The family counselor uses a healthy family model in order to diagnose and bring help to families that are experiencing problems. There are a variety of models and avenues for understanding family issues. Because I come from a Christian worldview I begin with Scripture as the foundation for any model used.
Take Structural Family Therapy, for example, a theory proposed by Salvador Minuchin (Minuchin, S. 1974. Families and Family Therapy). It focuses on the various relationships within a family, the various types of authority, and the boundaries present within the family sphere.
Malachi 2:15 says, “Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does this one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and not unfaithful to the wife of your youth.”
This passage of Scripture highlights the structure of the family, noting that God’s design for the family is a marriage of two faithful spouses that results in “godly offspring.”
In this article, I will focus on the importance of a rock-solid marriage that has authoritative, permeable boundaries to create the best opportunities for the maturing of all members of the family.
From a Christian perspective, the marital relationship is the central relationship of any family. “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21, NIV) is the way in which a Christian marriage lives out roles and fulfills emotional needs. Thus, the parents’ relationship, when operating well, is the emotional foundation children come to rely on for healthy maturity and growth.
Many couples will admit that they have a negative marriage relationship. However, they are quick to reply that they are remaining together for the kids’ sake. They think that their children aren’t affected by their bad marriage.
Contrary to this belief, scientific research shows that a negative marriage relationship has the exact opposite effect on the self-esteem of a child. So, sticking it out in the children’s best interest is a myth.
Living in a home with hostility present between parents has a negative effect on a child’s self-esteem, no matter how close the parents are to the child. In fact, studies show that children actually suffer far less when parents choose to divorce as opposed to parents who remain in a hostile marriage. Please note that goal is not divorce but to get your marriage on as solid a footing as possible as a means of helping the functionality of your entire family.
Family Counselors will often look at the marriage relationship when counseling a family. They will then look at how the marriage works with respect to the other family members. In an unstable marriage relationship, either or both members may transfer their connection to their spouse to a child, a process referred to as “triangulating.”
Basically, this means that parents can’t maintain the stability of the relationship to their spouse, so they place a child as a buffer between them. This is seen most commonly when a child misbehaves and one parent rescues while the other disciplines. The couple comes together to focus on the child’s problem rather than on their lack of connection.
Then, while the child continues to misbehave the couple has a reason to connect. And because the child is looking for predictable love, they continue to perpetuate the bad behavior while the parents continue to deal with the problem child.
A Family Counselor’s goal in this type of situation is to realign the family structure. This is achieved by helping the parents address their disconnection. The child’s involvement is the first task to tackle.
After this is dealt with, the counselor moves on to help the couple meet the needs of the child together rather than allowing the child’s behavior to continue the cycle of dysfunction. In so doing, each spouse will learn to meet the other’s needs rather than having the child meet those needs for them.
Children who are raised in home situations where they must fulfill the unmet needs of their parents feel alone. This is because they have had to give up their patterns of childhood behavior to accommodate the needs of their parents. This is why it is crucial to help their parents begin to meet each other’s needs and establish a unified front with regard to parenting that creates a healthy environment for growth for their children.
Boundaries are another area Family Counselors will look at. This includes seeing how the family interacts with the world outside the family. This dynamic is critical to the way in which family members’ needs are being met within the family circle. Families fill two social needs: the need for individuality and the need for community.
Families that have permeable boundaries are able to negotiate between both of those as the needs of various family members change. There are, however, three kinds of boundaries that will hinder growth: rigid, enmeshed, and diffuse.
Rigid boundaries are characteristic of a system that is closed. Family members are completely absorbed in maintaining the delicate balance between members and so fail at supporting the individual growth of each person. Families with rigid boundaries have authoritarian parents who maintain complete control over their children.
In this type of family, children are not permitted to learn by means of the process of trial and error. The parents dictate what they are to think, and they are forced to immediately comply with all directions.
The authoritarian parents, similar to a drill sergeant training his soldiers for battle, communicate that they are the supreme thinkers and no one else in the family is smart enough to think on their own. Parents fear losing control or that perhaps their children will acquire a different belief system. It is very easy for religious families to fall into this type of boundary system.
Train up a child in the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. – Proverbs 22:6
There is a big difference between child-training and dictating how to think. In child-training, a child is given decision-making skills within appropriate boundaries. Children must be given the ability to choose if they are to become fully functioning adults. Without it, children will likely reject a correct belief system for the sake of expressing a sense of individuality.
Family Counselors will help a family that has rigid boundaries to learn how to impart their beliefs and values without violating their child’s individuality. Children do need firm guidelines that include expectations for appropriate behavior along with consequences for disobedience and the opportunity to start over in an environment of love and forgiveness.
Conversely, families with enmeshed boundaries function like a helicopter hovering over the children. The parents’ main goal is the protection of children from any type of harm or hurt so that they never suffer.
Simple things like taking a child’s lunch to school when he forgot, arguing with a coach for not allowing the child to play enough, or going over every detail of a child’s homework fall in this category.
The big challenge for Family Counselors is that on the surface these behaviors look loving and caring. However, they ultimately damage the child’s ability to function socially.
Enmeshed parents are generally needy people. They may have a background of abuse or neglect and they do not want their children to experience whatever it was that they went through. There are two problems with this: first, it deprives the child of necessary growth experiences and it instills within the child unrealistic expectations of how the world functions.
Worse, enmeshed parents communicate a subtle message: “You can’t survive on your own, you need me to make you stronger.” Children need to be taught how to fulfill their own needs.
Discipline your children, and they will give you peace, they will bring you the delights you desire. – Proverbs 29:17
Finally, families with diffuse boundaries must learn how to engage with each other. This type of family has neither rules nor expectations, amounting to every person for himself. Children must raise themselves. Parents either desire a friendship with their children or just to be left completely alone.
Usually, the parents are overwhelmed with life’s stresses and simply don’t have the emotional space to focus on their family. The children live on the wild side and are exposed to all sorts of harm. Then they have no one to turn to for help when they need it. In this situation, a Family Counselor spends a lot of time helping the parents learn how to parent, get support, and facilitate family engagement.
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly on them. – Ecclesiastes 9:12
Generally, families fall into multiple categories. Throughout the life of a family, there will be challenges in the marriage. However, learning how to be intentional, instead of reactive to stressful situations will make all the difference in growing a healthy marriage. Further, unexpected situations such as a job loss or a health crisis can plunge a family into one of the boundary types mentioned above.
That being said, at times, a crisis is the exact thing needed for a family to address structural issues that were neglected when things were running smoothly. Family Counselors will attempt to take a bird’s eye view of what is contributing to any symptoms of a member of the family.
Treating a person within their family system is the best way of assuring a healthy outcome from family counseling. If your family is having problems or going through a significant life transition, contact us. We are waiting to help.
“Selfie time,” Courtesy of CreativeWix.com, pexels.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “FamilyTime,” Courtesy of David Amsler, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Mother & Daughter, ” Courtesy of Mario Campello, Flickr Creative Commons; “Fathering,” courtesy of Olichel, pixabay.com, CC0 License