Counseling for Families
I spent the first 10 years of my career counseling families in their homes through a program called Family Reconciliation Services. It was a unique and remarkable experience. I learned first-hand that each family is unique and thus each therapeutic focus must be unique. Although strategies, concepts, and skills served similar purposes in various families, my counseling approach was always changing based on the needs of each family or individual.
Often, families come to counseling as a way to learn how to problem solve, communicate, negotiate, work together or reconcile. Sometime they need help transitioning through new stages of the child's development, coping with a family trauma, transitioning during separation or divorce, blending a new family, dealing with family rules or improving school performance. When clients take the time with me to find solutions to the presenting problem, change long-term patterns, or reconnect with family members it can be a rewarding and successful process.
Each person works, or frankly doesn't work, in conjunction with the other members of the group depending on the health of the family system. I believe there are two dimensions to family therapy: The Functional level and the Emotional level. The Functional level assesses the day-to-day process of living together like chores, schedule, coordination, tasks, etc. The Emotional level assesses the connection and communication of love - like demonstration of love, compassion, understanding, etc. A healthy family system shows strength on both levels.
So what measures a healthy system? The McMaster Family Assessment Device measures seven dimensions of family functioning: problem solving, communication, roles, affective responsiveness, affective involvement, behavioral control, and general functioning. The assessment asks family members to rate statements such as, "We make sure members meet their family responsibilities" or "Some of us just don't respond emotionally." These are very different statements measuring very different behaviors; one is a follow-up/follow-through behavioral skill and one is an emotionally expressive skill. The follow-up/follow-through skill is relatively simple to process, teach, and integrate. The emotionally expressive skill is complicated because the functioning of the family system may encourage or discourage emotional honesty at some level. When families tap into deeper issues, like emotional honesty, expressiveness, responsiveness, we often discover the real dynamic.
In order for family therapy to be successful, family members must be prepared for both dimensions of family therapy. Gathering data, assessing strengths and weaknesses, describing and clarifying problems, outlining goals and options, negotiating expectations, setting family and individual tasks are included in the Functional level. Showing love, expressing tenderness, responding to others, communicating your feelings, and acting compassionately are included in the Emotional level. The Functional skills make life run smoothly, but the Emotional connectedness motivates everything else. The bottom line is a child who feels unloved (Emotional level) by a parent has little motivation to accept direction (Functional level) from that parent.
In family counseling, we work as a team to assess your family's health, kind of like taking your temperature. We figure out what systems are suffering and work to improve the problems on both the Functional level and the Emotional level. Note that you are only in my office 50-75 minutes; our sessions will be the change agent, but not the real change. Change really happens during the other 167 hours of your week.
It's important to note that all members have an equal stake in the success of the process. Children especially have an equal opportunity to speak up in sessions and I encourage parents to understand that the power differential in daily life should be lifted during counseling sessions. Honest feedback from our children is the most helpful tool in learning how to navigate through the variety of challenges, and stages, we face. I monitor this so that we avoid any one person being in the hot seat. With that said each member will usually experience moments as the family's focus. Your ultimate family goal or motivation will help guide us through family therapy. Often the goal is peace, but the avenue toward that goal is as unique as the family itself.