At Bill Jacobs LPCC we think of a family as similar to a mobile hanging from a ceiling, and that helps us understand something about how they work. If one figure is disturbed, all the figures in the mobile are affected. The same is true of families.
We make an effort to take care of all family members as needed.
Brain mappers have recently proven that family relationships are a deeply ingrained aspect of the human mind. This new evidence helps us understand why family and marital problems are so upsetting. That’s the down side.
Here’s the upside. Because family is so much a part of us, no matter how difficult the problem, no matter how discouraged we might become, everyone in the family longs for resolution of family problems, and are quite frequently willing to participate in anything that offers hope
We help family members learn to understand each other, communicate, negotiate and resolve problems. We help parents to set fair and reasonable boundaries so that the family can be at peace.
We have also have seen that most parents have done a number of things that have worked well in their family. We make a dedicated effort to work with their strengths and natural style to help them achieve their goals for the family.
The Angry Girl and the Angry Mother
A single mom brought her twelve-year-old daughter in for family counseling. She also brought with her a book on Oppositional Defiant Disorder and proceeded to read sections of it to prove that her daughter was suffering from this disorder.
As she read, her daughter dug her self deeply into an overstuffed couch and covered her self up with pillows. She was wearing a warm-up suit, zipped up to the very tip of the collar. She would not make eye contact with me and alternately buried her head and glared at her mother.
After a bit I gently interrupted the mother and asked her what changes she wanted to see from her daughter. She wanted her daughter to follow the rules of the house, come in at night, stop kicking holes in the walls of the house, and stop cursing at her.
When she finished, I turned to the little girl and asked, "and what changes would you like to see?"
"I wish my mother would stop being such a _________, she responded! Then she stuck her tongue out at her mother. Several times that evening she mimicked her mother and taunted her. I'd never seen a child treat a parent with such blatant disrespect.
I said, "It really hurts you to hear your mother say all those negative things about you to a total stranger. It's really embarrassing, especially when you believe she's the one causing the problem, and not you. It's so terrible you wish you could just run out of the room so you don't have to hear it. And yet you did agree to come here because you hope, like your mother, that the two of you can learn to get along and that you really long for a good relationship with her."
She dropped her eyes and wouldn't make eye contact any longer, so I turned my attention back to Mom. I caught the little girl peeking at me several times. As the session progressed she unzipped her jacket a bit and came up out of the couch.
I said to her as we neared the end of the session, "do you want to keep coming, or should I just talk with your mother?"
She said, "I want to come."
I said, "You want to know what's going on and you want to participate in the counseling, so you and your mom can be at peace."
"Yes, she replied."
We got up to end the session. As she walked by, I patted her on the shoulder. She turned her head toward me, smiled, and said, "Bye."
Objective #1 accomplished: Buy-in on the part of the child. (It's always so much easier when they want to come to counseling. And if they are willing to work, that's even better.)
As the weeks passed, it became clear that Mom had a pretty good set of boundaries already in place So I worked with Mom on how to get buy-in from her daughter. I worked with the child so she could trust that I would always consider her needs, and I worked with them together, teaching them how to communicate and resolve their issues.
Mom came to see that it didn't matter if her daughter met the criteria for Oppositional Defiant Disorder or not. (Despite a diagnosis from one of the local mental hospitals, she did not meet the criteria.) I recall one session where I told the girl that I was going on vacation and had some homework for her to do while I was gone. She responded by saying, "Whatever you want me to do, I will do it." That's not oppositional behavior.
She saw her daughter become less angry when Mom was calm, and set consistent boundaries. When she showed her daughter affection, gave her positive eye contact, expressed unconditional love, and time spent doing fun things with her, her daughter responded with love and respect.
This leads us to something we see always: Children respond to adults. When adults modify their behavior, children respond to the changes.