Family therapists have to apply a model of “healthy functioning” to diagnose and assist a family when they are having problems. There are different models and ways of conceptualizing family problems. As a therapist who helps families coming from a Christian worldview, I start with models that can be transposed from that perspective.For example, Structural Family Therapy, theorized by Salvador Minuchin (Minuchin, S. 1974. Families and Family Therapy), focuses on relationships within the family, levels of authority, and boundaries the family has with its’ environment.
Malachi 2:15 (NIV) reads, “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 be unfaithful to the wife or your youth.”
This passage deals with family structure. God’s plan for the family is a faithful marriage covenant that produces “Godly offspring”. The purpose of this article is to focus on how a strong marriage unit with authoritative, permeable boundaries, creates an optimal environment for growth and maturity of its members.
In the Christian worldview, marriage unit is the executive subsystem of a family. “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21, NIV)” is the vehicle a Christian marriage seeks in order to complement roles and fulfill each other emotional needs. This relational dyad, when functioning well, becomes the emotional foundation on which children can rely for growth and maturity.
I have worked with many couples who admit to a negative relationship, but say they are “staying together for the children”. They somehow believe that children are not affected by a bad marriage and that their individual relationship with the child will be enough.
Scientific research on this idea shows the opposite effect on a child’s self-esteem when parents’ have a bad marriage. In other words, it is a myth that staying together for the “sake of the children” is better for them.
Living with overt (or covert) hostility between parents negatively affects their self-esteem regardless of the parent-child relationship. Children seem to suffer less from parents who divorce versus parents with a conflictual marriage that stay together. The goal here is not divorce, but to strengthen the marriage as a way of helping the family’s functioning.
When my children were younger, they always loved stories about the courtship of my wife and me. They would ask us to tell them the stories over and over with glee.
Based on the above research, I would theorize that my children’s love of the stories had to do with their basic developmental drive to learn how to acquire love. It may be that seeing a living example of how love works is a more important ingredient to building a child’s self-esteem than receiving it more directly from an individual parent.
When treating a family, a Family Counselor will often look at the marriage relationship and how it functions in relation to the rest of the family. In a troubled marriage, one or both spouses may transfer their couple’s connection to one of the children. This dynamic is called “triangulating” the child.
The idea here is that the parents cannot maintain stability in their relationship, so they stick their child in between to buffer the disconnect. A common dynamic I see in families is when the child misbehaves, one parent disciplines and the other one rescues. The parents then address their lack of connection by coming together and focusing on the “problem” with the child.
As long as the child maintains the bad behavior, the parents have a reason or purpose to connect. Since children want love to be predictable they adapt by perpetuating the behavior problem and the parents over/under function to balance their relationship.
What a Family Counselor would want for a family with a triangulated child would be a realignment of the family structure. Helping the mother and father address the nature of this disconnect and the involvement of their child is the first task to be accomplished.
Next is helping the couple work together in meeting the developmental needs of their child, versus the child’s problems perpetuating the family dysfunction. Parents need to meet each other’s needs to avoid over-involvement with their children.
Children that grow up in homes where they have to fill the gap of the unmet needs of the parents grow up feeling alone because they had to abandon childhood patterns of behavior in order to accommodate their parent. It is essential in family counseling to help the parents learn to meet each other needs and come up with a joint parenting approach to create an environment of nurturing growth for the children.
Another area that family counselors look at to strengthen families is their boundaries. How the family interacts with the outside world has great significance for how individual needs are met within the family unit. Families fulfill two basic social needs for human beings: our need for togetherness and our needs to become an individual.
A family with permeable boundaries is able to shift between the two states to adjust to needs of its’ members. However, there are three types of family boundaries that hinder growth and cause symptoms amongst its’ members: rigid, enmeshed, and diffuse boundaries.
Rigid boundaries in a family are a closed system. Families member are so preoccupied with maintaining the balance amongst its members, that they fail to support the growth of the individual. In a family with rigid boundaries, the parental unit exerts authoritarian control over the children.
Children are not allowed to learn through trial and error. They are told what to think and are forced to comply with directions. Like a drill sergeant preparing his troops for battle, the authoritarian parents communicate to their family that they are “too stupid to think for themselves”. The parents are afraid of losing control or that the children have ideas outside the family belief system. Religious families can fall into this trap.
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
The difference between training a child and telling them how to think is in training they are given some decision-making ability within boundaries to learn. To become a fully functioning individual, children need to have the ability to choose. When a child does not have the ability to choose, they may even reject a good belief system to establish their individuality.
A family counselor would assist a family with rigid boundaries to how to teach their beliefs without squashing the children’s individuality. Children need firm guidelines, expectations about behavior, consequences that teach when they fail, and the opportunity to try again in an atmosphere of love.
Enmeshed boundaries are the opposite of ridged ones. In this type of family, the parental unit functions more like a helicopter hovering over the children. The parental motive here is to protect the children from all of life’s hurts and injustices so they don’t suffer.
Bringing a child’s lunch to school when he forgets, arguing with a coach for not playing their kid enough, or going over every inch of the child’s homework and helping them to complete it all fall within the realm of an enmeshed parent.
The challenge for a Family Counselor in these types of families is that outwardly these appear to be really caring behaviors. However, they tend to have a detrimental effect on the child’s ability to function in the real world.
Enmeshed parents are often needy themselves. They have come from a family with a lot of neglect or abuse, so they don’t want their child to experience the same things that they went through. The problem with this is twofold: it robs the child of growth experiences that they need to mature and it gives them an unrealistic expectation of how the real world works.
Worst of all, the enmeshed parent communicates the subtle message, “you need me to survive in the world, you’re too weak to make it on your own”. I like to tell my children that if I could meet all their needs perfectly they can pray to me when they grow up. Since I can’t, they are better off being trained how to navigate their dependency needs.
Lastly, the family with diffuse boundaries needs to learn how to engage with each other. This kind of family has no rules or expectations. In a sense, it is every person for themselves. Children are left to raise themselves and parents either want to be friends with their kids or just be left alone.
Discipline your children, and they will give you peach, they will bring you the delights you desire. – Proverbs 29:17
Often, the parents are completely overwhelmed with the demands of their lives and don’t have space to focus on their families. Children run wild and get exposed to all kinds of harm and they end up having nowhere to turn for help. In this kind of family, a Family Counselor will spend a lot of time helping the parents to get support, learn how to parent, and facilitate engagement within the family.
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
Typically, no family falls neatly into any one category. In the lifespan of a family, everyone goes through challenges in their marriage. Learning to be intentional (rather than reactive) about growth is the task for all couples. Further, different outside stresses on a family like job losses or health crises can throw a family into one of the dysfunctional boundary types described above.
A crisis can often be the impetus a family needs to reorganize and address structural problems that easier times would have allowed them to neglect. Family Counselors will try to look at the bigger picture of what is driving the symptoms of a family member.
Treating the person within their family system is the goal of a Family Counselor. If one or more of your family members are having problems or your family is going through a major life transition, give us a call. The Family Counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling are ready to assist you.
“Together”, Courtesy of Drew Hays, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Heritage”, Courtesy of Cheryl Winn Boujnida, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Shadows on a Wall”, Courtesy of Igor Ovsyannykov, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Spiritual Headship”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com; CC0 License