People sometimes tell me that their family needs therapy, but nobody in the family would ever agree to come.

My advice: Come without them.

I know that sounds like nonsense. How can you figure out who’s to blame without the whole family there? How can you help people see where they’re wrong? How can you tell them what to fix when they’re not in the room?

I can’t, but that’s OK. Those aren’t the things that I do, anyway. It’s not my job to decide who’s right or wrong, or to point the accusing finger of blame, or to prescribe miracle cures for your family. Instead, my job is to get to know you, to understand your stories as individuals and as a group, and to explore with you possible small changes that should lead to larger, positive changes in the family system.

How we do that together is by exploring not only what happens when the problem is present, but what’s going on when the problem doesn’t have the family in its grip. We call these moments “exceptions to the problem behavior,” but maybe we ought to call them, “stuff you do most of the time but don’t notice because things are going well when you do them.”

Still, wouldn’t we need more than one family member in the room to help create positive change? Ideally, yes, but it’s not necessary. That’s because the family is a system. (If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you can skip this paragraph; you’ve heard this before.) A system is simply a pattern of communications, behaviors, and reactions to those behaviors that happen over and over again. For example, if a kid habitually leaves his dirty boots in the kitchen instead of the mud room, his mother might habitually react by getting mad and yelling at him. If she starts to get really angry, then Dad will jump in to calm Mom down, like he always does. And when Dad jumps in, then Sister … well, you get the idea.

To create change, we don’t need 10 people on the edge of their seats in my office. (I don’t even have 10 seats in my office.) We just need one person who’s willing to break the pattern. If that person changes what they do, everyone else has to change their reactions, too.

For example, I had one client who came to see me because of a relative’s relationship with Depression. The relative had a life change that damaged how he saw himself, and she was worried that Depression would never let him go. He also refused to come see me. But she kept coming in, and we explored possible ways that she could change how she reacted to him. She started concentrating on the positive things that he did, and she worked piece by piece to help him see that he still had value and potential. Gradually, Depression loosened its hold on him even though he never showed up in my office.

One final thought – often, teens are the ones who don’t want to come to family therapy. That’s OK. Much of my family work involves meeting with just the parents, anyway. But if you really want your teenager to attend family therapy, just say this: “You don’t have to go with us, but we’re going anyway, and we’re going to be talking about you.”

Works almost every time.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy. He’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

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