“We’re fighting in the streets,
With our children at our feet”
Children are as integral to the family unit as the primary care givers. Occasionally, however, they are lost during times of struggle and strife. Their reactions to conflict say as much, if not more, about a given situation than many parents expect.
Many families enter therapy in response to what they see as disruptive behavior in one child or more children. The session begins as an attempt to answer the wrong question, “What’s wrong with child X?” The family therapist steers the family away from finger-pointing or laying blame, but towards getting to the root of a behavior. By asking appropriate questions, a good therapist will focus on answering, “Why is the child compelled to behave this way?”
Much of a child’s aberrant behavior is the result of an attempt to solve a problem within the family, or to express feelings he or she can’t quite talk about with family members. For example, children who witness their parents beginning to drift apart, fight or threaten divorce, may act out as an attempt to bring the parents back together. By creating a problem that can only be solved by both parents, the child hopes to be the force that keeps the family unit intact.
Many teens who are preparing to leave home notice the growing anxiety between parents who will soon be alone for the first time in almost two decades. In an effort to stall this uncomfortable confrontation, teens may suddenly begin acting out, or spiraling downward with an accelerating rate of failure. Parents unknowingly contribute to this downward spiral by reinforcing these behaviors, thus ensuring that their child continues to live at home and act as a buffer between parents who have difficulty communicating with one another.
Still, some relationships are irreconcilable, and end in divorce. Although 49% of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, an equally important statistic is that 80% of divorcees remarry. The United States has more than 20 million stepparents, with one third of them raising children who are not their own.
Feelings of betrayal run strongly in children who are raised by a stepparent. Should they enjoy time with the stepparent, they feel as though they have stabbed the absent parent in the back; they feel guilty for “replacing” the absent parent. A child feels forced to walk a thin line between love and loyalty. The child loves both parents, yet in wanting to be loyal to one they have to betray the other.
Family Therapy, with its focus on the individual within the family system, initiaties a dialogue that, through open communication, can illuminate unexpressed feelings and attitudes. Children and teens grow up at the core element of the family unit, and are more in tune with the family’s dynamics than people credit. They tend to shoulder undue responsibility for the family. They must realize that the problems of their parents are not their responsibility.