What’s Family Therapy Really Like?

What’s Family Therapy Really Like?

Are you struggling with control battles in your family and you're wondering how therapy can help you?  In today's podcast, I explain what happens in a family therapy and how it can help improve negative patterns.

Today we’re answering a question from Hanna from Littleton, Colorado.

I listened to your podcast about dealing with kids who are in a self-destructive cycle. I liked your advice but it’s more challenging in our family.  My husband acts frustrated, angry and wounded every time the kids don’t follow through on their responsibilities.  I keep trying to get him to see that they are good kids. I tell him not to make such a big deal about everything, so there is chronic tension in our family with me supporting the kids even though they do screw up and my husband being frustrated with me and them.  Our daughter is 16 and our son is 14 and I’d like to see them try harder in school and be more cooperative, but I’m not willing to come down on them like their father does.  I understand that we are all playing a role here, so here’s my question.  We live in another part of the country, so coming to see you isn’t likely, but if a family like ours came to see you, what would you advise each of us?

What a terrific question, Hanna, and you’re right, everyone is playing a role in the negative pattern, or control battle.  Everyone has the opportunity to starve the control battle beast. 

Understanding What Happens in a Family Therapy

Now psychotherapy, including family therapy, involves using a model to help folks with. Then there is the art of how we listen, empathize, support, and challenge with the idea of helping people shift from a negative pattern into a positive one.  Since I don’t have any real people in front of me, here's a rough sketch of what family therapy might look like.  I’d start by:

1. Understanding everyone’s pain points and the rationale for their current behavior.

2.  Introducing the beast and showing everyone how their attitude and behavior feeds it.

3.  Offering everyone a new rationale and a healthy option. Challenge them to take the healthy option and make them understand that when they don’t, they’re feeding the beast.

Hanna, on the basis of the limited information you’ve given me, let me give you some ideas from my experiences with similar situations over the years.  Please, keep in mind these are examples and DO NOT directly apply to your family.  Of course I’d have the family members engaging with each other for a good portion of the session, it wouldn’t be me doing all the talking.  I’d help them converse with each other in new and healthier ways.

Conversing with the Parents

Today I’ll give you a window into the kinds of conversations I’d have with families.

Here is a rough sketch of your family pattern, how it feeds the beast, and how you end up in an unproductive control battle.  It goes something like this: 

  • Your husband supports the beast by personalizing the kids’ behaviors and your behavior. He tends to bring a negative tone to your interactions. 
  • You feed the beast by judging your husband rather than supporting him. Because of this, you are getting in between him and the kids. 
  • The kids feed the beast by avoiding their responsibilities and complaining about dad rather than respecting his standards and doing their best. 

Hanna, it’s great that you care about your kids’ feelings and that you want you and your husband to parent positively.  Right now your support of the kids may be interpreted by them and by your husband as support for their negative behavior and undermining of his standards and expectations.  You need to trust and support your husband. Help him be more positive in his tone, yet thank him for taking an active parenting role and wanting the kids to do their best. 

Using your positive tone, how can you support the kids in cooperating and doing their best?  You have a  tendency to judge your husband rather than support him.  Let’s look at what might be driving this.  Some adults who took on adult functions as children, like looking after younger siblings because parents were not functional for one reason or another, can often have a tendency to try to control situations and may be judgmental of others.  Are there any circumstances in your childhood that may have programmed you for judgment and control?

The bottom line is when you admonish your husband rather than find a way to support him, you are feeding the control battle beast. If you can’t find a positive way to engage, simply don’t engage. Click To Tweet The kids and their dad will work it out.  If you do engage, bring the positive energy you want to see in your husband. 

Here’s what I might say to your husband whom I’ll call Mike.

Mike, I’m glad to see that you expect your kids to manage their responsibilities and do their best work for school.  You’ve got really smart and capable kids so you should expect a lot from them.  My concern is that you’ve somehow become the “bad guy” in this family and that’s undermining your effectiveness as a parent. I’m sure it isn’t making you very happy either.  Yes, I can see how Hanna could support you more and yes, I see how the kids could do a lot better, but let’s look at how you’re participating in feeding the beast and how you’re undermining your own effectiveness. 

You’ve got the right idea. When someone objects, rather than listen to their feelings and work with them, you get your feelings hurt, get upset with them, and it turns into a fight rather than a discussion.  Once that happens, we’ve forgotten the goal of supporting the kids in doing their best and you’ve refocused everyone on your emotions of hurt and anger. 

And that includes your kids crying “dad’s mean” and Hanna focusing on their hurt feelings and not on your goal of the kids being more cooperative and responsible.  Make sense?  Now, there’s a reason you are going to have hurt feelings and anger.  I’m guessing it has something to do with you getting your feelings hurt a lot in childhood, not being listened to and not being respected.  So when your kids don’t cooperate, it plugs right into those childhood feelings and you get activated there.  This is how we get a fat happy beast.  We need to find a way for you to have more confidence in yourself, your kids and in Hanna.  There is nothing wrong with your expectations, just with your expectation that there will never be resistance. Let’s find better and healthier ways to deal with adolescent resistance and turn their resistance into learning and growing opportunities. 

When you react to your teenagers’ and wife’s behavior with hurt and anger, you are giving away your power. The way you empower yourself is to stay true to your values and goals. Stay positive, persistent and clear. Click To TweetWhen you go negative, you make the beast fat and happy. 

Conversing with the Kids

Now how will I talk to the kids?  It could go something like this. 

Kids, I see how smart, talented and well-spoken you are.  You are really impressive young people.  My concern is that you are putting your energy into fighting, arguing, justifying, and avoiding rather than simply doing your best.  You are performing under your potential. You could have a lot more privileges such as the opportunity to do more things independently with friends, having a driver’s license, and more control over your use of time when you work and during recreation. Instead, you’re embroiled in family fighting and your privileges are limited. I see how the family dynamic is hurting you.  I see how your compromised relationship with your dad is hurting you both. It’s leading to frustration, hurt feelings, and self-righteousness. It’s hurting your self-esteem. 

How would it feel if you were on top of your work?  I know it feels to both of you as if your father has all the power here and you don’t.  I’m guessing that you are thinking it’s a good thing that mom understands you.  But it isn’t.  Why do I think that? It’s keeping you from working things out with your dad and getting on a better path forward. What your dad is expecting from you is reasonable; that you manage your responsibilities up to the best of your ability and cooperate when he or your mom needs something from you.  What he does that is unreasonable, is when he gets upset and gets negative when you aren’t doing those things. Rather than getting mad right away, he should communicate positively and make sure you understand that your privileges are based on your effort. 

I hear you, no kid snaps to it the minute their parent speaks.  That’s true.  But when your dad gets upset, it’s usually not the first time he’s asked for something. It's actually part of a pattern of poor responses to his requests.  If you want to change your father’s attitude towards you, change your attitude towards him.  When he asks for something, respond respectfully and make it your intention to cooperate. He’ll get it and he’ll work with you being flexible and positive when he knows you are trying your best. 

When you put your energy into resisting your dad, you are feeding the negativity that lives in your family.  That’s why I call it the beast. It’s an invisible force that is just as real as if it was sitting in the middle of the room and stealing the love and good feelings you can all have and share together. 

The beast is keeping you from being a truly happy family. Let’s starve the beast and bring happiness back to your family. You’re worth it.Click To Tweet

Working Together as a Family

Each of you has the power to feed or starve the beast.  I know all of you are feeling that your behavior is based on the other family members’ behavior. But here’s the truth, each of you is far more powerful than you think. I challenge each of you to take a big piece of my advise with you when you leave today. Give it a try for a week. Wake up every day with your new attitude and new behavior. When we meet next week, let me know how the beast is doing. Is it fat and happy, or is the family winning while the beast fades away?

We’re all family members and many of us are family helpers.  Let’s share the good news. Our empowered selves starve the beast. When we bring our best selves particularly when the mood is grim, that could be the dose of oxygen that everyone needs and it might just be enough to empower the family.

Thanks for tuning in today and special thanks to Hanna for her question.  I’d like to remind everyone that my book Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle is available in print, kindle, and audio, so there is a modality there for you. And if you’d like to use my book as a guide for a parenting education or support group, shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to visit your group via a remote meeting platform to meet folks and answer questions.

But for now please remember, take care of yourselves, you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.


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