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Family Assessment in Payne’s Film “The Descendants” Essay

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Updated: Sep 11th, 2020


The present work is devoted to the case study of the family that is depicted in the film The Descendants (Burke & Payne, 2011). The case is summarized with particular attention paid to the structure and beliefs and values of the family, the relationships between the characters, as well as their individual affects, conflict resolution strategies, and decision-making. The developmental expectations are discussed as well.

The most urgent needs that are determined include grief and loss counseling, the improvement of family communication (especially the father-daughter one), and the challenge of Scottie’s upcoming puberty that appears to cause significant distress for Matt (which, in turn, may lead to inadequate guidance for the girl). The suggested interventions are mostly based on creative counseling and empowerment through learning.

The Family: A Summary

Structure and Beliefs

At the beginning of the movie, the family structure is described as an archipelago: Matt feels that they are drifting apart. In the end, the nuclear family appears to be growing closer, even though Elizabeth is no longer with them. As for the shared values, Matt (the father of the family) values privacy, and he describes his attitude towards money in detail. He does not intend to spoil his children with money and believes that he has avoided being similarly spoiled due to his father.

At the same time, Matt used to pay little attention to his family. The fact that he tries to cope with stress by working more might indicate a workaholism issue. Still, it is obvious that he loves his family and values them very much.

Alex appears to value and want the attention of both of her parents but seems to have given up the hope at the beginning of the movie. She is also very distressed by her mother’s cheating and accuses her of being a liar, which might indicate the value of honesty or the feeling of betrayal only. Scottie (10 years old) does not appear to describe anything similar to her “values” or “beliefs,” but her relationship with one of the girls indicates that peer approval is important for her.

Extended Family

The extended family is very large but not too close to Matt and Elizabeth. It appears that the relationship between Elizabeth’s father and Matt is rather cold; the man also seems to disapprove of Alex’s actions. In the movie, Elizabeth’s father is causing conflicts; to solve one, he punches Sid in the face. His affect is generally appropriate to the situation and is quite stable. He is only seen at the moments when he is trying to accept his daughter’s death, but it is implied that he had never liked his son-in-law.

Elizabeth’s mother seems to suffer from a kind of mental handicap and does not remember her daughter, granddaughter, or son-in-law.

Nuclear Family


The nuclear family changes throughout the film. Matthew King offers the most information about himself. His affect is generally appropriate and does not appear to be blunted or flattened; however, he seems to be emotionally exhausted and quite depressed. He expresses some hope at the beginning of the movie, but his general attitude is pessimistic. Given the situation, it is understandable. Apart from that, Matt is strong-willed: even under the pressure of the loss of his wife and his cousins’ arguments, he still manages to make a decision and defend it, which is a major strength. However, he is exhausted by the situation and tends to blame himself. This attitude may be harmful to himself and his daughters.

Matt repeatedly says that he does not know what to do with children, especially a girl, and his actions also indicate it. He seems to have troubles in communicating with the younger daughter Scottie (10 years old): it is easier for him to prohibit something (for example, showing photos of her ill mother or wearing Alex’s underwear) than explain why it is a wrong thing to do. Matt also calls himself “backup parent,” and it is evident that such an attitude will not have a positive effect on his ability to take care of his daughters.

Still, he tries to solve the issue: first, he brings his elder daughter Alex to take care of Scottie; then he appears to intend to share the responsibility and asks Sid to provide advice.

In general, Matt is good at defining the difficulties that he has with his family. He admits that they had not talked with his wife for months, claims that his women (wife and elder daughter) are self-destructing, and admits that he does not know what to do with his daughters. It cannot be said that he does not struggle, but he seems to have troubles in navigation. Also, Matt does not use violence to solve conflicts, preferring to talk.


With the daughters, the information is less abundant, but some conclusions can be made. Alex is recovering from a substance problem and is making progress that appears to remain unnoticed by both her parents; she feels neglected. She knows that she has disappointed her mother and expects her father to disapprove of her and not believe her or in her (at least in the beginning), which might lead to future problems in communication.

Alex is the one to have learned that Elizabeth had been cheating on Matt and cannot forgive her mother. She is angry at both of her parents: she accuses Matt of being too busy and seems to imply that her mother was too materialistic. Matt also mentions that she spends time with “older guys.” Alex seems to have better contact with Scottie: she is willing to listen to and teach her younger sister, who, in turn, appears to listen to Alex, although the person who seems to be best at communicating with Scottie is Sid.

By the end of the movie, it is obvious that Alex is drawn closer to her father. They “team up” to deal with their common grief, and it is obvious that Alex is willing to help Matt. She also deals with the stress by spending time with Sid; as Sid insists, they talk about “other” thing, not the situation in the family. In general, Alex seems to appreciate distraction when she insists on taking Scottie out. Her affect is similar to that of her father and can also be explained by the circumstances. She had had a major conflict with her mother. She confronted her regarding the man Elizabeth was seeing, and was going to talk once again, but Elizabeth died.


Scottie is a girl nearing puberty. She starts to demonstrate an interest in the aspects of life that her father is not ready to explain to her. Her relationships with the peers are not very smooth: the girl is trying to attract the attention of a girl who appears to be more knowledgeable about the “adult life,” she also bullies a girl who is developing more rapidly. Her father is terrified by the prospect of guiding her through puberty, but she is more or less unaware of what is happening around her.

She knows that her mother is ill, but her father finds a specialist to break the news to her, which has probably made the experience the least traumatic for all of them. The girl’s affect appears appropriate, both before and after she learns that her mother is dying. She is curious and active; she is ready to explain her point in a conflict (the album issue, for example), but occasionally chooses to avoid it (the talk about masturbation movies).


Elizabeth barely appears on the screen. It is known that she was outgoing, liked sports, and drinking. From Matt’s words, it can be concluded that she did try to get him to talk about their family problems, but gave up eventually and fell in love with another man.She is a source of frustration for Alex and Matt; they cope with it by yelling at her when she is unconscious.

Affect after the movie

It is noteworthy that at the end of the movie, Matt appears to be set on helping his family, and so is Alex. Scottie seems to have a generally positive and curious attitude. Therefore, the current affect of the family appears to be their major strength.

Main Issues and Concerns

The primary issue that has been preoccupying the family and is likely to stay a problem for a while is the loss of a significant person. The loss of a parent is one of the most stressful experiences for children and widowers individually and for the family as a whole (Williams & Lent, 2008). Therefore, the characters need guidance to minimizing the possible traumatic experience.

Another concern is the issue of family communication. The problem was identified by Matt when he described his family as an archipelago: “separate and drifting slowly apart.” It is evident that the common grief brought the three together (which is emphasized in the last scene), but this problem did not and could not disappear with the death of Elizabeth since it is deeper rooted. There have been misunderstandings between Matt and Alex; Alex’s behavior indicates that she does not (or did not, given the new developments) trust her father to support her.

Her relationships with dangerous “older guys” may also indicate that their communication with Matt was not satisfactory (Punyanunt-Carter, 2008). Matt confides that he has barely spent time with Scottie and does not know what to do with her now. These issues need to be addressed to avoid further complications. The current moment, when the family appears to be so united may be the most suitable timing for it.

Also, there is the challenge of Scottie’s growing up which is the source of uncertainty and anxiety for Matt. When dwelling on the self-destructive behavior of his close women, he wonders “what chance will she have with just me.” He is basically certain that he cannot deal with this challenge, but he hopes that Alex will help. Such an attitude is very likely to harm either Scottie’s growing up or their relationships with Matt, which is why it needs to be attended.

Intervention Plan and Rationale. The Role of CYC

As a Child and Youth Care Practitioner (CYC), I would be able to act as a counselor, facilitator, and advisor: choosing, offering and negotiating interventions that I can provide personally or inform about and help in attaining.


As of recently, the family grief counseling is considered to be especially beneficial for everyone involved, which is why family sessions can be considered preferable for the case study (Thirsk & Moules, 2012). Apart from that, depending on the needs of the family and its separate members, cognitive-behavioral therapy that offers the chance of avoiding cognitive distortions may be suggested. For example, Matt’s tendency to blame himself can be alleviated with its help. Still, it appears that neither of the family members is experiencing abnormal grief, which indicates that psychotherapy may be excessive (Waller et al., 2015).

Given the structure of the family, an age-appropriate intervention for Scottie could be suggested. Children of various ages cope with grieving differently, and younger ones lack some of the advantages that come with age: relative social and emotional maturity, for example. Children younger than 12 may have difficulty verbalizing their responses to a traumatic experience. As a result, art-based interventions like drawing, painting or collages creation and scrapbooking can be used to help children in their grieving process by offering a space to grieve, the chance to express what is not or cannot be said and honor the lost person, creating something that will always remind of them (Williams & Lent, 2008, p. 456-457).

Given the interest of Scottie in photography, she might be especially interested in these types of activities (possibly, her photos were an unconscious attempt of a similar intervention).

Family Counseling

Art is also a basis for interventions in family therapy. An example described by Star and Cox (2008) also involves photography: a model that is aimed at using family albums to learn more about themselves, their family, and their relations; to discuss the past as viewed by different family members. The past of the family is the source of the present problems; therefore, this intervention appears to be most suitable for the family. It can be deduced that the approach is aimed at the mindful interpretation of the past experiences; therefore, it can also help Matt deal with his self-blaming issue. Apart from that, it appears that the intervention is also suitable for the grief counseling.

Growing Issues: Learning and Empowerment

With respect to the transition issue, Matt seems to be the most vulnerable member of the family, which, given the fact that the girls depend on him, makes it a significant problem. The intervention for Matt might include a suggestion of attending an appropriate parenting course. Learning is known to improve one’s self-esteem and readiness; apart from that, he will encounter the information that may improve his communication abilities with his daughters (Clarke & Churchill, 2012; Jago et al., 2013). Besides, the issue of sexuality education can be taken care of by professionals through a specific course. This part of suggestions corresponds to the solution focused theory (Ungar, 2011, p. 31).


Alex’s substance issue is not presented among the three concerns mostly because it is implied that she undergoes a treatment of a kind, and the rest of the issues are still unattended. Still, as a CYC for her family, I would want to find out more about the issue and the treatment. In general, the solution of the three concerns is bound to affect her substance problem in a positive way.


Burke, J. (Producer), & Payne, A. (Director). (2011). The descendants. United States: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Clarke, K., & Churchill, H. (2012). ‘A Chance to Stand Back’: Parenting programmes for parents of adolescents. Children & Society, 26(4), 316-327. Web.

Jago, R., Sebire, S., Bentley, G., Turner, K., Goodred, J., Fox, K.,… Lucas, P. (2013). Process evaluation of the Teamplay parenting intervention pilot: implications for recruitment, retention and course refinement. BMC Public Health, 13(1), 1102. Web.

Punyanunt-Carter, N. M. (2008). Father-daughter relationships: Examining family communication patterns and interpersonal communication satisfaction. Communication Research Reports, 25(1), 23-33. Web.

Star, K. L., & Cox, J. A. (2008). The Use of Phototherapy in Couples and Family Counseling. Journal Of Creativity In Mental Health, 3(4), 373-382. Web.

Thirsk, L., & Moules, N. (2012). Considerations for grief interventions: Eras of witnessing with families. OMEGA – Journal Of Death And Dying, 65(2), 107-124. Web.

Ungar, M. (2011). Counselling in challenging contexts: Working with individuals and families across clinical and community settings. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Waller, A., Turon, H., Mansfield, E., Clark, K., Hobden, B., & Sanson-Fisher, R. (2015). Assisting the bereaved: A systematic review of the evidence for grief counselling. Palliative Medicine, 30(2), 132-148. Web.

Williams, K., & Lent, J. (2008). Scrapbooking as an intervention for grief recovery with children. Journal of Creativity In Mental Health, 3(4), 455-467. Web.

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