Families are our earliest teachers. Through family we learn about love and safety as well as rules and what happens when we break them. We form habits and patterns, establish norms and beliefs, and begin constructing aspects of our identities we’ll carry with us long after we leave the nest.
Ideally, families offer unconditional love and support — a safe haven from external storms. But in reality, some of life’s most difficult emotional weather transpires within our very homes.
All families engage in unhealthy dynamics at some time. Poor communication. Unresolved conflicts. Constricting roles. Even daily tasks like homework and chores can breed problematic dynamics, as any parent who’s found themselves once again arguing over whose turn it is to do the dishes can attest.
It can be tempting to point fingers at a single issue or family member: “If you would just stop that, everything would be fine!” Yet families are systems, and each part affects the others. And like any system, once family roles and functions are established they tend to remain in place, even if they no longer serve us.
Changing a dysfunctional family system can be difficult, scary — and necessary. Left unchecked, such dynamics can cause deep individual and collective suffering that may be passed on to successive generations. What should be a warm, safe quilt instead feels itchy, constricting, or threadbare.
Family therapy aims to unwind and restitch those threads. By focusing on the whole rather than the individual and identifying root causes rather than surface-level symptoms, family therapists help every member of the family foster new and healthier dynamics.
When to Seek Family Therapy
How do you know when you need a family therapist?
There are a variety of reasons that clients find their way to the office of Anna Bohlinger, PhD, LMFT, a Minnesota-based family therapist. She works primarily with families that include children and adolescents. Some may be experiencing major life changes, like divorce or second marriages. Others may have stressors such as caring for a parent with dementia or a child with a disability.
Grief and loss often precipitates family therapy. Bohlinger says loss shines a spotlight on family norms, beliefs, and challenges, forcing family members to recognize difficult truths and unresolved issues while simultaneously coping with their grief.
And sometimes families come to therapy unexpectedly. Often, a child begins working with an individual therapist due to academic or behavior issues and it becomes apparent that adding family therapy may be beneficial. “If a kid is having issues in one system, like school, it usually reflects issues in other systems, like the family,” Bohlinger explains. “Which means we need to treat the system, not just the individual.”
This may involve having one or both parents attend a few sessions to better understand the context of their child’s challenges and learn new skills for handling difficult situations. Other times, it’s necessary to address broader issues within the family system — and how parents are contributing to them.
[Grief and] loss shines a spotlight on family norms, beliefs, and challenges, forcing family members to recognize difficult truths and unresolved issues while simultaneously coping with their grief.
Parents and children often engage in circular interactions that prolong and exacerbate problems. For example, when a child “acts out” — think temper tantrums or rule-breaking — parents often respond by doubling down on their authority (anyone who’s heard — or said — the words “Because I’m the parent, that’s why!” might relate). This can lead to a reciprocal power struggle: The harder one side pushes, the harder the other pushes back.
Conversely, parents who repeatedly acquiesce to children’s fears or demands — for example, allowing a socially anxious child to skip school or peer gatherings — may inadvertently teach their child that he or she can’t handle problems on their own. The more inadequate the child feels, the more they rely on their parents to fix things.
Adolescence, in particular, tends to be a minefield for circular conflict. The teenage quest for autonomy and identity inevitably disrupts family roles and norms. Terms of authority must be renegotiated, expectations and roles revised. Rarely is this process a smooth one, which is why so many parents of teenagers find themselves struggling to apply old parenting approaches to this different and difficult life stage.
Of course, problems don’t magically resolve after adolescence. Often families in which all members are grown and out of the home experience conflict — which can be all the more bitter if it’s been festering. Marriage, childbirth, and other rites of adulthood can cause unresolved issues in one’s family of origin to surface, reminding us that time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. In these cases, family therapy may involve confronting longstanding hurts and resentments.
What to Expect
Unlike individual therapy, which can last for months or even years, family therapy tends to be a relatively short-term commitment. But that doesn’t mean it’s a quick fix. On the contrary, family therapy is hard work. It involves confronting problems head on and expressing rather than repressing hurt feelings. Moreover, it requires every member to participate.
Bohlinger finds that clients often come to therapy feeling ambivalent, if not resistant, to the notion that they need to be part of the change process. And this is why she cautions against assuming one member of the family bears responsibility for every issue.
“Problems are never about any one person, but what’s going on between and around people,” she explains.
Each member of the family must be prepared to take responsibility for the ways in which their attitudes and behaviors are contributing to the problem. Often that means watching how those dynamics surface in the therapy session.
Bohlinger encourages each individual to notice what’s happening inside them before responding to another family member’s words or actions. Reactions such as shame or defensiveness reflect deep and often subconscious beliefs, expectations, and fears — some of which may have originated even generations earlier.
“Family therapy helps expand what’s imaginable, so families can learn to be together in ways that feel safe and loving and in line with their values.”
“It’s important for parents to consider how they themselves were parented,” says Bohlinger. She frequently asks parents to reflect on patterns and dynamics within their family of origin, and she creates a three-generation genogram (like a family tree, but with more context) for each parent in the very first session.
This also helps family members consider intergenerational patterns they may be passing on unknowingly. These can include behavioral patterns, such as addiction or abuse; emotional patterns, such as repressing difficult feelings; and communication patterns, such as turning disagreements into screaming matches.
Therapy may also involve identifying roles within the family. For example, one parent may default to the demanding authoritarian role while the other parent tends to emotional needs. One child might assume the “good kid” mantle; another the rebel. Understanding how these roles perpetuate unhealthy dynamics and inhibit individual growth and self-expression can be crucial to changing the system as a whole.
Families often need to learn new ways of relating, behaving and communicating. This can include learning how to establish and maintain healthy boundaries, cultivate empathy and emotional attunement, and improve conflict resolution.
Unwinding years, if not generations, of unhealthy beliefs or behaviors can seem daunting. But Bohlinger believes all families have the capacity to change for the better.
“Families often default to the best we know or the best we can imagine,” she says, “and even that may still be limited. Family therapy helps expand what’s imaginable, so families can learn to be together in ways that feel safe and loving and in line with their values.”