The concept of family holds different meanings for different people. For some it is the traditional nuclear family with a married male and female and the children born within that marriage. Some may include step-children, half-siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Others may define it as a group of people who may not be blood-related but who consider themselves as family, care deeply for one another and rely on each other.
Families operate much like any other social group in that they have a specific set of rules and general expectations. Problems arise because each family’s set of rules are unique, complex and open to interpretation. These days more people want to establish a strong individual identity but also remain part of the family group; which in itself can be a reason for conflict.
In an ideal world, our families provide us with a sense of security and immerse us with love. However our world is not perfect and our families can bring us pain, sorrow and disappointment. Often we unintentionally take the stresses from our daily lives and unleash them on our family. Sometimes changes within the family create confusion or misunderstandings. Sometimes one member may have a personal issue (such as gambling or hormonal changes) that affects the whole family and it becomes difficult to see a way forward. The family may try to help but this could add fuel to the fire.
The idea of family therapy might bring up pre-conceived notions of intervention by social workers and welfare agencies that can be difficult to overcome. However, more and more families are turning to counselling to help navigate through change or to find ways to deal with the extreme behaviour of one or more of the members.
Changes to the family group structure can lead to uncertainty and misunderstandings especially in relation to the unspoken rules. This confusion could involve changes such as the inclusion of step-siblings, children becoming adults or one parent becoming unemployed. Families may seek counselling to help deal with:
The aim of family counselling is to find ways to manage these changes as a group in a manner that benefits everyone. Getting the entire family to each session could be a logistical challenge in its own right, but it isn’t always necessary for every member to attend every session. Sometimes the counsellor may see members individually or in smaller groups and then follow up with the whole group. In most cases the benefits gained from working through their issues as a team far outweigh the inconvenience of attending the sessions.
Many therapists now offer family counselling services. They usually use a systemic or cognitive approach to clarify the issues and help find a solution. The process helps members to consider how their thought patterns and ingrained beliefs influence their behaviour and affect others. While it is important to identify the various problems within the family, the approach is generally to focus on solutions rather than searching for the origins of the problems. This approach gives all members the opportunity for self-reflection and increases their awareness of the family dynamics.
The aim of family counselling is to encourage conversation and develop positive lines of communication within the family. It helps the family to create new approaches or expectations relating to daily life. It relies on members actively listening to one another and gives them the opportunity to process feelings such as rejection, anger or resentment in a constructive way. Having the help of an impartial and experienced counsellor gives members the support and encouragement they need to deal with change effectively.
Sometimes the problems encountered within a family may stem from a single event but others may relate to an ongoing pattern or behaviour. Counselling sessions could explore a range of areas including:
Your counsellor will create a neutral and non-judgemental environment for all family members to examine the problem and to express any concerns they may have about the family’s ability to change. The unique blend of personalities and the varying influences of their culture mean that there will be no ‘formula’ solution that suits every family.
As a group, the family will be encouraged to reflect on their beliefs and values - especially in regard to key issues such as religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender roles, class, ability and age. Through this process, the counsellor will help the family identify both essential and redundant beliefs. They can then begin to establish new ways to communicate or form a new set of ‘rules’ to follow.
Each person will be encouraged to share their thoughts about the differences between each individual and to observe the responses of the other members. The trained counsellor will carefully manage these discussions to keep them neutral and open so that each member of the family can feel comfortable in sharing their views. Once everyone has had the opportunity to participate, the counsellor can then invite the group to reflect on the current situation and to turn their focus towards creating more positive relationships.
Identifying the cause of the problem or problems within the family can be difficult as each member will see the situation differently. Blame could be attributed to any of the members and they may not agree on the cause or origin of the problems. If two members point the blame at each other, the counsellor might work with them together in separate sessions until they find a resolution.
A useful technique a counsellor may use to help the family determine the root of the problem is to map out the chain of events or repeated patterns. Using visual tools such as a flow chart may clarify the situation and help to reduce individual blame.
For each individual, learning how other members see them can be a revelation as it may differ from their own assumptions about their place within the family. Discussions can revolve around defining the various relationships within the group and finding areas that may benefit from change. This process can also help to identify the positive characteristics of each member and to utilise these to deal with the problems and subsequent changes.
Family therapy sessions go beyond communication issues to deal with more deeply rooted problems. These may include:
Family counselling and family therapy can both involve the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), systemic therapy and solution-based therapy. Both will also include combinations of group and individual sessions depending on the situation.
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