I emerged from my family of origin into the adult world at a time when new possibilities were happening for young women. It was the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and the women’s movement was in full swing. But along with excitement and enthusiasm for a future teeming with possibility, I carried a ton of self-doubt and fear. How does a young woman find her way in the world with so many choices and so little guidance? AND SO MUCH ANXIETY!
Fortunately for me, my passion for the field of mental health appeared early and became a driving and guiding force in my life.
My “Bowen nugget” comes from the first Michael Kerr lecture I attended at the WPFC, sometime in the 1980’s. Dr. Kerr drew his family diagram and described how child focus contributed to the development of schizophrenia in his older brother. I was fascinated! The idea is that by overfocusing on a child, an anxious parent transmitted family anxiety into the next generation. This emotional overfocus can impair the functioning of the child. Dr. Kerr’s beautiful presentation of theory, using his own family as an example, has stayed in my memory as a watershed moment. Dr. Kerr described how chronic anxiety is absorbed by members of a family and then transmitted down the generations through the important relationships. Child focus is a powerful transmission process. It is literally the wiring of a nervous system in both the individual and the family.
This was in almost every way a departure from the psychodynamic ideas about mental illness and therapy I had been studying for nearly ten years as a young therapist. Suddenly a light went on in my head – child focus described my family! Of course I knew my mother carried a ton of anxiety, and that her fears and worries affected her parenting of four daughters, but I didn’t have a meaningful way to think about this. So I tended to be judgmental of both her and myself for being in that predicament.
Another awareness from Dr. Kerr’s talk was the role that siblings played in the absorption of family anxiety. I was seven years old and the younger of two girls when my twin sisters were born. They became the focus of nearly all the parental attention at that point and for the remainder of my childhood. I knew their birth was one of the happiest events of my life, but until this lecture, I hadn’t realized how pivotal they must have been in deflecting my family’s anxiety. Unwittingly, my baby sisters gave me the gift of some precious breathing room.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I got a glimpse of what objectivity looked like in the study of a family. This was not about pathology. Dr. Kerr was presenting his family because these dynamics occur, to a greater or lesser degree, in all families. This perspective was profound for me as a therapist. And I was struck by the compassion and respect he embodied in his effort to describe and understand these powerful forces shaping a family.
Wow! Such a different way to understand how symptoms might develop in an individual! The neutrality that naturally came with seeing the larger emotional context of a human life was very exciting to me. Thus began my decades-long study of Bowen theory and research into my own family. It has been the primary influence in the deepening of my clinical work over a long career that is still endlessly interesting and challenging. And it has been my guiding star through the many ups and downs of my personal life. Child focus was the golden nugget that opened up the vast riches for me of a systems view of human behavior.
Sandra Block, LCSW
WPFC Faculty Member