As a counsellor, in my work with families I am fascinated by the decisions young people make when there is little or no parental involvement; by the differences in perspective between parent and child; and by how families get stuck in problems and how they can become un-stuck. All families have challenges, but if they are willing to work through their difficulties stronger relationships can be built.
Each family member plays a significant role in how they influence the other(s). When parents contact me, they give their view of what they believe is wrong with their children and come with the expectation that I will be able to 'fix' their child. Through delving a little deeper into the family's story, however, they will soon realise that they - not I - are the expert of their circumstance. My role, as a helper, is to assist them in identifying the problem and focus on the solution. As a therapist working with families, we look at strategies they already possess and introduce new approaches they can apply intentionally.
Being a parent is one of the most challenging roles anyone will experience; there is no preparation for what is to come, regardless of the good advice offered. It is not until we are mothers and fathers ourselves that we can fully comprehend the responsibility of guiding our children into adulthood. It is important to note that a 'good enough' parent is all a child needs, and as parents we have to allow our children to explore, gain independence and confidence in their abilities.
The dynamics that exist within a family can be conflicting when both parents combine their psychosocial backgrounds. Since parents are their children's first teachers, they have the primary responsibility of modelling behaviours for their children to develop social skills. In turn, children are likely to reflect the parent's awareness of what they have learned. Furthermore, the parent’s knowledge of parenting is reinforced by each child they have.
At the initial counselling session, a counsellor working with a family will seek to understand the dynamics of the family and the self-concept of each member. It is important to pay attention to each member's perception of the problem and the goal(s) they are seeking to achieve, individually and collectively. Parents are usually surprised that their children raise similar issues to them, because they have the financial responsibility of providing for their basic needs: food, clothing, shelter. Parents’ also often share their concerns about the breakdown in communication with their spouse or with their emerging pubescent children. During puberty there is a tendency to overlook nurturing: a hug, compliment or gentle touch as an expression of love can aid in increasing proximity and children’s self-esteem. Unfortunately, parents project their internal and external struggles onto their children in the form of moodiness, anger, frustration or inappropriate behaviours, and are echoed as defiance, anger, sadness or withdrawal.
The growing concern for parents is how to parent today’s generation. Parents reflect on their childhood, when they thought they would do things differently to their parents. However, in most cases they have found they have repeated the same patterns of behaviour they did not like as a child, for example verbally abusing or hitting their children when feeling frustrated by their actions. Some parents feel that they are ill-equipped when trying to discipline their children, who do not exhibit a respect and/or fear of those in authority as they did as a child.
Children often talk about the breakdown of the parental relationship or of that between parent and child. They fantasise about the absent parent, be it mother or father; they dwell on feelings of loneliness, of not fitting in with their peers or family; adult children are also concerned with financial problems; and children of all ages can express deep loss and sadness. Never is it about their behaviour, although they recognise why they are in counselling. Young children find it difficult to express themselves because they lack the awareness or the language to explain what they are feeling and might become overwhelmed or anxious because they cannot solve the family problems. The adult child reflects on fragments of their personality that are still inflicted by the past. Others go to the extreme of trying to eradicate all resemblance of their mother or father because of the painful memories of living with parents who abused drugs or alcohol.
In family therapy, a place of safety is created, where everyone can talk openly. The family set boundaries that include being empathetic, non-judgemental, and respectful of each other's point of view. There is an agreement, however painful it becomes in the session, to maintain a willingness to work through and trust the process, listen intently to what each member of the family is saying and reflect their understanding. They are required to take responsibility for their perception of the situation and speak using 'I' statements rather than passing blame. Negative comments that are made because of unresolved underlying feelings are reframed to encourage clear communication. The family is supported to develop their awareness of themselves and each other and how they engage. They accept they will have opposing views and agree to disagree but work to address conflict amicably.
As they learn new ways of being, there are fewer arguments and more discussions; nevertheless, as the family evolves, there will be challenges. By applying the communication skills they learn in therapy, they are better equipped to resolve conflicts successfully. They accept that although they are from the one family and share similarities that join them together, there are also differences that make them individuals.
The sessions with families are solution-focused and include experiential activities using a range of mediums suitable for parents and children of different age groups. Therefore, they can talk, play, create, work together or independently, and at the same time have fun. At the end of counselling they can develop stronger relationships through:
1) Effective communication based on mutual respect, being non-threatening, listening to each other and ensure understanding of each other’s points of view
2) Setting boundaries based on family expectations and their value of each other
3) Support of each other goals and interest
4) Reconnecting by spending quality time together on a regular basis
5) Me time: allowing each other time alone for reflection and to rejuvenate
6) Acceptance of individuality
7) Celebrating differences
8) Resolving conflicts to achieve an amicable outcome or agree to disagree
Photo by Christin Hume