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Family Stress Theory Applied to Parenting

Family is the most important thing for the vast majority of the Earth’s population. Generation after generation, a family lives according to certain patterns and concepts that could be very different. Each family has its problems, experienced moments of sorrow and happiness. We can see all this in the motion picture, called “Terms of Endearment”. This paper discusses the family depicted in the movie in terms of (a) roles, (b) communication patterns, (c) system boundaries, and (d) power/control. The role of the movie is to be an example that can be evaluated in terms of family stress theory. The theory is to be explained and used within this move to provide particular recommendation of what could have been done in order to improve the situation in the family. In addition, it discusses several assumptions regarding what will happen to this family over the next 5 to 10 years.

Keywords: family stress theory, roles, communication patterns, system boundaries, power/control, recommendations, Terms of Endearment.

Family Stress Theory Applied to Parenting


Studies of stress and coping in children have been undertaken and helped to understand what child resilience is. The same can be applied to family resilience that can be studied through the prism of the theory of family stress and coping. Normative and non-normative or unusual stressors, continuous family strains (tensions in the family that do not have their resolution), daily squabbles – these are the things that can be called family demands. Among family capabilities one can name psychosocial and real (material) resources (in other words what the family has) as well as coping behaviors (it is what the family does) (Patterson 2002; Randall and Bodenman 2009).


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Some distinct parallels can be drawn between demands and risk factors (resilience language). The same applies to protective factors and capabilities. The family ecosystem has three levels. They are: individual family members, a family unit and different community contexts. Capabilities as well as demands derive from these three levels.

For instance, an individual level demand exemplifies the diagnosis of a child’s disabling condition. A family level demand would appear, when there is a conflict between spouses regarding managing the child’s condition. A community puts a label of disability on a child and that becomes a community level demand (Patterson 2002; Randall and Bodenman 2009).

At each of these three levels, such capabilities as parents’ education and family integrity as well as health and education services can help deal with the above-mentioned demands. Developmental psychologists stress the fact that in the ecological context there are transactions between many systems and that is included in the process of resilience. Researchers studying family stress theory make an emphasis on the various contexts of family stress and the necessity to take into consideration the contexts of community and culture of a family, if there is a need to understand the causes of family stress not to mention the family’s response to stress.

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Speaking of individual resilience perspectives, family meaning is not very obvious, but it may help understand the development of the whole resilience process. There are three levels of family meanings. Families’ definitions of their demands and capabilities (primary and secondary appraisal respectively) are considered the first level. The second level is how a family sees itself internally as a unit (Patterson 2002; Randall and Bodenman 2009). The third level is how a family sees itself in its relations to the systems outside this family. All three meanings help define the protective capacity of a family together with the nature and extent of risk. When the necessity of adaptation to some non-normative stressors (e.g. when a child is diagnosed with some chronic illness) arises, it is possible that a family will change its beliefs or values trying to understand what they cannot explain and this could be a way of adaptation as well.

Every day families are involved in rather steady patterns of interaction attempting to make a balance between the demands they meet and the capabilities they have. This is done in order to get a family adjustment. Sometimes, the demands of a family are much bigger than its capabilities. If this imbalance is still present, a crisis arises in a family leading to the internal disorganization and lack of stability (Patterson 2002; Randall and Bodenman 2009).

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Quite often a crisis becomes a turning point for a family resulting in a drastic change of family’s structure or interactional patterns, sometimes even both. A family’s way of functioning may be changed due to a crisis. It means that the functioning of a family can go either way – it might improve or get disrupted (Patterson 2002; Randall and Bodenman 2009). The families can restore the internal balance (they will lower the demands, increase their capabilities, and change meanings). In case of positive outcome, stress theory calls it regenerative power (the so-called family bondadaptation). In stress theory, there is a meaning of vulnerability that explains the processes that result in poor adaptation of a family. Family’s regenerative power is almost the same as family resilience, when a family after some bad or risky situation still has a good outcome (Patterson 2002; Randall and Bodenman 2009).  


A family is a building block of any society. However, it is not just statistics. Each family consists of real people with their emotions, problems, joys, and complicated relationships. We are going to discuss a family as a living organism, using family theory. We are going to take the motion picture “Term of Endearment” as an example of complicated relationships’ development during several years (Brooks 1983).

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Family Roles

In this movie, we can see how roles of the family members change according to the changes in their lives. Aurora, mother of Emma, loses her husband, when Emma is about ten years old. She has to take care of her daughter feeling so lonely and lost. Aurora is a rather eccentric and reserved person, so she scares away every man around her. Emma has a different temper; she is an open and cheerful person. These characters play roles of the mother and daughter at first but later they become more like sisters, the closest friends (Fleming n.d.; Friedman et al. 2002).

Flap, Emma’s husband, does not play the role of a real man in this family. Aurora does not like him; friends of Emma do not like him as well. Emma loves him and this is the only reasonable explanation of why she marries Flap. Their children, Tommy, Teddy, and Melanie, are depicted rather well (except for the youngest Melanie) as sons with different attitude to the mother. Older Tommy is silent and grimy; he is confused and not happy with problems in the family. The younger Teddy, on the contrary, is a more open and loving boy. Well, it is definitely connected with their age (Fleming n.d.; Friedman et al. 2002).

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Communication Patterns

Communication patterns change during this movie according to everything that happens around and within it. However, we can outline a rather consistent communication pattern in the relationship between Emma and her mother. It can be characterized like rather high in conformity – these characters have close connection and keep discussing very different topics in conversation during the whole period, presented in the movie. Aurora is rather self-oriented in these conversations but closer to the end of Emma’s life she understands this and becomes softer to the daughter, more gentle, and loving (Friedman et al. 2002).

Unlike communication between direct relatives that are supposed to be close to constantly high in conformity, communication pattern within Horton family changes from high in conformity to low and right before Emma’s death this pattern changes again. At the beginning of the relationships, Flap and Emma love each other and, of course, are very close. They discuss everything, they have nothing to hide, and they are happy (Fleming n.d.; Friedman et al. 2002). Therefore, their interests, values, beliefs, etc. are homogeneous. Emma and Flap love their children; those are still too young to influence the situation with communication within the family.

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However, the situation changes when Flap shows lack of ambitions, lack of inner strength to change his life for his family, do something new and more profitable. Money, as one of the most important resources for any family, becomes the reason of increasing number of fights, because this family experiences severe shortage of it. Children grow older; the gap between Emma and Flap becomes wider. They do not talk with each other as it was before (Emma still has strong connection with Aurora during this period, the communication pattern does not change) (Fleming n.d.; Friedman et al. 2002).

When Emma begins to suspect Flap of cheating on her and decides that she needs someone else too, the communication pattern changes to low in conformity and family as was before, falls apart. It is the time, when their older son, Tommy, becomes distant from his mother. They argue and fight and even after Emma’s death, Tommy still kept offence deep inside. Family problems affected this boy because the communication pattern has changed (Fleming n.d.; Friedman et al. 2002).

System’s Boundaries

According to the above-described communication patterns, system’s boundaries in this family are rather different. Aurora and Emma have something in between of clear and rigid boundaries. Emma loves her mother and always tries to help Aurora to overcome her fear to being with another man after her husband’s death. Aurora does not show that she is in pain and lonely but Emma gives her words of advice and supports all the time. When Aurora meets Garrett, a handsome but arrogant astronaut, who lives nearby, it is Emma, who pushes her forward in the developing relationship.

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Aurora’s attitude towards Emma is different but it is worth mentioning that it eventually changes. She does not attend Emma’s wedding, she openly shows her dislike of Flap, and she does not like (or does not appropriately show it) her grandchildren at first (Fleming n.d.; Friedman et al. 2002). Aurora does not support Emma at the beginning but totally changes her attitude, when she realizes that her daughter is unhappy. So, the rigid boundaries that she has built in her family become clear towards the end of the movie.

The Horton family is different. At first, they have clear boundaries in the family. Flap and Emma look in one direction, love each other and love their kids. Eventually, these boundaries become more rigid and in some moments, Emma and Flap are isolated from each other. It does not affect her attitude to the children; she is always an open and loving mother. Flap, on the contrary, is rather distant from his children and it is the reason of the controversial decision to give the kids to Aurora for upbringing. Despite the fact that Flap loves Tommy, Teddy, and little Melanie, he does not know how to raise them and, moreover, does not want to get to know them (Fleming n.d.; Friedman et al. 2002).

Power and Control

Power-and-control theory suggests that single mother headed family tends to be more balanced and is similar to regular families, where both parents are empowered similarly in terms of their work, social status, etc. In this family, we can see that this suggestion has all reasons to be true. Emma does not obey her mother unquestionably. In fact, she has been like this since a rather young age. It is surprising, but such a strong woman as Aurora was not able to make her daughter obey her without any second thoughts. We can conclude that Emma has more power and control in the Greenway family (Fleming n.d; Friedman et al. 2002).

The situation does not change in the Horton family. Flap, as we discussed before, is not an example of the real man, the head of the family, leader, etc. He is a teacher, but he also does not have inner strengths as Emma does. As we can see during the entire movie, she makes all the decisions; she is braver and more persistent in her actions. However, Emma loves Flap and it mitigates her power and strength. It is the only reasonable answer to the situation, when Emma was told by her husband to move to another city.

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Power and control in this family belong to women. All efforts of Aurora’s admirers were not enough to make her respond. It should be mentioned that these efforts were too weak to impress her. Garrett managed to do it and Aurora lost control, she opened her heart for the first time after fifteen years of loneliness. Thus, we can conclude that power and control (self-control, in this case) are essential for the Greenway family. At the same time, Flap’s immaturity misbalances the Horton family and provides Emma with power and control that she probably does not even want (Fleming n.d.; Friedman et al. 2002).


We cannot say that it is the movie about a regular family. However, incomplete families because of different reasons, unfortunately, become more and more common these days. The situations in both Greenway and Horton families are different and dramatic in their own ways. Aurora is not the person that can be called open hearted and supportive. Therefore, Emma’s strong personality is a result of having such a mother. In their case, it would have been great to have a sincere conversation long before Emma’s death and the shocking discovery that she was never mad at Aurora. Unfortunately, Aurora has never even tried to accept the idea that her daughter does not listen to her judgments because she is strong and has a will to build her own life.

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Thus, the only advice in such a situation could be a sincere, openhearted conversation regarding all the issues they have. It eventually happened, and Aurora did realize that she did not treat her daughter right. Unfortunately, it was almost too late. Well, she changed her attitude and the way she started to treat her grandchildren has proven this (Fleming n.d.; Friedman et al. 2002).

The Horton’s family has regular problems for the family with such kind of a man, a husband, and a father as Flap is. He ruined this family because he was not strong enough to do something more than he could, go out of the box, think different. The only advice in this situation is to change the way of thinking for Flap. Emma was supposed to be supportive but her patience depleted. She probably did all she could to keep her marriage. However, Flap has found the way to ease his life and start new relationships with the other woman.

In their situation, it was necessary to start worrying about the future from the first day of their marriage. It was necessary for Emma to guide and support her husband so that he could achieve more. It was utterly important to make Flap understand that he was a leader in the family and should act responsibly. Unfortunately, Emma accepted this role and freed Flap from any responsibilities except making small money (Fleming n.d.; Friedman et al. 2002).

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The future of this family, or what is left of it, will depend on the further actions of Flap. Basically, the next five-ten years of his life, his actions, decisions would substantially influence the personalities of his children. Despite the fact that Aurora took them for upbringing, she is not their mother. In fact, they are not that close. In my opinion, Tommy would become a rather moody and probably violent teenager. Teddy, on the contrary, would be a nice young man that should keep his promise given to Emma and be nice to girls. Melanie would become a lot like her mother, strong and cheerful, because the same person would raise her.



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