Family Stress Management: A Contextual Approach


Pauline Boss

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Dedication

    I dedicated the first edition of this book to my parents, Verena and Paul Grossenbacher, who taught me about managing family stress in good times and bad. They struggled with the effects of immigration and the Great Depression while simultaneously seeking challenges in community leadership and service to others.

    I dedicate this edition of this book to David Boss and Annmarie Boss Sheffels, MD, who show me a new aspect of family stress management: the balancing of work and family. They are busy parents with demanding jobs, but to my great pleasure they are also superb parents and good family stress managers.


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    Since the first edition of this book in 1988, interest in family stress has become even more global. If families are not at peace, the world is not at peace. Helping families to learn how to manage their stress helps not only individuals and families but their communities and larger society as well.

    Violence and terrorism, floods and tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes, racial and religious strife, and wars, always somewhere, make it necessary for us to understand a family's ability to manage high levels of distress, even trauma. Discovering how and why some families recover and function in the face of high pressure, loss, and devastation is an ongoing task for scholars. Helping women and men, boys and girls, to manage their day-to-day lives even under great pressure is the challenge for those of us who are concerned about families—researchers, family therapists, educators, social workers, nurses, doctors, caregivers, spiritual leaders, and, of course, policymakers.

    This edition of Family Stress Management is a reaffirmation of my commitment to understanding the larger context surrounding families and the smaller context of families, which includes perceptions and meanings. This edition also emphasizes the need for a general family stress theory applicable to a wider diversity of people and families as well as a wider variety of stresses and crises.

    How to Read This Book

    I hope you read this book not just for facts but also for ideas and insights that relate to your particular experience with stressed families. Be aware of feelings and memories about your own family that surface as you read. These reflections are very important to your understanding of how to apply family stress theory as new situations arise within the families you work with professionally. Reading both as a family member and as a professional will make the book more real for you, but be sure you are aware of when you are thinking about your own family versus other families. The symbolic interaction perspective places a high value on one's own perceptions; hence, your perceptions become part of the experience of reading this book. I highly recommend that you talk about and discuss what you read with others.

    Organization of the Book

    Chapter 1 focuses on what is new in the family stress field. Chapter 2 is an introduction that explains the theoretical and personal perspectives from which I have developed ideas about family stress and its management. Kurt Lewin said that good theory is useful theory, and my goal in this chapter is to lay the groundwork for a theoretical model that will be useful for practitioners and testable by researchers.

    Chapter 3 presents definitions of important concepts and terms, but it is more than a glossary. It maps technically the constructs discussed in the rest of the book. Nevertheless, you can think of Chapter 3 as a glossary and refer to it for concise definitions of terms as you read the rest of the book. Chapter 4 focuses on the popular concepts of coping, adaptation, and resilience, and it presents some cautions about these terms.

    Chapter 5 expands the core idea of the book: The family's perception of the event is critical in determining how and if it can survive. In Rueben Hill's terms, this chapter is about the C factor—definition of the event that is distressing a family. In this chapter a new stressor situation, ambiguous loss, is discussed along with its potential effect on perception and boundary ambiguity. Both are relatively new constructs that I believe are critical contributions to a more postmodern family stress theory.

    Chapter 6 discusses the linkage between the concepts of ambiguity and ambivalence, which are important mediators of outcomes in distressed families and individuals. I present a new conceptualization about why ambiguous loss is so distressing for families. This chapter continues the dialectical approach found in the first edition of the book, but it presents new information that can help assess individual and family outcomes of stress.

    Chapter 7 adds explicitly the concept of denial to family stress theory. Denial has always been included in the literature on addiction, death, and dying, but to my knowledge only this book formally incorporates denial into family stress theory. Chapter 8 completes the discussion of the family's internal context with an examination of family values and belief systems. Although family members' values and beliefs are influenced by the larger culture, they are viewed in this chapter as part of the family's internal world because the family and its members can, if they wish, change their values and beliefs.

    Chapter 9 discusses what the family cannot control or change. Both internal and external contexts are critical for understanding family stress. I hope this chapter will stimulate colleagues in anthropology, history, macroeconomics, biology, medicine, developmental psychology, and sociology to understand how micro and macro views of family stress can be combined in an ecological or contextual design.

    Chapter 10 discusses the conditions of trauma and victimization and how they affect couple and family processes. Because families need to recover from ever-present calamities such as war, natural disasters, and human abuse, this chapter is one of the most important in the book. Chapter 11 speculates about the future of family stress research, where it may be heading, and where and why it is needed.

    This book is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the family stress literature, nor is it a review of the classics in family stress theory. Rather, it is a compilation of theoretical ideas and linkages to help you ponder, think critically, feel, discover, hypothesize, test, and even remember your own experiences. In the final analysis, when we think about families and stress, our own experience becomes an important part of our conceptual process.


    Throughout the years, many students have told me stories about how they apply the contextual model of family stress in their professional work. One stands out in my memory. This student, who worked in a crisis nursery, described how the contextual model of family stress provided her a map (her words) for the difficult work she did with babies and toddlers taken from their parents for safekeeping. She never knew what was going to happen or who she would have to care for, but whatever her challenge each night, she said she used the theory to guide her work.

    I thank this student and hundreds of others who were in my family stress classes at the University of Minnesota, who have given me feedback about the Contextual Model of Family Stress. I especially thank Sayali Amarapurkar, John Beaton, Leslie Carlson, Jason Carroll, Mary Fingerholz, Suzanne LeRoy, Kimberly Kretschmer, Christine McGeorge, Sonja Meiers, Patricia Schaber, Veronica Sutherland-Ocnacuwenga, Sharon Powell, Belle Jaffe, Althea Dixson, Blong Xiong, Sue Carlson, Raksha Dave Gates, Ronit Leichtentritt, Poonsuk Wachwittan, Manfred Van Dulmen, Amy Berg, Julie Kohler, Shuji Asai, Ed Kousenski, Wendy Whelahan, and Kurt Wical. Above all, I am immensely grateful to Carol Mulligan, who gave me invaluable assistance in completing the final manuscript.

    In this second edition, as in the original edition, I acknowledge the profound impact that Reuben Hill had on my thinking. He was a true mentor. I also wish to thank Richard Gelles for his earlier work with the Sage Family Studies Text Series. Although that series is no longer active, it resulted in the first edition of this book, and I remain indebted to Dr. Gelles for his confidence, support, and helpful reviews of that first edition.

    To the many professors in family social science, social work, family life education, nursing, and family sociology who have persisted in encouraging me to write this edition of Family Stress Management, thank you. I am grateful for the nudge. Although it is difficult to revise without writing a new book, their encouragement is appreciated. Writing this extensive revision gave me the opportunity once again to emphasize that context and meaning matter in understanding distressed families.

    Thanks to my husband, who, as always, was a kind and gentle buffer for any stress or interruptions while I wrote.

  • Postscript

    Just as this book was going to press, terrorists attacked the United States by destroying the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and part of the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Many were killed just as they were going to work that day—ordinary people doing the right thing. Many more remain missing in the rubble. This day will forever change our view of family stress and crisis and of the trauma that follows a catastrophe of such incomprehensible dimensions.

    Called to New York to help train therapists and other professionals who will work with families and friends of the over 5,000 missing people, I remain humbled by the resiliency of the human spirit, even as so many weep for heavy losses, both clear and ambiguous.

    I continue to learn from families about how they manage to remain hopeful within a context that has become less safe and more ambiguous. Many have indeed witnessed an ugly reality, but already I see a new tenderness and connection as people help one another to regain their footing.

    As of September 11, 2001, the context of family life has become more threatening and more ambiguous. More than ever, we need to understand the dynamics of family stress management and crisis recovery, because, ultimately, it is with those dearest to us that we regain strength and the ability to move on. Therein lies the hope for strengthening American families and building a more hopeful future for the young.

    PaulineBoss, Ph.D., September, 2001, New York City and St. Paul, Minnesota


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    About the Author

    Pauline Boss, PhD, is Professor and Clinical Supervisor in the doctoral training program in marriage and family therapy in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. She is known as a pioneer in the interdisciplinary study of family stress, working at the boundaries of science and practice to connect family science and family sociology with family therapy and family psychology. Her efforts were validated by her election as fellow in the American Psychological Association, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, and the National Council on Family Relations. Since 1973, she has researched family stress, and she summarized part of that work in Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief (1999). She is past president of the National Council on Family Relations and past president of Groves Conference on Marriage and the Family. She is a member of the Council on Contemporary Families. She was one of five editors of the Sourcebook on Family Theories and Methods (1993). Her current research project focuses on stories of successful caregiving and the linkage of ambiguity to ambivalence in family relationships.

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