At the beginning of family therapy, things often seem very different than they are. This is the case in the following example.
Brad, an architect, brought his 15 year-old son, Will, into therapy to address Will’s anger. Will’s mother Karen was not able to come to therapy because of work conflicts. As Will sat quietly with a stern look on his face, Brad described to me his violent outbursts at home and school. He described all of the efforts that he and Karen had made to discipline Will, everything from unconditional acceptance to heavy-handed punishments. They were at their wit’s end and felt that Will was out of control.
I asked Brad if he would be willing to try something that could help us begin to understand Will’s behavior a little better. He agreed and I asked him to imagine a recent situation in which Will became angry. He told me that just last week Will got in trouble at school for pushing another boy, and I asked him to imagine it happening as though it were happening right now. He closed his eyes and after a second or two, he said “I’m there.” I told him to try changing the situation in his imagination. Now he was to imagine that same scene about to happen but this time he was to know that Will would never do anything violent. I repeated that a few times as Brad kept his eyes closed, “There is Will at school and you know he would never push another kid. Just stay there and see how that feels.”
Brad began to look uncomfortable. I waited a few moments and ask what was happening. He told me “If Will doesn’t stand up for himself, he’ll get squashed.” I asked him to stay with that feeling for now, and then asked “How do you know that kids who don’t stand up for themselves get squashed?” Brad looked down for a moment and started telling me about how severely he was bullied when he was growing up. I responded by asking “Do I understand this correctly? When you picture Will being committed never to acting out violently, you fear that he will get squashed just like you did growing up. Is that right?”
Brad nodded and said yes. I then asked him to say that to Will and Will’s eyes brightened for the first time since he had arrived. Brad said, “If you don’t stand up for yourself, you’ll get squashed just like I did.” I asked Brad if it would feel true to say that that a part of him was glad that Will stood up for himself the way he had never done. Brad agreed and then said that to Will, “Even though I really do hate it when you get in trouble at school, part of me is glad you stand up for yourself the way I never did.”
When I asked Will how that felt, he said, “Good.” Then he turned to his father before I could ask him to and told him, “That felt good.” I told the two of them that this may be enough to help the situation, and asked Brad to call me in two weeks.
When he did, he said that things were much better between him and his son, and that there had been no incidents since our session. He said that he would call if they needed another one.
It can be the case in families that parents send hidden messages to their kids. In this family, when that message was brought out into the open and admitted by Brad, communication was restored and things got much better. Not all cases of family therapy are resolved so quickly, but when we know how to look for the hidden emotional truth, even the toughest problems can improve.