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Family Therapy

Tara’s problems were more profound than imagined.

A frustrated woman

Tara* recently attempted suicide. Luckily, immediately after swallowing the bottle of pills, she told her parents, giving them time to take her to the ER to have her stomach pumped. However, she was involuntarily detained for a 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization to evaluate whether she was a danger to herself or others. That was terrifying for everyone.

Tara experienced depression and felt like an outsider, causing her to struggle with relationships and have an explosive personality. She felt unheard by everyone and used escalating prickly emotional outbreaks to draw attention to her loneliness, disconnection, and sadness.

Tara’s family overlooked her needs and considered her behavior as an attempt to be difficult and create strife. Her parents knew she struggled but had no idea to what extent. There were no indications that she would attempt suicide, but after a distressing experience with friends, Tara took the pills and ended up in the ER, leaving her parents to rack their brains as they tried to understand what went wrong.

Division creates confusion for Scott’s and Amber’s family.

Scott* and Amber* don’t like their children’s choices, attitudes, lack of respect, and the mounting tension in their home. Good-cop versus bad-cop is their parenting strategy – the kids are afraid of Scott and take advantage of Amber. Scott and Amber disagree on how to regain control and avoid conflict; Amber defers to Scott’s authoritarian bent only because the kids appear to listen to him.

Amber’s parents used the same approach, and it never worked. She swore to take a different approach involving understanding, compassion, and availability. This approach created a conflicting parenting style with Scott’s. The power struggle with her children brings back memories of Amber’s mother saying, “Wait till your father gets home!”

The divide at home continues to grow, and peace is gone. They need to make some changes before conflicts tear apart the family.

Caitlyn* questions her sexuality and gender identifications.

A happy person

Recently, Caitlyn came out to her parents as queer and has changed pronouns. Now Caitlyn is asking to use pronouns that refer to her as “they/them/theirs.”

Michelle* and Tyler*, Caitlyn’s parents, love their daughter and want to support her (err, them) but are having difficulty understanding. They both grew up with homophobic parents and believed that their parent’s fears were overdramatic. As a result, Michelle and Tyler are more compassionate of Caitlyn’s questions but worry for Caitlyn’s safety in a world aggressive toward those identifying with the LGBTQ+ community. And why pronouns? What does that even mean?

Michelle and Tyler struggle to process what’s happening but want to express their support to empower Caitlyn without their fears getting in the way.

Divorce and parental discord make Ashley’s life harder.

Ashley* is the only child of her divorced parents. She was young when they split, and her parents still fought about everything. Both have since happily remarried but remain bitterly at odds. Although accustomed to managing her parents’ discord, Ashley has grown resentful and wants to be free from contentiousness and belong to a “happy family.” Both parents feel frustrated with Ashley, believing she has no reason to be angry because she now has two new “happy” families.

Ashley spends time equally between households, but each home comes with vastly different expectations and responsibilities. Now that she is a teenager, Ashley can still count on her parents’ hatred for each other to free her from her duties, but her strategy is beginning to unravel.

Failing her classes, lying, experimenting with sex and drugs, and losing enthusiasm for going to college have changed things. Unfortunately, Ashley’s parents blame each other for Ashley’s problems. It’s evident that Ashley needs help, but each parent is sure that their approach is the best. There is another way that empowers everyone, and they need help finding it.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

A happy family

As seen in the cases of Tara, Amber, Caitlyn, and Ashley, one individual’s struggle impacts the entire family. Family Therapy is my favorite! As a systems therapist , I view the individual as an extension of their family. Recognizing all family members is the best way to understand how they interact.

Family therapy helps individuals resolve their problems in the context of their family units, where many issues are likely to begin. A family system is an emotional unit; when one member changes, the rest of the interdependent system is also affected, leading to changes in the group.

For example, imagine a baby’s mobile. When balanced, the mobile hangs peacefully over the infant’s crib. When the baby reaches up and touches a part, the whole mobile begins moving to regain balance. Moving that one part impacted every other interconnected and interdependent part.

What happens to one happens to all.

There is a saying, “You are only as happy as your saddest child.” This saying also rings true in families – one member’s struggle impacts the whole family. The solution seems obvious – help the one struggling. Typically, it takes so long for families to seek therapy for the entire family.

Many families attempt to “fix” the person or “change” the behaviors of the offending family member. It’s easy to fall into the blame game and connect, what appear to be, the obvious dots. Instead, family therapy considers problem patterns that need to be adjusted rather than focusing on one person’s sole responsibility for the issue and its solution.

Here’s the approach to Family Therapy.

A happy family

We start by listening to every individual’s perspective on the family problem. Then, we collaborate to determine the goals your family wants to achieve. The typical plans for many families include improving communication, facilitating cohesion, developing and maintaining healthy boundaries, upgrading problem-solving skills, building empathy, and enhancing understanding to reduce family conflicts.

We create a genogram (pattern map), a multi-generational visual representation of a person’s family, relationships between members, and medical and mental health histories. We use this tool to externalize and highlight social, emotional, and biological patterns in families. Sometimes patterns handed down from generation to generation can become accepted as “normal.” At other times, coping strategies that worked at one point in life are no longer working and causing disruptions.

When we inventory our health histories and conditioned patterns, we can see how these variables are either helping or hurting our relationships. Then, we can decide which behaviors to keep, discard, and change to heal and harmonize the family dynamic.

This process helps families practice resolving conflicts in new ways, get comfortable with new behaviors, and implement tools with new results in the presence of a therapist to determine what works and what doesn’t for the whole system.

Families who do therapy together stay together.

The design of Family Therapy is to reduce distress and conflict by improving familial interactions.

Every family is uniquely different, and a problem for your family may not be problematic for another.

Regardless of your family’s dilemma right now, we will all work together to find new ways to solve old problems. Every voice is vital to the transformation of the family dynamic.

Does your family need to make some adjustments to old patterns keeping you stressed and stuck? If so, please get started today.

NOTE: All names are a composite of clients with whom I’ve worked.

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