Families can be a safe haven of support, respect and love but often relationships within them can become strained.
‘Being a family means you are a part of something very wonderful’ states a popular fridge magnet. That is, indeed the gold standard of dynasties the world over, but the late Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families and father of nine, reckons that even great families are off track as much as 90 per cent of the time.
In this blog, krysallis’ specialist family and relationship therapist, Madeleine, explains what family therapy is and how it works to help you decide if it would benefit your family.
What is family therapy?
Family therapy helps you rediscover that track, engaging as few or as many family members as wish to explore where you’d like that path to lead. The idea is that everyone involved should have a voice and be able to share in the work of reducing the negative aspects of family life in order to increase the positive. Instead of dwelling on your perceived problems, your therapist will encourage you to dig deep towards your own solutions. The idea is that everyone can be an expert in their own life… and recognise the unspoken solutions they had all along.
At the moment, we are offering online, phone and walk and talk therapy therapy styles to adhere to social distancing. This can be helpful if members of the family aren’t currently in lockdown together as others can join via video call, ensuring the whole family can get involved if they usually struggle to make time to meet together at once. To find out more about online counselling click here. If you’re wondering how online therapy works, click here.
How can going to family counselling help?
Busy families don’t always have the leisure to meet and talk through discomforts or difficulties, and without a professional to contain heated emotions, collective ‘discussions’ may be critical and problem focused. Sometimes one person’s problem is so magnified that it dominates household thinking and behaviour. One or both parents, for example, might find themselves obsessing about a teenager’s rudeness or constant gaming. Maybe the teenager rarely communicates or participates in family life. The parents feel dismayed, frustrated and disrespected. Gloom and negativity prevail in a once harmonious household. Your therapist can mediate between anxious, angry or mystified parents and a teenager locked into black-and-white thinking, seeing their parents as over-reactive and interfering. Your counsellor will point out that a degree of turbulence is normal at this stage, but where necessary would also signpost specialist help with any extreme issues such as self-harm or drug use.
Introducing positivity, we’ll be curious about how it feels in this family when things are going well. What needs to happen for things to go well more often? What are the collective and individual strengths that this family shares but is forgetting to value? How could these strengths be maximised? If there could once again be less shouting and door-slamming, what might there be more time for (fun, laughter, movie nights with a takeaway?) If the teenager offered a little appreciation to Mum and Dad instead of scorn, who would notice? Who would benefit from a lighter atmosphere in the house?
How does family therapy work?
Types of family therapy differ depending on the particular issues presented to the therapist. The therapist’s key skill is paying close attention to everyone in the family, not just the loudest or the most authoritative. This enables us to see the story from multiple perspectives which may not have been aired fully, if at all, back home. We might discover cliques and alliances within one family – the parent and child who share a secret, or two siblings who get on so well that the third feels shut out. Your therapist is experienced in looking beyond the labels that relatives too often glue to one another: we might be told about the ‘problem’ or the ‘golden child, an ‘unreliable’ ex partner who can do no right, a frazzled Mum who shouts ‘all the time,’ or overindulgent grandparents who ‘never stop’ undermining parental rules.
Family therapists use techniques and are skilled at unravelling how these labels came about and how the family has got stuck in unhelpful patterns it can’t seem to break. In family therapy we seek to ‘reframe’ what’s seemingly going on: the 14 year old daughter of divorced parents refuses to see her Dad anymore, although her young brother goes gladly. Dad accuses Mum of poisoning their daughter’s mind against him, and retaliates by badmouthing Mum whom he complains fleeces him for money. Mum makes it clear that he was the one who cheated, and decries him as a home-wrecker. Therapy enables the parents to reflect that they once loved each other well enough to beget these kids who are, in fact, the best thing to come out of their relationship.
The therapist invites them to recall what was good in the marriage instead of magnifying the bad. The ex-couple can then negotiate ways to co-parent with more goodwill. The daughter says it’s not that she doesn’t love Dad, even though he ‘acts like an idiot’. He doesn’t make her feel special. She has a weekend life of her own with friends, activities and homework, she doesn’t want to be with his new family in a cottage miles from town. The therapist brokers a better understanding between Dad and daughter who arrange, once a month, to spend time together, just the two of them.
John Burnham, one of family therapy’s founders, identifies ‘sparkling moments’ of sudden insight or self-reflection when widespread confusion lifts: A couple brought their daughter for help because, uncharacteristically, she’d hit a boy on the school bus. This previously model student had got herself into big trouble and the parents feared she was turning rogue. It was all over nothing – a yoghurt that the boy had grabbed off her and was spilled in the fracas. After a few sessions of parental hand-wringing and high concern, the therapist suddenly asked what variety of yoghurt this was. ‘Summer fruits’ said the girl. ‘What?’ What?’ gasped her parents. ‘But that’s your absolute favourite …a very rare treat…Ah now we understand.’
Humour is a great tool in the therapists’ toolkit. The story’s told of a family weighed down by Dad’s stormy moods and ill temper. He would explode out of the blue, leaving his wife and kids intimidated and tiptoeing around him for days. The therapist wondered if they’d manage better with a bit of warning so that at least everyone could put up a virtual umbrella, could Dad somehow signal his impending disgruntlement? Dad said he might put on his grandfather’s top hat as his mood descended. Some weeks later, when the idea had pretty much slipped from memory, Dad and his hat turned up in the kitchen. There was an exchange of anxious glances, but these gave way to giggles and snorts of unstoppable laughter. Even Dad got caught up on the hilarity and a potentially toxic mood was completely dispelled.
Most families face problems from time to time and if your family is experiencing long term issues that are causing strain and tension, it might be time to speak to a counsellor. The importance of family therapy is apparent now more than ever since the pandemic with families forced to spend more time together than usual.
We hope you found this helpful, if you think your family could benefit from speaking to a therapist, our Relate-trained counsellors are here to listen. Get a free consultation to test it out yourself by calling 01423 857939, visiting our contact page to arrange a free initial phone consultation, or clicking here to find out more.
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