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People have an established lifestyle that they assume will continue in the foreseeable future and hopefully improve. They make plans for the weekend and summer vacations assuming that life will go on as scheduled. During the summer of our soul, when everything is going well, we don’t like to think that the days ahead will be any different. During the winter of our soul, it is hard to imagine that summer will ever come again.

Some people don’t even consider any future consequences and say, “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die”. According to Seligman (1990) we have developed different explanatory styles to deal with crises. If you were to ask many people the following question: “How do you think about the cause of misfortunes, small and large that befall you?” some will say: “It’s me, it is going to last forever, and it is going to undermine everything I do”. Others, those who resist giving in to misfortune, say, “It is circumstances, it’s going away quickly anyway, and besides, there’s much more in life”.

We can say that each one of us experiences different degrees of internal conflict in response to external demands and that the very same environment can sometimes be experienced as quite different, depending on:

  • our personality
  • our socialization process
  • the nature of the stress
  • its source
  • the meaning conveyed by it
  • its strength
  • its repetition
  • the vulnerability of a person at a specific time in life (critical developmental stages)
  • religious beliefs
  • possible outcome (self-actualization- what I want!).


Environmental events alone do not create stress; the individual must perceive the stressor and must respond to the stressor in some way. Often, initially, the primary response of the individual is physiological. When we feel challenged, for example by the need to adapt, or threatened by some menace to our safety or well-being, our bodies physiologically prepare us to confront the challenge (fight, or flight).

Stress can also be repeated attacks on the self by the outside world. We use our coping devices to defend ourselves against the threats. These coping devices are mainly acquired through experience and usually they have their origin within the family, in early childhood. A child imitates automatically or deliberately attitudes and devices which he sees in the family. He may also accidentally discover some coping devices which work in certain situations and may continue to use them even in situations which are not appropriate. Coping devices are associated with feelings, they may be automatic or directed.

Automatic reactions tend to be immediate and overwhelming. They may include responses such as fighting, anger moods, an attitude of aggression or passion expresses physically or verbally, excessive exercise or work, a dramatic oil painting or a flight in withdrawal, contriving not to be noticed, apathy, sleep, or suicide. Sometimes reactions take the form of anxiety, which may also be displaced onto objects, as in phobias.

Directed coping devices tend to be slower than automatic ones, deliberately, thought out and more accurately focused. It can be in the form of sarcasm, a well-planned attack, exercise or altruism, etcetera. As we have mentioned earlier, the reaction to stress might also be through its physical apparatus, as in psychosomatic illness, disturbance of perceptions, memory, thought and behaviour.

There are many challenges in life, challenges that necessitate changes in an individual, family and perhaps a community at large. Let us look at a few stressful and challenging events that may confront a family: winning large amounts of money; the death of a family member; divorce, sickness of a family member; a grandparent or other relative joining the family; taking in foster children; unemployment of the major breadwinner; a parent having an affair; the arrest of a family member; child becoming employed; a child having many difficulties at school; a physically disabled child.

Whether expected or unexpected, a crisis is a challenge to the individual and family, also for the previous structure of the family in the sense that for the family to remain functional, the structure and realignment of roles either temporarily or permanently need to be addressed.


I would like you to think of at least two examples where your family in the past/present needed/needs to adapt, or needs to shift the boundaries, structure to accommodate a change in the system.

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