We all start life with a family, whether that family is blood relatives, adopted parents or a foster family. Our families influence almost every aspect of our lives, from our first moments to our last.
Our families go through lots of changes throughout our lives and, because of this, it’s normal to have problems with your family life from time to time.
But, it can be comforting to know that, whatever issues your family is facing, there is help and support available. Counselling can help you overcome difficult times together as a family.
What does it mean to be a family?
We often think of families as people who are always there to support one another and whilst they can be, for the majority of people, family life isn’t always perfect. Problems may not always be present but issues can arise from time to time.
Our family dynamics change considerably over the course of our lifetimes. Birth, death, marriage, divorce; they are many types of transitions that families go through together. And each family is unique, even within its own culture. Every family has its own beliefs and values and, within each family, there may be differences of opinions about a wide range of issues.
Factors in our lives can affect our family relationships and, equally, our family relationships can impact the rest of our lives. Our families absorb many of the stresses and strains from the outside world - and the pressures can sometimes boil over. Personal problems can overwhelm a family, so much so that it can feel as though there is no clear way forward. Other times, changes within the family leave other members confused, angry or hurt.
The love, grudges, loyalties and betrayals present in family life, can have lasting psychological and emotional effects. Whether we remain close or become separated, the relationship we have with parents, siblings and other family members has the potential to shape and inform us like no other experience. It can define us, or leave everlasting suggestions as to who or what we should be.
- Counsellor Jill Twentyman.
Particularly as children, we spend so much time with our families, and these people have an undoubted impact on what makes us who we are; we develop our expectations of others, communication skills, outlook on life, as well as many other traits from our families. As a result of the impact our family lives have on us as people, it’s important to try to resolve problems within family life, to prevent ongoing issues.
What are family problems?
Families can be a source of support, encouragement and love but, sometimes, relationships within families are put under strain. Perhaps you’re a parent worried about your child's behaviour or how a divorce may impact your family. You might be part of a stepfamily and need help adjusting, or you may be arguing with parents or siblings and need support communicating with each other.
Every family is different but many families face similar issues. Problems that a family may face include:
- Disruption as a result of separation or divorce.
- Problems with step-family life or when a new partner moving in.
- Money problems such as debt or redundancy.
- Changes in family structure, as the result of a bereavement or illness.
- Problem behaviour with adolescents or older children.
- Children leaving home.
- Unwanted pregnancy.
It’s important to remember that there may be a number of issues that are causing family problems, and it may not be possible to ‘fix’ any of the issues. What we can do, however, is adjust our attitude to what is happening and try to find solutions to make problems easier to deal with.
Parents often seek counselling because they are struggling with a child who is displaying a lot of emotional angst. For young children, feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration, confusion and anger can feel overpowering and all-consuming.
If your child’s behaviour has changed, consider what else is happening in their life - is there anything that may have triggered their distress? Situations like moving house, divorce, bullying and bereavement can affect a child greatly, and stress can build when they don’t know how to cope.
It's important to remember that our children need boundaries - maybe now more than ever. Curfews, check-ins, accountability - they're all important in showing our young people that they have value, and the reason we want them home by a certain time is because we love them and we care.
- Counsellor Michael O'Rourke discusses teenage boundaries.
Particularly as children get older and enter into their teenage year, further problems can start to arise. And, given that 75% of mental illnesses are established by the time we turn 25, supporting young people’s mental health as they enter adolescence - a peak period of change in their lives - could make the world of difference in their long-term health.
Read more about child related issues and how talking to a trained child or youth counsellor might help your child overcome this difficult time.
To reach the point of the stepfamily, there has often already been a degree of change and potential emotional strain on your family. Whatever the reason parents decide to separate, it can take its toll on the family life.
If you are a stepparent, you may find it difficult to fit into an existing family dynamic. For many reasons, it can be hard to strike a connection with stepchildren. It is important to recognise that stepfamilies can present challenges from the start and that this is natural. It takes time to develop and consolidate as a family group.
Counsellor Graeme Armstrong provides seven tips for if you are becoming or are already a stepparent.
As our parents grow older, the relationship tends to shift towards us becoming their carers and feeling responsible for their well-being. Depending on circumstances, you may find yourself faced with numerous dilemmas relating to finances and healthcare, which can greatly impact on your own sense of well-being.
The need to make difficult decisions can cause conflict among siblings and this can impact on other members of the family, such as your partner or children. You may also find yourself asking questions about your own mortality and attitude to death.
If you find yourself facing questions like this, existential therapy can provide a non-judgmental, open setting for exploring these challenges.
Overcoming issues as a family
Sometimes it can feel difficult to deal with certain issues, particularly if relationships are strained within the family. But, although it’s hard, it can be useful to talk these things through with someone you trust - your partner, a family member or a close friend. Talking about the challenges you are facing as a family can allow you to understand and address problems.
In some cases, it can be beneficial to seek professional help. Speaking to a counsellor regularly for a matter of weeks or months to a get a more comprehensive understanding of what we’re feeling and where it’s coming from.
What is family counselling?
Family counselling, also known as systemic therapy, is an approach that works with families to encourage conversation and communicate better with each other, in order to resolve issues. Issues which might be explored may relate to one incident or a repeated pattern of behaviour.
Family counselling and therapy usually work with cognitive behavioural therapy, systemic and solution-focused therapy, to take a closer look at the thoughts of all family members. The aim is to clarify what the problems are and then focus on solutions, rather than delving into the origins of the problems. This can help with self-reflection for the individuals and increase self-awareness of their family’s stage in its life cycle.
Family counselling is flexible because every family is unique. The goal is to help families build stronger relationships, but this will mean different things to different families, as we all have unique challenges. Ultimately, the aim is for families to enjoy being together and to face life’s challenges as a team.
A family counsellor maintains neutrality at all times, to establish a platform free from blame. This allows members to explore the problem and then express their concerns for the family’s ability to change.
How does family counselling work?
Your counsellor will collect the views and thoughts of members of the family through questions, mainly about the differences that exist among the individuals. Family members are then invited to be observers, too, of the questions answered by other members and of their own behaviours and assumptions. The trained family counsellor offers the group an opportunity to think and reflect on the present situation with a view to moving towards a better way of being together.
An assessment can be difficult due to the different natures of family dynamics - defining where the problem is can mean something different to each member of the family. One person might be blamed and they, in turn, may blame someone else. If this issue gets stuck, these two members might work together for a couple of sessions.
The interconnected set of relationships within the family is central to this type of counselling. The logistics of getting all members along to participate in counselling can pose difficulties, but it can be a satisfying and rewarding means to establish new and healthier way of relating.
Not all members have to attend every session; couples counselling, youth work or individual counselling may follow and the family may meet later to discuss changes.
How could counselling help my family?
Counselling can help establish the events that have led to the family needing help. These might include life events, transitions or repeating patterns. Family problems might be mapped out to show their history and development and allow members to feel clearer about the problems and how they might have arisen, reducing blame.
There should also be an opportunity to define the relationships, as people see them themselves and as others do. This can lead to greater awareness and insight to allow any necessary changes. It can also offer the opportunity to see the abilities and difficulties that are available within the family group for dealing with problems and change and how they be might be used.
Counselling might clarify a new pattern of being together after a marital breakdown or remarriage. It can also help to process feelings of being excluded or rejected, which might be otherwise acted out in disruptive behaviour; misunderstood by the other family members. Communication might be repaired or established for the first time and family members may feel supported and encouraged to manage changes.