Family Therapy- an explanation

Families generally come to family therapy because they are having a problem with one of the kids, not realizing that defects in the marital relationship are the primary cause of dysfunction in children. Problems exist in conditions created by all people in the family relationship. When children are given the right conditions for growth, they are destined to become full, healthy exuberant beings. The right conditions are love, attention, acceptance and understanding.

When there are defects in the marital relationship, anxiety is created, and to relieve this anxiety, often the conflict is projected onto the children. This deflects the anxiety inherent in the marital relationship onto the child. The situation is called triangulation. This relieves the anxiety in the parents, but creates an identified patient, the child. The child might develop a medical problem, a mental illness such as depression, anxiety or compulsive disorders. The child might become isolated, or act out. There can be a multitude of complications. But, the core of the problem is in the marital system. When the parents are able to accept responsibility for their part in the dysfunction of the family, this can be the beginning of healing for the parents, child and family. Families are a living system of interrelated people.

Healthy families are made up of differentiated people, who are authentic, unique people not afraid of expressing their likes, desires and needs. Differentiated people expect acceptance and understanding. Anxiety can develop in a family when there is a push and pull in the family relationships, a back and forth between intimacy and togetherness, and separation and autonomy. This situation in a family can cause people to avoid conflict by being false to themselves, and agreeing to things they do not want. They don’t rock the boat, to maintain the status quo, which creates inauthentic selves, and emotional reactivity. Undifferentiated people can pass their expectations through generations of their family. They pass on the “shoulds”. Children should be quiet. Women should be passive. Men should not be emotional. Murray Bowen who founded Multigenerational Family Therapy, called this the family ego mass. Quite often, certain members of the family become over responsible and other family members, under responsible, with symptomatic behavior and conflict within the family.

In an open, differentiated family system, boundaries are flexible enough to permit interaction between family members and the outside world. In a closed family system, families are either enmeshed or disengaged. Either the boundaries are diffuse, and no one is allowed to be, without interference. Or the boundaries are rigid, with emotional distance, where family members are private and separate. This often remains with a child into adult relationships, and they are merged, or distant in their adult relationships, carrying on a generational family pattern of dysfunction. There is little understanding of why relationships are unfulfilling and full of conflict. A person can project the family expectations onto their partner, the “shoulds”. Which results in inauthentic selves, and agreeing to do what we do not want. Which is different than doing something because it meets our need to contribute. Marshall Rosenberg calls this nimnieu.

What is being described here, is family systems theory, which is what most therapists use in family therapy. We encourage hierarchy in families, where parents show leadership and direction, with healthy boundaries. Children need to know what is allowed and what to expect in relationship, without confusion. We teach others how to treat us in relationship, by the boundaries we hold. Parents need to resolve their own problems without projecting the problems onto their kids. Which can be destabilizing to children, and cause them to take responsibility for problems that are not their own. This can cause children to grow up too fast, and to miss a carefree childhood, protected by their parents. Children internalize the confusion, creating internal and external mental, physical and spiritual sickness. In worst case scenarios, children can be traumatized. Trauma is an experience that cannot be integrated, and can cause damage to the brain. This can result in mental illness in children and adults.

In conclusion, family therapy teaches parents to take responsibility for their issues, sit with the anxiety, and work to resolve the issues without triangulating with one of the children. As the children watch the adults take responsibility to change, the children are also able to learn self-responsibility, and to make changes in their own behavior. It is deeply rewarding for a child to hear a parent say “I am wrong” or “I am sorry, And I would like to hear how my behavior has affected you” and “I will do it differently next time”. This teaches the child self-responsibility and ownership of his/her behavior. It is beautiful to witness a family work to break generational dysfunctional patterns, and to heal. They become differentiated authentic human beings, who pass the ability to form healthy relationships onto the next generation.

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