Family Work

Family work is exciting and dynamic and if younger children are present one can expect chaos and many things happening at once! Like relationship work, our emphasis is on learning, not blaming. Family work means improving communication by supporting all members to express themselves. Process work with families addresses power issues, uses conflict resolution procedures, and gets beyond the cycle of accusations and blaming. The so-called "identified patient" in the family is seen as doing something potentially valuable that needs better understanding or interaction, and also might reveal something that the whole family might need to embrace. Work with families also means paying attention to the family atmosphere and revealing the various roles and viewpoints that create that atmosphere.

For example, take a family where the atmosphere feels very stiff. Very little is said, except when asked and answers are minimal. It feels almost scary to speak. One can feel that people do not feel free to express themselves. The kids wriggle around trying to keep still. Sitting with such a family, one can feel the disavowed roles or experiences that the family is not in touch with. There is something fearful in the room, individuals fear to speak out. There is also another role, something possibly authoritarian that is against freedom and spontaneous expression. This role might have strong views about how the family should behave, and it might even be threatening and coercive. Working with this family would mean to bring out these background roles and encourage the family to interact with them.

Process Work sees roles instead of individuals because any individual in the family could represent any role. Roles are not set and in fact family life tends to improve when family members are able to switch roles and learn more about their wholeness.

Let's look at a single Mom with 3 children. The Mom is bringing the family in because she feels the kids are out of control and don't listen to her. They are fun-loving kids, all girls between the ages of 8 and 12 and the atmosphere is lively. Mom is talking about how the girls don't listen to her and the girls agree. "I tell them to do their homework," the Mom complains, "but they just don't." The girls complain that their mother flies off the handle and screams at them and that is why they don't listen to her.

One of the girls said she actually did want to do her homework; she didn't like when she went to school without her homework finished. At this moment, the girl was beginning to take over the role of the parent. So, I suggested we do a role play. Mom and I played the wild kids and the kids played the role of the parent. They became very serious and began to make rules for the household. Homework had to be done before dinner and before play. They also made a chore chart. The mother realized that she actually needed this more structured and disciplined role in her own life, not just for the kids. She was in school and was having a hard time structuring her life, so we asked the kids for advice. They interviewed her about what she did during her day and helped her to make a schedule for herself. Finally, the kids showed Mom how to talk with them in a firm and kind way.

Family systems are relieved when individual members can take on roles that they normally don't identify with. It is a relief for parents when children are able to pick up their own inner discipline. This mother also needed some of the wild spirit that her children represented. She felt so stressed in life that she was also not able to just really let go and have fun with her kids. Solutions are often found when family members can step out of their normal roles and into new ones, which often offer new perspectives and greater connection.


Process Work with Families

Reiss, Gary. Vital Loving: A Guide for Couples and Families 2004. Currently available on Amazon.com.
Practical tools for dealing with new, changing family structures and roles, including separation, divorce, step-families, and how to manage anger, violence, grief and adolescent behavior.


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