Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, CEDS: Family therapy is based on family systems theory, which is in turn based on general systems theory. Systems theory says that living things function within groups that have an interdependent relationship to one another, and operate within that relationship so as to maintain a balance. For example, an ecosystem might comprise sunlight, trees, water, fish, and algae. If one part of that system changes—say, the trees are clear-cut—it affects the rest of the system. Fewer tress means more sunlight on the water, which means more algae, which means fewer fish.
In families, each member is part of the larger system, which is both influenced by the dynamics of the system and influences the dynamics of the system. When one person changes in some way, it affects all members of the family in some way. The way that each family member reacts to this, in turn, affects all other family members.
The strong, innate desire for a system to maintain balance means that family members react to a given family member’s changes in a way that will help them try to maintain that balance. Change can be hard for everyone, and people often fear the unknown, so family members tend to respond to change in a way that keeps them on familiar footing. If one member of a family has a problem for which therapy would be helpful, there’s a much greater likelihood that positive, healthy change will come if all members of the family participate in therapy. If the family member with the problem is a child, then family therapy is usually much more effective than individual therapy, because parents are the most important and influential people in a child’s life, and the problems a child has can only be resolved with the help and support of involved parents.
Sometimes the individual’s problem is the manifestation of other less obvious problems in the family. Just as fish dying is the indirect result of trees having been clear-cut, one family member’s problem may result indirectly from another member’s issues. Tackling the problem as a whole system can make a huge difference. When families learn skills for handling problems and navigating change together, the chances for real and lasting change increase greatly.
Lynne Silva-Breen, MDiv, MA, LMFT: Sometimes one member of the family is causing distress to the others, or behaving in ways that other family members find frightening, humiliating, distressing, or hurtful.When one member of the family chronically abuses alcohol, stops going to work, quits school, or breaks the law, the problem does center around that person. But the problem doesn’t stop there. Each family member has a response to the distressing behavior, words, and consequences. That response may create ripples of dysfunction that reach into classrooms, sports teams, work places, and neighborhoods.When a person’s problem starts causing harmful responses to other family members, this is when both individual and family therapy are helpful. Family members can find talking about their problems with the help of a therapist the safest and easiest way to help their family heal and return to better function.
Bradley D. Ogilvie, MS, LPC, LMFT: When one family member seems to be having problems, having the whole family join in therapy can be an important part of addressing the problems. The reasons for this are multifaceted, and the reasons also vary depending on who the family member is and how the “problems” are identified.Family therapy sessions can be instrumental in helping identify and name the problem, as well as serve to observe family dynamics and relational patterns that may be exacerbating the problems. Families function as one unit; family therapy can create a safe space to allow for greater consciousness about the dynamics, relationships, and rules within the family. Suppose, for example, a child is acting out at home—having tantrums, demanding to have things his/her way, or perhaps even bullying siblings. The reason may be because he/she is struggling at school academically and/or socially, or it may be because he/she feels inadequate at home, and the behavior is a way to draw attention (or perhaps to divert attention from other problems in the family).Family therapy can be a way to explore issues like the aforementioned, and to find ways to support each other so that problems of one person do not overly strain the family and create more problems, while at the same time providing support to the parents for being a loving and consistent presence for the person that is struggling.
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