Put simply, when people get what they want and their needs are met, they are happier than those who do not get their needs met. A family is a system; an unhappy member is not an isolated encounter. While there are many reasons for why there are unhappy family members, this essay will deal with the general issues of needs and goals.
Families are often busy systems with each member having certain needs which differs from that of the other members, for example, a family of 5 which comprises a baby, toddler, teenager and two parents will have an array of different needs and goals for each member as well as common needs. The baby of the house will need to have his/her nappy changed by a caregiver for example, while this is not a need for the other members. When the nappy has not been changed for a few hours, baby lets the family know by way of crying or has general irritability, especially if the nappy starts to burn and itch. Thus, the baby’s needs should be met in order for him/her to relax, which in turn relates to the other members being exposed to less tension. The same is true for the other members. Let’s say the father needs to go to work by 7am, he would need his breakfast ready so that he can be on schedule for his work day. If he is delayed, his work day may be interrupted and he may be unable to get his goals met. If he is delayed and he finishes work late this may interfere with the family goal of eating together and so on. The point is that each member has their individual goals and then there are the goals of the family as a unit.
An unhappy family member
The first question I ask is: “are your needs being met in your family?”. When a person’s needs are frustrated, they too can become frustrated. This can then get in the way of other members reaching their goals and in turn hinder the goals of the family. I am not advocating that everybody must get whatever they need all the time, and then there is a difference between needs and wants too. In our economic environment it is not always possible to give everyone what they need and want immediately, especially when they are non-essential items. Deciding what is primary and what is of secondary importance is the tough job of the parents, including which member’s needs are to be met first. The other challenge is when there is disagreement between what the parents believe the child needs and what the child thinks they need.
In the case of an unhappy family member, I would first find out if they are getting the things they want, for example the teenager in the family: is he getting food, shelter, love, care, clothes etc from his parents? Are his primary needs being met? Are his secondary needs being met, the needs which are specific to him, for example. This may be computer time, pocket money etc. I would then find out from him where he is at. Is he having emotional problems, school issues, developmental problems and so on. Obstacles are there to challenge us, but too many things in the way of our path can also leave us overwhelmed, depressed and can make a person unhappy. If he is having emotional problems and his basic needs are not being met, it’s a further challenge, thus I start at the primary needs and move outwards.
I have noticed that when the family’s needs are being met, there is more energy to deal with the additional problems that are part of daily life. A family with a few children can leave the parent/parents very busy and tired. Their own personal goals may get put aside while they attend to the goals of their children. This is especially true for single parents. In such cases, it is easy to see why a parent feels overwhelmed and tired. When our own goals are obtained it helps to re-energise us. Doing the things we enjoy is critical to a happy individual and a happy family. The problem is that just getting the time and energy to do these things is already a challenge in our current economic environment. Awareness of each person and their daily goals is important in family systems.
The family is often the training ground for societal living. Experiencing happiness is a major part of this journey. Most people have their first social encounter within the family context. This progresses until they interact more and more with systems outside of the family. The increased engagement of communication outside of the family is a natural process. The family would have provided the initial context and background to this social engagement. Being happy in society relies on the same principles as being happy in the family. Having an awareness of one’s environment and the people within it are integral to sustained happiness. The tools learnt in the family context are important in the societal context. There are challenges in society which often finds people looking out for their own interests or as the saying goes “every man for himself”. This attitude will not lead to sustained happiness, in the same way self-centered behaviour within a family too won’t provide happiness. Relationships that are one sided may appeal to some people as their needs are being met, but the lack of awareness of the other in the relationship soon ends this union. It translates to taking without regard. It may work for some where each party gets what they need from the other party, but if there is lack of awareness and only need satisfaction, this relationship would lack love. This relationship I don’t believe will last as the parties don’t care about each other, they care only about what they can get from each other. Thus, in effect they could be seen as commodities instead of partners.
Does each member of the family get the things they need? Are they given support with the goals that are difficult or out of reach? Having a self-centered attitude may provide momentary satisfaction when your needs are met, but won’t last if the needs of others around you are not taken care of. This does not mean that one has to always subordinate oneself for those around either. The point is that awareness of the other is part of happiness for the individual as well as the family as a unit. An ecological perspective is required for lasting enjoyment of one’s environment both in the relational context and in the environmental context.
Philip Baron (Feb 2011)