Scanning Beneath the Surface

This article first appeared in the print journal May/June 1996.

Sherry attended our youth retreat and spent the entire weekend hearing about God’s desire for her. On Saturday evening she became a Christian. She was radiant. Glowing. Alive. When our group returned to the church on Sunday, many parents were there to pick up their children. But Sherry waited an hour. When an old pick-up truck came barreling into the parking lot, her countenance changed from joy to a look of disappointment—almost melancholy. Sherry climbed into her dad’s truck, stared straight ahead, and left in a cloud of dust.

Two weeks passed. Sherry hadn’t come to any group meetings. I asked some students if they knew what was going on. “Sherry’s parents won’t let her come back to youth group anymore,” they reported.

At that point I began to understand that the group with the most impact on teenagers isn’t youth workers, pastors, or other teens—it’s their families.

That’s why understanding family systems is so important to youth workers. Bill Berman and Dale Doty, authors of Shaking the Family Tree (Victor, 1991), define a family system as a “nuclear family group (husband, wife, children) and the past three to seven generations in the families of both the husband and wife. Family systems theory [studies] the way a family functions by studying [its] structure: what roles each member plays within the system, and what rules govern how that family functions in day-to-day life.”

Family systems theory asserts that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Families consist of individuals who are interconnected and interrelated. There are a variety of systems in life. Our body is a system. The church is a system. The universe is a system. Even the government, shutdowns and all, is a system. The same goes for the family. And studying your family system, Berman and Doty write, “helps you determine where your beliefs about families originated, and can aid in creating a successful marriage and in rearing well-adjusted children.”

But determining one crucial aspect of your family system will give you a head start in your studies. Is your family system open or closed? One of the most inspiring moments in my life was witnessing the birth of my daughter, Rachel. She was wrinkled, slimy, crying—but very much alive. Everything about her was turned up to 10. Full blast. A newborn is probably the purest example of an open system.

I’ve also worked as a chaplain in hospital cancer wards. Men and women in these terminal conditions deteriorate before your eyes—it’s gut-wrenching. Nothing seems more tragic. Dying systems. Closed systems.

So how can you tell if a family system is living or dying—open or closed? Compare it to five basic characteristics of an open, living family system.

ORDER. Any business, church, or family that’s working and running properly has structure. What happens to a church without policies, orders, and organization? Death—if the needs of the congregation aren’t addressed and met. The same is true for families. An open family system has organization.

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.

In a rigid home there’s usually one leader. The subordinates know the rules are tight, often legalistic—sometimes militaristic. Discipline is harsh and strict. In a rigid home, flexibility and adaptability are nonexistent. But one directive reigns supreme: Do what the leader says or suffer the consequences. Since loyalty to the head of the family is intense, kids acquiesce and comply. Balance is intact, but confronting the system can sometimes lead to abuse.

If parents maintain high demands in areas such as academics or athletics, children can become paralyzed and afraid. Kids comply out of fear, not love. Parents’ high expectations also can lead teens to compulsive, addictive performance orientations. And failure could lead to depression and low self-esteem. As parents keep demanding, children try harder and harder to please them. They’ll start resenting their parents’ taxing, unrealistic burdens and eventually shut down.

Mrs. Doubtfire

This is a classic case study on the chaotic family. The boundaries here are very unclear, and conflicts have become immovable objects. Robin Williams (the dad) and Sally Field (the mom) have a sour marriage and are heading for a divorce. Williams’ character doesn’t know how to lead, and his children are confused about who’s in charge—mom, dad, or no one.

This is the other end of the adaptability pendulum. This chaotic family system has little or no leadership. Family members might discuss problems, but there’s confusion over how to solve them. A chaotic family system operates impulsively and disciplines children erratically. The boundaries in a chaotic family are blurry and diffused. Children often assert the parental role (called parentification), taking on responsibilities out of their realm of emotional and mental capabilities. They assume dual roles: son and father; daughter and mother.

The chaotic family system also spawns infantilization—when teens are “demoted” to small-child status. Parents don’t treat them like young adults, but as infants.

Boundaries in a chaotic home are cyclical, and unwritten. Example: a mother and father become Christians when their kids reach adolescence. One evening, out of nowhere, the father says: “Starting tomorrow, we’re going to have devotions.” The kids respond: “What are devotions?” The family reads the Bible for three days and quits. The chaotic family often has good intentions but not much follow-through. Teens from chaotic families often conclude that decisions in their home weren’t made, they just “happened all of a sudden.”

Ordinary People and Field of Dreams

Ordinary People, the Academy Award-winning Best Picture of 1980, focuses on Timothy Hutton’s character who attempts suicide after his older brother drowns in a boating accident. Following the death, the family grows apart, and Hutton and his parents (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore) show signs of anger, blame, and denial. Like many disengaged families lacking emotional closeness, the teenage child exhibits behavioral problems. Most notable is the identified patient syndrome. The identified patient is the family’s scapegoat, unfairly bearing problems and consequences, and often rebelling through drugs, violence, and truancy. In Ordinary People, Hutton’s IPS stems from blaming himself for his brother’s death.

Members of disengaged families are often estranged from each other. In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character broke off his relationship with his father before he died. But the movie’s mantra—”If you build it, they will come”—becomes the gateway for reconciliation between father and son.

The disengaged family system lacks intimacy. Members seem very independent and isolated from each other. If a family member is asked, “Do you love each other?” the answer might be, “Sure. But we’re so busy that we don’t get much time together.” To disengage means to separate, dissociate. The disengaged family isn’t bonded—the members are unplugged, unhooked. Its members lead disconnected lives.

There is little loyalty in the disengaged home and plenty of independence. Decisions are made at an individual level. Dinners are rarely eaten together, and family members are constantly coming and going on different schedules. When considering whether your students are from this type of system, ask them how many minutes they spend in meaningful dialogue with their parents or siblings. Usually there’s little interaction.

Only the Lonely

John Candy plays a police officer who has lived with his mother all his life. Candy’s character, now in his mid-30s, meets a woman (played by Ally Sheedy) and falls in love. On the night before their wedding, Candy plays out a scenario with his mother getting killed in a car wreck on her way home from the rehearsal dinner. Sheedy rightfully wonders whether Candy’s behavior—calling his mother every five minutes -will last their entire marriage. He’s enmeshed with his mother, continually lost in her world.

The enmeshed family system is one of unhealthy closeness. Teens may use words and phrases such as “smothered” or “suffocating” when describing their home lives. An enmeshed person is entangled in a web of relationships with no clear boundaries. Those outside it may assume an enmeshed family is really close. But insiders are probably thinking, Let me out of here!

Father of the Bride and Regarding Henry

In Father of the Bride there is laughter, camaraderie, hugging, forgiveness, and flexibility to change. George Banks (played by Steve Martin) learns that his daughter Annie is engaged. He goes from denial to anger, then stubbornness, and finally alters his life to a gentle, winsome attitude that allows his daughter to spread her wings.

Regarding Henry deals with a workaholic lawyer played by Harrison Ford who has committed adultery and disengaged from his wife and daughter—apparently not a very balanced family system. While buying a pack of cigarettes in a convenience store, Henry gets caught in the middle of a robbery, is shot in the head, and consequently loses most of his cognitive powers. But over a period of time, he begins to heal and a metamorphosis occurs. He brightens. He learns to say he’s sorry for the wasted years and the pain he’s caused. He quits his job as a lawyer and tells his loved ones, “I just want to be a family again” and “I’ve missed [my daughter’s] first 11 years and I don’t want to miss any more.”

You might be wondering whether there are any balanced families. There are. In fact, even the first four dysfunctional family systems can experience moments of wholeness. But the balanced family stands apart because of healthy interdependence. It’s become a safe place where members learn the value of clearly defined boundaries. The rules are fair, understood, and consistent. This family system places a high priority on elastic leadership—pliability and adaptability. The roles are clear—moms are moms, dads are dads, kids are kids. There is humor, respect, listening, fun, togetherness, service, communication, daily loving affection, shared responsibility, and forgiveness.

The members of a balanced family have grown to appreciate each other. Each is encouraged to grow and develop. Family members can still remain a close bunch without compromising their individuality. Bottom line: members of a balanced family system can be autonomous without being isolated, attached without being suppressed.

After studying these family systems, maybe you’ve come to the conclusion that your family of origin or present family isn’t the greatest. Maybe you grew up in a rigid or enmeshed family system and are stuck in the same old patterns. Don’t lose hope. There are some things you can do.

This means becoming a student of history—your family history. Ask parents and other relatives about your grandparents and great grandparents. Investigate what made the people in your family tree tick. What past behaviors, negative and positive, have contributed to your attitudes and well-being? Are your parents workaholics? Are you? Check it out. Look for addictions or tendencies in your mother or father that you exhibit. Take a family systems course at a local college. Read some books to help you see where you’ve been so you can heal the wounds you may have been carrying.

Boundaries are lines that balance the ebb and flow of life. There are street markers, goal lines on football fields, and out-of-bounds lines in basketball and soccer—but they’re static, inorganic boundaries. Families also have boundaries, whether spoken or nonverbal, but they’re often harder to define and maintain because they have emotional elements.

“I never see my parents hug each other,” many teens say. “They rarely give us kids affection.” This boundary, while unspoken, seems to say, “We will not express our feelings toward each other in our family.”

In other families, boundaries are clearer—and more positive. Expressions such as I love you, I was wrong, I appreciate you, please forgive me, are spoken often and encourage forgiveness and affirmation. This boundary declares, “It’s okay to express your feelings in our family.”

Setting boundaries will help you foster your mental, emotional, and spiritual health and growth—you’ll keep out the bad and encourage the good. They’ll help you better define who you are and who you are not. What boundaries have you established? Are you taking a Sabbath—you know, a day off? If you’re not resting one day a week, then your boundaries may be unclear. Do you find yourself saying yes to every request when you really mean no? Are you telling students you’re always available? Do you take vacations? Do you believe that busyness is next to godliness? Some characteristics of unclear boundaries:

•Too much time at work.
•Too little time with friends.
•No time for hobbies.

Take an inventory. Recognize that saying no is just as spiritually appropriate as saying yes.


Youth workers are quick to tell teens that they should be part of a small group with their peers so they can share their hurts, joys and experience Christian community. But how many youth workers are taking their own advice? Find a small group for prayer, confession and accountability. Allow others to care for your soul. Small groups for youth workers are springing up all over the country. Members of one such group I know ask each other these questions:

•How many nights are you home with your family?
•Are you taking your day off?
•How’s your relationship with significant others: God, spouse, children, senior pastor?
•How’s your love life?
•How are your eating habits? Exercise program?

This group rarely discusses youth group meetings, programming issues, concert information, or which popular speakers they’ve invited to their youth meetings. They talk about life. Personal things. As trust grows, they’re more apt to speak into each other’s lives with tough questions. The group is their safety net. They are learning to develop clear boundaries at church and home and to deepen their relationships with Jesus through community.

When you become proficient at maintaining your boundaries and well-being, you’ll be in better shape to help your students. But how? Church demographic research shows that most families seek out churches with the best youth programs. But when these families send their kids to your youth group, they bring their flawed family systems with them. Combine that with the fact that churches and youth ministries consist of representatives from every family system type—rigid, chaotic, enmeshed, disengaged, and balanced—all trying to get along, the challenge seems unreasonably daunting.

But take heart, it’s not as overwhelming as it seems on paper. There are ways to remedy these potentially chaotic youth groups and help each student individually. One place to start is by replacing the lens through which you view families. Let’s affirm some paradigms that will help us successfully minister to teens within their different family systems. Here are a few to consider:

Focus on family systems education.
Churches should offer classes and seminars for all types of family systems. Consider just a few of the many groups and accompanying needs many congregations already address:

•expectant parents
•parents of elementary children
•preparing for adolescence
•engagement discovery weekends
•mid-life classes
•divorce recovery
•12-step programs
•marriage retreats
•4th-through-6th-grade meetings
•junior high, senior high, and college ministries
•ministry to senior citizens

Recruit teachers.

Find someone who can educate you, your staff and your congregation about issues such as triangles, self-differentiation, over-functioning versus under-functioning, and emotional cutoffs. Teens and singles can grasp most of this information, and parents can benefit as well.

Get over your fear of family counseling.

Most youth workers are scared to counsel teens and their parents due to several issues—fear, lack of experience in family counseling, and age differences. This is especially true for single, twenty-something youth workers who have no kids of their own. But regardless of our fears, we should move in the direction of family therapy. I have found that although family counseling isn’t needed in every situation, it can enhance the growth of teens and their parents. Talk with your senior pastor and other staff members about receiving additional training in family counseling skills. It will pay off in the long run.

Take on a new position: minister to the whole family.

Youth workers educated in the 1970s and 1980s generally were trained to work with teens only. We were called youth director or youth pastor/minister. However, we must now view youth ministry through a different lens. We should not only teach, counsel, and disciple teens, but also seek to empower parents to lead their children. That means viewing parents as allies—not adversaries. After spending over a decade in youth ministry with the working title minister to youth, I changed it to minister to youth and families, and then later to minister to youth and their parents. Even though it sounds a bit awkward, the title communicated my purpose and mission—a calling to teens and their families. We must start early though. We shouldn’t wait until parents knock down our doors when puberty hits their children.

The future of youth ministry is changing radically, and in order to keep up with the times, we must think strategically in our leadership. We can’t afford to put our heads in the sand and pretend that problems will go away. Instead, let’s be poised to make headway in helping teens—and their families.


Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend (Zondervan, 1992).
Family Therapy Theory and Practice, Joseph Brown and Dana Christensen (Brooks/Cole, 1986).
Generation to Generation, Edwin Friedman (Guildford, 1985).
Genograms in Family Assessment, Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson (Norton Press, 1985).
Tag-Team Youth Ministry, Ron Habermas and David Olshine (Standard, 1995). 



David Olshine

Dr. David Olshine is the director and professor of Youth Ministry, Family and Culture at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. He's the author of Studies on the Go: James, 1-2 Peter and 1-3 John (Zondervan/Youth Specialties) and the founder of Youth Ministry Coaches.