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During the first stage of family development, members work to establish a mutually satisfying
relationship, learn to relate well to their families of orientation, and if applicable, engage in reproductive
life planning. Establishing a mutually satisfying relationship includes merging the values that the couple
brings into the relationship from their families of orientation. This includes not only adjusting to each
other in terms of routine but also sexual and economic aspects.


The birth or adoption of a first baby is usually both an exciting and a stressful event because it
requires both economic and social role changes. It is a further developmental step for a family to change
from being able to care for a well-baby to being able to care for an ill one. One way of determining
whether a parent has made this change is to ask what the new parent has tried to do to solve a child-
rearing or health problem. Parents who have difficulty with this step need a great deal of support and
counseling from health care providers to be able to care for an ill child at home or to manage a difficult


A family with preschool children is a busy family because children at this age demand a great
deal of time. The children’s imagination is at such a peak that safety considerations such as avoiding
unintentional injuries become a major health concern. The main task in this stage is to ensure safety for
the preschool.


Parents of school-age children have the important responsibility of preparing their children to
function in a complex world while at the same time maintaining their own satisfying marriage
relationship. That makes a tiring time for many families. Family support systems seem strong but also
can be deceptive: family members may be physically present but provide little or no emotional support
if internal tension exists.


The primary goal for a family with a teenager differs considerably from the goal of the family in
previous stages which was to strengthen family ties and maintain family unity. Now the family must
loosen family ties to allow adolescents more freedom and prepare them for life on their own. As
technology advances at a rapid rate, the gap between generations increases. Life when the parents were
young was very different from what it is for their teenagers.


The stage at which children leave to establish their own households is the most difficult because
it appears to represent the breaking up of the family. Parental roles change from those of mother or
father to once-removed support people or guideposts. The stage may represent a loss of self-esteem for
parents, who feel themselves being replaced by other people in their children’s life. They may feel old
for the first time and less able to cope with responsibilities.


When a family returns to a two-part unit, as it was before childbearing, the partners may view
this stage either as the prime time of their lives (an opportunity to travel, economic independence and
time to spend on hobbies) or as a period of gradual decline (lacking the constant activity and stimulation
of children in the home, finding life boring without them or experiencing an “empty nest” syndrome).
Because the family has return to a two-part union, support people may not be as plentiful as they were.
Having children return home to live after college or a failed relationship can create a “sandwich family”
or parents who are squeezed into taking care of both their aging parents and these returning to young


Although families at this stage are not having children, they remain important because they can
offer a great deal of support and advice to young adults who are just beginning their families. Many
grandparents care for their grandchildren while parents are at work. This can be a strain on older adults
as they struggle to meet young children’s needs in relation to both energy level and finances needed.
What kind of phases does a family typically go through? In this lesson, we will examine the family life
cycle, as well as learn about two measurements for family health: cohesion and adaptability.

The Individual and Family Development

As we all grow and enter different phases in our lives, we go through various challenges and
conquer milestones unique to that phase. For example, in the first few years of life, a baby is dealing
with learning to trust his or her caregivers, whereas the main task of a teen is the need to figure out
their own identity.
The developmental steps that we go through have been explained by theorists like Erik Erikson, who
proposed the previous examples of the psychosocial growth of children and teens, and Jean Piaget,
who explained their stages of cognitive or mental growth. Knowing these individual stages of
development is useful to counselors because it gives them a foundation for understanding what
typical issues stand out in each season of one's life. This helps them pay special attention to an
individual's progress or stagnation in this area, how that presents symptoms in the client, and how it
may impact their later growth.
But, the stages an individual goes through during life is not the only type of growth that counselors
should pay attention to. For counselors doing family therapy, it is also important to understand that
the family itself has its own stages of development. This can be described by the family life cycle,
or a series of developmental stages a family moves through over time.

The Family Life Cycle

1. Unattached Adult
The main issue occurring in this first stage is accepting parent-offspring separation. Rob Smith has
just turned 20. He is in college, which means he is experiencing life on his own for the first time. The
tasks that are critical for him to accomplish in this phase include: separating from family and
connecting with peers as well as initiating a career.
2. Newly Married Adults
The main in issue in this stage is commitment to the marriage. Rob is 23, and he has just gotten
married. He is learning how to no longer act for himself and now act for the welfare of his wife and
their relationship. He is accomplishing the tasks of forming a marital system while continuing to
address career demands at his job as a copywriter.
3. Childbearing Adults
Rob's wife, Penny, has just given birth to their first child and named her Becky. They are now
accepting new members into the system. They need to make adjustments in their usual schedules,
finances, and duties in order to care for this new child. They are also needing to make room for visits
and interactions with their parents in their new role as grandparents.
4. Preschool-age Children
Becky has just entered a preschool and is full of energy, joy, and curiosity. And, while adored by her
parents, she is also a bit draining. Now is the time for Rob and Penny to accept the new personality
of their child, adjusting to it in whatever ways are best. It is also important that Rob and Penny make
efforts to take time out as a couple - going out on dates, for example.
5. School-age Child
Becky is 8 years old, and the issue at hand now is for Rob and Penny to allow their child to establish
relationships outside the family. This means they give Becky permission to go over to Megan's
house for her birthday party or to have Miranda over to the house on Saturday. Along with
encouraging social interactions, this time includes tasks like encouraging the child educationally and
managing increased activities, like Becky's play rehearsals after school.
6. Teenage Child
This is a challenging time for Rob and Penny. Becky is now 15 years old and wanting more
independence. The main issue is then increasing flexibility of family boundaries to allow
independence. Rob and Penny need to shift to some degree in their parental role and provide
opportunities for Becky's growth.
7. Launching Center
Rob and Penny find it hard to believe, but it is actually time for Becky to head off for college and live
on her own. The issue now is for them to accept exits from and entries into the family. While Becky
leaves home, she still comes back every several months to visit, so one of the tasks is to accept her
leaving while also maintaining a supportive home for her to return to.
8. Middle-aged Adults
It is a strange feeling for Rob and Penny to be alone in the house again after all those years. They
are now letting go of children and facing each other again. Now that their conversations are not
focused on Becky, they are learning to share other things with each other and building their
closeness. Becky is now 25 and married, so they welcome her back to their home for visits. The final
task to face now is managing the continued aging and new illnesses present in Penny's father and
Rob's mother.
9. Retired Adults
Rob and Penny have just moved to Florida because they thought it would be a great change of pace
for their retirement. They are accepting retirement and old age, which means they are taking part in
tasks like keeping up their own health, keeping in close touch with Becky and her family, and dealing
with the grief of losing their parents.
While the life cycle of a family describes the proper development of a family, there is another way for
counselors to assess family health, which is through considering their levels of cohesion and