In many life situations, families may be asked to undergo family therapy or counseling. While many readily agree, others are hesitant, thinking that only the dysfunctional member should be treated for their issues. As far as the others are concerned, everybody is fine except for that one person.
Therapists, however, know that this is incorrect. As an integrated unit, the dynamics within the family affect each member, with some more adversely impacted than others. Research has also shown that family members may be the enablers of the “unwanted behavior” of their struggling loved one.
From a Christian counselor’s perspective, if the marriage is strong and the family boundaries are healthy, then that family should be able to function well. If it is not strong, then that is where the negative issues stem from.
Focusing on the Family Unit
Different therapists use different theories when assisting the family. One model that has been quite helpful for Christian counselors is Structural Family Therapy by Salvador Minuchin (Families and Family Therapy, 1974). His theory focuses on the internal family relationships, authority levels, and family boundaries with the environment. Using this theory together with Scripture, a Christian counselor is able to get to the heart of the family’s problems.
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.”
It is very clear from Scripture that faithfulness to the marriage covenant is necessary for a healthy family. “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21, NIV)” is necessary for a Christian marriage to succeed. When done, family roles are complemented, emotional needs are met, and each member is able to grow and mature. When it is not, then much hurt arises.
Is the Union of Husband and Wife Strong?
Most people know that when a couple separates much emotional harm is done to the children. The kids may blame themselves; they may feel ashamed among their peers; they may distrust the marriage process, or they may become hostile to one or both of their parents.
What many do not realize is that kids often suffer more from a family structure that is still physically together yet the parents do not love one another – whether overtly or covertly. Now, this is not to suggest that parents ought to separate.
It is simply to emphasize that staying together for the sake of the kids is still going to hurt the children in the long run. For a family unit to be strong, there must be real love and respect between husband and wife. This union needs to be encouraged and strengthened.
How a Struggling Marriage Affects the Kids
In a troubled marriage, the focus of the spouses becomes the children, which is the only reason why the parents are still together. Since the spouses do not love one another anymore, their love is given to their children, drawing the children into the parents’ conflict.
A common result is seen in families when one of the children misbehaves – one parent punishes the child, while the other “rescues” him or her. The parents then come together to discuss the issue. This is called triangulation, where a third party (the child) acts as the “connection” between the opposing two (the parents).
Kids, however, are smart. They often see this as one way to keep their parents together so they continue their bad behavior in order for both parents to stick around. The problem here is that the parents are still not truly together and the child has picked up bad habits which may become much bigger problems (e.g. failing grades, substance abuse, defiance of authority, truancy, self-harm) later on. Oftentimes in therapy, these “bigger problems” are already occurring which is why family therapy has been recommended for the sake of the child.
Solving the Problem by Fixing the Marriage
When treating a family, the Christian family counselor usually starts with the marriage relationship and its effects on everybody else. The spouses are encouraged to settle their differences and rekindle the love that was once there so that the family unit can become strong once more. They are then taught how to deal with the negative behavior and how to come up with a parental approach for future issues.
For example, in the case of a triangulated child, the spouses are informed of the dynamics playing out in the family, how the child is misbehaving simply for the parents’ sake, and how the child is not able to be a child because of the concern of keeping the family together. The parents are then taught how to help the child overcome their issues, and the parents are encouraged to meet one another’s needs so that they will not destroy the family dynamics again.
Examining the Family Boundaries
The other area that the counselor examines is the family boundaries. The way the family interacts with the world around it greatly affects the family members. Ideally, a family should have permeable boundaries where family’s limits (e.g. family curfew, family’s cultural and religious beliefs) are known and respected, yet are flexible enough to allow the individual members to explore who they are. But if the family’s boundaries are rigid, enmeshed, or diffuse, then problems usually arise.
Some families have very rigid boundaries. In such a family, parents exercise authoritarian control, requiring members to strictly follow rules and ways of conduct, stifling individualism. Often, kids are not allowed to voice their opinions or do things their way lest they face harsh punishment. Because of the family’s fear of outside influence, members may not be allowed to interact much with others. They often come home directly after school and are not allowed to go out with friends.
This environment is very negative as children either become dependent upon their parents or end up rebelling. Disorders such as anxiety or depression may also develop because of such rigidness.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in training and instruction of the Lord. – Ephesians 6:4
In counseling, the parents are reminded that their children must learn to think and not be told what to think. If the kids cannot learn to figure things out on their own, they will suffer in school, work and in their future family. The counselor works with the family so that cultural and religious beliefs are still taught but with the proper guidelines within an atmosphere of love, not fear.
Opposite to ridged boundaries are enmeshed ones. In this family type, parents are overprotective and involved, hovering around their kids to ensure that they are always okay. These are the parents who end up completing their children’s homework, arguing with the teacher or coach when their child is not given a chance, ensuring that their kids always have an advantage over others.
While the motives may seem good, as every parent would want their child to be safe and have all possible benefits, this type of parenting does not allow their children to develop the confidence, independence, and emotional flexibility they will need to deal with the real world.
Hence, they end up with maturity and dependence issues, leaning upon their parents as they never learned how to take care of themselves growing up. Some even become disillusioned with the world as things are seemingly tougher than expected when they reach adulthood.
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
For enmeshed parenting households, the counselor tries to get the parents to realize the negative effects of all their worrying and babying. By robbing their children of opportunities to grow on their own, they rob them of their true potential. Such parents are asked to “let go” so that their children can truly grow. They are encouraged to trust in our good, powerful, and all-knowing God who definitely wants the best for everyone.
The third negative family type is the one with diffuse boundaries. These are usually families where the parents were unprepared for parenthood (or never wanted a child in the first place) or the parents are too preoccupied with work. In such families, there are no real rules or expectations, except perhaps not to break the law (or if you do, then don’t get caught). It is basically every person for themselves.
As the parents are not willing to be parents, kids are expected to become independent early. Older siblings take care of the younger ones. Emotional support is barely ever there as the parents are just not interested or are too tired. For affluent parents, kids may be sent off to boarding school or they may just be given a lot of money and told to stay out of trouble. For those with no means, the children often grow up in the streets, learning from the peer system that they encounter there.
Discipline your children, and they will give you peace, they will bring you the delights you desire. – Proverbs 29:17
For families with diffuse boundaries, the counselor helps the parents get the needed support to do what they need to do, yet balance their time with the kids. They may also be taught parenting skills and the importance of love and care within the family. In the sessions, family engagement is another key so that members may actually begin to communicate with one another in the hope that such communication continues on at home.
Getting Help from Christian Family Counseling
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
No family is ever perfect. And even if it started off well, challenges often pop up that require a family to change. Christian family counseling is there to help family units surpass these obstacles with Christ’s help. The Christian counselor will take a look at the big picture to strengthen both the marriage bond and the connection with the children to ensure that everyone can function well.
If your family or a family you know is experiencing family issues, it is important to seek help soon. Addressing the issues early one can prevent a bigger family crisis from occurring.
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