Dan wants to run away. No one in his family seems to understand what he wants from life — his parents keep telling him that he must go to college after high school, but Dan wants to pursue graphic design on his own and doesn’t believe the programs he’s been asked to look at will really add any value to his self-taught skillset, which is actually quite impressive. Each time the topic of college is brought up, Dan just shuts down. To make matters worse, the more Dan has withdrawn from the family, the less he is willing to fulfill of the basic chores and responsibilities he has around the house, and his grades at school have been slipping. His parents tell him he wants the decision-making power of an adult, but still acts like a child emotionally and behaviorally. It’s a mess.
Monica and Sarah have been married for four years and just had their first child last year. Monica decided to stay at home with the baby, but Sarah doesn’t seem to understand how difficult it is to be a stay-at-home parent – every time she needs a favor or an errand run and Monica says she doesn’t have time, Sarah asks something like, “Well, what do you do all day?!” Unsurprisingly, it leaves Monica feeling angry and misunderstood, on top of the sometimes isolation and loneliness of little or no adult contact all day long. Sarah keeps suggesting that they hire a nanny, but Monica is adamantly against the idea. Arguments have become more frequent in the house, and last night Sarah slept on the couch. Monica wants them to go talk to someone instead of yelling at each other.
Tracy is confused about what to do with her parents. Since she was young, each has regularly confided in her regarding personal feelings about the other. Her mother has been saying for ages that she wants a divorce. Even though that kind of sentiment seems to be more about venting than about any real intent, it has always disrupted Tracy to think of her parents splitting. On the other hand, Tracy’s father always talks about how her mother is being overly dramatic, which she can plainly see ends up invalidating her mother. Even though Tracy loves both of them, she is tired of being stuck in the middle, feeling like a third spouse. But she doesn’t see any way out, and has begun simply ignoring their calls and texts. If her parents won’t get help, Tracy is thinking it is probably time for her to get some of her own.
Understanding the Family Dance
The way that families handle problems, show emotions (or not), argue, make-up, relate, and almost everything else is referred to as “the family dance.” Your family dance is the unique way your family chooses to engage in just about anything that could be filed under family life. It is compose of both explicit and implicit (unspoken) rules, and is typically rooted in the experiences parents have had in their own upbringings, along with socioeconomic (i.e., social class), ethnic, and other cultural realities. In other words, the family dance is ultimately driven by a host of different factors, many of which family members themselves may only be partially aware of.
Because of this, one important notion to remember is that the family dance seeks to maintain itself, even if it is dysfunctional – it contains a quality of relational inertia. Inertia is a concept you would likely have heard about in a high school or college science course. A good way to understand inertia is this found in this phrase: objects in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. So, when we say that your family dance has inertia, it is like saying, “Your family will continue to act as it acts, even if that action isn’t terribly productive, unless something acts on it or within it to make a chance.”
Family Problems and St. Louis Counseling
The difficulty with the family dance’s resistance to change is that, at one time or another, all families have problems. It is natural for families to experience conflict during life transition, for example — having a first child, moving to a new city, losing a job, or children leaving for college. Feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, irritable, angry, isolated, and/or depressed are normal reactions to intense events, if by “normal” we mean that many people experience them.
That said, families react to conflict in differing ways. In an effort to keep their family dance the same, some families ignore issues or make light of them, even going as far as to turn things around on the person who has pointed out its problems (referred to as the “scapegoat”). Other families, however, discuss in detail what is going on, and whether anything needs to change in the family. Refusing to acknowledge those reactions (denial) or staying with them too long (ruminating) may lead families and family members to become unhealthy.
The truth is, most families (even necessarily healthy ones) have some combination of these two extremes, usually depending on the issue. For example, a family may be willing to talk and approach change to help a child struggling at school, varying routines, hiring a tutor, or having extended parent-teacher conferences. On the other hand, that same family may be less willing to address a child coming out as LGBTQ+, particularly if that reality cuts across some religious or moral line.
In many cases, engaging in St. Louis therapy is the best way to resolve the overt and covert problems facing the family, whether that is done as an individual, as a couple (parents), or with some or all family members present.
Change can occur when the family is open and honest, but this requires them to become willing to look at family roles, explicit and implicit rules, and power dynamics. Change, Inc. St. Louis counselors assist both families and family members in talking through problems and finding real, practical solutions. Sometimes it is a good idea to have an outsiders’ perspective on the problem!
What are some examples of family problems that may require counseling?
Financial struggles: Money is stressful and can put profound burdens on families. During times of financial hardship, families may become stressed and argumentative over expenses. Or at crucial times like estate planning or will execution, families may begin to be divided over how things play out.
Teen behavior and academic concerns: Adolescence is a hard time for anyone! As a parent, it can be frustrating to experience a child’s changing role in the household. Teens themselves are often role-confused: they want more freedom, but are still considered children in society, and often, act accordingly while begging for more freedom. Sometimes all of this results in academic or behavioral problems.
Abuse and neglect: If anyone in your home is being abused please call the National Abuse Hotline (1-800-799-7233) immediately. Abuse and neglect can happen to anyone within a family unit. Family members may not want to discuss their abuse because they fear the family will not believe them. Secrets may become a natural part of the family environment, and other mental health or behavioral problems can appear.
Blended families and Divorce: When family arrangements change, conflicts increase. Children may blame themselves for a divorce. Custody battles, arguments, and financial strain may combine to create an environment that is not conducive to moving on, growth, and/or repair. Furthermore, if new individuals are entering the family unit, pre-existing family members may become increasingly defiant or otherwise act out in protest. The uncertainty of having new individuals in the family mixed with feelings of sadness that the family unit is changing may make things difficult for everyone.
Mental health concerns and substance abuse: Having a family member with a mental health concern can produce feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. The family wants to help the individual who is suffering, but they may not know how. This also applies to family members with a substance abuse problem. The stress of watching a family member suffer can have negative impacts of other family members’ mental health. Consequently, it may be good to discuss the relationship factors that could be contributing to the mental health concern or substance abuse.
Practical Solutions for Right Now
- Take time to understand what you need from your family and what they need from you. Journal about the emotions and thoughts that arise when you are around your family. You may discover that you are often triggered by the way family members talk to one another, that your parents or children have hostility between them and that is difficult for you, that you are working too hard and need more alone time, etc. Whatever it is, allow yourself to write about your needs without judgment or nay-saying. It is entirely possible that you may need to go to therapy alone, and working with a therapist that understands family dynamics may be vital to your own understanding of your role within the family. Once you understand what that is, you regain power as you decide whether you want to continue to play that part.
- If your family is very busy buy a calendar and pick a family day. Maybe one Saturday night you all go out for dinner and bowling. Or maybe just having a family dinner one night a week is more doable. Either way, create a plan and stick to it. If another event gets in the way of the family time, reschedule as soon as possible. If things go badly on your family night, write about it.
- Along the same lines, parents need time alone. Begin to make date night a priority in the household. This may seem selfish at first, but parents need to have a strong bond to help the family function. If the parental relationship is secure, then other relationships within the family will be too. If they aren’t, marriage or couples counseling may be in order!
- If stress has been placed on the family due to a change in your financial situation try not to invalidate your own feelings. It is okay for you to cry, become anxious, feel depressed, etc. Just because parents put on a “brave face,” does not mean that children believe everything is okay. Give yourself time to grieve, and let your children know that this is a normal/natural process. Sit down with the family to discuss how certain things may be changing (e.g., less vacations or parents may be working more), and help yourself and others to think through what it may be like to adjust to change. Let your children express their concerns, and talk about ways to increase family support.
- Adolescents — remember that parents are at times sensitive to asking for outside help, as it can often feel like an indication that they are doing something wrong, or have somehow failed you. Sometimes, those sentiments may in fact be correct. Ask frequently and persistently for help if you need it – “Mom, I know this hurts you, but I really need to see a counselor.”
Please be mindful that these solutions should not be a replacement for family therapy. If your family is struggling with abuse, adolescent behavior problems, anger, bullying, communication breakdowns, etc. St. Louis family counseling at Change, Inc. is the best way to work through these difficult times.
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