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What is Family Therapy?

Family therapy is a collaborative approach to reshaping the dynamics of a family system.  The clients are the parent, whatever the adult relationship status,  and the children.  Families don't work when the progression that flows from parent to child breaks down.  Fundamentally, every parent within reason has the power and right to structure their family in the way that suits them best.  Most parents learn parenting from their own family.  Like many endeavors, if the experience with their parents was positive, they will often utilize the same parenting style.  If not, than the alternative they perceive would have been better is often utilized.  The styles of parenting can range from permissive to authoritarian, with most parents now days opting for something in the middle, or authoritative parenting.  In general most adults would say being told what to do all the time was not psychologically helpful, nor having few rules and being allowed more than not to do what they want.  It has long been established that children, even in retrospect as an adult, prefer some degree of authority.  The choices of adolescence especially are often too complex and difficult for the brain at that age, and being able to say I can't because my parents won't let me is a good saving face position . 

Parenting breaks down for many reasons.  The first line of defense is the parents.  As a parent, you have to be able to negotiate conflict, handle saying no, and taking the power you have as a parent and using it wisely.  Abuse of the power can end up with all sorts of problems.  Similarly, not remembering that you are the parent and they are the child can cause another set of problems.  Utilizing authoritative parenting works best by starting when the child is young, so they learn what works for you and what doesn't, what the rules are and what the privileges are.  Being consistent is key, as is being unified with your partner if that is the case to avoid splitting, or good parent, bad parent.  Children are not born with guilt.  You have to teach through day to day reality that being in a relationship does come with rules, and not following the rules effects other people.  You want to balance respect for others with self-esteem, so that it doesn't become self-centered. 

Family therapy is not complicated.  The goal is for everyone to participate in coming up with a family plan.  Everyone participates in establishing rules, privileges and consequences, with the parents being the ultimate decision maker.  This applies as well to single parenting, where it is at times easier to be consistent.  Two parents can work against each other if they are not able to communicate well themselves or have their own relationship problems.  Family therapy involves homework and talking about what works, doesn't work and taking ownership and responsibility for your part.  It becomes clear fairly quickly who wants to be a part of the solution and who doesn't.  The children and teenagers also are given an appropriate voice, which means the parents may have to also take ownership of problematic behaviors, such as the impact on the family of substance abuse or marital discord.

When families work better, everyone benefits.  With enforcement of appropriate rules and parents working on their own issues the positive energy created easily offsets the dysfunction, loud voices and arguing.  Everyone learns that by having a plan and being mutually responsible everyone benefits, and even the seemingly 'liked' negative behaviors are not as beneficial or worthwhile as once thought.  With the family therapy, many families institute weekly meetings, provide a journal for everyone to make comments, and in general teach the real life skills to maintaining positive relationships. 

Family therapy can be hard.  Everyone has their own agendas and often time unresolved personal problems.  However, the  results will be well worth it if the commitment is there.  By: Jim Harris, LCSW, CAADC

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