Managing Family of Origin Issues and Difficult Family Relationships Pre and Post Birth – By Sofia Rallis

What is our Family of Origin?

The term ‘Family of Origin’ refers to ‘the family we grew up with’. Typically this includes our biological or adoptive family, and/or any other significant caregivers that helped raised us in our younger years. Our early experiences with these key people have a significant influence on how we come to view ourselves, others, the world around us; and by extension how we cope and function in our daily lives.

Often when individuals become parents themselves they find themselves reflecting on how they were parented, and whether they would like to parent in a similar or different manner. Thinking about the difficult relationships and experiences that may have been present within one’s family of origin can bring to the forefront unresolved issues and emotions, which can impact on how well they adjust to the parenting role.

Certain family experiences may be detrimental to one’s wellbeing, for example in cases where there has been a form of abuse or neglect present. On the other hand, families may offer a place of safety, belonging, support and nurturing. The reality is that no family is perfect. Families will typically entail some negative or challenging dynamics and traits, as well as positive experiences and qualities. In turn, it is important to consider both the ‘good and the bad’ when thinking about your own family of origin and the impact that this has had on you.

As part of the transition to parenthood one might have some of the following family of origin related experiences:

In cases where there is a history of harmful or traumatic experiences within the Family of Origin

If you experienced significant problems or traumatic events within your family of origin such as abuse, neglect, infidelity, separation from one’s parents, mental illness or substance use, a ‘renewed’ and heightened level of distress may be experienced as you reflect and process these experiences through the lens of a soon-to-be or new parent. You may find yourself questioning why certain individuals acted in the way they did and whether they considered the impact of such experiences.

In some families, children may have grown up in an environment where their basic physical needs were met, and where these was no overt abuse present, but may have experienced a lack of love, affection, praise etc. This lack of emotional nourishment may lead to the development of negative beliefs about one’s own self and distort the view of what a typical or healthy parent-child relationship looks like. This is likely to also impact on how they relate to others, while also potentially making it difficult for them to demonstrate or accept love and affection to and from others, including a spouse and their own children. Being aware of the unhelpful experiences and influences from the past allows us to work on them firstly, by not repeating them. It is not always easy, but no one should ever feel like they are destined to repeat the past. There are always steps that can be taken which can help someone avoid repeating destructive behaviours. If thinking about these experiences has a notable impact on your emotional well-being and/or is affecting your day to day functioning, it is important to reach out and seek some formal support from a suitable health professional.

In cases of no traumatic History; the more ‘Moderate’ Family of Origin experience

Individuals, who are fortunate enough to not have directly experienced any of the events or circumstances mentioned above, may face different challenges as part of their transition to parenthood. These might centre on how existing relationships will be/are being impacted by the arrival of a new baby. Certain relationships might flourish and strengthen while others weaken; some might take some time to adjust to the changes, and sadly others might fade away completely.

Within the family context specifically, the perinatal period is often a time where individuals must navigate a change in the dynamics between family members, as the new parents take on the role of mother and father; a rather different set of roles to those that may have previously defined their place in the family, i.e., that of the daughter/son, younger brother/sister etc. Behaviours and beliefs that have been accepted for many years may now become increasingly problematic (e.g., difficulty setting boundaries, poor communication style, role expectations etc.).

In addition to managing the new dynamics and relationship changes, the expectant/new parents must also reconcile their own respective experiences in an effort to come together and parent as ‘a team’. This may be particularly challenging if the family background and experiences of the two partners are rather distinct from one another. It may be helpful to take some time to think about what are some of the key things you both have respectively learned about life from your family of origin? How does this influence your current relationships?

Some specific points/questions to consider include:

  • How did your family communicate, both within the immediate family context and with others? Are there particular communication patterns that you hope to either follow or avoid in your own family?
  • How did you address and resolve conflict in your family?
  • How were decisions made? Did one person ultimately ‘make the decisions’ or was it a collaborative process?
  • What aspects of your parents’ relationship do you admire? What aspects do you hope not to imitate?
  • Do you have any concerns about becoming a member of your partner’s family?
  • Have you and your partner discussed appropriate boundaries in regards to each other’s family? What are your views on matters such as what the communication will look like, mode and frequency of visits, how involved you would like them to be with your own children, what to do if conflict arises?
  • Have you and your partner discussed your own beliefs and approaches to parenting? How similar are your views on feeding, sleeping, settling, childcare, discipline, how the caring responsibilities will be shared etc.? What will happen if you have different views on breastfeeding in public? Or one parent believes the baby should be left to settle itself, while the other wants to hold and rock the baby to sleep? Often expectant and new parents tend to focus on the physical aspects of pregnancy, birth and looking after the baby once it’s born; yet key issues such as beliefs about parenting are not addressed. As a result, it is quite likely that you have never discussed these issues before. While it can be challenging to have some of these conversations, especially if there are differing views, bringing them up can reduce conflict and tension in the long run as you work towards a mutual agreement of how to handle particular situations.

Summary:                                                                                                                                                                

As individuals we form various kinds of relationships throughout the course of our lives. Some of the first are with the family we grew up with, aka our family of origin. These relationships play a key role in our development across all domains (social, emotional, behavioural, cognitive etc.). Issues that arise as a result of our experiences with our family of origin tend to affect how we live our lives, which includes how we relate and engage with other people. In order to work through and manage the complex issues and relationships better we must first become aware of the influence that our past experiences have had on us, especially in the context of becoming a parent. Be honest with yourself; reflect on your past so that you can better understand what you may need to work on in the present. It is important to note that this self-reflection is not about delving into the depths of your childhood or picking apart all the times you felt unhappy is some manner. Instead it is about making sense of your past experiences and recognising how these impact you today, for better and worse. Be aware of any sensitive or challenging family dynamics, relationships and beliefs and think about how you can manage these. Discuss these with your family and partner as appropriate, in an effort to minimise the tension or conflict caused by such issues. Lastly, as always if any of these issues or past experiences are causing you significant distress, reach out and seek some formal support.

References and sources for additional information:

  • Austin M-P., Highet N., and the Expert Working Group (2017). Mental Health Care in the Perinatal Period: Australian Clinical Practice Guideline. Melbourne: Centre of Perinatal Excellence.
  • (2011). Clinical practice guidelines for depression and related disorders – anxiety, bipolar disorder and puerperal psychosis – in the perinatal period. A guideline for primary care health professionals. Melbourne: beyondblue: The national depression initiative.
  • Beyondblue (2012).Managing mental health conditions during pregnancy and early parenthood: A guide for women and their families
  • Milgrom et al., (2009). Towards Parenthood: Preparing for the Changes and Challenges of a New Baby, ACER Press

Disclaimer:

Please note that the information provided in this article, and any associated references, is general and is not intended to be therapeutic in nature. If you feel that you would benefit from additional information, support and/or require urgent assistance please contact your GP, or one of the following services in your state.

Written by Dr Sofia Rallis

Crisis and Support Services

National Services:

Lifeline
13 11 14 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.lifeline.org.au

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA)
1300 726 306 (Monday-Friday 9am – 7.30pm (AEST / ADST)
www.panda.org.au

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Helpline
1800 882 436
https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au

 MensLine
1300 78 99 78
www.mensline.org.au

Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au


Additional State Based Services:

Victoria:
Maternal and Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 22 29
Parentline VIC 8am to 12am Monday to Friday, 10am to 10pm weekends 13 22 89

NEW SOUTH WALES:
Karitane Careline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 227 464
Parentline NSW 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 130 052

 ACT:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline ACT 9am – 9om Monday to Friday (except public holidays) (02) 6287 3833

QUEENSLAND:
Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 43 25 84
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

SOUTH AUSTRALIA:
Child and Youth Health Service 9am – 4.30pm Monday to Friday 1300 733 606
Parent Helpline SA 24 hours a day, seven days a week 1300 364 100

WESTERN AUSTRALIA:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parent Help Centre WA 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 654 432

NORTHERN TERRITORY:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

TASMANIA:
Parenting Line TAS 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 808 178

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