Family of Origin

Podcast 032 - FOO

Today I want to talk about your family of origin – or FOO as I like to refer to it.

The family that you were raised in, even if it wasn't typical or even a family for that matter, has a huge influence on how vibrant and powerful you are today. This is really important to understand because once you are aware of the influence your upbringing has had on you, you can decide if you want to make changes to your behaviour.

As well, your family of origin influences your family of creation. Identify the things that were done in your upbringing that you would prefer not to repeat, and use that information to guide you in making changes with your current family.

Before we jump too deeply into this topic I would like to take you through an exercise designed to help you reflect on who you are right now and where you are headed with your relationships. You might want to do this in a setting where you can take some time to reflect and maybe even have a pen and paper for writing down things that come up.

Exercise: Setting Life Priorities

You are ninety years old, sitting in a rocking chair looking back over your life. Think about the things in your childhood that made you feel safe, secure and happy. Even if you had a difficult childhood, there will be things that helped you feel this way (an older sister who let you sleep in her room; a dog that you cuddled with; a spot in a tree in the backyard you would hide in, etc) so don't skip this part…really think about what helped you to feel safe, sheltered and able to carry on.   See if you can come up with 3 words to describe you at 7 years old: Shy, Timid, Afraid, Outgoing, Adventurous, Curious, Resilient, Tough, Optimistic. [pause]

Watch your life play out before you like a film highlighting successes, challenges and disappointments. Fast-forward to your late teen/young adult years – especially once you moved away from home.

What were you like in relation to others (roommates, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc)? Are you bossy? Strict? Do you have lots of rules?

Or… Are you the messy, disorganized one - super relaxed with no rules at all? Are you somewhere in between – some rules, but pretty flexible.

Are you consistent in this, or do you waffle back and forth between relaxed and frustrated by the chaos? Just notice without judgment or regret.

Be really honest – you are the only one who can see the film you are watching.

What 3 words describe you now? Decisive, Leader, Controlling, Fun, Flexible, Relaxed, Go-getter, Sarcastic, Damaged

Now, let's zero in on the moment you find out you are going to be a parent – whether it's a bio parent, single-parent, teen-parent, step-parent, adoptive parent, etc. Think about the feelings this news creates for you. What are your dreams or wishes for the future?

Continue to move forward in time. Your kids are growing, learning to walk and talk, starting school, maybe joining in extracurricular… now they are 7 years old. If you're not here yet in real life, use your imagination to see where things are heading.

How do you treat them? What kinds of things do you do to help them feel safe, secure, and loved? How much do you work … play … stop to just enjoy? What 3 words does your 7 year old use to describe you when talking to his/her friends?  Fun, Busy, Mean…

Keep on traveling forward. Your kids are moving out, maybe marrying or having children of their own.

How do they treat you, their partner, and their own kids? Do they like you? Is work dominating their lives? Do they come to visit you? If so, do they do it because they want to or out of obligation? Do they still talk about you? What are they saying now? 

You’ve reached retirement and moved into old age. How important is your job to you now? Do your previously close colleagues still call? Do you feel like a valued member of society? Did you live the kind of life you were hoping to live or did you get caught up in the pressure of it all?

You are ninety looking back. Do you like what you see?

If you could write your whole story, what would you change? While there might be things that seem impossible to adjust in your life, there are little things you can do to guide your life in the direction you would prefer to go.

Sticking to priorities is a tough task for all of us. Life seems so urgent most of the time, but if we don’t live now, when will we?

The idea behind this setting life priorities exercise is to get you thinking about your life from a big picture standpoint. It's so easy for us to get caught up in the many tasks we have vying for our attention on a daily basis and to put the really important things on hold. Unfortunately, this does not work in our favour… so I strongly encourage you to put your energy into creating the life want, rather than leaving it to chance.

If you came up with your three words each time I asked you to, then those words can help to guide you when it comes to healing past issues, releasing blocks and changing the path you are currently on… so you might want to keep them for future reference.

Remember in the exercise when I asked you to zero in on what your home life was like, and specifically what you were like when you moved away from home. This is the part that is most important for our discussion today, because I want to help you really tune in to the influence your FOO has on who you are and how you behave with your family.

Identifying your family type

Families come in all shapes and sizes and the factors influencing how they will look are pretty much endless. The stressors you face, the support system you have, and the generation you are raised in are just a few of the things that will affect the unique style of your family.

I'm going to describe the extreme case scenario for family types and while I do, think about any little pieces that stand out for you as something that is familiar from your own upbringing. If you've printed off the worksheet I've included you can check the boxes that apply to you or you can just listen for now and pull out those pieces you recognize as being part of your upbringing.

Even though they're extremes, don't limit yourself to one type because as I'll explain later, there is often much overlap.

The first extreme in families is the; my way or the highway type which is governed by strict, inflexible rules. It is an authoritarian model based on a patriarchal structure or hierarchy (even when it's a woman at the head of the house) – meaning there is a clear leader, perhaps a second in command and then the followers. Because I said so is a common phrase to hear in that family and explanation as to why these rules are important are very rare. There are strict consequences for breaking rules, and punishment is often the norm.

When a strong-willed child or a child challenged by social cues is born into this family type it often becomes a battle of the wills – meaning the leader strives to break the will of the child opposing him or her.

Barbara Coloroso (author of Kids are Worth it!), calls this type of family a Brickwall Family and I love the picture this name creates. This type of family is very private and if a child shares something at school, daycare or with a coach about home, there will be consequences. Physical punishments like slapping, arm pulling, pinching, or pushing are common, as are threats, groundings, and privilege removal. In this house, you are taught what to think rather than how to think for yourself.

The other extreme is the loosey-goosey type of family that adopts a very permissive style of parenting. Chaos thrives in this environment, as boundaries are not clearly laid out and are rarely enforced. Rules are few and far between and can change with the stress of the moment. This parent will often plead for compliance and will use guilt-laden statements to get her way. She will make threats, feel bad for making the threats, and try to make up for it by buying gifts or not following through with the punishment.

Consistency does not exist in this family and the roles people play (leader, follower, rule-maker) can jump around from person to person. A strong-willed child in this home will often try to take over, but in their youth will have trouble dealing with difficult adult decisions. In this house, you are loved when you are good and made to feel guilty or bad when you are not.

In either of these extremes, major problems arise. Too much structure makes one crave flexibility, while too little structure results in a desire for order and predictability. When people are raised in these environments, they often vow to raise their children the opposite way….which is why you get a lot of overlap between the types. Since without conscious effort we will naturally use the parenting tools that were used on us as a child, this is not a great way to fix this imbalance, especially when the opposite environment is not desirable either.

So with Loosey-goosey, tension will arise due to the lack of order or rigid structure, chaos will reign resulting in inconsistent follow-through with little to no mutual respect or the parent will flip back to her rigid upbringing and shock everyone by laying down the hammer (way too hard!).

This flipflop way of living causes anxiety, confusion, guilt, or anger and can make parents feel like failures or believe their kids are bad beyond repair.

Creating a Balanced Family

Thankfully, most of us were not raised in either of these extremes but instead have grown up in a blend of our own. What’s important is that you become aware of the pieces of your FOO that influence who you are today today and do not fit with your vision of the kind of parent you would like to be.

In an ideal world, a balanced family has a few well thought out rules with the flexibility to make new ones as the need arises. Their home environment is built on fairness and consistency, with clear boundaries and consequences for breaking them. When problems arise they would be discussed and worked through in a way that teaches everyone how to think for themselves. All members of the household are expected to follow the rules, and if problems are continually surfacing, the rule itself might be revamped.

This family type is flexible and works to build mutual respect using a variety of discipline tools and communication skills. People are loved and accepted for who they are and provided with the guidance and support to meet their full potential.

In reality, few—if any—of us would fit perfectly into this balanced family mold, and if we did we wouldn’t stay there for long. Life is about finding balance, not about being perfectly balanced all the time. Growing and learning, as well as independence and confidence, grow out of imbalance and the efforts we take to fix it.

If you are not aware of how your family of origin influences you, it can be very frustrating, not to mention guilt-producing when you keep doing things with your kids or partner that you don't like – especially when those behaviours are not even aligned with your personality.

The good news…of all the challenges parents face when they come to people like me for assistance, this is one of the easiest to target and make immediate, positive changes to. If you haven't already, download the worksheet I provided with this podcast and use it to help you figure out where your family is today so you can become aware and continue building the kind of family you really want to have.If you enjoyed this podcast/article please like/rate/review and subscribe… that’s what keeps us going! Click here now to enjoy our other podcasts.

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