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Integrating And Disruptive Factors In Family Life, 3 October 1960 

Integrating And Disruptive Factors In Family Life, 3 October 1960
Integrating And Disruptive Factors In Family Life, 3 October 1960

Robert Adès

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date: 06 July 2020

Clifford Scott Archives (1903-1997) - National Archive. Ottawa, Canada.


It would be a truism to say that the family is an essential part of our civilisation. The way we arrange our families practically shows what our culture is like, just as a picture of the face portrays the individual. The family continues to be important all the time and accounts for much of the travelling we do. We burst out, emigrate, go from east to west or from south to north, because of the need to break away, and then we periodically travel back home just to renew contacts. And we spend a lot of time writing letters, sending telegrams, telephoning and reading about our relations in the journals; moreover, in times of stress most people become loyal to the family setting and suspicious of the foreigner. Nonetheless despite this common knowledge, the family is something that deserves our detailed study. As a pa, studying individual emotional development in great detail, I have learned that each individualis that you and I share this one thing, I feel sure, a belief in the central importance of the family. I take it for granted that we all work on the assumption that the family unit is an essential part of our civilization. The way we arrange our families practically shows what our culture is like, just as a picture of the face portrays the individual. The family continues to be important all the time and accounts for much of the travelling we do. We burst out, emigrate, go from east to west or from south to north, because of the need to break away, and then we periodically travel back home just to renew contacts. And we spend a lot of time writing letters, sending telegrams, telephoning and reading about our relations in the journals; moreover, in times of stress most people become loyal to the family setting and suspicious of the foreigner.

The family is something that deserves our study, but if we are to make this study worth while we must be prepared to look and to see what is there, whatever it is. We must be ready to see what is good and what is bad, that is to say good or bad according to our special notion of what these words mean.

I myself have been a paediatrician since about 1920, and from early times I became interested in the children rather than in their diseases. This gradually led me to child psychiatry and to psycho-analysis. It was necessary to do a psycho-analytic training in order to get to a psychology which is a science and yet which retains the idea of the dignity of the human individual. P.A deals with the emotional development of the individual, + does so in great detail. Each individual needs to make the long road from being merged in with mother to being a separate person, related to mother and to mother and father together; from here the journey goes through the territory known as the family, with father and mother as the main structural features. The family has its own growth, and the individual small child experiences the changes that belong to the family’s gradual expansion and to its troubles. But gradually the world begins to seep in. The aunts and uncles, the neighbours, the earliest sibling groups, leading on to schools.

This gradual environmental seeping in is the way a child can best come to terms with the wider world, and follows the pattern exactly of the infant’s introduction to external reality by the mother.

I know that our relations are often a nuisance, and that we are liable to grumble because of the burden of them. We may even die of them. Yet they are important to us. One has only to look at the struggles peculiar to men and women with no relations at all (as, for instance, happens in the case of some refugees, and some illegitimate children) to see that the absence of relations to grumble about, to love, to be loved by, to hate and to fear, constitutes a terrible handicap; it leads to a tendency to suspect even quite friendly neighbours.

A study which I commend to your notice of families in the Bethnal Green area of London1 shows (if we need to be shown) how contact is kept up between relations even at great inconvenience and expense; and a proper recognition of this fact has a direct bearing on the planning of satellite towns and on attempts to solve housing problems by the erection of great blocks of flats. We are talking about matters which immediately affect policy in high administrative circles.

The family that goes on existing for the children during the school years and adolescence plays a very obvious part in the building up of a stable yet virile community. There will be many here in this hall who know that adolescence is a strain not only on the adolescent boy or girl but also on the family that both contains and suffers.

We could talk about the Family for hours, but now, if I have joined up with you in a common belief in the importance of the family in our community of ever-growing individuals, I wish to refer to



I assume that you would not wish me to rest on the platitude of our common belief, but you would welcome some dissection of the very real strains and stresses which we encounter as soon as we begin to look below the surface, and especially if we are engaged in case-work, working from one or another case-work agency.

What do we find when we begin to dissect some of the very real stresses which we encounter as soon as we begin to look below the suface?

Positive and Negative Factors.

  1. A. Tendencies in the Parents. <+-

  2. B. Tendencies in the Children. <+-

  3. C. Further Development of the Two Themes.

Positive Tendencies in the Parents.

There comes a time after the marriage ceremony when it is very convenient if children begin to appear. If children come immediately they can very well be a nuisance, because the two young people have not yet passed through the initial stage in which they mean everything to each other. We all know of first children who by being born broke up the relationship between their fathers and mothers and who suffered on account of this. We also meet very many family settings in which children do not appear. Let us consider those cases in which children do appear and are a natural consequence of the relationship between the father and mother. Let us assume that the children are healthy. It has very often been said as a joke and with truth that children are a nuisance; but coming at the right time in a relationship they are the right kind of nuisance. There seems to be something in human nature that expects a nuisance and it is better that this nuisance should be a child than an illness or an environmental disaster.

The existence of a family, and the maintenance of a family atmosphere, results from the relationship between the parents in the social setting in which they live. What the parents can contribute into the family that they are building up depends a great deal on their general relationship to the wider circle around them, their immediate social setting. One can think of ever-widening circles, each social group depending for what it is like inside on its relationship to another outside social group. Of course the circles overlap.

Many a family is a going concern, yet would not stand being uprooted, and transplanted.

But the parents cannot be considered simply in their relationship to society. In terms of the relationship between the parents themselves there are powerful forces creating and binding the family. These forces have been studied in great detail. They belong to the very complex fantasy of sex. Sexual intercourse is not just a matter of physical satisfaction. May I especially remind you that sexual satisfactions are an achievement of personal emotional growth; + when such satisfactions belong to relationships that are personally and socially agreeable they represent a peak of mental health. On the reverse side, disturbances in the sex field are associated with all manner of neurotic disorders, psychosomatic troubles, and wastage of the potential of the individual. However, although sex power is vitally important, complete satisfaction is not in itself an aim when the subject of the family is considered. It is worth noting that a large number of families exist and are counted good though built on a basis of not very powerful physical satisfactions on the part of the parents. The extreme examples of physical satisfactions perhaps belong typically to romantic love, which is not necessarily the best basis for home-building.

Some people have but a poor capacity for the enjoyment of sex. Some frankly prefer auto-erotic experience, or homosexuality. However, it is obviously a very rich experience and fortunate for everyone concerned when the parents are able easily to enjoy the potency that belongs to individual emotional maturity. On top of this we know that there are other things in the relationship between the parents which tend naturally towards the establishment of the family unit, such as the parents’ deep-rooted wish to be like their own parents in the sense of being grown-up. We remember also the imaginative life and such things as an overlap of cultural interests and pursuits.

Let us pause for a moment to consider that which I refer to as the fantasy of sex. Here I have to refer to matters that appear in the unusual frankness that belongs to psycho-analytic work. P.A makes one wonders how a correct and adequate history of a marital case can be taken except as a byproduct of a psycho-analytic treatment, or of the special conditions that go with psychiatric social work. The total sex fantasy, conscious and unconscious, is almost infinitely variable, and has vital significance, + it is important to understand something the sense of concern or guilt that arises out of the destructive elements (largely unconscious) that go along with the love impulse when this is expressed physically. It can be readily conceded that this sense of concern and guilt contributes a good deal to the need of each parent, and of the parents together, for a family. The growing family better than anything else neutralises the frightening ideas of harm done, of bodies destroyed, of monsters generated. The very real anxieties in the father at the time of the mother’s parturition reflect as clearly as anything else the anxieties that belong to the fantasy of sex and not just the physical realities. Surely a great deal of the joy that the baby brings into the parents’ lives is based on the fact that the baby is whole and human, and also in fact that the baby contains something that makes for living, that is to say, living apart from being kept alive; that the baby has an innate tendency towards breathing and moving and growing. The child as a fact deals, for the time being, with all the fantasies of good and bad, and the innate aliveness of each child gives the parents a great sense of relief as they gradually come to believe in it; relief from ideas that arise from their sense of guilt or unworthiness.

It is not possible to understand the attitude of the parents to their children, apart from a consideration of the meaning of each child in terms of the parents’ conscious and unconscious fantasy around the act that produced the conception. Parents feel quite differently and act quite differently towards one child and towards another. Much depends on the relationship between the parents at the time, and during the mother’s pregnancy, and at the time of the birth, and afterwards. The effect of the mother’s pregnancy on her husband comes into this; in some extreme cases the husband turns from his wife when she becomes pregnant, sometimes he is drawn more closely to her. In every case there is an alteration in the relationship between the parents, often a great enrichment and a deepening of the sense of responsibility that each has for the other.

If we were to be prudish and were to omit mention of sex and of the conscious and unconscious fantasies of relationships that involve the instinctual excitements, then we should be in the position of leaving out the main drive that goes to the building up of a family; moreover we should be unsuited for the task of giving help where families fail or threaten to fail.

We hear it said that it is strange that children can be so different from each other when they have the same parents and are brought up in the same house and in the same home. This leaves out of account the whole of the imaginative elaboration of the important function of sex and the way that each child fits specifically or fails to fit into a certain imaginative and emotional setting, a setting which can never be the same twice, even when everything else in the physical environment remains constant.

There are many other variations on this theme. Some are complex but some of them are obvious; for instance, the infant may be a boy or a girl, and this may profoundly affect the relationship between the parents. Sometimes it is a boy that is wanted by both; sometimes the mother feels frightened of her love of a boy baby, and becomes unable to allow the pleasure of the intimacy of breast feeding on this account. Sometimes the father wishes for a girl, and the mother wishes for a boy, or the other way round. There are many possible variations and just as various are the attitudes of parents towards their individual children.

It must be remembered that the family is composed of the individual children, each of which is not only genetically distinct from the others but also very much indeed influenced in his or her emotional growth by what I have referred to as the way in which the new child does or does not fit in with the parents’ fantasy that enriches and elaborates the physical relationship that they have each in relation to the other. Always the most important thing in the whole of this is the tremendous reassurance that the live human infant brings through being a fact: neutralising fantasy and real and as I have said, for the time being eliminating expectations of disasters.

Those who have adopted children will know how such children can fill the gap in the imaginative needs arising out of a marriage. And married people with no children can and do find all sorts of other ways of in fact having a family; they may be found sometimes to have the largest families of all. But they would have preferred to have had their own born children.

So what I have said so far is that the two parents need the actual children in the development of their relationship each to the other, and the positive drives generated in this way are very powerful.

It is not enough, for our intended purpose, to say that parents love their children. They often do get round to loving them, and they have all sorts of other feelings. Children need more of their parents than to be loved; they need something that carries over when they are hated and even hateful.

Disruptive Factors coming from the Parents.

I now refer to the tendencies towards disruption of the family that come from the parents and their own difficulties. (I could talk about physical or mental illness but I am purposely leaving this out).

In considering the difficulties of parents, it is always valuable to remind ourselves that parents are not necessarily fully mature just because they have achieved marriage and the establishment of a family. Each member of the adult community is growing, and continues to grow, we hope, throughout life. But the adult has great difficulty in growing without throwing away the achievements of earlier stages of growth. It is easy for us to say that if people are mature enough to marry and have children they ought to be contented to stay where they are and to cut their losses if they are not happy about themselves. Nevertheless we know that in fact men and women have much growth to achieve in the decades that follow the time of their marriage if they marry at all early. Early is the best time for marriage, in terms of the establishment of a family. Children thrive best on parents who are 20 or 30 years older than themselves, and who are not too wise; such parents learn from their children and this has a lot to be said for it. Shall we hope that men and women will wait to marry until they are rich and perhaps smug? It is true, surely, that in the majority of cases men and women need to establish a platform (such as being married and having a family) and from this platform they eventually make further personal growth. They are often willing, easily willing, to wait for a number of years while their children are needing them for the family setting, and then they spurt forwards. Sometimes, however, there is a period of great strain before eventually the parents, or one parent, may restart a new phase of growth. (We gain nothing by criticizing men and women who restart the process of personal growth.)

It is indeed difficult to achieve full growth during adolescence. Society does not like free experiment among adolescents, and there are always those who like children to be nice. Nice in adolescence means “not thoughtlessly forming relationships”. The word thoughtlessly here refers to careless pregnancies and illegitimate children. Many children pass through their adolescence in a somewhat inhibited way. When they reach marriage many find great relief, and enjoyment in the establishment of a family, but we must not be surprised if ultimately the growth of their own children challenges them to go further with their own growth that was held up at the time of their adolescence.

A social factor something big changes have taken place recently all over the world. If we are to have no more wars, then no longer can we provide the distraction from adolescent problems that war provided. So we find everywhere that adolescents are establishing adolescence as a phase in development that must be taken into account. It is essentially a phase of difficulty, and of a mixture of dependence and violent independence, and it passes as the adolescent becomes adult. (Let us not be misled by the fact that new adolescents come along to keep this pot boiling).

I would say that a great deal of what we see complicating family life is that which immature parents do when they come to the end of their ability to sacrifice everything for their children. Delayed adolescence in one or both parents is beginning to make itself felt. Perhaps this refers especially to the father because the mother so often discovers herself in the unexpected physical and emotional events that belong to motherhood. She too, however, may come at a late date to a tremendous need to experience romantic or passionate love which she avoided earlier; because she wanted the right father for her children.

Very often in our work we are concerned with a family that has done its job, and the man or woman (or both) need to make a new personal spurt forward in emotional growth. What now happens to the family? I am aware that in the vast majority of cases enough maturity exists in the parents for them to be able to make sacrifices themselves, as their parents did for them, in order to establish and maintain their family, so that the children may not only be born into the family but may grow and may reach adolescence in the family, and may in relation to the family pass right through to achieving an independent and perhaps married life, each one. But this is not always possible.

I think we should not despise those who were not very mature at the time of marriage and who cannot afford to wait indefinitely, and for whom the time comes when they must make new spurts forward in personal growth or else degenerate. Difficulties occur in the marriage, and the children then have to be able to adapt themselves to the family disruption. Sometimes parents are able to see children through into a satisfactory adult independence in spite of the fact that they themselves have found a necessity for breaking up the framework of a marriage, or perhaps have found a need for remarriage.

In a proportion of cases of course young married people deliberately avoid having children, knowing that although they have reached to something valuable by getting married this is an unstable state of affairs, and knowing, each of them, that they may have to make new experiments before being ready to establish a family, which they intend to do eventually. They intend to establish a family partly because this is natural and partly because they hope to be like other parents and so to become socialized and integrated into the community. But a family is not the natural result of a romantic love-affair.

To recapitulate this part of what I have to say, there are big forces in married couples tending towards the creation of a stable family life. In the same way there are tendencies in some parents, arising in particular out of their own immaturity, which lead to a weakening of their ability to maintain a family and which indeed may compel them to break up the family situation, although they may continue, as they often do, to take responsibility for the children and jointly to do all they can to promote the children’s wellbeing. In the more unfortunate cases, of course, there is a state of chaos arising from difficulties of an extreme kind between the parents which makes it impossible for them to co-operate even in the care of children of whom they are fond. We are proud of the fact that in our country, since The Children Act 1947, the state makes itself responsible for every child in England, Scotland and N.Ireland who is deprived of a home life, and there is a complete service which covers the whole country. The main aim of the Children’s Department in each locality is to place children in foster homes and to supervise such placements and to see each child through to adult independence.

The question has been asked: does this invite something to be something? It is impossible within the framework of this paper to develop this part of my thesis at great length for example, I have deliberately omitted the disruptive effect of physical or mental illness but I have attempted to show how important is the study of the integrative and disintegrative factors making for family life or for its disruption, factors that come from the relationship between a man and woman who have married and the conscious and unconscious fantasy of their sexual lives. You may or may not find it strange to think in such terms, but logic takes us to the sexual function and we would find it difficult to deal with family problems without making a study of the positive features of sex + the negative factors associated with immaturity.

Positive Tendencies in the Children.

In considering the other half of the problem, that is to say the integrative and disintegrative factors relative to family life which come from the children, it must be remembered that each parent has been a child and to some extent is still a child, and so I am talking of the parents too when talking about the children.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the integration of the family derives from the personal integration of each individual child. Integration of the individual is not a thing that can be taken for granted. Personal integration is a matter of emotional growth. In the case of every human being a start has to be made from an unintegrated state. Much work has been done on this matter of the earliest stages in infant development, when the self is first becoming established and yet is still absolutely dependent on maternal care for making personal progress. In ordinary favourable conditions (which have to do with the mother’s close identification with her child, and later on with the combined interest of the two parents), the human infant becomes able to give evidence of an innate tendency towards integration, this being part of the growth process. The process of growth must take place in the case of each child; integration can never be taken for granted. If conditions are favourable at the earliest stages of great dependence, and an integration of the personality occurs, this integration of the individual, which is an active process involving pierce energies, affects the environment. The child who is developing well, and in particular whose personality has been able to achieve integration from within by the innate forces belonging to individual growth, has an integrative effect on the immediate environment; such a child “contributes in” to the family situation.

This contributing in from each individual child may be forgotten until one experiences the shock of a child who is ill or defective, and who for one reason or another is not contributing in, and observes how parents and family suffer in consequence. Where the child is not contributing in the parents are burdened with a task which is not altogether a natural one. They have to supply a home setting and to maintain this setting, and to try to keep up a family and family atmosphere in spite of the fact that there is no help to be derived from the individual child. There is a limit beyond which parents cannot be expected to succeed in such a task.

Society depends on the integration of family units, but I think it is important to remember that these family units in turn depend on the integration which takes place in the growth of each individual member. In other words, in a healthy society, one in which democracy can flourish, a proportion of the individuals must have achieved a satisfactory integration in their own personality development. The idea of democracy and the democratic way of life arises out of the health and the natural growth of the individual, and can be maintained in no way except by the integration of the individual personality, multiplied of course many times according to the number of healthy or relatively healthy individuals that may exist in the community. There must be enough healthy individuals to carry the unintegrated personalities who cannot “contribute in”, otherwise Society degenerates from a democracy.

It will be seen as a corollary of this that it is not possible to make a community democratic, since by undertaking the task of making the community democratic one is already applying a force from outside which is only effective if it comes from within, from each individual’s health. But a healthy society carries a proportion of something, something healthy, something that too can carry and see through children when integration is weak.

Each individual child by healthy emotional growth and by the development of his or her personality in a satisfactory way promotes the family and the family atmosphere. The parents, in their efforts to build a family, benefit from the sum of the integrative tendencies of the individual children. I am sure it would be possible for parents in this audience to bring forward innumerable examples of the way in which their children, in so far as they are healthy, help to knit together the family situation, and in fact do so from a very early age. It is not just simply a matter of the loveableness of the infant or the child; there is something more than that, the children are not always sweet. The infant and the small child and the older child flatter us by expecting a degree of reliability and availability to which we respond, partly I suppose because of our capacity to identify with the children. This capacity to identify with the children again depends on our having made a good-enough growth in our own personality development when we were at the same age. In this way our own capacities are strengthened and are brought out, developed, by what is expected of us from our children. In innumerable and very subtle ways, as well as in obvious ways, infants and children produce a family around them, perhaps by expecting something, something which we give because we know something about expectation and about fulfilment. We see what the children create when playing at families, and we feel we want to make real the symbols of their creativeness.

Parents are often able to fulfil the expectations of their children in a way or to a degree that is better than that which they experienced from their own parents. There is a danger here, however, that when they do better than their own parents beyond a certain degree, they inevitably begin to resent their own goodness, and indeed they tend to break up what they are doing so well. For this reason some men and women can let themselves do better with children who are not their own than with their own children.

Disruptive Factors coming from the Children

From this one passes on to a consideration of the disintegration of the family brought about by lack of development in the individual child or by the development of illness. In certain psychiatric illnesses of children there are tendencies of a secondary nature which develop and show themselves as an active need on the part of the child to break up anything that is good, stable, reliable or in any way valuable. The outstanding example is the antisocial tendency of the Deprived Child which is most destructive of family life. The family, whether the child’s own or a substitute family or community, constantly comes under test, and when tested and found reliable becomes the target of the child’s destructive urges. It is as if the child is looking for something worth destroying. Unconsciously the child seeks something good that had been lost at an earlier stage, and with which he is angry because it went. This is of course a separate subject, but it must be mentioned amongst all the patterns of disruption of family life that derive from the child’s lack of development or distorted growth.

I shall not elaborate this theme because it is only too clear when we become involved in our work with unintegrated and antisocial children who are in the act of disrupting family life.

Further Development of the Two Themes.

There is much that could be said about the interplay of all these various factors, factors that concern the parents and their relation to society and their wish to have a family, and factors that arise from the innate tendency towards integration which belongs to individual growth, but which at any rate at the beginning depends on the provision of a good-enough environment. There are many families which remain intact if the children happen to be developing well, but which cannot stand the presence in the family of an ill child. In assessing a child in regard to suitability for psychotherapy, we find ourselves not only thinking of the diagnosis of the illness and of the availability of the psychotherapist but also of the capacity of the family to tolerate and in fact to hold the child who is ill, and to tolerate the illness of the child over the period of time before psychotherapy begins to take effect. In many cases it can be said that the family has to turn itself into a nursing home or even a mental hospital, in order to contain the illness or treatment of one of the children, and whereas many families are able to do this, in which case psychotherapy is relatively a simple matter, other families are unable to do so, and we then have the task of placing the child away from the family. The task of psychotherapy in this case is very much more complex, and indeed it is exceedingly difficult to find suitable groups for placement of children who are not able to contribute in. As the child has relatively little integrative tendency to bring to the group, the group must hold the child and the illness.

In many cases parents who are quite capable of producing healthy children and of giving them a good family setting do in fact, for reasons which are not of the kind for which one could blame them, find that they have in their midst an ill child, either anxious or subject to psychosomatic disorder, or to depression, or a child who is very much disintegrated in personality, or perhaps antisocial, and so on. The task must then be undertaken of either asking parents to undertake the nursing of the difficult child while we try to help the child, or else the other extreme, of asking the parents to give up the task, letting them know in fact that although they can set up a home and maintain it for normal children, nevertheless the family that they have created is not able to tolerate this one particular child who is ill. They must be relieved of the responsibility for the time being. Often it happens that parents cannot stand being helped in this way, although they also cannot stand the alternative.

There are very difficult problems of management around this sort of case, and these matters are only mentioned to highlight the central theme which is that it is something in the healthy development of every individual child that is at the basis of the integration of the family group. In the same way it is the healthy families, surely, that make possible the wider integrations, the wider groupings of all kinds, groupings which overlap and which are sometimes mutually antagonistic, and yet which can contain the germ of an ever-widening social circle.

The child cannot of course produce this family by magic, that is, without the parents and the parents’ wish arising out of their own inter-relationship. Nevertheless each infant and child creates the family. It is true that parents bring about the existence of the family, but they need something from each infant and child, that which I am calling the individual child’s creation. Failing this the parents lose heart and will simply have a family setting unoccupied. They may of course adopt a child, or they may in some other way find indirect means of having the equivalent of a family. The strength of the family comes from its being a meeting-place between something that arises out of the relationship of the father and mother, and something that comes from the innate factors that belong to the emotional growth of the individual child, factors which I have put together under the heading of tendency towards integration.

This concept of the family that I have tried to build for you, you must pour all you have learned from your personal experiences. I hope that in my statement of the integrative forces producing the family and of the forces that tend to disrupt the family I have been able to give you material for discussion.


87 Chester Square,


3rd October 1960.


1 Family and Kinship in East London. Michael Young and Peter Willmott, The First Report of the Institute of Community Studies. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1957.