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The importance of the family of origin


The importance of the family of origin in the formation of the individual and its implications for the practice of psychotherapy/counselling with individuals

 Most studies show that a family functions well when they are able to adapt to change, set appropriate boundaries, develop relationships through open communication, promote responsibility, express confidence in themselves and their children, and are optimistic about their future ( Cutler & Radford, 1999, c.f. Gladding, 2002). But how far does a well-functioning family, along with its opposite, a dysfunctional family, impact upon the development of a child? In this paper, this author shall try to examine just how much of our families we are carrying within us and how useful, certain habitual, emotional attitudes can be for the practice of counselling and psychotherapy. Such is the huge scope of the above question that this author will approach it mainly from an object relations perspective. Where possible, this author will also try to highlight the effects of family of origin on the individual through his own experience of working with clients in the therapy room.

  One approach to the above question might be to examine the various developmental stages that a child goes through and how this might affect his later functioning if he is unsuccessful in negotiating any stage due to family influences. Lavinia Gomez believes that it is the successful negotiation of the first three of Freud’s psychosexual stages of development which provides a basic stock of trust in oneself and the ability to relate enjoyably and effectively to others (Gomez, 1997:178). The dynamics of the oral, anal and oedipal stages provide us with ways of relating to others as well as our defences, both of which are often reflected in practice.

  The oral stage covers roughly the first year, and it is at this stage that the baby develops trust that the world will love and care for him, and thus how far he can take his own existence and survival for granted. Need and dependency are crucial factors at this stage and help, goodness and power can seem to be either outside the self, or in a rejection of the world, to reside solely within (Gomez, 1997:179). For the therapist, paying attention to the mouth itself and the use of smoking, drinking, drug use and eating disorders can be invaluable. For they reveal the anxiety of the client as he imbues them with magical maternal powers in order to rescue himself from desperate need. Although this author cannot speak for the first year of his client’s life, he has experienced such oral dynamics in the case of an eighteen year old male client whose mother abandoned the family for another man while he was eleven years old. He entered into a period of alcohol and drug abuse as a means of acting out and was still a heavy smoker when he presented for therapy with stress problems. This client had an insatiable need for his mother’s care and love and although she lived in the same, small town, she spurned his affection at every available opportunity.

  Gomez tells us that the challenge of the oral stage is to build a sense of self which can endure through difficult circumstances and to come to terms with living in a world which is real rather than a product of our own wishes. The defences employed at this stage are aimed at changing not what is actually happening, but rather the perception of what is happening in an effort to bypass anxiety. Denial is one such defence which could be seen in the case of the client, mentioned above, as he stoutly refused to believe that his mother who lived close by with another man did not care for him despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary.

  Gomez also mentions projective defences as a feature of this oral stage of development because of the baby’s absolute need for another to be part of his intense emotions. In therapy this can be seen in a client unconsciously forcing into the therapist the internal malignancy which would otherwise eat away at him; or conversely he may make his world seem safer through the projective creation of a powerful saviour (Gomez, 1997:180). The practical implications of this can be seen in a therapist trying to lessen his client’s anxiety by giving way, extending time boundaries, disclosing too much personal information or spending time between sessions worrying about the client. The blurring of the therapeutic frame and the anxiety which caused it can give the client the message that the counsellor cannot manage the client’s overwhelming feelings any better than he can himself.

  In the second half of the baby’s first year, a state which Melanie Klein termed the depressive position comes into the ascendancy. The baby now takes his survival more for granted and experiences inner and outer reality more accurately. According to Klein, the central fear of the depressive position is the baby’s terror of his anger and the desires he has to destroy the people he most loves and needs (Gomez, 1997:42). This fear of his anger forces him to turn it inwards attacking himself rather than the other person for being selfish or bad.

  It is at this stage that the baby comes to realise that even though anger can damage, love can mend. It is this belief in reparation that prevents us getting bogged down in depression, a continuing danger for those who have not yet discovered or do not trust their ability to make amends. The family of origin and the parents in particular play a vital role in helping the child see that his anger is not too overwhelming or destructive for repair to be possible. The warm comforting love of the mother, in particular, can lead to what Skynner called ‘a reduction of disorder’ and can give the baby an interlude of stability, an oasis of calm to help it regain its balance (Skynner & Cleese,1997: 79). The tantrums and conflict of the young child alternate with an absolute need for love and an urgent necessity to give. For a parent to reject the child’s gifts would be a crushing blow to the child’s sense of having something good to give and might cause him to never really gain a belief in his own goodness as a basis for reparation. These early forms of reparation develop into helpfulness and individual interests and talents which are all ways of contributing to society.

  “The capacity for reparation is thus a vital emotional achievement which Klein viewed as the basis of constructive living and creative power” (Gomez, 1997:43).

  This depressive position with its anxieties about anger and destructiveness can be seen in the therapy room. The turning of anger inwards rather than outwards is a hallmark of depression resulting in painful guilt and sometimes savage inner persecution. The depressed client will internalise anger so that other people are not hurt by it overtly. This leads to an undermining of the self which is manifested in a lack of self confidence, an inability to say no to others and continual, low-grade feelings of guilt, resentment and despair.

  Gomez calls depression the main defence of the late oral stage of development. A depressed person who is keen to appear kind and pleasant, who constantly placates others and does nothing which could justify criticism, is likely to have repressed feelings of rage, disappointment and demand which he considers would be unacceptable and which he fears may be disastrously destructive to those on whom he depends.

  The anal stage is the next stage of development, peaking between two and four years. The constancy and quality of the child’s most important relationships are vital at this point to help the child realise that conflict and anger can be overcome and that he is not too overwhelming for his parents to cope with. It is also important that the child be able to take for granted the existence and cohesion of the self and the reliability of the other (Gomez, 1997:183). Children, who at the anal stage of development, experience broken homes, unloving or quarrelsome homes, who are brought up in an institution, who suffer parental cruelty or very inconsistent discipline, are at risk of developing emotional or behavioural problems Although the parents relationship to the child is important, other factors such as a disability, loss, deprivation or trauma can hamper the child’s development and disrupt his security.

  Power is a major issue at the anal stage with the burning question being who is in control of whom. In the therapeutic setting, anal-stage dynamics can be seen in defiance, refusal to co-operate and passive resistance on the part of the client. The obverse of this defiant stance is the provocative submissive position. Such a client has internalised a sadistic or controlling relationship and develops a masochistic necessity to always be on its receiving end. He may only feel self-worth and secure if he is under the control of an other who shows dominance by treating him badly.

  This author has experienced such behaviour in the case of a female client who suffered severe asthma problems as a young child and had to be hospitalised at least four times a year for a week at a time up until her teenage years. A cold and uncaring mother coupled with an absent father ensured that she was alone and unvisited the majority of the time. She was denied this important source of comfort, this demonstration of the anxiety –reducing properties of parental presence that occurs when children are admitted to hospital or when they go into strange and frightening situations (Rutter, 1987). As a result she has spent her adult years careering from one sadistic, abusive relationship to another. She presented for therapy two years after being raped and viciously beaten, yet continued throughout the period of her therapy chasing down a married man at work who physically used and emotionally abused her.

  The final stage this author shall discuss with regard to the family of origin’s input into the formation of an individual is the oedipal stage. It mainly concerns the years between three and six when oedipal dynamics are at their height. This stage covers the transition between an infantile way of relating with a single other person, where any intruder is seen as a threat or a rival, to being part of a group. The child at this stage is trying to assess whether he still counts even if he is not the centre of the universe. Firm boundaries become important as well as consistency of discipline from both parents. The consistency between how the parents behave and how they tell their child to behave is also vital.

  In counselling, a client who has not resolved the identity issues of the oedipal stage will still tend to view others as agents of his convenience (Gomez, 1997:186), and will have no hesitation to use pressure, manipulation or seductiveness in pursuit of his goals due to his inability to see the other person’s point of view.

  To conclude, the family of origin is vital in the formation of the individual and recognising a client’s regression to various stages of development can be of profound use in the practice of psychotherapy and counselling. According to Michael Jacobs, since past experience strongly influences our reactions to the present, it is not surprising that the earliest experiences of human life are believed to form the foundations of all subsequent development (Jacobs, 1992:48).The importance of this in the therapy room is that there is a parallel between the start of a therapeutic relationship, and the starting point of human relating in infancy and that the trust and dependency experienced in earlier relationships can become vital in pointing out the way in the therapeutic relationship.




Gladding, Samuel T., (2002) Family Therapy: History, Theory and Practice. London:       Prentice Hall.


Gomez, L., (1997) An Introduction to Object Relations. London: Free Association Books.

Jacobs, M., (1992) The Presenting Past. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Rutter, M., (1987) Helping Troubled Children. London: Pelican.

Skynner, R., & Cleese, J. (1997) Families and how to Survive Them. London: Vermilion.



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