When we first work with a new client, one of our goals is to find the right program to help that person overcome whatever obstacles they are facing. In many cases, our work with teenagers leads to a recommendation that some form of family counseling be incorporated into the program. When this recommendation is made, one of the most common questions other family members have is why they need to participate when they are not the one with the problem. This is completely understandable, especially in circumstances where the client’s problems have already caused hardship or dysfunction within the family. Siblings and even parents can struggle to understand why they have to disrupt their lives when they are not the one causing or having the problem in the first place.
We find that in families where this happens, where there is ambivalence or animosity towards the client by other family members, family counseling is almost always needed. To understand why it is so crucial, it helps to understand what family counseling can do for families, even when they are not in crisis. The simple fact is that all the members in the family are responsible for creating the dynamic within the family and when one of those members is dysfunctional, the family dynamic will most likely be too. Teens who are victims of abuse, neglect, or trauma may be experiencing symptoms that impact the family. Mental health conditions and eating disorders may only be experienced by one person, but they effect the whole family. Regardless of where the dysfunction originates, the family is being affected and in order to repair the dysfunction, the family has to work together.
To illustrate this point, let’s look at a tale of two teenagers. One is a popular, athletic, friendly senior who is on the wrestling team and appears to be heading toward a bright future. The other is a nice, pretty, well-liked freshman with perfect grades and a penchant for science. On the surface, these two teens seem to be well-adjusted and highly functional. But follow them home and you will find that the senior boy is struggling with an eating disorder. His obsession with his weight causes strife within the family around meal-times. He works out for hours each day and suffers from mood swings. At school, he can put up a front but at home he can’t. His sister resents him because his obsession and subsequent obsession means he gets more attention from their parents. His behaviors impact almost every interaction between all the family members. She is also stressed out underneath because she feels like she has to keep his secret at school and that is very wearing. Even though he is the one with the eating disorder, everyone in the family is being affected which means everyone needs to participate in order to overcome the current challenges.
Family counseling provides the foundation on which successful recoveries from eating disorders, substance abuse problems, and other dysfunction corrections happen. Families and individuals are the most successful when the members of the unit pull together to solve their common problems regardless of where those problems are coming from. This is why it is so critical for all family members to participate when this kind of therapy is recommended as part of a client’s program.
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