Updated: Dec 5, 2019
When a child or adolescent is exhibiting behaviour that is worrisome to parents and teachers, it is becoming more and more socially acceptable to seek counselling. Stigma and shame for having your child in counselling is at an all-time low. This is great. But I think we have a misguided notion as to what therapy can do for struggling youth. We often see the problem as entirely internal to the child and so we send them to a doctor, a counsellor, or both, in order to cover the biological and psychological bases. We send the child to therapy to be "fixed".
Therapists will view presenting concerns from a variety of perspectives which will alter their recommended treatment plan. Each practitioner has been sculpted by their studies, their experience, and their training from other therapists. This makes them lean towards certain modalities of practice.
When it comes to therapy for children and adolescents, I am convinced that in most cases, the presenting concern has its roots in the family system, and therefore the treatment needs to involve the entire family. This is a tough sell to parents. Although stigma for having your child in therapy is low, having your entire family in the psychologist's office seems severe and threatening to many.
In my view, most problems in childhood are a direct symptom from the system in which they reside and from which they were developed. This is not about blaming parents, but it is about looking at how the family itself shapes who we are and how we behave. I can work individually with a child and make significant gains in terms of reducing symptoms, but if (or rather when) that child returns to the system that fosters the problem to begin with, most of our individual work is undone.
This isn't to say even that the family is pathological. It's just that no family system is perfect and all family systems create the individual virtues and habits that can be pathological in excess or in certain situations. A family that is more closed might produce a child that is stoic and appears resilient, which is good. But if not balanced, and if placed in a particularly stressful situation, this child might turn callous or find difficulties relating to others. In contrast, a family that was open with their emotions might produce a bold and emotionally expressive child, which is good. But without balance this child might struggle with regulation.
For both good and bad, our family of origin has sculpted us into who we are more than we give it credit. How we react to certain situations is largely due to how we were trained to react as children.
The great family systems therapist Murray Bowen said:
"That which is created in a relationship can be fixed in a relationship."
To really help your child have the courage, vulnerability, and resilience to truly improve, it's best to grow and change the entire system. The benefits are not only greater but longer lasting.
You may be apprehensive to come to family therapy, worried about which demons or skeletons will be unearthed in front of your children, or what blame will be launched at you as parents. But remember, that the only reason you're considering therapy in the first place is because your child is struggling, and through family therapy you can be a part of the solution.