What is a family life cycle?
The emotional and intellectual stages you pass through from childhood to your retirement years as a member of a family are called the family life cycle. In each stage, you face challenges in your family life that allow you to build or gain new skills. Gaining these skills helps you work through the changes that nearly every family goes through.
Not everyone passes through these stages smoothly. Situations such as severe illness, financial problems, or the death of a loved one can have an effect on how well you pass through the stages. Fortunately, if you miss skills in one stage, you can learn them in later stages.
The stages of the family life cycle are:
- Coupling or marriage.
- Parenting: babies through adolescents.
- Launching adult children.
- Retirement or senior years.
Why is it important to understand the family life cycle?
Mastering the skills and milestones of each stage allows you to successfully move from one stage of development to the next. If you don't master the skills, you may still move on to the next phase of the cycle, but you are more likely to have difficulty with relationships and future transitions. Family life cycle theory suggests that successful transitioning may also help to prevent disease and emotional or stress-related disorders.
Whether you are a parent or child, brother or sister, bonded by blood or love, your experiences through the family life cycle will affect who you are and who you become. The more you understand about the challenges of each stage of the cycle, the more likely you are to successfully move on.
What can disrupt the normal cycle?
The stress of daily living, coping with a chronic medical condition, or other life crises can disrupt the normal life cycle. Ongoing stress or a crisis can delay the transition to the next phase of life. Or you may move on without the skills that you need to easily adapt and transition to the next phase of life.
How can I improve my family life cycle?
Be assured, you can learn missed skills and improve your and your family's quality of life at any stage. Self-examination, education, and perhaps counselling are ways to improve yourself and your family life. These are also actions that can help you manage other issues, too, such as going through a divorce or being a part of a nontraditional family structure.
Independence is the most critical stage of the family life cycle. As you enter young adulthood, you begin to separate emotionally from your family. During this stage, you strive to become fully able to support yourself emotionally, physically, socially, and financially. You begin to develop unique qualities and characteristics that define your individual identity.
Intimacy is a vital skill to develop during your independent, young adult years. Intimacy is the ability to develop and maintain close relationships that can endure hard times and other challenges. In an intimate relationship, you learn about:
- Commonality or similarity.
- Dependence on another person who is not in your family.
- Shared emotion in a relationship.
You also learn who you are outside of your identity within your family. Your ability to develop an intimate relationship depends on how successful you were at developing your individual identity earlier in life.
If you are a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered person (LGBTQ2S+), this stage may include making your sexual orientation known, or "coming out" to your family and friends.
Exploring interests and career goals is part of developing independence. To live successfully away from your family, you must develop financial and emotional independence.
You also begin to be responsible for your own health in this stage. You become responsible for your nutritional, physical, and medical needs. Developing healthy habits at this time—such as good nutrition, regular exercise, and safer sex practices—is important for lifelong good health and happiness.
You learn new aspects of independence throughout your lifetime. Even when you have moved on to another stage of life, such as coupling, you continue to learn independence within the context of that stage.
During the independence stage, you hope to:
- Learn to see yourself as a separate person in relation to your original family—parents, siblings, and extended family members.
- Develop intimate peer relationships outside the family.
- Establish yourself in your work or career.
Other important qualities you develop during this phase include:
- Work ethic.
- Identity, or who you are in the world.
The next stage in the family life cycle may be coupling. Using qualities such as trust that you gained in the independence stage, you can explore your ability to commit to a new family and a new way of life. Although being in an intimate relationship with someone does involve a process of adaptation and relationship building, a marriage or committed union often requires unique skills.
When you join families through a marriage or committed union, you form a new family system. Your family system includes your personal ideas, expectations, and values. These are shaped by the relationships and experiences with your original family. When you marry or form a union, you combine your family system with your spouse's or partner's. This requires reshaping your goals and your partner's goals. In the most functional relationships, partners have the ability to take two different points of view and create an option that neither person had considered. It differs from a compromise in that it is not giving up something. Rather, it is creating a third, better option.
You may find that some of the ideas or expectations that you held in the past are not realistic at this stage. Some common areas of adjustment include:
- Recreational activities or hobbies.
- Relationships with in-laws.
- Sexuality or sexual compatibility.
- Putting another person's needs before your own.
The ultimate goal at this stage is to achieve interdependence, which occurs when you are able to fully enter into a relationship with another person. Interdependence also requires that you share goals and that you are able to sometimes place the needs of another above your own. But before you can achieve interdependence, you must first have a high degree of independence.
The relationship skills you learn in coupling serve as a foundation for other relationships, such as parent-child, teacher-student, or physician-patient.
Within a couple, you learn:
- Advanced interpersonal communication.
- Problem-solving skills.
- Common spiritual and emotional development goals.
- How to form boundaries in relationships.
- When to place the needs or importance of the other person above your own.
Most research shows that early on, a happy marriage is full of passion and sexual intimacy, which can become less important in later successful marriage. A satisfying marriage at this stage includes a high amount of considerate or kind acts (such as doing something nice for the other person without being asked) and praise.
The life skills you learn in this stage are important in developing true interdependence and the ability to have a cooperative and healthy relationship. Some of the challenges of this stage include:
- Transitioning into the new family system.
- Including your spouse or partner in your relationships with friends and family members.
- Being committed to making your marriage work.
- Putting the needs of another ahead of your own.
You and your partner will have less stress if the transition into a new family system is smooth. Less stress often means better health.
Your specific goals for this stage of the family life cycle are:
- Forming a new family with your partner.
- Realigning your relationships with your family of origin and your friends to now include your spouse.
Parenting: Babies Through Adolescents
Making the decision to have a baby
At some point in your relationship, you and your partner will decide if you want to have a baby. Some couples know going into a relationship that they do not want children. Parenting is one of the most challenging phases of the family life cycle.
The decision to have children is one that affects your individual development, the identity of your family, and your relationship. Children are so time-consuming that skills not learned in previous stages will be difficult to pick up at this stage. Your ability to communicate well, maintain your relationships, and solve problems is often tested during this stage.
Introducing a child into your family results in a major change in roles for you and your partner. Each parent has three distinct and demanding roles: as an individual, a partner, and a parent. As new parents, your individual identities shift along with how you relate to each other and to others. The skills that you learned in the Independence and Coupling stages, such as compromise and commitment, will help you move to the Parenting stage.
Along with the joy that comes from having a child, you may feel a great deal of stress and fear about these changes. A woman might have concerns about being pregnant and going through childbirth. Fathers tend to keep their fears and stress to themselves, which can cause health problems.
Talking about your emotional or physical concerns with your family doctor, obstetrician, or counsellor can help you deal with these and future challenges.
Parenting young children
Adapting children into other relationships is a key emotional process of this stage. You will take on the parenting role and transition from being a member of a couple to being a parent. While you are still evolving as individuals, you and your partner are also becoming decision-makers for your family. Continuing to express your individuality while working well together as a couple results in a strong marriage.
Your child's healthy development depends on your ability to provide a safe, loving, and organized environment. Children benefit when their parents have a strong relationship.
Caring for young children cuts into the amount of time you might otherwise spend alone or with your partner. If you did not fully develop some skills in previous phases, such as compromise for the good of the family, your relationship may be strained. For example, divorce or affairs may be more likely to occur during the years of raising young children if parents have not developed strong skills from earlier life stages.
But for those who have the proper tools, this can be a very rewarding, happy time, even with all of its challenges. Optimally, you develop as an individual, as a member of a couple, and as a member of a family.
Specific goals when young children join your family are:
- Adjusting your marital system to make space for children.
- Taking on parenting roles.
- Realigning your relationships with your extended family to include parenting and grandparenting roles.
Parenting teenagers can be a rough time for your family and can test your relationship skills. It's also a time for positive growth and creative exploration for your entire family. Families that function best during this period have strong, flexible relationships developed through good communication, problem solving, mutual caring, support, and trust.
Most teens experiment with different thoughts, beliefs, and styles, which can cause family conflict. Your strengths as an individual and as part of a couple are critical as you deal with the increasing challenges of raising a teenager. Strive for a balanced atmosphere in which your teenager has a sense of support and emotional safety as well as opportunities to try new behaviours. An important skill at this stage is flexibility as you encourage your child to become independent and creative. Establish boundaries for your teenager, but encourage exploration at the same time. Teens may question themselves in many areas, including their sexual orientation and gender identities.
Because of what you learned when you developed your identity in the earlier stages of life, you may feel more prepared and more secure about the changes your child is going through. But if you did not work through these skills at earlier stages of life, you may feel threatened by your child's new developments.
Flexibility in the roles each person plays in the family system is a valuable skill to develop at this stage. Responsibilities such as the demands of a job or caring for someone who is ill may require each person in the family to take on various, and sometimes changing, roles.
This is a time when one or more family members may feel some level of depression or other distress. It may also lead to physical complaints that have no physical cause (somatization disorders such as stomach upsets and some headaches) along with other stress-related disorders.
Nurturing your relationship and your individual growth can sometimes be ignored at this stage. Toward the end of this phase, a parent's focus shifts from the maturing teen to career and relationship. Neglecting your personal development and your relationship can make this shift difficult.
You also may begin thinking about your role in caring for aging parents. Making your own health a priority in this phase is helpful as you enter the next stage of the family life cycle.
Specific goals during the stage of parenting adolescents include:
- Shifting parent-child relationships to allow the child to move in and out of the family system.
- Shifting focus back to your mid-life relationship and career issues.
- Beginning a shift toward concern for older generations in your extended family.
Empty Nest: Launching Adult Children
The stage of launching adult children begins when your first child leaves home and ends with the "empty nest." When older children leave home, there are both positive and negative consequences. If your family has developed significant skills through the family life cycle, your children will be ready to leave home, ready to handle life's challenges. Free from the everyday demands of parenting, you may choose to rekindle your own relationship and possibly your career goals.
Developing adult relationships with your children is a key skill in this stage. You may be challenged to accept new members into your family through your children's relationships. You may focus on reprioritizing your life, forgiving those who have wronged you (maybe long ago), and assessing your beliefs about life.
If you struggled with previous life phases, your children may not have learned from you all the skills they need to live well on their own. If you and your partner have not transitioned together, you may no longer feel compatible with each other. But remember that you can still gain the skills you may have missed. Self-examination, education, and counselling can enhance your life and help ensure a healthy transition to the next phase.
This is a time when your health and energy levels may decline. Some people are diagnosed with chronic illnesses. Symptoms of these diseases can limit normal activities and even long-enjoyed pastimes. Health issues related to mid-life may begin to occur and can include:
You may also be caring for aging parents in this phase, which can be stressful and affect your own health.
Specific goals to reach at this stage include:
- Refocusing on your relationship without children.
- Developing adult relationships with your grown children.
- Realigning relationships to include in-laws and grandchildren when your children begin their own families.
Retirement or Senior Stage of Life
During the retirement phase of the family life cycle, many changes occur in your life. Welcoming new family members or seeing others leave your family is often a large part of this stage as your children marry or divorce or you become a grandparent.
This stage can be a great adventure where you are free from the responsibilities of raising your children and can simply enjoy the fruits of your life's work. Challenges you may face include being a support to other family members, even as you are still exploring your own interests and activities or focusing on maintaining your relationship. Many people are caring for elderly parents at this time. You may feel challenged by their emotional, financial, and physical needs while trying to help them keep their independence.
You may experience declining physical and mental abilities or changes in your financial or social status. Sometimes you must deal with the death of other family members, including your partner. The quality of your life, in part, depends on how well you adjusted to the changes in earlier stages. It often also depends on how well you have cared for your own health up to this point. Normal aging will affect your body, resulting in wrinkles, aches, pains, and loss of bone density. The chances of having a mental or chronic physical illness increases with age. But aging does not mean you will automatically experience poor health.
Retirement can be a fulfilling and happy time. Becoming a grandparent can bring you great joy without the responsibility of raising a child. But those who are without adequate support systems or not well off financially may have a more difficult time in this phase of life.
Specific goals to reach for at this final stage of your family life cycle include:
- Maintaining your own interests and physical functioning, along with those of your partner, as your body ages.
- Exploring new family and social roles.
- Providing emotional support for your adult children and extended family members.
- Making room in the family system for the wisdom and experience of older adults.
- Providing support for the older generation without doing too much for them.
- Dealing with the loss of a partner, siblings, and other peers, and preparing for your own death.
- Reviewing your life and reflecting on all you have learned and experienced during your life cycle.
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Donald Sproule MDCM, CCFP - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine