Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Exploring the ties that bind

By Bethany Bray April 24, 2020

Family therapy pioneer Virginia Satir famously said, “If we can heal the family, we can heal the world.”

Satir believed the family to be the “factory” where all people are made. She was among the first to champion an idea now commonly acknowledged among counselors: A person’s family of origin and family relationships influence that individual’s health, personality and life patterns — and, when explored in therapy, provide a fuller picture from which to help the client. That understanding can be expanded even further when the individual consents to involving family members in counseling sessions.

When considering whether it is appropriate to involve a client’s family in counseling sessions, “I look at what the primary focus of our work will be,” says Esther Benoit, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a private practice in Newport News, Virginia. “If the primary focus is on relational [issues], I want to bring in as many people as can possibly show up to sessions.”

Regardless of whether professional clinical counselors work with family groups, couples or individuals, an exploration of family issues can provide a more holistic picture of clients and what is contributing to their presenting issues.

Heather Ehinger, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut, urges practitioners to ask questions that dig into the traditions, boundaries and roles in the family systems in which clients operate. For example, perhaps clients perceive their role within their family to be that of the troublemaker or the placater. How did they arrive at that role? Is it a role that they desire
to inhabit?

“Using a family systems lens to treat anyone is very important,” Ehinger says. “Even if all you do is treat individuals … [using] a holistic lens, a family systems lens, in their assessment … will enrich any counseling that did not include that already.”

Trauma and transitions

Although discussing a client’s family background or involving family members in counseling sessions can enhance work with clients regardless of what brought them to counseling, there are a number of issues for which family work can be particularly helpful. The counselors interviewed for this article report that issues related to trauma and transitions — such as blending two families after a second marriage — come up repeatedly in their work with families.

Trauma, including past sexual, physical or emotional abuse, can often lead to problems with attachment in families, notes James Robert Bitter, a counselor educator who supervises graduate students at East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU’s) on-campus community counseling clinic. There is also the trauma of separation. Bitter says several students he supervises are counseling young clients who are in foster care or being raised by grandparents because their parents are incarcerated or struggling with addiction.

“[In] family therapy these days, in our area, we’re not working so much with children and families because they are structurally misaligned or have difficulty with psychiatric disorders. We are much more working with trauma and working with families to be more effective in how they raise children,” says Bitter, a professor of counseling and human services who specializes in family counseling and the Adlerian method. “When there’s been a rupture in attachment issues, helping clients [relearn attachment] in a compassionate way is hard. The people who have been traumatized are way outside the natural bond.”

Kristy A. Brumfield, an LPC at a group practice in Philadelphia, finds that working with families in groups can often help those who are struggling with transitions such as the arrival of a new baby, a move, or the particulars of co-parenting after a divorce.

Transition challenges can also crop up naturally as families grow and age, Benoit adds. For example, families may find that formerly established patterns that used to work well around the areas of discipline and boundaries begin to cause friction as children turn into teenagers. Professional counselors can serve as valuable sources of support and guidance as families take a step back and examine the patterns within their systems, says Benoit, who specializes in relational work with individuals, couples and families across the life span.

“Working through developmental things is huge [with families], as well as attachment and focusing on relationship patterns,” Benoit says. “Also transition points. Anytime there’s an expansion or contraction of a family system, that’s when people often seek help. It can be a birth, a death, a divorce or a blending of a family. Sometimes, what was working before is no longer working.”

Getting together

The term “family counseling” may invoke thoughts of the traditional nuclear family, with juvenile children and parents sitting together and talking with a clinician. This arrangement can and does happen, but family counseling also encompasses groupings beyond the immediate or traditional family unit. It can involve any constellation of family members willing to participate who are relevant to or involved in the family’s presenting issue and who could benefit from work on communication patterns and relationship issues.

When involving multiple people in counseling sessions, counselors must first identify who the client is and what that entails, including privacy issues. In some cases, the individual who first sought counseling will be the client; in others, a couple or the entire family group will be the client. (Find out more about this essential conversation in the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, including Standards A.8. and B.4.b., at counseling.org/knowledge-center/ethics/code-of-ethics-resources.)

Benoit says she always begins counseling with family groups by fully explaining and defining the therapy relationship and letting the family decide if they would be comfortable with a group format. “I like to put the ball in the client’s court and give them a chance to decide if this modality feels right and will address what they want it to in counseling,” says Benoit, a member of the American Counseling Association.

Recently, Benoit received a call from a couple seeking counseling for their twin teenagers struggling with stress related to being in high school. The twins were both gifted and very bright. Benoit first met with the parents, without the twins, to learn more about the situation and to explore the family dynamics. She quickly saw that the family’s relationship was strong and healthy, which meant that wasn’t the issue of concern. Instead, the twins needed space to process some complicated emotions — feeling close and supportive of each other and yet sometimes simultaneously competitive with each other in academics, sports and extracurricular activities.

When Benoit had her first session with the twins, she talked over several options with them: individual work with different counselors, seeing her together for sessions, or having the entire family involved in counseling. Benoit stressed that if the twins decided to come to her together for therapy, they would need to stay together for sessions. She gave the twins time between their first and second sessions to think it over.

“Because of the uniqueness [of their situation] and how connected they were to each other, they felt it was most appropriate to be seen together,” Benoit recalls. “Ultimately, they decided that this felt like the best option [for them].”

Benoit emphasizes that this process will look different for each client and must be tailored to fit each client’s needs and presenting issues. For example, she has another set of juvenile siblings on her caseload who see her separately as individual clients. Their presenting issues are very different, and their counseling work does not overlap, so individual sessions work best for them, she explains.

The symptom carrier

Ehinger owns a group family counseling practice with two locations in Connecticut. Her staff of therapists is able to collaborate and co-treat family groupings and individuals within families who need counseling on separate issues simultaneously.

Frequently, in families, there is one identified person who is symptomatic and causes the family to seek counseling, such as a teenager with an eating disorder or a child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Even so, the problem often runs deeper and affects the entire family. “The idea is that one person is holding the symptoms, but it’s not the only problem within the family system,” says Ehinger, an ACA member with a doctorate in counseling education and supervision.

This is especially common when couples have an unhealthy relationship or are going through a divorce, she says. Their child may be the one who is symptomatic, but the issue is rooted in the parents. “The child may be afraid to go to elementary school and has a lot of anxiety. The parents have talked with the school and find that it’s not anything academic, and the child is not being bullied,” Ehinger says. “Then we might find out from the parents that the father moved out two months ago, there’s a lot of fighting and there are lawyers involved. They may say, ‘We’re not fighting in front of the kids.’ [But] whether they’re fighting in front of the kids or not, this child is absorbing the energy and knows there’s something going on.”

Ehinger and a colleague at her practice co-treated a family in which a teenage son was identified as symptomatic. The parents initially sought counseling for the 16-year-old because they said he was grumpy and defiant, staying out past curfew, skipping classes and experimenting with substance use.

The teenage son started individual counseling with a male clinician at Ehinger’s practice. Because the practice specializes in family systems issues, the clinician viewed the teen’s troubles from a systems perspective and soon uncovered a larger challenge. The answers the teen gave to questions about his family life indicated there was tension in the home and that his parents were having trouble.

The family also had a daughter who was a freshman in college. When she came home for holiday break, she refused to return to school and started displaying defiant behavior and some of the other symptoms her brother had shown. As these challenges unfolded, Ehinger began working with the parents, while her colleague worked with their children. Sometimes they would all convene for sessions together, with four family members and two clinicians in the same room.

Ehinger’s conversations with the parents in counseling revealed that the couple had experienced an issue with infertility and that both of their children were adopted. The couple hadn’t resolved their grief over their infertility, and that contributed to them struggling with their adopted children gaining their independence and beginning to “launch” from home, Ehinger says.

Within a few months, the symptomatic teenager was no longer “the problem” — the couple’s marriage was, Ehinger says. The son’s symptoms dissipated as counseling helped him find autonomy, and he subsequently stopped acting out as often.

This family’s presenting issue was due to problems with attachment, Ehinger explains. “The parents hadn’t really grieved the loss of having the ability to have their own children. They were extremely sensitive to being ‘perfect’ parents. They felt they would be failures if they weren’t perfect parents to these adopted kids and were pointing fingers at each other out of frustration.”

The issue was exacerbated, Ehinger recalls, because the parents had large extended families with lots of children, so they felt inadequate and insufficient compared with their relatives.

Ehinger worked with the mother to boost her self-esteem and process her infertility grief in individual sessions. With the couple, Ehinger also focused on grief processing, as well as finding safety within their relationship. They talked about “how to be intentional with each other, how to relate to each other, what their idea of marriage is, and how they [could] be more intentional to get to that,” she says. She also provided psychoeducation on why transitions, including child development during the teenage years, are so hard for families.

Ehinger often uses narrative therapy with families, and in this case, it was particularly helpful. In this family, the narrative was that the husband and wife felt like “bad parents,” the son was the “troublemaker,” and the daughter had always been the “good one,” although she later struggled when she came home from college.

“We worked to change that story: The parents were not bad but hypervigilant. We taught them about attachment, normal teenage rebellion and helped them recreate the narrative of their family,” Ehinger says. “We talked about roles: How did [the son] get the role of the troublemaker? Did he want to keep it? Did he ask for it? Who would resist him shedding that role? What other role could he [and other family members] become?”

Uncovering patterns

Benoit finds structural family therapy and experiential family therapy helpful in her work with family clients. Both modalities focus on interaction patterns within family groups.

“A family’s whole systemic interaction pattern can be shifted by changing small behaviors. That’s why it’s so important to identify those patterns,” says Benoit, a full-time faculty member teaching online at Southern New Hampshire University.

One way counselors can encourage families to shift long-held and unhealthy patterns is to raise family members’ awareness of the roles they play within the system. “For example, sometimes one member will be the family’s harmonizer, smoothing over all conflict,” Benoit says. “Those roles often dictate how members interact in day-to-day interactions, but also during conflicts and transitions. Understanding the roles that are played and how those influence interactions can help challenge family members to explore alternatives and to try on new roles as their family systems grow and change over time.”

Benoit’s focus on patterns involves careful listening and close observation of the ways that family members talk and interact, both verbally and nonverbally, in sessions. This includes body language as well as the tone and subtext of what is said verbally. “I’m taking it all in,” she says.

Perhaps the family members always sit in the same order for each session, for example, or one child always sits with one parent and distances themselves from the other, or the children always look at their mother before saying anything. Often, families don’t even realize that these patterns are happening or that there might be deeper meaning behind them, Benoit says.

Her method is to gently point these patterns out to the family, framed by curiosity. Her approach doesn’t paint the behaviors necessarily as being bad, but rather just as something to ask about and gather more information on.

“With family counseling, families are coming to us to get information and feedback, so pointing out patterns can help,” Benoit says. “Over time, I might point [a pattern] out to the family and say, ‘This is what I’m seeing. Help me understand where this comes from, and how it helps in your relationship. … Tell me about what this behavior means to your family.’”

For example, a child may always sit between his mother and stepfather in session. What might this symbolize? Is it a physical representation of the bridge-building role the child plays in the family? Benoit would bring up this observation, framing it as a question or a “tell me more” prompt.

“It’s something to explore. It doesn’t always mean something, but it’s worth asking,” she says. “And I get it wrong all the time. Sometimes the family will say, ‘Gosh, no!’ and then it just helps me to learn more information” about the family system.

Behavior patterns within families can also be rooted in culture or context, Benoit adds. For example, a young child who always defers to his or her parents or waits to speak in counseling sessions can be exhibiting a sign of respect taught within the family or culture.

Uncovering patterns and the meanings behind them demands that practitioners be present and focused on each moment in session. It also requires keeping a curious mindset, Benoit says. “One of the reasons I love relationship counseling so much is that instead of working with one person, you’re working with multiple people. But more importantly, you’re working on the space between people,” she says. “It’s really dynamic and powerful work.”

Processing trauma

Bitter counsels clients with the internship and practicum students he supervises at ETSU’s on-campus counseling clinic, which offers free services to members of the community, many of whom have minimal or no health insurance coverage. Bitter says he starts thinking about other family members who could be involved in counseling work within the first session with a client. From his perspective, all issues that bring clients to counseling are family issues in one way or another.

“Everything is a family issue,” says Bitter, who will be publishing a third edition of his book, Theory and Practice of Couples and Family Counseling, with ACA this fall. “Instead of family or couples [counseling], a broader term might be relational counseling. From the moment we are born, we are in a relationship. We can’t survive without them.”

Bitter recalls one client whom he has counseled for multiple years (beginning when the client was 14), with various counseling interns also being involved in one-semester intervals. Initially, the client’s aunt contacted ETSU’s counseling center to request help for her nephew.

The client’s mother struggled with addiction and had been married four times, in addition to having multiple other relationships, all of which had been immersed in drug culture. The youth — the second of his mother’s five sons — had seen “a constant stream in his young life of drug dealers and men with whom his mother was having relationships,” Bitter says. By the time the boy was 5 or 6, he had taken on the role of unofficial parent and caretaker for his younger brothers. He would get them up and dressed in the mornings and make sure they had food to eat, and he would clean the house.

When he was 9, the boy and his older brother went to live with their father, who had alcoholism. There, the client also took on caretaking tasks for his brother and, to an extent, his father. Bitter notes that the boy would have to ask his father repeatedly for money to buy food for the household.

At one point, the youth called his aunt and asked if he could stay with her. The aunt took him in and called the ETSU counseling center for help. Initially, Bitter saw the teen as an individual client (at the teen’s request). But in sessions, the youth would claim that he was “fine” and never bring up anything to talk about.

“The trauma and neglect in this boy’s life led him to be depressed but also led him to be very secretive. He had a very, very hard time telling me what was going on in his life,” recalls Bitter, an ACA member. “When you grow up being a little boy who has to take care of everyone else, you have to present a really good face to the rest of the world and learn to act as if everything is fine, until it is not.”

Eventually, Bitter worked with the youth to involve his aunt and grandmother — the most supportive family members in the client’s life — in counseling sessions. In their work together, Bitter focused on ways to rebuild the teen’s broken family while removing the caretaking role he had shouldered for so many years. “I asked the adults to be a family, and the aunt and grandmother were willing to do that,” Bitter says.

A year and a half later, counseling began to include a focus on the teenager transitioning from living with his aunt to moving back in with his father, who had worked to get sober and secured a job as a landscaper. “The counseling center helped with that transition and rekindled relationship and also reversed the pattern of trauma [in the family],” Bitter says. “We helped him to live as a child again and rely on the adults in his life. Now he has an aunt, grandmother and father who are functionally caring for him.”

The teen will soon turn 17. He’s doing well but is “still careful and cautious in relationships,” Bitter says. “He has two good friends and can’t really handle more than that.”

The teen and family’s recovery came “after two years of [counselors] constantly seeing this family, encouraging them and literally teaching them how to talk to each other, helping them with how to respond to each other,” Bitter says.

Effective parenting

In addition to working through unresolved trauma, much of what Bitter focuses on with families in counseling is changing unhealthy parenting patterns. Parents often come to the counseling clinic at their wits’ end because of behavior problems with their children.

The world has changed dramatically over the past century, but parenting styles, on the whole, have not, Bitter contends. With what counselors know about attachment and the benefits of using boundaries rather than punishment with children, practitioners are well-equipped to offer psychoeducation to parents who are struggling, he says.

“The majority of people parenting today, when we’re at our best, we sometimes parent better than our parents did, but when we’re at our worst, we all parent at about the same level our parents did — and we have to assume they did the same thing,” Bitter says. “Most of parenting is teaching [clients] how to form really good bonds with children and help them grow and develop.”

Bitter says a counselor’s role is to offer guidance rather than explicit instructions or commands to parents. “I wait for the client to say what they did and then ask, ‘Did that work for you? How did it go?’ If you had to spank your child [multiple] times per week, then it’s not working. Let’s talk about what might work [instead].”

Counseling can also normalize parents’ challenges, sending the message that they aren’t alone in their struggles. “They get to see that they’re like every other family — if you have children, you’re going to make a mistake every day,” Bitter says. “Often, parents are doing a pretty good job but just need [extra] help. But those who are dealing with trauma, or dealing with a bond between a child and parent that has to be reconnected, that takes some time and patience.”

Bitter draws on a number of methods to help parents, including Jane Nelsen’s positive discipline approach, Michael Popkin’s active parenting system, the Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program, and James Lehman’s Total Transformation trainings for parents. However, Bitter emphasizes the “natural consequences” concept when it comes to child discipline.

As a child, Bitter says he hated Brussels sprouts, but his father loved them, so the pungent vegetable often appeared on the family dinner table. This circumstance frequently escalated into verbal battles, with his father insisting that Bitter was going to eat Brussels sprouts and Bitter insisting otherwise. Use of the natural consequences philosophy can circumvent such parent-child power struggles.

“Now we know that if parents serve a variety of things and a balanced diet, over time a child will make good choices,” Bitter says. “If you make [healthy] food available, a child will eat it. I recommend that parents model good eating habits but not get into fights over what the child is or isn’t eating. [When a child refuses to eat something], say ‘OK, don’t eat that.’ The natural consequence is that the child will get hungry. If they say, ‘I’m not eating breakfast’ [with the rest of the family], a parent should say, ‘OK.’ The child will come back at 10 a.m. and say, ‘I’m hungry.’ The parent can respond [by saying], ‘OK, lunch is served at noon, and you’ll make it until then.’”

If these types of patterns are repeated often enough, children will learn from their experiences and realize the natural consequences of their choices, Bitter points out.

He gives another example: Perhaps a mother who is struggling with a defiant adolescent finds that the child pushes back on her instructions to come out of the mall to be picked up at 3 p.m., despite having been dropped off for shopping with friends hours earlier. Bitter says he would ask the client, “What would happen if at 3 p.m. [when the child isn’t there], you just pressed on the gas in your car and drove away?” When the child calls to ask why Mom isn’t there to pick him or her up, she can calmly explain that she was there at 3 p.m. but the child wasn’t. Now, Mom has other things to do but will return to get the child when she can, Bitter says.

The crux of this method is for parents to learn to control themselves, Bitter says. Once they learn and find control, their child (or children) will follow.

“This is not difficult stuff. It’s hard to put into practice but easy to understand. Part of this is just helping couples and families get there,” Bitter says. “It takes patience on the part of the parent. The parents we are seeing are extremely frustrated because what they’re doing isn’t working. … If you put these [concepts] into practice, [parents] will have a more harmonious life with their children. It’s just a question of getting started.”

Playing together

Brumfield is a registered play therapy supervisor and has used play therapy not only with children, but with adults and families, for 18 years. While play therapy with children is mostly unguided, Brumfield provides prompts and gentle guidance for the adults and families on her caseload, often in the form of games and activities. This can include asking a family to create a puppet show or to play out a story using puppets in session. Among the many benefits of this approach, Brumfield says, is helping adults “reconnect to the playful parts of themselves.”

Brumfield, a member of ACA, also uses music and art in her work with families. For instance, she might ask family members to draw their answer to a counseling prompt. Or she’ll pass out rhythm instruments and have the young children beat a pattern, while the parents are encouraged to add to it or to repeat it back to the children on their own instruments.

Observing how the family interacts during these activities tells Brumfield a lot about the relationships, patterns and roles within the family. For example, is one person dominant and leading the entire plan for the family puppet show? Or does everyone work on drawing on their own, almost as if no one else were in the room? “While watching them interact, I see the gaps and places where the family might grow,” explains Brumfield, who is also a counselor educator at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.

In addition to in-session activities, Brumfield encourages families to make time for activities together at home. These can run the gamut from a game of hide-and-seek or a family bike ride to board games and puzzles. She recommends games that encourage conversation and that are cooperative rather than competitive. One of her personal favorites is the Ungame, a board game that directs players to answer various questions to encourage conversation but has no winner. Similarly, families can use a conversational card deck — a number of which are available online — to spark healthy discussion at mealtimes.

When it comes to “assigning” families activities to do outside of session, Brumfield likes to have each family member think of three things they would like to do together. “Children often have ideas readily, and the children are really the ones teaching the parents. I ask the parents to think of their own childhood and what they enjoyed or things they wished they were able to do when they were a child,” Brumfield says. “The primary goal is connection and helping them be more cohesive and work together.”

Boosting family connection typically involves taking a break from technology, Brumfield adds. She often requests that clients try to unplug during family activities. An exception is when technology prompts bonding, such as when a teenager invites his or her parent to play a nonviolent video game together.

Playful activity — inside and outside of counseling sessions — helps families to be less guarded with one another, Brumfield notes. It also boosts communication, joy and vulnerability. Parents might feel silly at first, and that’s a good thing, Brumfield asserts. She reassures parents that letting their guard down to play does not lessen their authority or diminish boundaries.

“When family members are more vulnerable, they’re more able to be seen. It can increase [the family’s] understanding of one another,” Brumfield says. “The children can see their parents differently — as more human. The parents are able to feel reconnected and able to have fun with their children, which can help balance more challenging times for families. … For younger children, mastery can be learned. It can be a confidence boost to be able to participate and learn to be a part of their family. For parents, they’re able to see the things that their children are capable of. Parents often want to do everything for a child, [and play] helps them discover what they can do for themselves.”

Brumfield encourages counselor practitioners to remember the power of play, regardless of whether they specialize in play therapy. “We all — counselors and clients alike — need to be connected with the playful parts of ourselves,” she says. “Remember the importance of humor in our work. It can even be a form of self-care. Think of play as a way to release, stay centered and help in other facets of life.”

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Families and technology

Heather Ehinger, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut, says conflict over technology use comes up over and over again in her work with families.

This includes fighting between parents and children (and among couples) about which technology is being used and how often. In addition, a couple may have differing views over the age at which their children should have access to technology (such as their own cellphone) or whether they should be allowed to have a computer or video game system in their bedroom.

The conflict that arises over one or more family members’ use — or abuse — of technology can be a flashpoint or an indicator of deeper issues. Technology isn’t necessarily what brings a family in to counseling, Ehinger says, but it’s often a contributor to their presenting issue.

“Technology is not the problem exactly, but it is part of the problem. It feeds into authority issues and discipline,” Ehinger says. “Technology is like a thorn in the family’s side, but it actually turns into the lens through which we see whether the family is functioning or not.”

Ehinger worked with one family who had a son in fourth grade. He was acting out at home, having tantrums and pushing back against boundaries with his mother, who was a stay-at-home mom. He wanted to play Fortnite all the time and would sneak his mother’s cell phone away from her to do so. She would find her son upstairs, still in his pajamas, playing the online video game when it was time to leave for school in the mornings.

This was partly a problem of overstimulation and obsession on the son’s part, but there was also a disconnect on the part of the mother, Ehinger says. Sometimes, disagreements over technology use are generational. In this case, the mother didn’t realize that her son was using the game as a way to socialize and communicate with peers. Adding to her frustration was the fact that she had previously worked in a corporate environment and was used to people listening to her, Ehinger observes. Now, as a stay-at-home mom, she was locked in a battle of wits with her young son.

When it comes to addressing issues of technology use, Ehinger says that psychoeducation about family roles and setting boundaries can be particularly helpful for families in counseling. She often talks with parents about setting limits, taking televisions out of children’s bedrooms, and establishing regular “no tech” nights, when the home’s Wi-Fi is switched off for the evening, to spend time together as a family.

Ehinger also moderates conversations with couples in counseling to get them on the same page regarding their family’s technology use.

“Often, it turns out to be a couple’s problem,” Ehinger says. “They need to define roles when it comes to discipline and boundary-setting — which is all affected by their family of origin. They have to create an ‘our way’ [instead of ‘my way’] and stop bickering and fighting with each other.”

 

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

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Find out more about family counseling from the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA, at iamfconline.org.

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