“My kid needs serious help, and we just don’t know what to do with him anymore!”
“No one is getting along right now!”
“After all we’ve been through, we definitely need someone to talk to!”
These are just a few of the typical exclamations I hear when someone first calls me to inquire about family counseling.
First of all, you can relax a little — let me assure you that the perfect family doesn’t exist, and trying to achieve some ideal of what a family should look like is irrelevant when your desire is simply to have a family that knows how to communicate, respect and love one another.
The good news is that achieving this, while not necessarily easy, is not as difficult as it may seem. Today’s family life is more complex than ever. There are more step-families, single parents, and homes where both parents work. In fact, they’re all common. Further, the frantic pace of daily life and increased economic pressures often overwhelm families, breeding communication issues and dysfunctional behaviors that, if left unaddressed, can lead to severe problems and even extremes such as alcoholism, drug abuse, family violence, and child abuse. As traditional family support systems erode, families find an increasing need to turn to mental health professionals for help.
Children and Adolescents
I think we can all agree that often times young people and their behaviors seem to be a complete mystery. Sometimes when they’re acting up or making harmful choices, it may seem that they actually enjoy their misbehaviors. Just as with individual adults, these children and adolescents have lost track of something in themselves. It is this loss that drives their apparently irrational behavior, feelings, and point of view. The loss manifests in hidden agendas that cause behavior and feelings that on the surface don’t seem to make any sense to the adults around them.
There are two lasting bequests we can give our children: One is roots. The other is wings.”
– Hodding Carter, Jr.
The adolescent who steals and gets high all the time can usually understand that, although it feels good for the moment, his behavior will get him nowhere he wants to be in life (although you usually can’t get him to admit that out loud). The class clown may want the kids to laugh, but she usually wants the teacher to like her as well (you won’t hear that out loud, either). The school-phobic child does want to join the other kids in school. When parents call me for help, I generally ask the parents to come and talk with me so we can meet, get a look at each other, and establish a sense of trust, mutual cooperation, and hopefulness. Sometimes we meet a few times and agree to check in later and see how things are going.
My role is to get an understanding of both the presenting problem and the strengths of their son or daughter as the parents see them, and then to get the youth’s perspective as well. Every family and child is different, so based on these initial meetings a mode of treatment will be agreed upon, i.e. individual work or family work including the parents or possibly siblings. If you have a child that has experienced a particular trauma or difficulty outside the family, you’ll be glad to know that I’m quite capable of addressing those types of problems as well (please see the Therapy for Individual Adults section where trauma is addressed). Please note that I usually work with kids eight years of age or older.
Building A Healthy Family Structure
My preferred method of working with families is known as Structural Family Therapy. This model identifies and works with the unique structure and dynamics of each family — the movement and flow of thoughts, communication, roles, and alliances between parents and children. In structural family therapy the parents are viewed as the head of one system, and the children are viewed as a separate sub-system. This way of looking at the family structure helps determine whether or not the parents are in charge and acting as a unit, whether the kids are doing an end-run around one parent by getting the other to agree to something, or whether the kids are taking advantage of conflict within the parental system.
The art of family life is to not take it personally.”
– Adam Phillips
This method of therapy also allows the family members to examine the integrity of the boundaries between the parents’ and children’s respective systems. This helps to ensure healthy boundaries are established and maintained so that kids are not being placed in adult roles and so that open lines of communication exist between parents and their children.
As the family structure and dynamics become understood, we can identify the source of the current problems being experienced and the best points for intervention, and then incorporate other therapeutic techniques as necessary to develop and practice healthy inter-family boundary and communication skills. Once healthy boundaries and open lines of trusting communication have been established, achieving the family you once only thought possible becomes simply a matter of patience and practice.