Symbolic Interactionism: Disability & Family Relationships


The emotions in the family members regarding the disability usually guide the dynamics of the interaction within a family with a disabled member, and these shape.


A nuclear family consists of two parents and children. Symbolic interactionism is described as a unit of interacting personalities. The events within the family describe the experiences that shape their idea of relationships with others and their idea of self. Disability is an issue that can bring about stress in a family, and this stress shapes the interaction within the family, and as a result, affects the character and lives of the family members. The relationships within a family with a disabled member are often strained by the overwhelming responsibility of caring for the disabled individual. According to the symbolic interactionism theory by Mead, the self is a concept that is a sum of social interaction. Each member is assigned a role in the family, and the definition of these roles builds the concept of self through communication and interaction. The emotions in the family members regarding the disability usually guide the dynamics of the interaction within a family with a disabled member, and these shape their character and general perspective of society.

Relationship between Spouses

How well a couple communicates determines how well their relationship works. This is because through communication we are able to put across what we need and what we feel about every situation, and this allows spouses to understand each other and live in harmony. However, when a misfortune such as disability occurs it tests the strength of the relationship, and a family with spouses who have an unstable relationship can collapse. This is because the experience is accompanied by many negative emotions that are not effectively communicated, leading to misunderstandings. These negative feelings influence the relationship of the spouses with the outside world and their interaction with other people. For the disabled spouse, the sudden change from self-sufficiency to complete reliance on others affects their ego. They feel weak and useless, and they try to accommodate for this feeling of insufficiency through inflated egos and need to prove their capability. Therefore, they will feel the need to perform above other people’s expectations, and this leads to them rejecting help from others, to prove that they are self-sufficient. This is often interpreted as hostile behavior by the caregiver and the misunderstanding is translated as ingratitude. The result is that the caregiver begins to feel unappreciated in all areas of their life, and can lead to depression. The concept of who they are (the spouses), is determined by their interaction with each other in the family, and it controls how they view the world. A negative environment at home creates a pessimistic perspective of life.

In some instances, spouses are able to overcome the feelings of guilt and grief and establish good communication. Effective communication requires empathy and understanding of each other’s feelings. The person with a disability needs care and understanding because of the limits associated with disability, and the caregiving spouse needs empathy and a sense of appreciation from the other spouse so that his/her role does not feel like a burden. A couple that communicates well is able to withstand the pressures of caring for a disabled spouse without their family collapsing, in some cases, the family becomes closer as they learn to interact with compassion and honesty. Such an environment leads to the personalities flourishing in their outside relationships and they gain an optimistic view of the world. This is seen in their daily interaction with others.

Relationship between Siblings

The effect of disability on children is similar to parents because they also experience confusing emotions that mix with guilt, fear, and anxiety, stemming from a lack of understanding of the situation. When the disabled member is a sibling, the other siblings might feel responsible for their disability, and feelings of guilt can affect their interaction. Siblings communicate through actions, and a disability limits this form of communication. For example, the types of games a disabled child can enjoy are limited, and this limits their interaction with the other siblings. In terms of verbal communication, siblings will watch their temperaments towards their disabled siblings because of the special care that the parents give to them. Children feel that their disabled siblings get more attention than they do and this builds feelings of anger, which are translated in their interaction leading to arguments between the siblings. This poor communication is caused by a lack of understanding and it leads to deviant behavior in school and other social gatherings among the children who are not disabled. The children develop antisocial behavior as their sense of self is diminished by their perspective of being less important than the disabled child. The disabled child also develops a sense of low self-worth and will display hostile behavior such as rejecting help or letting himself be the subject of the other siblings’ bullying. This behavior is mapped by their roles in the family (with the disabled child being the object of sympathy and the other children having to take the role of caregivers while still young) and the negative dynamics of their interaction within.

Relationship between Parent and Children

Relationships between parents and children have strained communication because of the apparent age gap and the different stresses of life. This strain is worse when one of the children is disabled, resulting from the parents giving special attention to the disabled child. Lack of adequate attention creates feelings of anger and resentment from the other children because they feel as though the disabled child gets more love than they do. The result is many misunderstandings between the children and the parents since there is no communication relaying what the children are feeling. They express themselves with rebellious acts instead of voicing their plight. For the disabled child, this grows feelings of lack of self-worth and they begin to feel as if they are a burden to their family. This also breaks down communication between them and their parents, as well as their fellow siblings. However, when the parents explain the disability to all the children and what living with a disabled sibling entails, the children are able to express themselves and their feelings to each other and their parents. This grows the bond in the family and the relationship among the children and their parents improves.


In conclusion, the interaction of people with others outside and within the family is affected and determined by their experiences in the family, and their role in these experiences. This develops their perspective of the world and most importantly, their perspective of self. Therefore, it is important for relationships within the family to foster a positive attitude through effective communication, both verbal and non-verbal. As Mead theory of symbolic interactionism states, interaction develops an individual’s concept of social structures and self.


Kerry Ferris, and Jill Stein, The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology, 3rd Edition, 2012. New York: W. W. Norton & Company,

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