The odds are 1:5 that the reader will know at least one family seeking help from a family counselor. When friends find out that a family is seeking therapy, the reactions are usually, "Is there anything I can do to help" or "It will help your family a lot." The underlying message is that the person didn't know there was a problem to begin with.
Families' can often do a good job of hiding problems - from each other - as well as from their friends.
The many reasons a family may seek counseling can often be reduced to one of 7 areas.
Family therapists use the clinical term "identified patient" to indicate which family member is being held responsible for the family's problems. Therapists in the "conjoint" therapy ideology coined the term that is used to explain the rebellious teen, the alcoholic parent or the kid sister with ADHD.
Labeling someone as the identified patient is a misnomer when it comes to family therapy. Everyone in the family is helping to disrupt the family balance. Many families will seek counseling and present the labeled family member as the cause of their problem. They want the therapist to "fix" the black sheep, thinking that once the black sheep is fixed, then all the family's problems are resolved.
Actually, family members who finger point are often trying to divert attention from their own issues.
Some clinicians feel that families in crisis are the majority of their caseload. A family suffering from an addiction like alcoholism or gambling is in crisis. So too is the family that has been through a natural disaster together.
Usually, the family is struggling to cope with what they are going through, or have gone through, and need the therapists' assistance in sorting out their emotions.
Many families have trouble setting up, and maintaining, appropriate boundaries with others in the family as well as people outside of the family unit. An invisible line that allows individuals to keep safe, appropriate boundaries can aid in keeping people safe close and unsafe people at a distance. Often, a family without healthy boundaries will share inappropriately with each other or have unreasonably high expectations of other members.
Many families experience some form of abuse. Many people forget that yelling at each other is often a form of verbal abuse. Financial abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse are some other reasons families seek therapy.
A family that suffers loss may be struggling to heal. Attempting to handle their grief, these families often seek encouragement and new coping skills. Grief, not handled correctly, may evolve into depression. Families in mourning should work through their grief together despite possibly being at different places in the grieving process.
Families often seek professional help when they find they can't talk openly about their problems. When family members don't feel safe communicating with other members, then relatively insignificant issues can be blown out of proportion. In this situation, the therapist's job will be to help the family become clear about the issues and assist everyone in learning to openly communicate.
A common type of red flag which can be helped by therapy is an issue that has been "stewing" in the family and caused many discussions but never a resolution. When the same issue keeps coming up in disagreements, it is usually a good sign that the family members are not effectively resolving the issue and are at a stuck point. Seeking help as early as possible can often save a lot of trouble further down the road.
Article by Arkady Bukh and Bruce Provda, partner Provda Law Firm, 40 Wall Street 11 Floor, New York, NY 10005, (212) 671-0936.
Going through a divorce or separation disrupts the lives of everyone involved, but seeking the help of a family counselor can help ease the transition. Children can work through their emotions, ex-spouses can find ways to deal with their disbelief and anger, and extended family members can come to grips with the shift in the family dynamics.
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