For Educators: Multi-generational Families

By Joshua Essery, PsyD, ABPP

Many families are made up of what clinicians refer to as a “multi-generational family.” This means that a parent has their own parent(s) or older family members living in the home with them, their partner and their child(ren). When this occurs every member of the family faces challenges about how to live together in harmony. It can be harder to have clear and consistent roles as well as structure in a home where there are multiple generations present. Parenting roles and authority can easily become unclear and confused, and this can have an impact on the child in many ways. Whether another family member disagrees with a decision a parent makes in front of a child or when they disagree with their parents, these types of dilemmas and dynamics are difficult for children. As a result, children who experience these types of family scenarios can exhibit a number of emotional and behavioral problems, and these may be evident outside the family home.  

That being said, there are many ways to define a healthy family or healthy family dynamics. Multigenerational families thus are not inherently wrong or bad. In fact in many cultures they are the norm! Most family therapists view a family’s health by considering how well the family communicates, works through conflicts, and how individual members of the family feel about the rules, structure and roles in the family. It is important to recognize that there are no perfect families, nor is there a universally correct way for a family to function. However, multigenerational families can provide many challenges. I will discuss some of the common ones in this article and provide some direction for how to respond if you are working with a family experiencing these difficulties.

 Why did we do this again?

For many families, having several generations live together really helps:

  • Financial responsibilities are shared and everyone benefits from lower individual costs.

  • Child-related tasks can be divided, benefiting the child (who has more access to adults who can help) as well as the adults (who don’t have to do it all alone).

  • Members of the family may feel more support and do not feel isolated from one another.

  • In some circumstances it may help families navigate the tasks associated with caring for an aging parent.

So what’s the downside again?

While there are benefits, multigenerational families can also be complex, especially for children. Here are some common obstacles children may face:

  • Children may not know who the “real” authority figure in the home is. Having a clear authority structure helps children feel safe and secure.

  • Children may feel like an equal to adults in the home because they see adults disagree and undermine one another.

  • Children may feel that they have to choose sides between family members or even learn to take sides in order to get what they want. These situations are referred to as “loyalty conflicts.”

  • Children may learn that if they act up it will cause conflict between adults in the family and in turn the child may gain something that they desire (i.e. expressed love, loyalty, attention, a parent giving in, etc.).

  • Parents may feel badly about their ability to parent, and the quality of their interactions with their child may suffer.

So what do professionals say about multigenerational families?

There are a few concepts drawn from family therapy that are important when understanding a child living in a multigenerational home.

Structural family therapists focus on what is called family hierarchy and the generational boundaries. Structural family therapists believe that there should be a clear power structure in families that is divided by generational boundary lines. In layman’s terms this means that parents should have authority over their children and children should have a clear understanding about this. In a structural family model, this power hierarchy is maintained through what is referred to as generational boundaries.

For structural family therapists, adults in the home should all be in agreement about their different roles in the family. Adults should be responsible for things such as decision making, parenting, managing finances and working through disagreements without children in the home being unduly exposed to adults working out these issues. In addition, children should have an outlet to discuss questions and feelings with parents and adults, but not to the extent that they are burdened with worries, concerns or conflicts of the adults in the family.

If a child is either overly exposed or lacks an outlet to discuss their questions and concerns, structural family therapists view this as being related to a problem with boundaries between generations  (i.e. either too rigid or too loose). In multigenerational families, these boundaries and the associated clarity of roles can at times be harder to maintain than in other types of families.

Given these concepts here are some main points to focus on if a child in your care is in a multigenerational home:

  1. Encourage the parents to work out adult matters between adults, in private. Stress the importance of not fighting or arguing in front of children. Parents should not burden children with adult matters such as anxiety about finances, etc.

  2. Ask about everyone’s role with parenting tasks and encourage them to stick to them as much as possible. Make sure adults in the family are in agreement about who is responsible for parenting tasks and that this is communicated to children. Help them understand that reversing or disregarding decisions or consequences made by another adult can create doubt and confusion for kids.

  3. Encourage the child to ask questions and talk about their feelings to adults in the family. Children tend to become upset if they simply feel commanded, controlled and as if they have no say in things.

  4. Caution the parents to avoid asking children to take on adult roles or tasks within the family. This can be very confusing for a child who is asked to be in a parent role one minute and in a child role the next.

A second concept to keep in mind when working with a mutigenerational family is what many clinicians refer to as individuation and/or differentiation. These concepts are drawn from psychodynamic family systems approaches, which are heavily informed by developmental psychologists studying how children become their own person as they grow up. A major task in any family is knowing how to maintain a good relationship between parents and children as the child grows older. Many families have a hard time dealing with the feelings that result from a child leaving the home or becoming their own person, especially if it’s different from what the parents desired for the child.

On the other hand, many children struggle to manage feelings, such as guilt and anxiety, which come when they try to become more independent from their families. These processes are often especially complicated when parents and children come from differing cultures or value systems. For example, a parent may have grown up in a different country where children are expected to take care of their parents as they age, while their child grew up in the U.S. and adopted a strong value for independence. The potential for conflict is clear in this scenario. Each family has to find a way to balance the often conflicting needs to 1) remain in a good relationship and feel close to one another while 2) each family member has their own individual life and identity outside of the family.

In multigenerational families these tensions may contribute to conflict between generations and difficult dynamics between children and adults as they grow up. Here are some things to consider when working with children from multigenerational homes:

  • They may be more sensitive to rejection or criticism, especially if it makes the child stand stand out as “different.”

  • They may have a hard time having their own life apart from family members.

  • They may experience guilt or anxiety for wanting a more independent lifestyle or a different path than expected by the family.

  • Family members may be afraid and overprotective of children in the family, and restrict their child from exploring.

How do I know if a child in my care is being negatively impacted?

If you work with a child living in a multigenerational home, you may be concerned that the child is being negatively impacted by some of the dynamics that I have described in this article. Here are some signs that the family patterns could be negatively impacting the child:

  • The child may overtly question adults’ authority or resist redirection from adults.

  • The child may seem to lack respect for adults.

  • You may find adults in the family disagreeing about matters related to the child’s school work or community involvement.

  • The child seems sad and anxious about adult matters such as finances, adults’ health, the status of a parent’s happiness, or the quality of adult relationships in the home.

  • The child may seem to act like they are a parent or an adult to other children in the classroom.

What can I do if I want help the child and their family?

If the ideas and suggestions in this article leave you with concern about a child in your care, talking to the parents about some of the dynamics of multigenerational families might be a good first step. If they are receptive to the idea, explains that many clinicians have training in family therapy, and it can be a way to increase everyone’s understanding of one another, improve communication and overall family relationships. Then work with your school’s counseling professional to find an appropriate referral.