The Family Forum: Changing the Family System

By Michael Farnworth

Changing an established family system is a difficult thing to do: the system is hidden and has an energy of its own that resists control; it has set up safeguards to defend and maintain itself against change. This is true of all systems—social, political, and corporate. Not even the Church’s organization is immune. Elder Packer once talked about the over-programming plaguing the Church, saying, “It has been virtually impossible to affect any reduction in programs.” And, “In recent years I have felt, and I think I am not alone, that we were losing the ability to correct the course of the Church.”1

No problem can be solved by the consciousness that created it. Though I haven’t been able to locate the source of this quote (it is popularly attributed to Albert Einstein), it contains wisdom. To understand its wisdom, consider the puzzle below.

Instructions: Connect the nine dots using four straight lines without lifting your pen or pencil from the paper.


You may have already been exposed to this puzzle’s solution, but if you haven’t, take a moment to try solving it.

The first time I attempted this puzzle, I failed. When someone showed me the solution, I was surprised at how simple it was and felt that if I had put a little more work into it, I could have discovered the solution on my own. But it wasn’t true. I could have studied the problem for many more hours and gotten nowhere. I had sealed my fate when I unconsciously shaped the nine dots into a box, making everything outside the imaginary square “out of bounds.” But the instructions themselves didn’t imply this limitation. The imaginary boundary had been created by my own mind. And thus, I approached the puzzle under an unconscious assumption that prevented me from discovering the solution. In order to solve the problem, I had to awaken to new possibilities. I had to change my paradigm. I had to see the dots differently. Similarly, seeing beyond the family system requires a change in outlook. In order to change the family system, we have to break unconscious boundaries we haven’t even perceived yet.

Our first attempts at making significant changes in our family system are usually nothing more than groping around in the dark following well-intended advice from our friends, leaders, and self-help writers. We have the feeling that something needs to change, but we don’t understand what it might be.

Feeling your movement, the family system sets out a few seductive traps: easy changes that seem to address the problem, but actually maintain the status quo. These are called first-order changes: changes that occur within an existing system without actually altering it.

For example, if I rearrange the furniture in a house, the environment may look different, but no significant changes have actually occurred. If the foundation of the house is rotten or if the roof is leaking, rearranging the furniture will make no difference. Similarly, parents who attempt to change their children’s behavior may try all kinds of discipline techniques, but if their goals and paradigms remain the same (usually to remain in power and to exact obedience from their children), nothing significant will occur. The parents may change from spankings to time-out, but the basic system remains intact, because the parents themselves haven’t changed.


First-Order Change Strategies


In their book, Change, Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch2 list and explain four common first-order change strategies and how they keep unhealthy systems stable, namely:

more of the same


• the grandiose utopia syndrome

• the creation of paradox.

The “more of the same” strategy suggests that if parents don’t succeed at first, they need to try, try again—and again and again and again, with more intensity. More effort, more diligence, and more faith are the only way to solve the problem. But this is a flawed approach. No matter how many times one might attempt the dot puzzle, no matter how deeply one scrawls the lines, if one stays inside the self-imposed box, the puzzle will never be solved.

If physical punishment (spanking bottoms, thumping heads, or jerking arms) is not effective, the “more of the same strategy will falsely promote the idea that an increase in the intensity and frequency of the punishment will bring success. If a week’s grounding doesn’t give the desired effects, certainly a month’s worth will. The same could be said of increasing your family prayers to five times a day, or holding Family Home Evenings on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and bumping your scripture reading up to an hour and a half a day. More of the same eventually becomes the problem rather than the solution.

The “oversimplification” strategy arises when a problem is particularly complex, or when the parents want to pretend that a problem doesn’t exist—or if it does, that it can be taken care of through simple means. A religious parent who is confronted with a family difficulty that is potentially not solvable might withdraw into a dishonest faith, hoping that the Lord will just take care of it when they themselves are likely the source of the problem.

Another way a dysfunctional family system will protect itself is to blame the problem on a particular person. For example, in a marriage, one spouse may say to the other: “If you would just stop being so defensive, we wouldn’t be having these problems!” Sometimes a child who is insightful and sensitive enough to absorb the family’s problematic energy will be labeled as the problem. This is often the case with the rebel or black sheep child who, in acting out the dysfunctional energy of the family, is scapegoated as the family’s problem. “If it weren’t for this child, we could be a happy, eternal family.”

Parents who feel that they have all the answers are victims of the grandiose utopia syndrome. Example: The problem with kids these days is . . . (fill in the blank). These kinds of parents are obsessed with perfection—in themselves and in their spouse and children. Their self-esteem is based on their belief that they have all the answers. They are unable to admit their mistakes or consider the idea that their perceptions may be lacking. They believe that as long as they do everything the Lord/Church requires of them, all will be well. These parents have placed all their eggs (i.e. children) in one eternal basket and are willing to suffer some broken or lost ones to keep their grandiose egos intact.

The fourth strategy is illustrated by: Don’t think of an elephant!

You thought of an elephant, didn’t you? It’s pretty much impossible not to after such a bald command. By insisting that you not think of an elephant, I created a condition where it was impossible for you to obey me. The same thing happens when a frustrated parent demands of a recalcitrant child, “You will respect me!” or “You will love me!” True love and respect have to be given freely. They can’t be coerced. When a parent (or spouse, or child, or friend) demands love, they create a paradox where their demand cannot be met. Demanding and controlling parents delude themselves into believing that compliance with a happy heart can be forced. What they do not understand is that if they want the seeds of love to grow in their children, they cannot pry the seeds apart and pull the plant out. They must give the seeds the right growing environment: love, respect, and agency.


A Story About Second-Order Change


Second-order change occurs when the system itself is transformed, when its boundaries are breached, when new possibilities the old system could not have accommodated are revealed and embraced. Instead of rearranging the furniture, we remodel the house. Instead of staying inside the imaginary box, we grant ourselves permission to explore the space around it. Instead of relying on a discipline system based on manipulation, parents courageously explore the space of honesty, equality, and respect in their relationships with themselves and with their children.

But perceiving how second-order change can occur and knowing how to carry it out involves going into territory that seems contradictory, illogical, or even dangerous. Consider, for example, the following story:

When in 1334 the Duchess of Tyrol, Margareta Maultasch, encircled the castle of Hochosterwitz in the province of Carinthia, she knew only too well that the fortress, situated on an incredibly steep rock rising high above the valley floor, was impregnable to direct attack and would yield only to a long siege. In due course, the situation of the defenders became critical: they were down to their last ox and had only two bags of barley corn left. Margareta’s situation was becoming equally pressing, albeit for different reasons: her troops were beginning to be unruly, there seemed to be no end to the siege in sight, and she had urgent military business elsewhere. At this point, the commandant of the castle decided on a desperate course of action which to his men must have seemed sheer folly: he had the last ox slaughtered, had its abdominal cavity filled with the remaining barley, and ordered the carcass thrown down the steep cliff onto a meadow in front of the enemy camp. Upon receiving this scornful message from above, the discouraged duchess abandoned the siege and moved on.3

Doubtless, the commandant’s soldiers were certain they were signing their death warrants when they threw the ox’s carcass from the walls. It was the last of their food. But the commandant had seen the duchess’s situation and realized that he need only convince her that the siege would last much longer than she had the time or morale for. He broke out of the system that argues that one should preserve one’s resources during a siege, and threw a great deal of food away like it was garbage. Normally it’s true that preserving resources is a good idea, but in this case, it wasn’t. And it took a dramatic paradigm shift and an open mind to grasp that.

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis illustrates the difference between first- and second-order change.

If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and not wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be plowed up and re-sown.4


Creating Second-Order Change


Sadly, for the majority of us, second-order change springs from major crises. Divorce, failing to achieve a lifelong ideal, hitting the bottom of a secret addictive behavior, undergoing a life-changing accident or assault, or feeling the threatened loss of sanity can all steer us toward second-order change. Before a crisis hits, we often live complacently within the system we’ve built, turning a blind eye to the damage it causes. It is only when this system is knocked out—and our ego along with it—that we can begin to see its weaknesses. We may wake up to the unconscious reasons we built the system in the first place—and we may see that we constructed the system to protect us from the pain, hurt, and anger in our past. But in order to avoid simply rebuilding a dysfunctional system, we need to rely on our hearts rather than our egos.

I have a good friend who lived his life by the slogan, “Perfect in all things.” He was raised in an active LDS family, served a mission, married in the temple, and raised a large family. He was faithful and good but very controlling. He kept himself overly busy with outer-kingdom business: fulfilling callings, focusing on appropriate behaviors, and maintaining the “look” of a high-standing Mormon. However, his marriage was running into trouble and his children were acting out in negative and hostile ways.

When he and I first started talking about his difficulties, I suggested that his depression might be a result of inner shame and self-contempt, but he didn’t buy it for a second. Over the next few years, our conversations explored why he had adopted his “perfect in all things” slogan, and he told me that as a child, he had never felt like he measured up to the standards in his home, church, or school. He felt isolated, lonely, and misunderstood, which led him to believe that he could prove his inner worth only through his outer works.

He began to see how hard he had always been on himself. He realized that his contempt for his own imperfections had bled over into contempt for the imperfections of others—especially those of his wife and children. He started to see how his activity in the Church had taken on an addictive, compulsive quality, using scripture reading and prayer as punishments for his shortcomings, in hopes that they would make him better.

Slowly this anguished enlightenment brought about change. He reluctantly started to confront and challenge his ego’s logic. He practiced being more forgiving of himself. He spent time in meditation trying to remember his childhood. He started to see himself and his world differently. He started to like himself more, and stopped being so intense and demanding. He became more willing to risk being honest, open, and vulnerable. He also began to understand how his self-righteous, one-ups-man-ship style of parenting had driven his children and his wife away from him.

Though these changes were healthy for my friend, they destabilized his family life. For years he had trained his family to interact with a father and husband who was manipulative, controlling, and critical. They honestly had no idea how to relate with this man who was abandoning his old behavior patterns. Some family members even opposed his changes at first.

Both his marriage and family life survived this second-order upheaval, but it was excruciatingly difficult. He had to metaphorically crucify his ego in stages in order to become ready for further change. My friend’s inward journey to become aware of the unconscious motivations in his life can best be described as an ordeal of psychic death. But as a result of all this work, his depression occurred less often, and he began to feel a new sense of grounding and optimism.

His activity in the Church changed as well, from a form of self-manipulation to a more relaxed acceptance of himself and others. He started honoring what he was feeling and thinking instead of focusing on what others told him he should be feeling and thinking.

How many of us, like my friend, have busied our lives being good boys and girls doing whatever we have been told to do? How many of us are stuck in a deadened, unconscious role play where we pretend in order to fit in—to our marriages, our families, and our church? Even if we are active in the Church, we run the risk of spending our lives in spiritual poverty if we remain asleep, never making our home in the sanctuary of our soul—or as one mystic described it: those hidden caves in our hearts where God resides. Perhaps we have never understood Jesus’s teaching that the kingdom of God is within us as implied in Luke 18:21. To paraphrase R.D. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist,

The inner journey to obtain true sanity will entail the dissolution of the normal and false ego that has adjusted itself to our alienated and dishonest social reality. This dissolution and death of the ego will enable the inner archetypal mediators of Divine power to manifest in our life. This Divine manifestation will result in a rebirth of a new kind of ego with a new kind of second order functioning. This new ego creation will no long betray the Divine within us but will be its servant.5

Changing our consciousness, agonizing as it always is, is the key to effecting second-order change within the family system. We parents need to awaken to the self-imposed unconscious assumptions that keep us locked in the prison of first-order change. When we surrender our egos and stop seeing ourselves as the authoritative dictators of family life, we may begin to see that our children can be our mentors, teaching us to live life more honestly and compassionately.

Attempting second-order change within our own lives is challenging and disruptive, and heaven knows the system will fight it. But chaos always precedes new creation. As Nicholas Evans put it in The Horse Whisperer,

Sometimes what seems like surrender isn’t surrender at all. It’s about what’s going on in our hearts. About seeing clearly the way life is and accepting it and being true to it, whatever the pain, because the pain of not being true to it is far, far greater.

We can begin changing the quality of our consciousness through education and will need the help of our ego to get us started on the journey. But the ego will eventually need to get out of the way and let the heart take the lead. Here are a handful of books that can get the process started: Compassionate Childrearing by Robert Firestone, The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, Bradshaw on The Family by John Bradshaw, The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley, The Kingdom Within by John Sanford, The Family Crucible by Augustus Napier and Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. Let your heart lead you to one of them.

The next column will explore the nature of intimacy in the family.



1.  Boyd K. Packer, “Let Them Govern Themselves,” Regional Representative Seminar, 30 March 1990.

2.  Paul Watzlawick, John H. Weakland, and Richard Fisch, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974).

3.  Ibid., xi.

4.  C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1956).

5.  R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience,    (New York: Pantheon Books,  1967).