Here’s a scenario that I see again and again — a parent walks into my office dragging a child who doesn’t want to be there, looks at me with a grimace, and says, “Here’s my kid! Fix ’em!”
There are cases where children and adolescents have legitimate mental health disorders. But often, children and teens are simply playing out their parts in a system of behaviors that makes up your family. Put another way, everyone in a family reacts to everyone else, and your kid’s job is to act out.
That’s why family therapy is so important. It’s not enough to sit a child down and try to convince him why he’s wrong and why he has to change. We need to discover the function of the behavior in the family — or more simply, how does the family benefit from the behavior? If you figure that out, you can make changes so that the behavior isn’t needed anymore.
Now, when I say that to parents, they often look at me like I’m crazy. How could I say that a child’s negative behaviors are helpful to the family?
Let’s look at one example. Let’s say that Johnny’s mother is depressed about a loss. She might have lost a loved one, or a beloved pet, or it might even be as simple as she noticed crow’s feet in the mirror and is mourning her lost youth. Johnny’s like most kids – he’s used to his mother getting mad, but he’s confused by her sadness. He doesn’t know how to handle that. So Johnny does the only thing he can to “help” his mother. He breaks a rule in such a way that he’s sure to get caught. His mother gets mad, anger gives her energy to deal with Johnny, and what do you know — Johnny just “fixed” his mother.
That’s one simple example of how a negative behavior serves a purpose in the family. There are countless others. That’s why it’s important to consider the situation from everyone’s point of view and then come up with ideas together to help make positive changes. When those changes happen, the negative behavior is no longer needed.
Individual counseling can be a valuable piece of making positive change, and it does seem easier to just drop off your child and tell the therapist to, “Fix ’em!” But even if your child responds well to individual counseling, he’s likely to return to his old behaviors because the family system is the same, and thus his role in the family system is status quo as well. Positive change is much easier to create and maintain by working with the entire family.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy. He’s in private practice at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio, and he’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. He’s also the family therapist columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)