Becoming a Transitional Character: Changing Your Family Culture

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No family is perfect--today or at any point in history. But some families get it right a lot more consistently than others. These families cultivate caring and understanding relationships. They work together, play together, and laugh together. They are unified in purpose and in their commitment to one another. Family members support and encourage each other. Parents are dedicated to the success of their marriage and family. In essence, these families create a loving family culture.

Other families are not so ideal. Members may neglect responsibilities, treat each other unkindly, reject and forsake vows, and engage in physically, emotionally, sexually, or spiritually abusive behaviors. They may be manipulative and critical. Some members may abuse alcohol or other drugs. Family members who perpetuate these destructive practices do so at great cost not only to themselves but to future generations as well. The Family: A Proclamation to the World warns that "individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God" (¶ 8).

Many people believe that those who grow up in a negative home environment are destined to perpetuate the same patterns in their own families. To some extent, research supports these beliefs. For example, studies show a connection between child-rearing attitudes and behaviors among parents and those of their adult children. If a parent was divorced or less happy in his or her marriage, there is a greater tendency for children to follow suit.

The good news is that these findings tell only half the story. Other research shows that passing on negative family traits from generation to generation isn't a foregone conclusion. Even if you grew up in a damaging home environment, you can choose different behaviors than those you experienced there. You can stop the negative patterns from flowing downstream to future generations. With education, focused effort, and help from others, you can choose to be a transitional character.

The late Carlfred Broderick, a renowned marriage and family scholar at the University of Southern California, coined the term transitional character and described it this way:

A transitional character is one who, in a single generation, changes the entire course of a lineage. The changes might be for good or ill, but the most noteworthy examples are those individuals who grow up in an abusive, emotionally destructive environment and who somehow find a way to metabolize the poison and refuse to pass it on to their children. They break the mold. They refute the observation that abused children become abusive parents, that the children of alcoholics become alcoholic adults, that "the sins of the fathers are visited upon the heads of children to the third and fourth generation." Their contribution to humanity is to filter the destructiveness out of their own lineage so that the generations downstream will have a supportive foundation upon which to build productive lives.

What can you do to become a transitional character in your own family? Here are some ideas:

  • Develop a vision of yourself as a transitional character. Seeing yourself successfully changing negative family patterns can help keep you focused on your goal to be a transitional character rather than a simple transmitter of damaging behavior.
  • Build supportive relationships with strong adults. Building a supportive relationship with at least one emotionally healthy adult, especially someone with a strong family background, is an important way you can find help in becoming a transitional character. Life-altering changes are difficult to make alone, but when you receive support from someone else, such as a spouse, grandparent, teacher, or minister, it's much easier to interrupt abusive family patterns. This person can mentor you as you work to counteract the natural tendency to simply repeat family patterns.
    For example, one father found he had a tendency to react with anger to the demanding cries of his toddler son. He also found himself being too physically harsh with his son. His wife intervened, and through discussion together the husband realized he was treating his son as his older brothers had treated him in their single-parent home. This awakening through a supportive relationship was crucial as the father sought to become more patient and gentle with his son, reversing the pattern modeled in his family of origin.
  • Be deliberate about making changes. Negative family patterns are difficult to break. If you want to become a transitional character, you'll be more successful if you have a conscious plan outlining the specific behaviors you want to change and how you will go about fulfilling your plan. Some professionals call this process "re-scripting"-writing down and then role-playing what you will do when faced with real-life scenarios. You can role play your new "script" with the supportive adult mentioned earlier. Rehearse the script over and over again, and be patient with yourself as you practice the new pattern in real-life situations. It takes time to establish new patterns of behavior.
  • Celebrate family rituals. Establishing family rituals is a good way to provide a sense of unity and constancy to family members. Rituals can provide stability to a family when problems come up. Rituals include regular meals together, an evening once a week set aside for family fun, bedtime stories, and holiday traditions. To be most effective, these rituals need to be observed even when family times are tough.
  • Create a healthy emotional distance. All of us are influenced by the people we spend time with. If your family of origin is particularly negative, consider distancing yourself so their impact on your own family is minimized. It's usually not necessary to completely cut ties, but carefully evaluate the situation and keep what distance you need to so that you don't unintentionally perpetuate harmful family behaviors.
  • Marry at a later age. An older age at marriage (early 20s and older) and higher education contribute to a happier and more stable marriage. By waiting longer to marry, persons from negative home environments allow themselves more time to practice and establish healthy behavior patterns.
  • Read good books about family life. The more you know about what makes a healthy family the better, and reading is a good way to learn. If you come from a troubled family, you didn't see many positive behaviors in your home. You can learn healthier ways of interacting from good books and by trying out ideas from these books in your relationships. Respected authors have written many excellent books with valuable information to help parents, spouses, and children. A list of some of these books is included at the end of this article.
  • Join organizations that can help. All of us tend to become like the people we spend time with, so it's a good idea to be around people you want to emulate. Since volunteer organizations usually attract good people, consider volunteering. Or you might join a group that serves your community or participate in a religious community. Some organizations are more effective than others, so evaluate what best meets your needs.
  • Get an education. A good education teaches you to think clearly and make wise choices. It doesn't matter what you study as long as you're using your mind and developing your intellect. Even taking a few classes here and there from a local community college is helpful. Many communities offer classes on marriage, parenting, and other family issues.
  • Get additional help if needed. After doing your best to change negative family patterns on your own, you might find yourself needing additional help. Seek out a professional counselor recommended by others or a member of the clergy who can help steer you toward a transformed future.

Written by Kristi Tanner, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

Additional Reading

Check out the following books for ideas to create the marriage and family culture you want to pass on to future generations:

  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families (1997) by S. R. Covey.
  2. The Intentional Family: How to Build Family Ties in Our Modern World (1997) by W. J. Doherty.
  3. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999) by J. M. Gottman.
  4. Fighting for Your Marriage (2001) by H.J. Markman, S. M. Stanley, and S. L. Blumberg.
  5. Bonds That Make Us Free: Healing Our Relationships, Coming to Ourselves (2001) by C. T. Warner.

References

  1. Belsky, J. & Pensky, E. (1988). Developmental history, personality, and family relationships: Toward an emergent family system. In R. A. Hinde & J. Stevenson-Hinde (Eds.), Relationships within families (pp. 193-217). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Bennett, L. A., Wolin, S. J., Reiss, D., & Teitelbaum, M. A. (1987). Couples at risk for transmission of alcoholism: Protective influences. Family Process, 26 , 111-129.
  3. Bitter, E. (1992). Processes that promote the transitional character phenomenon. Unpublished paper.
  4. Booth, A., & Edwards, J. N. (1990). Transmission of marital and family quality over the generations: The effect of parental divorce and unhappiness. Journal of Divorce, 13, 41-57.
  5. Broderick, C. B. (1992). Marriage and the family. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  6. Burr, W. R., Day, R. D., & Bahr, K. S. (1989). Family science: Preliminary edition. Provo, Utah: Alexander's.
  7. The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles. (1995, November). The Family: A Proclamation to the World. Ensign, 102.
  8. Kaufman, J., & Zigler, E. (1987). Do abused children become abusive parents? American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 57, 186-192.
  9. Kramer, L., & Baron, L. A. (1995). Intergenerational linkages: How experiences with siblings relate to the parenting of siblings. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 12, 67-87.
  10. Magarrell, R. (1994). Becoming a transitional character (Doctoral dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1994). Dissertation Abstracts International, 55 (12-A), 3806.
  11. Masten, A., Best, K., & Gramezt, N. (1990). Resilience and development contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Development and Psychopathology, 2, 425-444.
  12. Olsen, S. F., Martin, P., & Halverson, C. F. (1999). Personality, marital relationships, and parenting in two generations of mothers. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 23, 457-476.
  13. Rosenthal, C. J., & Marshall, V. W. (1988). Generational transmission of family ritual. American Behavioral Scientist, 31, 669-684.
  14. Vermulst, A. A., de Brock A. J. L. L., & van Zutphen R. A. H. (1991). Transmission of parenting across generations. In P. K. Smith (Ed.), The psychology of grandparenthood (pp. 100-122). New York: Routledge.
  15. Whitbeck, L. B., Hoyt, D. R., Simons, R. L., Conger, R. D., Elder, G. H., Lorenz, F. O. et al. (1992). Intergenerational continuity of parental rejection and depressed affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 1036-1045.
  16. Zeanah, C. H., & Zeanah, P. D. (1989). Intergenerational transmission of maltreatment: Insights from attachment theory and research. Psychiatry, 52, 177-193.