We have many clients, new to therapy, unaware of exactly what family therapy entails. And, with so many conflicting opinions and advice available, it can become difficult to judge if your family is mentally healthy or if there are problems arising. So today we are going to discuss just what family therapy is and the key components to a healthy family life.
What Is Family Therapy?
Family therapy involves working with individuals and families to improve relationships and communication, and to help resolve conflicts. These sessions are provided by a counsellor or other mental health professional. It is a branch of psychotherapy and it helps create good communication between all family members.
What is the Purpose of Family Therapy?
You can read more about what family therapy is recommended for on our helpful landing page. In short, family therapy can help couples, individuals, and families on close relationships to help each other find ways forward out of difficult situations. It allows couples and family members to share their changing needs and preferences, develop cohesion and adaptability. It is useful for couples, adolescents, and children to create healthy relationships which are leading characteristic of a healthy, functional family system.
What Comprises A Healthy Family?
During family therapy sessions we often get asked what exactly makes a healthy family environment. There is a great deal of debate over what factors comprise a healthy family. There is a difficult line to draw between being too lenient and too strict, between being a so-called Helicopter Parents and Pushy Parents. And with all the conflicting information available, it can be difficult to know where to draw that line. The basis of a healthy family, however can be summed up in a deceptively simple list:
- Family members trust and respect each other
- That perfectionism is not absolute
- You have healthy boundaries
- Time is spent together
- Children are taught to take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and actions
- The ability to put family needs above personal needs where appropriate
- All family members exercise self-discipline
The Modern World and the Healthy Family
Unfortunately, due to conflicting advice, we often see parents and families struggling with issues that ultimately related to how children were brought up. Often these children, now adolescents or adults, felt like they were wrong for feeling anxious, depressed or “less happy” than they should. Of course we want our family to be happy and productive but in some cases this can lead to overprotectiveness that ends up doing children a disservice. Modern society pushes that we should be happy all the time. If we’re not happy, then there’s something wrong. But if you have a good family, a good job and a good life, then why do you feel so anxious or sad?
The key word here is “good”.
Modern living often dictates that even though we are happy, we could be happier. But having happiness as an ultimate goal can lead to disaster. As parents, we want to protect our children from hurt and upset. We do everything we can to avoid discomfort, anxiety, and disappointment. However, if we protect our children from every instance where they might be unhappy, when they become adults the issues arise. These new adults, when they come up against the normal and natural frustrations of life feel as if something has gone terribly wrong. “Good” isn’t enough, especially when we push for perfection in both our lives and our mental health. And that can lead to the breakdown of a healthy family.
Say your toddler is at a park. They’re running around and suddenly trip over a stone. Parents who immediately swoop in to calm their children, before they even really realise what happened, are actually doing more harm than good. In fact, in later life, this protection leads them to feel less secure and more unsure. Of course, if your child is obviously injured, you should help them immediately. But not every trip and fall is going to be a disaster. Children need to learn that there are unavoidable moments in life when things don’t go the way we want. By allowing the child in this example to take a second or two and deal with the fact that they’ve fallen over, we teach them to be resilient.
The child experiences the momentary confusion of falling. They have the time to link cause and effect – I was running, I fell over something, and now I am on the ground. They deal with the frustration of having fallen over and may even try to get up and dust themselves off. This creates the important framework for dealing with discomfort in life. Their parent can then come over, check they’re alright and if everything is well – aside from frustration and wounded pride – encourage them to go play.
A Healthy Family Begins with Trust
There is a reason that we put trust and respect at the top of our list for the basis of a healthy family. By allowing children to orient themselves, we give them the power of trust. We give them the trust that while something might be scary, it won’t last forever. We give them the trust that if something happens we, as their parents, know they can get through it. Should something traumatic happen in a family – the loss of a loved one, a divorce, etc – by being honest with our children, rather than sugar coating things, we show we trust them to handle problems.
Trust does not mean we stop protecting and guiding our children. Rather, it stops us from protecting children when they don’t need our protection. We give them the important life tools to overcome obstacles on their own. Children who are shielded from all of life’s anxieties end up feeling less secure when they are older. They become worried, panicking adults who require help whenever something goes wrong, big or small.
By trusting our children we show that we know they can handle sadness, pain, and anxiety, and that we are there to help them through it without taking the responsibility completely from their hands or attempting to stop the discomfort entirely. Parents are there to help and guide. But we are not shields. In order to become strong, functioning adults we need to experience some level of discomfort, anxiety, and disappointment to grow. Think of the mind like your body’s immune system. Your immune system develops and becomes stronger by having some exposure to pathogens. So, too, does our mental health. In cases where your child is experiencing clear issues with anxiety, depression, bullying and other serious concerns, of course it is appropriate to step in and help. This is where family therapy can help develop strategies to support those suffering from mental illness.
But children do need to learn to handle normal frustrations and discomfort in life. They will survive not having a role in the school play. They can learn to tolerate a child they might not like on the bus, in their class, or on their sports team. Yes, of course dealing with disappointment and losing isn’t fun. But the importance of experiencing these things is to learn to use them to grow.
By learning to adapt to less than perfect situations as a child, we can handle them as adults. As a result, we can work through the frustration of not getting a raise when a more qualified co-worker gets one. We learn to tolerate that annoying person in the office. And when we succeed, we feel genuinely good about it because we can see the hard work behind it. We earned it, it wasn’t simply handed to us.
So we need to experience some natural stresses to learn resilience. Children cannot rely on their parents to help them in every moment of their lives, especially in adulthood. By trying to shield our children from all discomfort, like the frustration of losing a contest, we actually metabolise anxiety in our children, which they then don’t have the tools to deal with as adults. There is a difference between being loved and being constantly monitored.
Family Needs Before Personal Needs for a Healthy Family
Now of course we’re not saying members of the family need to sacrifice vital needs to support the family. We are saying that personal needs – like wanting to play video games all afternoon rather than helping wash the dishes – need to be properly managed. This teaches every member of the family responsibility.
But further on this, adults need to put the needs of the family ahead of their personal needs. Children shouldn’t be relied on to fill emotional holes in our lives. Instead, we need to put that personal need behind us in favour of the need to prepare our children – and ourselves – for them to leave home and lead their own lives. Often we find that parents unknowingly put so much emphasis on their children’s emotions because of their own issues.
In the modern world we have less community. We are far more isolated than other generations. There are higher divorce rates and families are having fewer children than in the past. With this isolation, we often pursue a relationship with our children where we need to be their best friends, rather than being comfortable with appreciation. This same isolation can lead us to be too involved in every tiny aspect of their lives. We demand more and more from our children in the terms of companionship, achievement, and happiness. As a result, we either push them far too hard to excel because we derive happiness from their success, or we protect them from discomfort and sadness because we equate their happiness and comfort with our own.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
The line has blurred between selflessness (making our children happy) and selfishness (making ourselves happy). It has become unclear where parental happiness ends and our children’s happiness begins.
Family therapy can help bring balance to a family, defining healthy boundaries, rules and support systems. As adults we can learn how to support our children to become resilient adults, and children can learn that disappointment is not the end of the world. Only then we can foster the environment for a healthy family.
If you would like to find out more about family therapy with Creative Healing, please contact us today.