Here’s a scenario I see again and again — a parent drags a kid into therapy 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 teens have legitimate mental health disorders. But often, they’re 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?
Now, when I say that to parents, they think I’m crazy (much like you might right now). How could I say a child’s negative behaviors are helpful to the family?
Let’s look at one example. Let’s say Johnny’s mother is depressed. Johnny’s like most kids – he’s used to Mom 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, works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling based in Worthington, Ohio. He has 12 years of experience working with children, teens, families and couples. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s a columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565 or schedule directly online at carlgrodylisws.clientsecure.me.)