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This is one of a series of lesson-5 articles
on how to evolve a high-nurturance family.
article introduces a powerful tool for
understanding how your family is "built" - "structural mapping."
It may look complicated, but if you experiment with it, you'll find
that it's easy to use.
The article defines family structure, summarizes
some basic premises, shows you how to map the structure of any family, and
proposes baseline 'maps" of healthy biological families.. A related
article shows how to map typical multi-home stepfamily
This mapping tool can help you answer questions like...
the power in our home and family, including dead people and non-relatives?"
"Who's in charge of each of our homes?"
"Who is aligned
and who is conflicted?"
"Is anyone excluded from full family membership?
By Whom? Why?"
"Do we have
major communication blocks in and between our several homes?"
"How does our family structure
react to crises, major
conflicts, and membership changes?
This article assumes you're familiar with...
family means a group of people with genetic, legal, and
social bonds who depend on each other for inclusion, identity,
companionship, support, procreation, security and stability. This can
include dead and distant relatives, special friends and professional
consultants, a Higher Power, neighbors, teachers, coaches, baby
sitters, and perhaps influential mentors and media figures.
Structure describes how something is built, like a house, novel,
sailboat, or government. Structures range from stable to unstable and
effective to flawed, depending on what they're designed to do.
Family structure refers to:
Who's included and excluded from the family;
Who's in charge of each home
or group of related homes, if anyone.
Whose needs and behaviors cause the main decisions in calm and troubled
boundaries, or lack of them;
roles and rules that govern how members' needs get
met - or don't;
Family-member alliances and antagonisms; and ...
blocks in and between people and homes.
Structural mapping is a visual tool. It can help you identify and validate what's
healthy about your family, and
illuminate structural problems that lower your
nurturance level. The structural mapping scheme
outlined here uses some basic ideas about family functioning.
See if you agree
with each of these beliefs, and add your own:
1) A family's
core purpose is to
children's needs. A common
is for a safe haven, where every member feels consistently accepted,
valued, respected, supported, and encouraged to
develop and use their unique talents.
Families that don't fill all their
members' key needs consistently can be called low nurturance or dysfunctional. The
more of these factors that exist, the higher the
nurturance level. Levels vary over time with structural and
determining a home's or a family’s nurturance level
my clinical experience since 1979, I believe
many or most typical adults
have survived early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse (trauma), and have
inherited significant psychological
Few people - including family-life professionals - are aware of this,
and/or they don't know what it
means or what to
do about it.
Premise 3) All families experience local or chronic
stress over surface issues like these:
family membership (inclusion and exclusion)
boundaries (missing, weak, or rigid; violations;
roles (unclear, unstable, inappropriate,
relationship rules and consequences
(unclear, conflicting, inconsistent, and appropriate or not);
adapting to and stabilizing after systemic
and environmental changes.
The key relationship in a family
that includes minor kids should be between mates, vs. an adult and a
child or other adults (like grandparent-parent) or two ex mates. In
resolving family problems, mates should consistently put their
wholistic health first, their relationship second, and all else third -
except in emergencies.
Family members (like you) can
proactively improve their family's structure and system by taking and
applying this online self-improvement
Notice your reaction to
these premises. If you don't agree with them, what do you
To use this visual tool, your family
adults need some...
Family-structural maps use
symbols to show how members relate to each other. In this article, I’ll use
the generic letters below. You can use these letters, your family-members’ names or
initials, cartoon figures, faces, or any other meaningful symbols.
these maps can be fun, as well as instructive!
Consider using colored markers or
pens, too - whatever makes the diagrams clearer for everyone. Try to see the
big picture and theme, to minimize getting boggled by all these symbols.
Once you try them, they're surprisingly easy...
Stands for current nuclear-family member:
M , F, ...
Living Parent, Mother,
DP, DM, DF
psychologically-wounded Mother or Father
C2 , T1 , T2
(minor) Children and Teens
or [absent] and still psychologically-important Parent,
Mother, or Sibling ... (e.g. an aborted, stillborn, or
Conflicted Parent and Child
that significantly influence one or more family members, if any.
"1" or a powerful Grandmother, or ...
or Pr, or ...
"1", or Professional person (priest, counselor, ...)
or rejected Parent or
with ineffective verbal communications.
) or (C1+C2)
codependent) Parent and Child "1", or
enmeshed Children "1" and "2."
" _ _ _ _ _"
responsibility lines. Put people above the line who have the most
consistent impact in directing current household residents’ feelings, actions,
and attention. Ideally, all resident parents would be always above the line and minor
Dashed responsibility lines signify generally open adult-child
communications. A solid line means communications are blocked (people above
and below the line don’t disclose honestly, hear well, or problem-solve
or mutually-hostile parental relationships, with blocked (ineffective)
with blocked verbal communications.
Option: use small
encircled or colored letters or subscripts to designate important
individual or dyad dynamics like these:
|A = addiction |
VC = values
$C = money conflict
M = in the military
PC = parenting conflict
PA = physical abuse
SX = sexual problem
PR = pregnant
T = in therapy
X = no life purpose
|D = depressed
UG = unfinished grief
H = homeless
J = in jail
BC = boundary conflict
EA = emotional abuse
F = fanaticism
I = socially isolated
S = sick or disabled
symbols like these can reveal patterns of stress in and among family members
and homes. This allows quickly identifying where to focus energy to improve
your family's nurturance level (function).
Now let's see how to use these (or similar) symbols in...
These examples are based on the premises above.
structure" refers to home and family membership, leadership, roles (responsibilities),
boundaries, and communications. We’ll start with
high-nurturance (functional) family map, and then show some of the many kinds of
(low nurturance) biofamily structures.
these maps is to show simply and concisely whether a given home or
multi-home nuclear family is
organized in a healthy way or not. Use them to help discuss and improve your
family's nurturance level, not to expose,
attack, or ridicule any members.
A high-nurturance, intact
nuclear bio(logical)-family structure
- - - - - -
and Father are co-equally in charge of their home ("above
the line"), and not enmeshed or addicted. Communication is open between all adults and minor kids. Family roles
(responsibilities) are clear to everyone. Kids are encouraged to be kids,
vs. little adults. There are no interfering relatives or other people, and
no one is demoted below the line, excluded, exalted above the line, absent,
enmeshed, or addicted. Household emotional boundaries
(the dashed box) are open,
so friends, kin, and ideas freely enter and leave, yet there are clear limits.
A High-nurturance, Intact Extended-biofamily Structure
- - - - - -
- - - - - -
C C C
This is a
four-home 13-member multi-generational ("extended") biological
family system. It includes a married couple with two minor kids,
three living grandparents, one dead and influential grandmother, and
an aunt and uncle in charge of their three minor kids, all living in
four separate homes. Grandfather "2" is the most powerful adult in
the extended family, and influences most major decisions. No one is
enmeshed, excluded, addicted, wounded, or dubbed a "black sheep."
Each home affects the others and is a subsystem of the whole
system. Each home has its own structure.
Their are no addicts, wounded adults, or major conflicts in any
homes. All four homes have roles and rules that determine how members
act toward each other in normal and special times. God does
not have a major influence on this extended family, nor do any non-members.
In real life, most extended-family maps like these are more complex (and more
Low-nurturance Two-parent Biofamily Structures
- - - - - - -
C ... C
- - - - - (F
- - - - - - - -
F || M
- - - - -
blocked parental communications
2) Detached or
absent Father, blocked parental communications
parent - child communications; Parents enmeshed
4) Child co-
controlling the home, Mom ineffective ("below
dead mother controls the home; parents can’t talk; kids anxious
M ) - - - - (F
C ... C
F) - - - - - - - - C ... C M
F || (C+M)
- - - - - - - - - -
C ... C
(U + + + + M) [F]
C ... C
unbonded parents; teen controls the home; No family boundaries
mom, detached dad, Aunt in charge; Rigid
(closed) household boundaries
and controlling child; no parental teamwork or problem solving
and (non-resident) Uncle; Biofather
dead but still key; kids feel unheard
C F C
Regressed or overwhelmed Parents. Nobody is consistently in
charge of the home (no adult-child responsibility line): All family members are
isolated from outsiders (solid border).
|11) Similar, including a
resident Relative; Everyone is
enmeshed and chaotic: no effective personal boundaries, and no clear
Mates have no private time or space. Adults are kids'
buddies, not parents.
With some imagination, you can see that these are only a few of the
many biofamily structures possible! How would you map the family that you grew up in?
Over time, it probably had several key structures. Family structures change each
time someone is born, dies (including abortions and stillbirths), leaves home, reaches
puberty, moves back home, becomes seriously ill or injured, gets married, and so on.
or Divorcing Family Structure
legal (vs. psychological) divorce restructure a biological family.
The family system now includes the people, roles, rules, coalitions,
communication, and boundaries in each of two related household systems.
Early in a divorce process, key relatives, friends, supporters, and
professionals (like counselors, mediators, and attorneys) affect the
family's functioning, and should be included in a structural map.
adults and a low-nurturance family system.
- - - - - -
C ... C
has legal and physical custody, and controls her home (is above the line). Arrows show
regular child visitation
with their addicted Father, who is in
charge of his home when the kids come to stay; but communications with his kids are
blocked (solid line). Ongoing two-way hostility, poor communications, and
bioparents, with the kids caught in the middle. No significantly intrusive
or dependent relatives
many variations of this two-home
divorcing biofamily, considering
who’s in charge in each home; the numbers, ages, and "parentification" of
older kids (i.e. being above the parental responsibility line); the availability and
involvement of nurturing kin; and how the "sending" home restructures if some of
the kids go visit, but some stay. The custodial bioparent is often overwhelmed, and may
"promote" an older child above the line to co-control the home. Or
may hire day-care or live-in help (who should be included in the structural map).
If you divorced, what did (or does)
your two-home biofamily structure look
like? Did (does) it have several structures? Who was in charge of each home when
the kids were there?
article defines "family" and "family structure," and offers several basic
premises about families. It shows typical family-mapping symbols,
and illustrates how to diagram (map) the structure of high-nurturance (functional)
and low-nurturance biofamilies.
family-systems knowledge, structural mapping is a
tool that can help healthy, informed adult members visualize and discuss how
their nuclear or extended family is "built" - and identify and solve
If you want to map a
multi-home nuclear stepfamily, see this
Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get
what you needed? If not, what
you need? Who's
answering these questions - your
true Self, or
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