Are you struggling to live in harmony?
Families experiencing challenges frequently focus on the content of the problem, for example negative behaviour, specific circumstances and events. However it is the process of communicating and how the family seeks to resolve problems which should be considered much more important than the content.
In family counselling, the focus is therefore usually on the relationships between family members and their interactions, rather than on the individual family members themselves. Instead of determining who is responsible for a family issue, I seek to understand what each individual is doing that is sustaining the problem, and what they can do differently in order to improve the situation.
This page provides you with information about some of the structures and patterns that may exist in families, followed by general information about how family counselling can be useful for you to see positive changes and improved well-being.
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Families can often be challenged through transitions across different stages of life. Transitions include events such as marriage, having children, children's growth stages, children leaving home, or retirement. Other events can also provide challenges such as job changes, moving house, financial changes or crises.
Families tend to follow self and society defined rules, with distinct roles and responsibilities for each family member. Transitions and other events can pressure these rules and roles, and where a family is unable to work together to adjust to the change, this can cause problems.
The structure and unseen rules of families are important in a family's ability to overcome difficulties and deal with conflict. Two common patterns at opposite ends of the spectrum are 'enmeshment' and 'disengagement'. Enmeshment is where a family is overly dependent on one another emotionally, with closed boundaries. Parents tend to be attached, responsive and loving, however the children may have difficulties relating to those outside the family. Disengagement is where family members are overly independent, and tend to avoid sharing information and mutual decision-making. Parents are less responsive and children may have stronger influences outside the family.
Patterns can also be seen in the level of 'differentiation' of each family member, that is, their individuality, independence and emotional connection to the family. Highly differentiated people are objective, self-validating and not controlled by emotional reaction, whereas those undifferentiated are emotionally reactive, less flexible and more easily stressed.
In families, lack of differentiation can result in overly-emotional behaviour and difficulty in managing conflict. This behaviour is often carried forward into future relationships continuing any negative cycles.
Parents who lack differentiation will sometimes project their problems onto a child, often the most vulnerable, shaping the child's development in the same way. For example, a child labelled as a problem child may be a result of a parent's denial of their own experiences such as anger or fear.
This may result in the child becoming undifferentiated and taking this behaviour into their future relationships, with other potential problems including delinquency and anti-social behaviour in society. Children coming from dysfunctional families can encounter a number of problems in their adult lives, including difficulties with forming relationships, self-esteem, and trusting others.
Triangulation is a pattern in families where two people are in conflict and a third party is used to diffuse the tension. This reduces the pressure through spreading it across an additional relationship. This is avoidance and is very common but becomes problematic while the original conflict is unresolved. Triangles can be created through a third family member, or external elements such as infidelity, excessive work, socialising or substance abuse.
One common pattern is using another person as scapegoat rather than addressing the issues directly, for example a child, boss or parent. A second common pattern is engaging in an affair which allows emotional needs to be met elsewhere and conflict avoided. Some theorists believe some of those seeking counselling in adulthood are those who have been scapegoated as a child, and that this 'unfinished business' from childhood must be explored and resolved, for them to become differentiated and achieve their goals.
Communication and Behavioural Patterns
Families are considered to experience many problems as a result of their ability to communicate effectively; logically, openly and honestly expressing emotions rather than denying them. This may be in line with unwritten family rules such as "don't be angry" or "don't show weakness". A common communication problem is to label a family member's behaviour, for example they are lazy or inconsiderate, rather than describing the behaviour and the emotional effect on others.
Relating to behaviour, a typical dysfunctional pattern is to increase a problem-solving behaviour in intensity if it is not working rather than trying something new. Blame can also be used to deflect focus, rather than considering one's own behaviour may be part of the problem.
Learning theories provide many ways a child's development may be moulded. A child learns communication and behavioural skills from observing their parents and siblings, be it positive or negative. Behaviours may also be conditioned through reinforcement or punishment, or through frequent pairing of an event with a response.
Examples include where a child is abused by a male and later develops anxiety around all males (classical conditioning), children learning aggressive behaviour through exposure to domestic violence (observational learning), or a child rewarded for not crying later has difficulty expressing emotion (operant conditioning). Family, society and peer learning experiences can be responsible for these types of behaviour, with peers becoming more influential as children grow up.
Please refer to the Relationships page for more detail surrounding communication patterns, conflict styles and the expression of anger which can also be applied in the family context.
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The information above shows the common patterns which can be seen in families and the effects these may have on the futures of the family members and on future generations.
You may find it hard to identify your own dysfunctional patterns due to being too embedded in the problems. Family Counselling can help you identify these patterns and explore ways for you to communicate and behave differently.
The learning theories briefly discussed above are important to be aware of - for every behaviour that is learned it may be unlearned and replaced with a new, more effective behaviour.
Depending on the concerns your family may have, and your preferred methods for making change, I can provide many opportunities for exploration and discussion.
Examples of these include:
- Bowen's techniques to reduce any anxiety and increase differentiation, 'detriangling' which may include counselling without the third party or the third party actively removing themselves from the triangle;
- Strategic family therapy which uses directive techniques to restructure patterns and rules, this may include reframing your views, seeking positives and exceptions to work from, or experimenting with specific behaviour changes;
- Behavioural and cognitive-behavioural techniques such as functional family therapy, behaviour analysis and experimenting to eliminate negative and increase positive behaviours, communication skills and problem-solving training, targeting of negative thoughts which drive behaviour, or learning theories to assist in understanding behaviour;
- Experiential techniques targeting ineffective communication processes, seeking personal growth to improve self-esteem, self-awareness and self-responsibility, use of role-play to simulate scenarios and explore.
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My training covers many different coaching and counselling techniques including: learning and personality theories, cognitive-behavioural, solution-focussed, narrative, Gestalt, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), emotionally-focussed or person-centred approaches, along with the Sherpa Coaching technique, the GROW model and the Co-active Coaching model.
If you have a preference we can certainly work with a specific approach, if not, I will tailor what works for your needs, rather than choosing a single method. I work best through open and honest discussion, from a strong analytical and objective perspective and a well-studied interest in people, psychology and the mind. This has allowed me to develop high awareness and problem-solving abilities which have been incredibly useful in making improvements in my own and others' lives.