Before Dr. Henningsen modeled how to run a family meeting, ours were always confrontational and nightmarish. It took a bit of work, but our family now runs along without so much angst for us all. —Stan, dad of a blended family with four children
What Is Family Therapy?
Just like families, family therapy comes in many forms. In my approach, parent counseling and family communication are integral to the process.
I usually start with the parents to get a picture of what is going on in the family and what they think needs to change. It could be, for example, that family members are screaming at each other all the time—or not talking at all to avoid confrontation.
In that first session I help the parents set preliminary goals. The next therapy session is with the kids—or I may bring the entire family together. After that, it plays out as needed. I may meet with individual family members or combinations. It all depends on what is needed.
As your family therapist, I work with you and your family to establish constructive communication patterns. In our initial family therapy sessions we can begin to identify broken patterns in the way you interact. In later sessions we can start work on fixing or replacing these unproductive habits.
Family problems are multi-faceted and there are multiple ways to treat them. You may feel better after one or two sessions, but it will require your commitment to multiple sessions to do much more than temporarily relieve the symptoms. Therapy is a place where family members can practice effective ways of navigating family conflicts. Practice takes time. The therapist teaches the family members how to talk to each other, how to deal with differences—minus all the commotion and chaos.
The Family Meeting
Once we’ve identified and talked through the core issues, I’ll bring the whole family together and introduce the idea of the family meeting. Each person is asked to speak. We’ll start with a question such as, what do you like about the family? Then we go around the group a second time asking what don’t you like and what might make it better? This first family meeting becomes a template for future meetings that will take place at home.
I give my families the structure and coach them on how to conduct an effective meeting in the therapy session. Following these guidelines won’t eliminate disagreements, of course, but can lead to new insights and improved communication for everyone.
Working From the Same Playbook: Parent Counseling
In my role as family therapist I often focus on the parents. The needs of a child can cause parents to work in opposition to each other. This is not good for parents or for the child.
A parent will usually call me because a child is causing problems in the family. It may well be that the parents have problems of their own in terms of how they handle the “problem” child.
Parents may react to an individual child quite differently. Dad may subscribe to ‘tough love’ while Mom is overly protective. The lack of consistency confuses the child. He/she is getting a mixed message. That compounds the problem.
When the parents aren’t working from the same playbook, it is easy for a child to divide and conquer by playing one parent against the other (triangulation). Sometimes the entire family revolves around one child with special challenges causing the other children to act out.
I give my parents the tools and resources they need to support each other in a strong partnership for the good of their child.
Love Is Not Enough: Therapy For Adoptive and Blended Families
I have heard more than a few parents say “we are at our wits end”. Sometimes adoptive families think that “love conquers all” and do not realize that children adopted as toddlers can have issues with making transitions, with trust, mood regulation, or fitting into their new families.
Blended families, those created from divorce and remarriage, can be extremely challenging to the parents. Each parent may have to tolerate being regarded by some of the children as “the other” or “the intruder.” It can be a long tough road to achieve legitimacy and trust as a co-parent because a child’s routines in one household can be very different from the expectations and structure in the other. It will take time to find a way for the “new kids” and the “other” dad and mom to sort out how they fit together
My families discover that committed family therapy sessions help them navigate an extremely problematic transition. In time they can change an unwilling group composed of broken pieces of unrelated families into a new family with its own integrity
Recommended Reading: Parenting & Family Communication
“Lessons in Domestic Diplomacy,” Bruce Feiler, New Times, April 14, 2013. Also, The Secrets of Happy Families. Feiler, the New York Times Science Editor interviewed creative minds in business, education and the Green Berets to collect team building and problem-solving techniques they used. He found 200 best practices to apply to his and other families.
H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson, Raising Self-reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World. These long-time teachers of positive discipline offer many suggestions for parents.
Larry B. Silver, MD, Dr. Larry Silver’s Advice to Parents on ADHD. Used widely by parents for many years. Also consult the website for CHADD, the advocacy organization for families and teachers working with children diagnosed with ADHD.
Jon Kabat-Zinn and Myra Zinn, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. The authors share very helpful insights about raising their two children. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the founders of mindfulness meditation in this country.