Dr. Kimberly Riley
When you think about what it means to be a family, what comes to mind? Many people define family differently based on their experience in life. Some may say that their family consists of people biologically related to them, while others may say biology is not part of their definition at all.
Depending on the relationship a person had with the people who were identified as their family while growing up, they may believe a family sticks together no matter what or, alternatively, that a family is never there when you need them. Family can be hurtful or it can be the source of joy, but either way, the experience shapes the way people view what a family is and how they interact with others in the world.
How would you define what family is, and why? It can be a difficult question to answer. Thinking about your family and where you come from may invoke a range of emotions that can be hard to handle, so enter into the thoughts carefully and take your time.
As you think about your family and the people you love there may be some pain associated with them. What if you could get to the source of the pain with your family? What if you had the opportunity to gain understanding and insight that would set your family free from the hurt?
How about going on a journey of forgiveness with your family as a way to achieve peace? Can you imagine the outcome? This article is designed to give you hope in the area of your family and an idea of what counseling could do to bring your loved ones together again, forever.
How do I get my relatives to come with me to family counseling?
Have you ever thought about all of the possible outcomes of doing family counseling with the people in your life who you care the most about? How about doing family counseling with the people who you care the least about?
Either way, the outcome can be the same: emotional freedom in your family, closeness regained, reconciliation, forgiveness, love rekindled, and many other unimaginable benefits. The fear of what may come up in the session can keep family members from taking the dive into family counseling, but understanding the benefits may be helpful in deciding that the risk is worth it.
When families have current hurt or past hurt they usually struggle with communication, whether poor communication is the reason for the hurt or it is the symptom of the hurt, it shows up often and can be a big part of the family’s ongoing problem. Poor communication may even delay coming into counseling together because the family is unable to have a conversation about why counseling is necessary.
You may be the only person in your family who sees a need and are at the point of giving up, so thinking carefully about what you already know about your family can be helpful when talking to them about counseling.
If you see that your family is suffering you can point it out, remembering that you are part of the family, so talk about the whole family and the suffering instead of individual family members and the way that you may believe they are causing the family to suffer. This is one way that you can join with your family before getting into the counseling room.
It is important, of course, to have people take ownership of their behavior, but when we think about the needs of a family, we have to recognize how everyone’s behavior changes the family dynamics. So, yes, it may be true that one person in the family has out-of-control behavior, but in a family system, we still have the reactions of the people who do not have out of control behavior and the results of those reactions within the family to think about.
When a person feels like they are being singled out and identified as the whole problem instead of being seen as only a part of the problem they are less likely to join in with the rest of their family. Everyone has to understand how they are part of the family problem, so talking to your family member and owning your behavior, whether positive or negative, is the best way to encourage them to come with you to family counseling.
Sometimes one family member may need to come in and do individual sessions to gain insight about themselves and their needs because it is hard to tell people in your family what your source of contention is without really understanding it yourself.
When an individual decides to come in before their family member, the goal for those first sessions is to help the person work through what they believe to be going on with themselves in the context of their family, and the other family members will need to know that so that they feel safe enough to come to family sessions with the individual later on.
The biggest part of this process is helping the individual to understand enough about who they are so that they can effectively communicate with other family members about beginning family counseling together.
If the family is comfortable enough with the individual family member continuing sessions without them on occasion, a skilled counselor can help the family make this set up work, but initially the peace the family may have from knowing that all family members will be listened to, respected, and cared for will be enough to get the family into sessions together.
Who should I ask to come to family counseling?
As you continue to think about how you define family, you may be thinking about who you would identify as your family or loved ones and why you would like to bring them into the session with you. Anyone you decide is important to you and you want to reconnect with should be who you bring with you to family counseling.
You may want to bring your parents and your children or an aunt and your spouse. No matter who you come in with, the goals are still the same, and that is to get back together with the ones you love. Sometimes your loved one is not directly related to you, but you love them and your relationship may be struggling, so bringing them in could be the solution to working things out.
Remember that you can invite as many people into counseling as you would like and think would be beneficial to bring your loved ones back together. At first, the counseling sessions may be the only safe place for everyone to get together and meet. The people that you invite might have some fear about coming into counseling, being with people they are in conflict with, or simply are not ready to work through the issue.
It is important that you remember that often the initial “no” is not so much about you, but more about the person needing time to process what could possibly take place, so remain hopeful that in time your family and other loved ones will be ready to go on the journey with you at some point and the answer will be “yes”.
We are all here. Now what?
Once your family decides to come in to start counseling there are a few basic things that will happen. Every counselor is different, but most family counselors are interested in hearing about an individual’s stories within the family as well as hearing family related stories too.
You may be asked to share what your interests are and who you would say your support person is in and outside of your immediate family. The question asked above about how you define family will likely be asked during your first session as well. It is helpful to know how people view family because everyone’s views within the family may be different.
Understanding the difference may be the first part of bringing your loved ones back together since the disconnect may be centered around expectations of one family members that the other family members may not be aware of.
Sometimes in the first few family sessions, the family spends lots of time learning to communicate their feelings to one another effectively. At home when families begin to share there may be so much confusion and frustration that people stop feeling safe and shut down.
In counseling, the counselor can start to create a space that allows all the members to feel safe enough to share and when a family member feels overwhelmed with emotions they can help them work through that response and guide them so that they can do the same when at home.
When family members come into the session together with lots of ideas about who the problem family member is, blaming becomes part of the picture followed by shame and guilt. Maybe there is a person who has bigger behaviors or greater needs in the family than someone else or is abusive with their words or actions to those around them.
They should take responsibility for their actions, as should the other people in the family. Being responsible for our actions can look very different depending on what the actions are. The first step in family counseling would be to help each person in the family recognize how their actions affect those around them and then also identify how the actions of others around them play a role in their life.
It is important to know that when trying to bring loved ones back together, someone may be taking responsibility for someone else’s actions and carrying that heavy burden unnecessarily. Since everyone has to take ownership for their particular role in the family, some of the initial work as a family may include identifying situations where other people may feel uncomfortable or have difficulty with the details, but it is all part of-of the process that will be helpful in achieving awareness around events that have pushed the family apart and is keeping them from coming together again.
Once you and your loved ones move past the initial phase of taking ownership of your actions and being responsible for your responses, healing in your family can begin. Emotional healing may look like everyone in the family understanding their emotions and emotional reactions to each other or learning how to work through forgiveness within the family system.
As you start to connect certain situations to your emotions you can share those feelings with others so they also understanding what is happening. Family members may see the change in behavior, but not know how to be helpful, so as individuals gain insight into their emotions they can learn new coping skills and their family and friends can learn how to support them as well.
With some emotional awareness in the family, people can learn to have clear communication with one another. Successful communication will take some work and might require a few different techniques listed below.
- Role-playing with your family members in and out of session. Practicing saying something to one person before you say it to another person can reduce some of the stress and anxiety around the conversation.
- Using other methods to get feelings out may look like sending text messages, writing letters, or drawing. Children may want to use toys to share their feelings with their family members when they do not have the words to express themselves fully yet. Expression through art and play is not limited to children. There could be older family members who are challenged when it comes to finding the words they want to share, so they can be encouraged to share through drawing or playing.
- Trying out new communication skills in session – for example, allowing one family member to talk while the other family members listen without interrupting. After the family member finishes, each family member will repeat what they heard to promote clarity and understanding and reduce the risk of confusion. If the family member was unsure of what was said, they can then ask the family member who spoke to repeat themselves. It is through this type of exercise that people learn to slow down, listen, and get clarification so that communication is clear and effective.
- Conversation starters are also another way of opening communication with family members who may no longer feel comfortable talking about some of the heavier topics at first. Conversation starters are questions that are designed to help people get back into the rhythm of talking to one another about topics that may interest them and teach each other things they may not already know about the other person.
People will communicate effectively when they have a basic understanding of what they are experiencing, feel comfortable enough to share the information, and trust that they will be heard without being judged or further hurt. The person listening is able to effectively hear what is being said when they are clear about their own experience also.
Knowing how they feel will create the space for them to respond in a way that is clear and effective as well. Loved ones communicating effectively can bring quite a bit of hope to a situation that feels hopeless.
My family might be ready!
If you think that you and your loved ones could benefit from family counseling, please reach out and try talking with them about starting the journey together. There are counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling who are equipped and ready to support you and your loved ones so that you all can have joy and peace in your family again.
“Friends”, Courtesy of Dario Valenzuela, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “A Moment”, Courtesy of Cathal Mac an Bheatha, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Book Couple on Ottoman”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Amigos Correndo”, Courtesy of Naassom Azevedo, Unsplash.com, CC0 License;