What Will Happen If We Start Fighting in Front of Our Therapist during Family Therapy?

Many families seek a therapist because of a breakdown in their family system. This breakdown may be the result of poor communication, substance abuse, a major change in the family, or something else that causes tension. This may lead to verbal arguments, and sometimes a family may start fighting during a therapy session. Below, several therapists weigh in on how they handle conflicts that occur during therapy sessions, why they are completely normal, and how fighting can be used to overcome your family’s challenges:

Silva-Breen-Lynne
Lynne Silva-Breen, MDiv, MA, LMFT
: One of the important things I do as a family therapist when I first meet with a family group is talk about what to expect when we meet together. We set up some expectations and ground rules that family members will need so they feel like they can all be heard, respected, and safe, while still being honest enough to talk about what is happening in the family circle.

One of the rules that I talk about is “showing up.” Each family member is so important to the whole family unit that we can’t do very much if someone opts out. Another rule is “being real.” If I’m going to be of any help at all to the family unit, I need each family member to be as honest as possible with themselves, each other, and me. We establish a no-violence rule and talk about what that means. Families who come to therapy are usually conflicted and upset, and that means they will break into arguments at the drop of a hat. It’s what I actually expect when we first meet together.

If a family argument gets going early on in therapy, I will probably observe it for a minute or two so I can better understand what is happening. I will want to see what is being said, who is saying it, who is the target, who tries to make peace, who suffers silently, or who acts out. Once I have a sense of that in the current argument, I will interrupt the family and ask about what just happened. Once we start to reflect on that argument, we have begun the interesting and healing work of helping a family function better.

Kaplowitz-StuartStuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT: It is truly sad to me how many of us are worried about what others will think of us. The idea of coming to therapy brings up much of these same concerns. “What will the therapist think of me if I share everything?” or “I wonder what my friends would think if they knew I was going” are two examples of  concerns I hear far too often. If there is one place in the world I would hope you could be yourself and not have to hold back, it would be in therapy sessions.

“But fighting is bad, right? I thought we are coming here to learn, not to fight?” Indeed. The goal is to help you through the arguing, or perhaps to help you learn how to disagree in a more comfortable, appropriate way.

That said, it may be most helpful for me to see exactly what the “fighting” looks like, including what possible triggers there are, how each person may begin to escalate and react, and so forth. Physical fighting would not be okay, however, and we would immediately address the safety concerns there, but fighting tends to look like different things for different people. I want to help you through these moments, so you are able to express yourself and get your needs met in a better way.

Ogilvie-BradBradley D. Ogilvie, MS, LPC, LMFT: It is quite common for families to argue in therapy. In fact, in early sessions, it is often anticipated that there will be arguments and anger. These arguments are what usually get families to initiate family therapy.

In our families, we don’t always feel it is safe to say what is really on our mind or how we feel, but when this reaches a boiling point, anger emerges. Therapy sessions in the early stages can be a kind of conflict mediation. At times, this means being uncomfortable, confrontational, and defensive. Or, it may mean that someone has been holding something in for quite a while and, in venting, makes others angry, but therapy allows them to do so in a safe space.At the onset of family therapy, it is important to establish some ground rules. One such rule is “no violence.” This means no physical attacks on each other. This rule is important so that all family members can be assured that no harm will come to them, and we can work together to overcome fears so real change can take place. In addition, because of confidentiality, the family can be assured that we do not have to worry about what others will think. As sessions progress, we work on new ways to express what we are feeling that open lines of communication and decrease the fighting, and allow for the family members to move to a deeper place of appreciation for each other. Ultimately, the goal is to decrease the amount of fighting while enhancing the communication and developing healthier relationships.

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