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Family Therapy: How Can It Help and How Can I Prepare?!

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

Family Therapy

Why do we recommend participating in family therapy? What should you know before starting?

Hesitation over starting family therapy is COMMON and normal. It is scary, but also very brave, to seek to change a family dynamic that is no longer working and/or causing harm and strife. In many ways, change to a system, even if it is good and needed, creates an imbalance and chaos that we tend to want to avoid in our lives. Additionally, some families may have had “bad” previous experiences in family therapy, not feel that there is a conflict in need of examination, or have become avoidant and fearful of conflict, especially in the face of a recent crisis or negative event.

At Houston Therapy, we believe in Family Systems Theory, which would propose that no one individual is responsible for “problem behavior” within a family OR for change on their own, but that behaviors (good and bad) are shaped by both the individuals in the system itself and the system as a collective unit.

That is to say, EVERYONE has a role in change. Family therapy is NOT a time to look at only one member of the system, as this is often unbalanced and shame-producing. It is a time to consider how ALL members of the system have a responsibility to examine their roles, how those roles have shaped or maintained undesired behaviors, and how they can redefine their roles to shape and maintain health for themselves and the whole family. It is important that all members of the family go into family therapy willing to look at themselves to create balance and fairness in the process.

One of the biggest goals of family therapy is often setting new boundaries. A boundary is a statement given by one or more family members concerning what behaviors are desired and/or allowed. Sometimes these statements include consequences if what is being outlined is not followed.

Boundaries are very different from threats or ultimatums, however. Boundaries are done vulnerably, meaning that we share with one another how a behavior has hurt in the past (if it's being asked to stop), why a new behavior is meaningful to us, and why the relationship itself matters. Boundaries respect the other party involved because we do not DEMAND change, but request it with the understanding that each person in the system has autonomy and the right to affirm or decline any request.

Boundaries can give information to the other party about what they can expect from the relationship if change does not occur. However, this information should not be shared in efforts to strong-arm the other party into change, but rather to allow them to weigh their options and understand their choices fully. While boundaries may seem to create distance in relationships, it is often the opposite. We feel closer in our relationships when we have and understand boundaries, as we feel safer in our interactions by knowing what to expect from others.

Questions you can ask yourself prior to the start of family therapy may include:

• What has been going well in this relationship?

• What am I proud of in this relationship?

• What do I want to build upon/see more of in this relationship that we already do (or have done in the past)? What do I wish we could begin doing to build this relationship?

• How has this person contributed positively to my life?

• What are some of the good qualities of this person? What do I appreciate most about this person?

• What has not been going well in this relationship?

• What cannot continue moving forward?

• How have I been hurt in this relationship (think of the actions of both oneself and others)?

• What do I need to feel safe in this relationship?

• What hopes do I have for this person or this relationship?

• Am I proud of my own actions/reactions in this relationship?

• How do I wish I could behave differently in this relationship?

• What changes do I think the other person may want to see in me?

• How do we share our feelings in this relationship? Do we avoid doing so?

• Am I committed to repairing this relationship?

• Am I committed to having uncomfortable conversations in order to repair this relationship?

Authored By: Kelly Birkhold, LCSW (offering individual, couples, and family therapy at Houston Therapy)

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