How To Know When You Or Your Family Need Counseling Services
By: Sarah Fader
Updated November 12, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Angel Faith
All families have conflict. It is a part of being a family. However, when the conflicts become too big to resolve and manifests into dysfunction within the family unit you may be dealing with something more serious than some common family discord.
Family as a System
The family is a system, that is formed of individual members who make up that family. Family counseling works to bring that system back to functioning order, realizing attachment within the family unit is what keeps it together, even when there is dysfunction (Crittenden & Dallos, 2009). There are many times that families will continue to repeat unhelpful patterns despite the discomfort. The instinct to survive is innate, and therefore to give up and give in is often not something a family wishes to do. Yet the conflict is there, and if not effectively resolved will generate into other conflicts. Think of sinus pain. There are some remedies that can alleviate the pain but do not resolve the source of the pain. The pain, if due to an infection can affect the ears, throat, and other parts of the respiratory system. While each of these has separate functions, they are still connected, and when one is not working effectively, the problem becomes systemic.
Origins and Sources of Conflict
Conflicts, like sinus issues, flare up when left unresolved. If a young couple married and did not establish guidelines and even rules for handling finances, they may have conflict over how to pay certain bills, what to spend money on, or how much to save. They may argue over this issue, that may not have become a source of ongoing conflict had they established goals and a plan to meet those goals.
When this couple has children, and move beyond couple-hood to family-hood, this conflict may evolve into larger problems. Now there are more financial responsibilities with children who have immediate needs which must be met.
Generally speaking, when no plan has been established to meet clear goals, problems have a tendency to erupt.
There is nothing to do about the retrospective lack of having established an expectation early on. However, often when people do not know how to fix a problem based upon a past mistake or oversight, they fall into the trap of blaming. When children see their parents in this cycle of negative interactions and blame, they learn from it. The focus is then taken off the immediate concern, of say, paying for soccer camp, and the argument turns to a war about the past.
Family counseling can help address why blaming has become the choice narrative for a family (Vetere&Dallos, 2008), how these narratives develop, and how to change them. Blaming someone for past mistakes or oversights does not repair the present, nor does it prepare for the future. The key is to recognize how the past mistake or oversight has affected the present, and then establish a goal with clear objectives to meet that goal from a specific point forward. Everyone in the family must be involved with goal setting (Almagor& Ben-Porath, 2013).
This sounds quite simplistic, so much so that one is left to wonder why someone did not think of it before, or why then, if it is so easy, there are still so many families in conflict, or even broken because of conflict that has evolved into dysfunction. The answer to that is even more simple. When a couple or a family adopts the blame game as their means of dealing with conflict, they stop listening to one another (Patterson, 2014). This is when the help of a qualified professional is warranted to help the family to get past the past, live in the present, and plan for the future.
The Reason for Counseling
A family counselor can help a family to recognize the source of conflict, address it, and create a plan for moving forward. This is can be accomplished by using several research based methods such as the family dialectic method (Almagor& Ben-Porath, 2013). This method researched and utilized by Almagor and Ben-Porath is one that recognizes the need for each individual family member to have time to process what has transpired, and develop personalized interpretations of what has occurred. This method looks at the family as a whole, while recognizing each member as an individual. I the family dialectic method, it is accepted that in order for the family to resume functioning as a whole, each individual’s perspective must be respected as valid.
When a parent (or even a child) makes the decision that it is time to seek therapy for the family, there may be resistance from other family members. The key here is to speak in terms of the family as a whole, and not focus on where the infection started. The thing is, the entire body (family system) is now affected, and in order for healing to take place the whole body is going to have to be involved.
It is important to recognize that how individuals think and behave in relation to their role in the family unit must change in order for there to be progress for the family as a whole (Patterson, 2014). The family member who has come to the realization that outside intervention is necessary must be leery of falling back into the trap of blaming others for the problem. Falling into that trap is likely to build even more resistance. At this point, it does not matter how a problem started or even who started it. What matters is resolving the problem and moving forward.
The best way to broach the issue of family therapy is not in the middle of a family argument or crisis. Wait until things have settled down and then approach the subject, with caution. Begin with some positive words of affirmation; you might want to try something along the lines of:
I really love you, and I really love our family. When we are happy like we are right now, it makes me sometimes wonder how we could have had such a big argument over ___________. I value you, and our family, and because of that, I realize that when we are not getting along, or effectively communicating, it is painful for us all. It is because of how much I love and value our family, that I think we should consider finding a counselor that can assist us with communication so that we can become even better at being a family, and have more times like today.
- What does a family counselor do?
A family counselor works with families to solve problems to help the family establish effective communication and healthy home life. A family counselor will offer counseling to children and families, as well as individual couples.
Recognizing and Subverting Triggers
It is important to recognize preventive measures for managing conflict before crises erupt; children who are in the midst of constant familial conflict may not feel secure and often experience fear (Cummings & Schatz, 2012). Sometimes communication is so broken that the first three words of the above sample can cause an eruption. If that is the case, it may be appropriate to consider sending an email or letter with the information in the sample above. The reason emails and letters are suggested rather than text is because instant messaging may activate the impulse to quickly respond instead of taking time to process the information
If your family is in crisis, and one or more family members is acting out, or has become violent, broaching the topic of family counseling will not be effective and may create dangerous situations instead. Sometimes things may seem to never be calm enough to introduce the idea of therapy. Unfortunately, by the time one or more family members has realized the family is in crisis, there may be landmines that must be navigated. Safety is always the most important thing to consider. If you think that a member of your family may lash out or become violent, err on the side of caution for the purpose of protecting yourself and other members of the family. You may want to seek support from a domestic violence hotline or individual therapist so that you can create a plan to approach the topic in a safe and protected way.
Moving Toward Counseling
Once the decision has been made to seek family counseling, be aware there are pitfalls that families often are unaware of and may fall into.
- Family counseling may open old wounds, wounds that have never healed because they have been left unresolved. An effective counselor will warn of this and make the family aware that this can cause more arguments in the beginning (which is a temporary burden that may occur before progress is achieved). Having an awareness of this potential can help in many ways to inoculate the situation.
- Family counseling only works when all family members are involved and invested. However, if one family member refuses to attend, then the other family members should still participate in order to learn new skills for managing the resistant family member.
- There could be a honeymoon phase where the family begins using communication techniques and strategies learned in counseling and things get better. Sometimes one or more members may erroneously decide the problems are resolved and counseling is no longer needed. Think of this period as remission. Remission does not mean healed. Therapy is also very important in the maintenance phase. You want to ensure that the improvements last!
- Bad habits are hard to break and it takes practice and mindfulness to do so.
- Triggers may continue to exist for some family members.
- Work with the therapist to set a plan and commit to working that plan between sessions as well as in the therapy office.
- Realize that with family counseling there is a process, and there is no quick fix. If there were, everyone would do it and no one would need therapy.
- Sometimes the counselor may wish to see one or more family members separately. This may cause friction but it can also be helpful for the process. Try to remember that you are working towards the health and happiness of the family as a whole.
- Do not skip appointments. You may lose momentum and then motivation. Consistency is key. If you take the appointments seriously you are setting a positive example for other family members.
- Allow each family member to process the sessions in his or her own way. Try to be supportive of one another and acknowledge that the process is likely not easy for anyone.
The most important thing for all family members to realize is that being in counseling, means that the family as an intact whole is highly valued. This is a positive thing and must become the overriding factor in all discussions about counseling or the conflict that necessitated counseling.
Another important thing to realize is that conflict is normal. It is a natural part of life. The problem is not the conflict necessarily, but instead the malfunctioning manner in which they are being resolved (or not resolved at all). Family arguments are often more painful than the trigger that set it off. Family arguments often last longer than the event that triggered the argument. Family arguments are sometimes a complete waste of time and energy. Instead of arguing, communicating in a logical and compassionate manner will certainly be more effective.
It is difficult to unlearn negative communication skills. It is difficult to retrain how we hear; yes, how we hear. If a person thinks everything a spouse or other family member says is negative, then that family member needs to retrain how he or she hears.
Ask the following questions:
What words were actually said?
What did I hear? (In other words, what underlying meaning did I attribute to what was said?)
Why did I hear that instead of what was actually said?
Family counseling should not be viewed negatively, it is a positive thing. It is important to retrain thinking when it comes to seeking outside help. Do not ever lose sight of the fact that the family is in counseling because each family member is valued as an individual and the family is valued as a whole.
There are sometimes excuses that family members may make in order to avoid counseling, some of these may be valid, especially when it comes to time management. It is important to realize that there are many options available to individuals and families in need of counseling. Some counselors keep evening and weekend hours. Some even make home visits, while others can work with clients online. One of the advantages of online therapy is that each family member can be “seen” at differing times, and then there can be times the family is brought together as a whole. In addition to that, with some of the better online counseling services, the counselor is always available through email or messaging. The ability to communicate 24/7 with a qualified counselor can often circumvent many problems that arise in families. With most online programs the counselor will respond within 24 hours. Most regularly check in with members receiving counseling, and this is not something that occurs in most in office counselor-family relationships.
Some online programs charge a per session fee, and some charge a flat rate for unlimited email communications, and make live chat and video sessions available as well. For busy families, especially families with teens, this can be an economical as well as time efficient way of receiving the guidance needed to resolve conflicts and build better communication and coping skills.
Important Note: If you or a family member is in immediate crisis, and/or yourself or someone in the family is in danger of harming themselves or others, seek immediate help by calling 911. After calling 911 and getting immediate help, inform your family counselor of the situation, so he or she can provide support and guidance to others in the family.
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