One way to look at families is to see them as an organism with its members as its different parts: metaphorical organs, skeleton, skin, blood, arteries, etc. The organism is constantly trying to remain in balance and also constantly trying to become all of what it is and to express all of what it is. And to top it all off, it’s constantly growing. Just as individuals experience personal growth, families also can experience “family growth.” A family’s members can learn new, healthier ways of interacting with each other, the family can become healthier as a unit, and the family organism can learn new ways of interacting with the rest of the world. They can’t always do it on their own, though. Sometimes they need family therapy, especially when there’s family conflict.
Family Identified Patient
When there’s family conflict and they come to family therapy, only rarely does the family think of itself as the “client.” Generally, they see one person as the one with the “problem,” and they would like the therapist to help that person feel better or behave in ways the rest of the family would like better. They do generally recognize that there might be something in the family relationships that affect that individual.
Family Conflict Can Be the Beginning of the Solution
In family therapy, it often becomes evident that something new is trying to happen in the family organism that would create “family growth.” Maybe one person in the family is super-sensitive and always upset about something, or one feels left out, or someone is getting into trouble or not doing well at school or at work. Or two people in the family are always getting into arguments with each other. Basically, something is disturbing the peace and everybody (except the disturber) just wants the disturber to stop so that the rest of the family can go about its business again. They don’t understand why this person is being so bothersome for, seemingly, no good reason.
The Disturber as a Channel for the Family to Grow
Here’s a case of an individual calling for family therapy, wanting a couple of sessions of family therapy before she could feel comfortable getting together with them for holidays. In her experience, there was constant family conflict whenever they all got together.When they were all assembled in the therapy session, she began talking about how painful it was for her when they were all together because she felt like an outsider and she felt ignored and dismissed. The others couldn’t understand why she would feel this way; they felt she was always creating trouble where there was none. Sitting with them, it was like there was a hot red wound in the family where she was and that the rest of the family felt cold. Since she was the one in pain, she spoke first.
As she and her siblings were growing up, she said, their father had been physically abusive to their mother. She was the only one in the family who felt the pain of this; the others were able to numb out around it. After this, one of the siblings said he had noticed it but it was over now and therefore she was over it, too. In contrast to the “identified patient, the other sister had gone on with her life. She couldn’t understand why the woman was still holding on to the past. None of them could understand.
Finally, the woman brought up that she had been molested by someone outside the family. This shocked everyone and they suddenly began to feel not only her pain but, in a kind of spreading of the hot red wound, the pain of everything that had happened in their family. The mother admitted her pain at being abused, the father acknowledged the pain he had caused everyone and the sister who had thought all was in the past admitted that, when she was young, she knew about her sister being molested and had felt helpless and silenced. She had felt guilty about this her whole life. Where there was a concentrated “red hotness” and a general coldness, there was now warmth and empathy for everyone. The woman who had called for family therapy now felt safe going to holiday events and the rest of the family felt comfortable having her there. The way the whole family related to each other was more authentic.
Disturbing Children Often Sense the Family’s Underlying Needs
It’s often important to find out why the disturber in the family is doing what they’re doing. Most people (maybe all people) don’t act out for no reason; there’s a need they’re desperate to have met, and they don’t believe they have any other way to meet it besides through what they’re doing. Often, they’re not aware of the need; they just feel hurt and frustrated.
Consider a family where the oldest child was constantly yelling at his younger sister, calling her stupid and putting her down. When he was allowed to speak in the session, he felt that his sister was getting all the attention from their parents. This younger sister would drone on and on about her day while there was no space for the older son to speak about his day.
The parents realized this was true, and admitted they were also kind of bored by the long-winded stories, but that they hadn’t felt comfortable making time limits. This was the first layer of the problem. When time limits were put into practice it helped the relationship between the children to some extent. However, there was another layer. At one session, the son brought up that the family was very disconnected from each other. They spent so much time working and in after- school and after-work activities that they never had time to just relax and have fun together.
The parents were dumbfounded that their young son would be aware of this. It was so true, they admitted! It was right there, but they’d never seen it. This was a great family, so they also started changing how they spent their days and weeks, dropping some activities and spending more time just hanging out with each other. The problem with the two children eased up considerably.
Family Therapy Brings a New Balance
There are endless examples where what seems to be a disturbance turns out to be the family organism trying to bring out something new that heals relationships among its members. Family therapy can help with relationships and family conflict.
Zoe Zimmermann, MA, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist who has helped many families develop closer and more satisfying relationships among their members. Zoe also specializes in couples counseling. In addition, she is a certified EFT practitioner specializing in working with trauma, painful childhood experiences, phobias, effects of physical and sexual assault, and trauma from accidents.