The word “family” conjures up different images and memories for each person. It might inspire a smile and feelings of warmth, or dread, horror, and revulsion due to family issues. Even two members of the same family can feel differently about their family. And that’s because the experience of everyone in any given family isn’t exactly the same.
Each family is unique – in its history, quirks, issues, gifts, and personalities God has given. What each family deals with and goes through is unique, and how they address those concerns can be healthy and life-giving, or it can do further damage to the members of the family.
Every family has issues.
One important note to make is that though your family may be going through something specific and unique, what’s true is that every family has issues. One anonymous person has said that “Family problems come in all shapes and sizes; some are short-lived and easily managed, while others are more chronic and difficult to handle.”
The common denominator is that all families face issues. At times, a family can feel isolated or experience shame because they think what they’re going through is something other people couldn’t understand, or they fear being judged because of what they are experiencing. You may be loath to let the people in your church or community know what you’re going through, and it might seem better to suffer in silence or avoid dealing head-on with the issue. This is a mistake.
Problems don’t go away because you act like they’re not there, and they don’t get better if they’re not dealt with. There is every possibility that “letting sleeping dogs lie” will make things considerably worse. Sometimes, having an outside perspective is just what your family needs to deal with your issue. When you’re caught up in a situation, you might not be able to see what the real issue is, and the possible solutions could be.
The concern about confidentiality is important, and that’s why seeing a professional such as a family therapist is a viable option. By training and in compliance with the requirements of their profession, therapists are required to keep their client’s matters confidential, with limited exceptions such as if someone is in imminent danger or if there is any illegal activity that the authorities should be made aware of.
The role of family therapy.
Family therapy or counseling is a tool to help you and your family understand one another, deal with conflict in a healthy manner, engage with one another graciously, and become better communicators. Therapy isn’t the place to grind your ax or try to get your way. While family therapy can help your family to achieve a sense of togetherness and meaningful fellowship, it doesn’t automatically resolve family conflicts or make an unpleasant situation go away.
However, it can help you and your family members grow in your ability to understand one another better, and it can provide you with the skills to cope with challenging future situations more effectively. Thus, it’s important to understand what you can reasonably expect from family therapy.
Therapy is meant to provide support to your family, but it doesn’t create a permanent space in which your family can come to resolve issues. Rather, your therapist creates a space for you to learn what the issues are and to gain tools to resolve future issues constructively as a family.
What kinds of family issues does counseling address?
Family counseling helps to address issues either between you and your partner, your children, or other family members. As such, there is a broad range of family issues that they can address, and these include the following:
Lack of intimacy between spouses. For whatever reason, a husband and wife can lose their connection, and that can affect emotional and physical intimacy. It’s a problem when spouses become roommates, or they stick together for the sake of the kids.
When you lose that connection, that can lead to the situation Laura Berman spoke about when she said “you just become partners managing the kids and life, and that makes your marriage more vulnerable to problems down the road.”
Parents and their children on different pages. Parenting can be hard, as can being parented! There’s so much room for parents and their children to miss and not understand one another. That can make for an unhealthy home environment, power struggles, issues of controlling behavior, and much else.
Though a little tongue in cheek, Isaac Rosenfeld was right in saying, “In every dispute between parent and child, both cannot be right, but they may be, and usually are, both wrong. It is this situation which gives family life its peculiar hysterical charm.”
A family going through the worst of it may not necessarily appreciate that “charm” but coming to a better understanding of one another can help them develop an appreciation of their perspectives and positions on an issue.
Marital discord. In any marriage, there is the potential of conflict escalating to the point where there’s no quarter given. This affects the marriage, and if there are children in the picture that affects them as well.
Poor communication. To quote the venerable thespian Emma Thompson, “Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening.” In a family, communication can break down for a variety of reasons, and once communication breaks down it’s hard to resolve issues together in meaningful ways.
Discipline issues with the children. Sometimes the issues in a family center around discipline issues with the children. It may be that the children are out of control and the parents are at their wits end about what to do, or perhaps discipline is the site of disagreement between the parents who have different philosophies and approaches to the subject.
Grief and loss. In each family, being close means that when those bonds are broken it takes a toll. A family may need help to work through the loss of a family member or friend, a valued pet, or a difficult experience such as having to uproot and move somewhere new. The family may also have to grieve the loss of their family unit if the parents decide to divorce or separate.
Blended family issues. When two families come together as one, the dynamics can change and that may be hard to adjust to for either the adults or the children in the picture. The children may have to deal with sharing their home, moving to a new home, having new siblings, and the changes that that brings as well. These and many other concerns for blended families can be addressed in therapy.
Adoption issues. Every adoption story is unique. For some, the process is smooth, while for others it’s hard and drawn out. The stories that each adopted child brings with them are also unique, and their needs, concerns, and anxieties manifest in different ways.
Adjusting to one’s new family has its own challenges for the parents and the child. Additionally, a child may have lingering struggles with abandonment and neglect that need to be addressed to help them adjust to and thrive in their new family.
Addiction and substance abuse. When one member of the family struggles, everyone in the family is affected. The family can attend family therapy while the person who has an addiction participates in a residential treatment program. Sometimes, the family may participate in family therapy even if the person with an addiction hasn’t sought out treatment.
Mental illness. Whether it’s a child, parent, or elderly member of the family who is dealing with mental health issues, the family can benefit from therapy. A person who has a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia should pursue an individualized treatment plan, which may include medication and one-on-one therapy.
Family therapy can also help the family members to understand the condition and gain tools with which to cope. Other conditions such as dementia may require family therapy so that everyone understands what dementia is and how best to stand with their relative.
What can you expect from family counseling?
When a family is going through a tough time, you mustn’t check out, avoid the situation, or deal with it in unhealthy ways. There are, however, circumstances in which family dynamics become so toxic that they are unhealthy, and in such cases being in a different space to process and heal is helpful. One-on-one therapy may provide such a space for you.
Family therapy can be tough because you may reopen old wounds, expose unhealthy current patterns of thought and behavior in the family, and shift relational dynamics where necessary. It’s uncomfortable sharing hidden parts of yourself with a stranger, and it can be even worse hearing much-needed truths from that stranger or from members of your family.
When you go for your sessions, you can expect that you’ll be with your family members in the same space. Each session typically lasts around fifty minutes to an hour, and you’ll generally have about twelve sessions with your therapist, though that will ultimately depend on your family’s particular situation and your therapist’s recommendation.
The goal of your sessions is to help you to:
- Identify your family’s strengths, such as loving one another, and weaknesses, such as difficulty being vulnerable with one another
- Explore familial behavior patterns, roles, and rules to identify issues that might be contributing to conflict, and find ways to work through these issues constructively
- Examine your family’s problem-solving ability and capacity to express thoughts and emotions in a healthy and productive way
You and your family may be going through some rough times. Whatever you’re facing, you’re in it together as a family. Whatever your struggles, the bonds of blood are hard to dissolve or ignore. When family issues become too much, you can find help from a family therapist who can guide you and your family toward flourishing.
“Family on the Beach”, Courtesy of Kevin Delvecchio, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Coffee and Conversation”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love & Respect”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “River Valley”, Courtesy of Mario Dobelmann, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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