Scanning Beneath the Surface

By David Olshine | Director of Youth Ministries, Columbia International University in Columbia, S.C.; Newest Books: Studies on the Go Philippians, Colossians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Proverbs. Web site: Email: | March 1 2008

PURPOSE. One of the first tasks of a new company is generating a mission statement, bylaws, objectives, and goals. When a family has direction, vision, and mission, it's alive. Proverbs 29:18 says, "Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint." But when there's no unified purpose or plan, families tend to splinter in different directions.

ADAPTABILITY. One of the signs of a dying marriage is resistance to change. Consider the husband and wife who get lost while driving. "Do you realize we're lost?" the wife asks rhetorically. The more she complains, the faster her husband drives. Finally he can't take it anymore and pulls off the road. "Okay, we're lost," he argues. "But at least we're making great time." This scenario indicates a closed system—the couple is shutting down and turning off. But when family members are open to admitting mistakes and changing directions—especially in tougher times than a wayward road trip—they're more likely to see a light at the end of the tunnel and grow in the process.

OPENNESS TO FEEDBACK. At the heart of an open family system is communication and trust. Organizations tend to prosper when they promote feedback and constructive criticism. The same is true with families. When family members tell each other the truth and share feelings, it indicates that their family's vital signs are working and healthy.

ABILITY TO RESOLVE CONFLICT. Conflict is inevitable in any system simply because systems are composed of different, interconnected parts. When there's a breakdown in the system—even one part—confusion and chaos often result. Family members who trust each other, however, try for resolutions to problems. But conflict resolution is rarely part of a dysfunctional family. The members usually don't have the skills and coping mechanisms necessary to effectively handle issues.

Determining a family system's degree of openness will tell you a lot about its health. But sometimes you need to dig even deeper in order to tell which type of family system it is: rigid, chaotic, disengaged, enmeshed, or balanced. The first two—rigid and chaotic—concern adaptability (how well does the family respond to change?). The next two—disengaged and enmeshed—focus more on attachments (are the family relationships too close or too distant?). The last model is a balanced family system.

Let's look at some popular movies as a way to conceptualize these family system types.

Dead Poets Society


The movie's climax occurs when a teenage boy, who has discovered the joys of theater, is confronted severely by his rigid father. He's displeased with his son's "rebellion" (which is more adolescent individuation than overt anarchy) and basically says, "You're not going to ruin your life. I'm withdrawing you from school and enrolling you in a military academy. You are going to Harvard, and you are going to be a doctor!" The atmosphere becomes so oppressive and judgmental that the boy has no energy left to battle his father. The boundaries are too rigid. He can't cope any longer. Following their argument, the boy kills himself with his father's pistol.

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