How do we change? How do we go from where we are to where we want to be? It’s the new year and many people have resolutions and goals. After hearing about a client’s history, the question becomes, what do you want to get from this? What do you want to see different in your thoughts, feelings, & relationship to others?
I mostly work with youth and families. This gives me a great opportunity to affect relational changes. Improving relationships between parents and their children, siblings, step-parents, co-parents and other family members gives me joy. But how is it done? It’s not just all about “love one another” and “can’t we all just get along”. It’s way more than that.
One of the first things I notice when working with a damaged family relationship is that we have to start with the hurt. Often, both people or the whole family is hurt. This is very true when discussing trauma, especially family trauma. If a parent was abusive, the whole family is affected. There’s usually one kid that we call the “identified patient” – which is a fancy term that just means that child is showing the most symptoms. But know that each and every family member is affected and we all deal with family trauma in different ways.
So, start with the hurt. We name the trauma and explore it’s impact. Very similar to the work I do with helping kids take responsibility with “Own & Repair” but more expanded when working with families. Exploring impact is not something we mention and then move to a “get over it” mindset. No. It’s something that needs to be seen, heard and honored. “This is how it affected me”. This could entail thoughts, feelings, body sensations, actions, trust with others etc. And because everyone is hurting, we need to slow down and take turns. This is largely where the therapist comes in. I help family members take turns hearing impact on one another and this alone can be very powerful.
This begins our journey of building momentum. It feels incredibly good to feel heard by loved ones that you’ve felt distant from for so long. And usually, we don’t think people “get” us or we think they will judge us in some way. Getting to the “feeling felt” part is the start of building relational momentum that can last and last.
Shortly afterwards opportunity presents itself in the form of a small disagreement or conflict. The opportunity is, how can I use what I’ve learned in counseling, taking time to hear one another, in order to resolve this conflict? If successful, congratulations! You’ve taken the next step and a big one at that. You’ve taken something learned in counseling and practiced it at home. Let the momentum continue! (If you “failed” that’s ok too – it just means you get to explore the sequence of interaction in your next session).
Notice how this process isn’t a huge change all at once? That’s right, we’re starting with small successes in order build momentum. This isn’t “The Biggest Loser” where they take people who are overweight and give them the biggest workout all at once which makes them vomit. Instead, this is going for a short walk and feeling good about that then increasing your distance as you get used to the new habit and behavior. Like an investing snowball you gather more and more as momentum increases.
Also notice that this is not just on the parent or just on the child. At least for older children, they can learn and use the skills as well. For younger children, it is largely the parent setting the tone and conflict resolution skills. But for parents of teens, the teen can be learning these relational skills that will not only help them with the current parent/child relationship but with future relationships with peers, teachers and even romantic relationships.
So parents, if your wanting change in your relationship with your child, start small and build. If you’re noticing only consequences, nagging, groundings and all the negative parts, maybe it’s an opportunity to find something on the other side of the coin. What can you praise? What is the child doing right?
I’ll leave you with this anecdote.
A mother and teen boy comes into counseling…well, mostly the mother because the teen refused. She shared through tears that she’s just fed up, doesn’t know what to do to get him back on track. She’s taken away his games, restricted his friends and went so far as to say he’s only got a mattress in his bedroom! My question was: What is he doing right? You can imagine she struggled with this. “He’s not doing anything right!” – Are you glad he’s alive? I asked. “Well, yeah, I’m happy he’s breathing.”
I instructed that parent to start with that. A simple praise of “Thanks for being alive”. That small start built into the momentum we’re discussing here. I imagine the child felt like he was not doing anything right as well. This probably spurred a belief of, “I’m no good” or “I don’t deserve to be here” or something similar. A simple acknowledgment that his mother was glad he was alive created a shift that led to more shifts until eventually, their relationship was rebuilt and, because he cares about the relationship, he puts effort into his work and behavior.
Start small, praise often.