Families, life events and family service delivery

A literature review
Research Report No. 20 – August 2012

You are in an archived section of the AIFS website. Archived publications may be of interest for historical reasons. Because of their age, they may not reflect current research data or AIFS' current research methodologies.

Executive summary

The Australian Institute of Family Studies (the Institute; AIFS) has completed this literature review on life events at the request of the Portfolio Department of Human Services (the Department; DHS).

Life events or transitions are understood to be circumstances that have an unsettling element for individuals (and from a systemic perspective, for family members also). Life events or transitions, even when pursued and ultimately beneficial, usually require adjustment on one or more fronts and relinquishment of at least some areas of familiarity. Examples of life events include: births, establishing a new relationship, moving house, entering the education system, starting a new job, experiencing a physical or mental illness, deaths, and so on.

The review broadly covers four topics:

  • life events experienced by families and ways in which families prepare for and/or deal with them;
  • causal factors or triggers that lead families to navigate through life events successfully or unsuccessfully;
  • the ways in which life events affect those families who have been functioning well and those who were already struggling prior to experiencing the event; and
  • an assessment of service delivery models to support those negotiating a range of life events.

The content and structure of the review has been shaped by the available literature. The following ideas underpin the review:

  • life events can have both positive and negative effects that can be fleeting or span the rest of life and even across generations;
  • some life events are expected while others are quite unpredictable and, whether expected or not, they have the potential to change lives substantially;
  • life events tend to involve loss of some kind, including those that are ultimately beneficial;
  • the capabilities of individuals to manage the events that occur in life vary;
  • some events occur at the individual level, while other events are shared and therefore typically have wider effects, especially in times of natural disaster;
  • managing the effects of life events is not just a matter of personal vulnerability or resilience, but is also affected by the supports available in one's family, friendship group, neighbourhood, community and the wider society;
  • understanding the origins, effects and longer term influences of life events is of fundamental relevance to the framing of policies and the development of programs to provide the supports that can be deployed to assist people to negotiate them and to enhance the chances of positive, as opposed to negative, outcomes in the short-, medium- and/or longer term; and
  • the potential strength of the life events concept lies in focusing attention on "What is happening?" rather than exclusively on personal problems, pathology or other characteristics, thereby shifting the focus from "What is wrong?" to "What does this family, faced with this particular event, need in order to effect a positive transition at this particular stage of its development?"

Organised in five chapters, the review begins with an overview of contemporary Australian families, and considers the changing patterns of partnership formation, parenting, separation and divorce. The social context of family functioning is highlighted, as are some of the barriers to partnering, including when:

  • opportunities to form relationships are limited, such as in early adulthood (as young people may be pre-occupied with education and/or establishing a career);
  • the emotional toll of a previous relationship breakdown limits the capacity to embark on another;
  • responsibility for children impedes re-partnering; and
  • social, emotional and/or behavioural characteristics make establishing and sustaining a relationship difficult.

The chapter also explores factors that lead to the fragility of relationships, including young age, pregnancy, low income, non-traditional family values, and mental illness. The chapter ends with a brief consideration of traditional and emerging family forms. As such, the discussion sets the scene for consideration of the family contexts within which life events occur and have their consequences, for good or ill.

The next chapter focuses on the concept of life events and the life transitions that give rise to circumstances that may be unsettling for individuals. The effects of life events may flow to their family, neighbourhood and wider community. Whether expected or unexpected, or positive or negative, the subjective experiences will be unique. In addition, how an event or transition is experienced and understood will have a considerable effect on one's sense of wellbeing.

The various models of understanding that have grown out of the life events research literature share a focus on "stress". Constructions of health and illness are also linked to the idea of successful life transitions - especially the idea that health is more than a mere absence of illness. These constructions include a focus on positive psychological health and one's overall sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction, purpose and meaning, along with a capacity for growth, mastery, competence, positive interpersonal relationships, and a sense of belonging to the community. Stressful life events are also more likely to be encountered by some people than others. Social address markedly influences the load of risk factors, and those from disadvantaged households generally have both a much higher average number of risks and an increased likelihood of experiencing negative life events. In turn, negative life events can lead to social exclusion and limit opportunity.

The third chapter focuses on developmental and family influences on life events. As the backdrop for exploring individual responses to loss, it focuses first on individual identity development and a range of available responses that individuals can have to life events. The influence of families is framed in terms of the ways in which changes in social norms related to marriage, childbearing, educational attainment, and women's employment have reshaped families. These make residential family membership much less continuous over the life course, which in turn affects the continuity of available supports. The increasing complexity of family living arrangements makes a life course perspective essential for understanding families and their responses to life events.

The fourth chapter opens with a consideration of life event scales and observes that the majority of events - especially those that attract high "life change units" (LCUs) - involve the experience of loss. For events such as the death of a spouse or loved one, divorce, or foreclosure on a mortgage, the nature of the loss is instantly recognisable. Other categories of events may not be constructed in the first instance as a loss; for example, the consequences of a major illness or injury to a close family member might not be automatically seen in these terms. While most categories in life event scales have largely negative aspects to them, some (such as reconciliation or changing residency) are far less likely to be in this category. Events in both categories, however, represent significant changes in the life of an individual and his or her family, and are therefore likely to be associated with varying periods of vulnerability.

The factors that distinguish successful from unsuccessful navigation of these events include the availability of external resources (such as income and adequate services) and internal resources (such as robust and committed family relationships and a realistically optimistic outlook). Of course, these factors interact. A family with a realistically optimistic outlook is likely to seek appropriate support and services in anticipation of an event (such as the birth of a baby) or in response to an unanticipated event (such as being involved in a car accident). A family that is already stressed by financial issues or by interpersonal conflict is less likely to have planned adequately for the arrival of a baby and more likely to have difficulties responding effectively to a major unexpected event such as a car accident.

The factors that maximise the chances that a family will successfully navigate adverse events are essentially those related to family resilience; that is, their belief systems, organisational patterns, and communication/problem-solving capacities, among others. Strong families are able to adapt to changing circumstances and have a positive attitude towards the challenges of family life. They deal with these challenges by communicating effectively (talking things through with each other and supporting each other in times of need), seeking outside support (when it is beyond the family's capability to deal with the situation), and "pulling together" (to form a united front and find solutions). On the reverse side, the areas that sap the strength of families and contribute to difficulties in negotiating life events continue to be those such as family violence, child abuse, mental health issues and substance misuse.

The chapter ends with consideration of two life events that affect the vast majority of families: the transition to parenthood and the transition to school. The examples show that, once an event is teased out, a considerable number of issues arise that are capable of enhancing or challenging the ways in which a family copes.

The fifth chapter provides a brief overview of issues for service delivery, observing at the outset that most "family" services, whether offered face-to-face or via an increasingly sophisticated range of information systems, are delivered to individuals. That said, the effect of life events on individuals can also have a profound influence on family dynamics. In other words, effects are always reciprocal - whether these concern, for example, a couple during the transition to parenthood, or an entire family and its support networks when one member becomes seriously ill. Dealing with more than one individual - such as a couple, family or extended family - presents a broad range of logistical and training challenges. Service systems are increasingly adopting a "no wrong door" approach, whereby clients are not the ones to shoulder the burden of having to match their need with the "correct" service. Such a shift requires intensive and ongoing practitioner training, as well as paying close attention to the risk of worker "burnout" in the face of the greater complexity that such a system brings. Information systems have the potential to provide access to significantly increased resources for both service providers and their clients.

The final chapter presents concluding remarks.

Review findings

The review points to the following findings:

  • Forms of families have diversified over the decades, though it is more useful to focus on family functioning and family processes than on family structure.
  • Life events present challenges that are more likely to be ameliorated in already well-functioning families and exacerbated in those that are less well-functioning at the outset.
  • Events related to family formation, dissolution or re-formation present particular challenges that may result in positive and/or negative outcomes for individuals and their families, depending on the resources and supports that are available.
  • Individual, family, community and societal factors can either smooth the negotiation of life events or make the path more difficult to traverse.
  • The effects of life events, whether expected or unexpected, can vary greatly as a result of the levels of stress they engender.
  • The literature on life event scales classifies the extent of potential perturbation that can flow from life events and the way in which persons are affected by their contexts. It also looks at the sources of influence and support that surround the individual and the family that might ameliorate or exacerbate their responses.
  • A sense of loss is a key dimension of many life events, and may have enduring effects.
  • Another key dimension of life events is the degree of stress that they engender, and the associated and possibly cumulative effects on the health and wellbeing of those who experience them.
  • Success in coping with stress is influenced by the extent of vulnerability or resilience that the person and the family exhibit at that time. Importantly, vulnerability and resilience are states, not traits, which will show variation between persons and variability across a lifetime.
  • Factors related to the extent of social inclusion or exclusion are increasingly recognised as mediating and moderating the effects of life events.
  • Service responses need to be framed to recognise both variations in life events and the different susceptibility of individuals to their negative effects, depending on their backgrounds, including their history of other stressful events, their vulnerabilities and the extent of available supports.
  • A life events focus on service delivery requires significant shifts in approach from service providers around assessing needs from client descriptions of events and around service facilitation.
  • In addition to direct service provision, easily accessible life events information portals are likely to significantly enhance the capacity of individuals and families to deal with stressful life events.