses.

In any case, the individual can be prepared for these events by agents from all parts of our society, the most informative agent of which can be one's own family. The effects of family crises of various kinds comes down to the recognition and management of stressful events in our lives.

Keep in mind the old saying - If it ain't broke - Don't fix it! - meaning here that most families live long and relatively happy lives without suffering a series of extremely disturbing events, even though their level of functioning may be somewhat less than perfect.

Some Definitions:

  • Stress = tension resulting from depleted family resources - an imbalance that must be corrected.
  • Stressors = those life events or changes that are so serious or drastic that they require changes in the family system, for example, the death of a spouse, financial crisis, unemployment.
  • Distress = extreme psychological pressure resulting from facing repugnant and/or unenjoyable challenges.
  • Eustress = extreme psychological pressure resulting from facing enjoyable and/or beneficial challenges.
The prudent family member will feel stress, look for the stressor(s), determine whether or not Distress or Eustress is happening, and make appropriate adjustments in the family system.

Reuben Hill (1949) published a paper, as the result of his work in the field of "family dismemberment" during and after World War II. As a social scientist working for the Army, Hill was charged with assessing the impact of war casualties on American families.

His ABC->X Theory of Family Stress, though modified, is still used in family development to describe the process by which families survive and endure over the lifespan.(see figures below).

The model above illustrates a family that recovers from stressor events and returns to their previous level of functioning, however, the process does not always result in this outcome:

Sometimes families find that overcoming and surviving a crisis actually makes them stronger and more resilient due to the realization of talents and abilities unseen before.

Logically, some families find that recovery is beyond their grasp (below). Either they stagnate at a lower level of functioning, or find themselves dealing with new crises before repairs can be made on the initial disturbance:

Theorists after Hill, such as McCubbin, refer to this phenomenon as crisis "pile-up", in which additional crisis situations further reduce the family's ability to cope and function.

The interaction between (a) stressors, (b) family resources, and (c) perception of events as stressors is what defines a crisis for any individual family. In other words, assuming a family is aware of its resources, such as the number of family members bringing in paychecks, the emotional strength of family heads-of-household, the demonstrated wisdom of elder relations, the variety of family resources will disallow all but the most devastating events to be perceived as crises. If stressors are adequately dealt with by family resources, the perception of the stressor will be that it is a minor thing.

Non-theoretical types might miss the strong Symbolic-Interaction language present in the Perception part of his model.

Equally missed might be the Structural-Functional spirit of reorganization and re-equilibration of the family system after crisis.

Events are critical only if they are perceived to:

  • 1. create a hardship
  • 2. deplete family resources
  • 3. run contrary to family member goals.
Once a crisis is perceived to be upon a family, members are said to become disorganized for a period of time, the length of which is determined by the level of functioning of the family and the perceived magnitude of the crisis. The angle of recovery, whether steep or nearly flat, determines the duration of the crisis, returning the family to some level of functioning again. Families with a variety of resources upon which to draw strength will suffer fewer crises, their period of disorganization will be shorter, the angle of recovery will be steep, and they are more likely to return to a level of functioning at or higher than the pre-crisis level. Families with few resources, are more likely to suffer more frequent crises, longer periods of disorganization, flatter angles of recovery, and are less likely to return to their former functionality.

Further, over time, such bankrupt families will suffer what some researchers refer to as pile-up, where crises occur while the family is reorganizing from previous crises. Social workers understand this phenomenon. They often see families with no requisite coping skills, or barely developed ones, or pathological reaction patterns that they use when things go wrong. But even in normal families, ignorance of the pitfalls of life in the late 20th century can be devastating, and often families have fewer resources to get them through rough spots than they think they do.

Surviving family crises isn't all bleak news - there are some possible positives.
In fact, researchers and theorists have made some generalizations about the positive outcome of crises. Adversity may increase family functioning and solidarity.

Conflict, for example is known to either break relationships apart (if unresolved) or pull the relationship tighter together (if resolved in a fair and open manner). Flexibility in shifting roles that often result from the reorganization of a family after crisis can strengthen individual family members and the family as a group. Members can discover strengths and talents they didn't know they had.

The family is always better off with plenty of cross-trained members able to do each other's work. The best adjustments to crisis come after some difficult work. Quick adjustments to crisis do not allow closure of the problem or final adjustments.

There are various "types" of family stress, including the most obvious -- alcohol and drug abuse, family violence of the mental, physical and sexual varieties, divorce and widowhood, -- but these are abnormal to most families. We'll get to these later on. The most common and, in some ways the most destructive to families overall, are the normal types of stress that all or most families must endure over the lifespan.

In a well functioning society, normative stress should not be as critical as it is to so many.
However, beginning with the transition to the spouse role, comes the associated stress of altering one's individuality for the welfare of the couple.

Family development theorists count at least six specific transitions, each one with their own special adjustments. In addition to the transition to marriage, there are:

  1. the transition to parenting infants, where new skills and changes to the recently developed dyadic structure of the relationship must be added to include newborns.
  2. the transition to parenting school aged children & adolescents; where, among other things, the young family's first brush with a major institution (education) is experienced.
  3. the transition to launching and midlife.
  4. the transition to empty nest and retirement.
  5. the transition to late life.
More than a few young people have noted the ease with which they faced the altar, only to be immediately faced with difficulty getting through the first year of marriage. Nearly every new parent seems to whine on about the isolation that comes with early parenthood. One mother or father representing the interests of their child against a monolithic school system seems like pretty bad odds, and on and on. Living life in the mainstream and remaining true to traditional lifestyles is no mean feat.

These are the six traditional transitions that most people make on their way to late life and death, however, as has been pointed out many times, the list is not inclusive of every member of society, nor is it exhaustive of all the transitions and life-changes that might occur.

In fact, what makes crises more likely to families today, compared to the traditional American family ideal of the 1950s is the sheer volume of alternatives to tradition. When a person or couple begins to deviate from the strict tradition that society expects, the opportunity for crises to accrue increases. The promise of structural-functional theory is that if one behaves (or as President Clinton phrased it, a family that works hard and plays by the rules), good things will happen - successful lives will be lived.

Be warned - society cannot, and will not, support too many deviations from the traditional and normal. Looking at the list of six transitions from the perspective of the 1990s, it appears many people are moving along nontraditional paths.

There is the issue of sex and pregnancy, which was the step couples took after courtship and marriage and the transition to marriage. These behaviors are often inserted into relationships somewhere between first date and commitment - long before marriage is even considered. Today there are many folks entering into relationships that are not traditional, are in violation of society's rules and therefore are not protected by them.

Here's an analogy. Suppose you thought you might want to become a skydiver, but you weren't sure. Good parachutes and high quality preparation & instruction in skydiving costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. Instead of investing all that time and effort - if you weren't sure about becoming a skydiver - you could just rent a parachute from "Critical Bill's Jump Shop", read a pamphlet entitled "Your 1st Jump!", and jump off a water tower. If you splatted on the sidewalk, who could your loved ones blame for the incident? The point is our society makes no provisions for such deviance from the normal route to successful skydiving. Perhaps it should - maybe there should be laws to protect those who don't look before they leap.

Now, consider the consequences of having one's children before establishing the economic/financial aspects of adulthood, which probably would entail:

  • a long investigation into the nature and meaning of sexual relationships.
  • the completing an education or two
  • a period of mate selection, followed by a fairly lengthy courtship
  • an engagement period used to plan a wedding
  • a marriage
  • the establishment of a promising career to secure the family income
  • a year or two of marital adjustment
  • then pregnancy and then children, each child coming three or four years apart.
Without belaboring the point too much (or blaming any victims here), attempting to make transitions out of the order defined by the culture necessarily means taking risks, not to mention placing innocent lives in jeopardy. Table 5-1 below indicates, among other things, that the characteristics that most convicts now residing in our nation's penitentiaries have in common are: no education, no fathers present in the home during childhood, poverty, little or no guidance from wise adults while growing up, and so on.

If we were to look at rates of poverty in the U.S. we would see the fastest growing group, and most likely social grouping to fall into poverty, are single mothers living with dependent children. Most of the experts agree that, apart from a changing economy, the main factor affecting child poverty is the direction of change of family structure (divorce and births to unmarried mothers) since 1960. "Child poverty would be one third lower if family structure had not changed so dramatically since 1960. Fifty-one percent of the increase in child poverty observed during the 1980s is attributable to changes in family structure during that period." (Galston, 1993).

Children living with both parents today are much less likely to be living in poverty, primarily because they are also much more likely to be living in two earner (or more) families.
This is a relatively new, late 20th century phenomenon .

While these numbers are not causal in the statistical sense, they certainly seem to co-vary with time. The poverty figures are suspicious, primarily due to the political tendency to underestimate numbers of poor - the Census Bureau itself recommends multiplying the percentages by 1.25 to 1.35 for purposes of fiscal planning. Further, the number of children living in poverty did decline during the late 1960s, as a direct result of President Johnson's War on Poverty.

However, these numbers have steadily risen since 1970 to levels at or near 1960 (roughly 25% in 1996) If one were to hypothesize about the table, one would have to conclude that as the number of children living apart from their biological father increases (because of divorce and out-of-wedlock births):

  • the number of children living in poverty increases.
  • the number of children receiving public assistance increases.
  • the number of males incarcerated in prisons increases.
Add to this situation the general decline, due to inflation, of salaries and wages, and the prospects of poor children in the U.S. becomes even more uncertain.