Healing the Family℠ means Changing the Culture of your family
Our work is all about restoring and healing the family. The word “restoring” might bring to your mind the sense of optimism and excitement you experienced when you first married and began having children. Despite the challenges associated with the early period of marriage, it is very likely you had a sense of great hope. You and your spouse had periods of optimism about the wonderful possibilities that marriage and family would bring. But over time, and for a variety of reasons, immediate difficulties and distractions presented by life may have gotten in the way. Although we may have had the goal of providing a safe place for our children to grow into the best possible family, over time, things got in the way and prevented this.
Slowly, and almost undetectably, our family acquires a culture – a way of interacting with each other, based upon unwritten rules and patterns of behavior, some of which we inherited from our families of origin, others that we adopted because of some efforts on our part to choose how we want to behave and how we want our children to behave. These “rules” that seem to predominate and govern our families may be unwritten, but they are not undiscoverable. One of the things that prevents us from seeing them, and how they create unhealthy patterns of behavior in our families, is that the rules we fail to recognize have created a sense of safety for us. But at the same time, they also create some maladaptive behaviors that often prevent us from demonstrating real, unconditional love to each other.
Changing the culture of your family may seem like a scary process,
but there is no other way of healing the family℠
Developing healthy boundaries and setting love in order
In order to see these unwritten rules, a safe environment must be created to reflect on why we do things in a certain way. For most people, this process is challenging and rewarding. It is challenging because the process forces us to confront some uncomfortable truths: Perhaps I do not demonstrate unconditional love for my children? Perhaps the things my parents taught me about love are inaccurate or were misguided? If I change my behavior, is it not a judgment against what I have been taught? One of the best ways of creating a safe environment in the home is to reflect on what makes healthy boundaries, which demonstrates well-ordered love. Why well-ordered? Because boundaries keep our relationships safe.
It is natural to feel conflicted about the process of examining your family dynamics and how you establish boundaries in the home, but the rewards that come from this reflection are profound. Chances are, you might have learned growing up that you needed to side with one of your parents during a conflict in order to feel safe. For example: When you agreed with one parent against the other, it brought about certain intangible rewards for you, although you did not realize it at the time. By being accustomed to seeing your relationship with this parent as “feeling safe” when pitted against the other, you were actually participating in what is called “triangulation,” a very unhealthy family dynamic that is, unfortunately, very common in our families.
In understanding what makes triangulation unhealthy, we see that in our example the “safe” parent has created what is called an enmeshed boundary. Rather than allowing the child to have his or her own ideas, and to feel safe disagreeing with the parent, enmeshment creates a false sense of security that robs the child of the opportunity of healthy discovery of who he or she is called to be. Moreover, in this example, the child is not allowed to create a healthy relationship with the parent on his or her own terms.
When boundaries are healthy and effective, love falls in order. When parents have sufficient self-awareness, it helps their child express disagreements in a healthy and respectful manner. Kids can say “no” without being disrespectful, but more importantly, they can say “yes” and feel good about it. Healthy boundaries establish a context for behavior based upon mutual respect. When family members respect each other and feel safe to disagree from time to time, love falls into place as a manifestation of accepting others for who they are. In healthy families, boundaries create strong attachments, a good sense of self, and establish patterns of interacting with each other that set the stage for sound relationships and real friendships outside the home.
Understanding intergenerational patterns of family and hereditary wounding
Our ways of establishing boundaries seem to be inherited from our own parents or caregivers. If you take a moment and think about family traditions, many of them are consciously imported from our families of origin or our culture, and this is a healthy and effective way of transmitting things that are important to us. How we celebrate holidays such as Christmas and Independence Day are largely formed in us by how we were raised, and there are many healthy reasons to maintain our way of celebrating these holidays. When we celebrate these holidays as a family, we demonstrate to our children that we have a religious and social identity that we want them to have, too.
We also have subtle ways of interacting with each other that may not be healthy, especially when compared to the traditions cited above. We have likely met people who are uncomfortable merely expressing their wants or needs, but find they need to ask for things in a way that demeans others. Rather than asking for quiet time alone, for instance, someone may have the habit of using unhealthy behaviors or communication patterns to convey what they want, provoking fights or conflict that is used to manipulate others.
In order to understand where we learned these behaviors, we must start with our own family history, looking at our grandparents and extended relatives to uncover subtle messages that we may not even be aware exist. This process can sometimes be frightening, but with some thoughtful engagement, we can find it to be very rewarding when combined with an attitude that we are not seeking to blame our parents for the mistakes we made, but merely to become aware of our unresolved wounds. In doing this, we identify dysfunctional patterns of behavior that take away from our expression of unconditional love toward our family members.
Transforming communication to emotional intimacy
When we understand where our ineffective behaviors arise, we may be in a position to change some of them. A key feature of healing the family℠is understanding emotional intimacy and the different levels that exist to help us understand and grow with each other. Too often, our conversations lack the depth to be meaningful. It is impossible, and somewhat unhealthy, to try and have the deepest level of intimacy in every relationship, but many of our families live from day to day on the most superficial levels. Simply put, our children are starving for more of us, but if we can’t, or won’t, allow them to access those parts of ourselves that lie deep within, they will search for more with others, sometimes in unhealthy ways.
Every child longs for safe people with whom we can express our deepest desires. Tragically, however, some families have a very superficial way of interacting with each other and have very surface levels of intimacy. In order to combat this, we need to look at things that may have wounded us, have made us afraid to express the deepest desires of our heart to those in our family. For some families, this is a quick process, for others it takes a long time. But if we are willing to challenge ourselves, we can take low levels of communication and intentionally move them into deeper levels of emotional intimacy, especially within our family.
A change can take place when members of the family intentionally change their communication styles to reflect deeper levels of intimacy. In healing the family℠, we walk with our clients through the process of learning new communication skills and techniques so that we can demonstrate our desire to reach the deepest level of emotional intimacy.
Resolving long-standing conflicts between family members
Many parents think that their children are being rebellious when they do not comply with the “house rules” or follow what the parents ask them to do. This is not always the case. Sometimes children rebel from their parents because they feel unsafe. It is common to work with families who have a child who behaves well at school or when participating in clubs and social activities but is obstructive or defiant in the home. When parents take the behaviors of such a child personally and do not recognize the behavior as a sign of some real (albeit subjective) wound on the part of the child, little progress can be made.
Personal wounds between family members can create significant barriers toward greater emotional intimacy. After all, who wants to be intimate with someone who has hurt us? We work with families to identify and heal sources of conflict in the family so that a more durable connection can be build between family members, creating an opportunity for the family to have a more solid foundation upon which to build a healthy family culture.
Learning new and effective communication styles
We work with families to understand how they communicate love and how they use what Chapman calls “love languages.” People have different ways of feeling loved by and expressing love toward others. Some like to give gifts, other like to hear words of affirmation. We work with your family to understand what each person’s love language may be and how to honor the love language of another. If you feel loved when people give you gifts, you may find it easy to give gifts to others. However, if you have a family member who feels love from words of affirmation, the other person may feel as though you do not love him or her if all you do is give gifts, but never affirm the person verbally. We help you recognize what each member of your family responds to and how to demonstrate appropriate tokens of love according to various love languages. This is a powerful component to increasing emotional intimacy in the family and helps each person learn greater respect for each other.
Healing deep wounds
When a child gets a physical wound, he or she typically runs to a parent, shows the wound, and the parent bandages the wound. When a child comes to us for healing of surface wounds like this, he or she is showing us that we are trusted, safe, and that we have something that the child needs. Parents are able to provide this level of security when they have the skills and time to be attentive to the physical needs of the child. It is important to note, too, that healthy families do not arrange every detail of a child’s life so that the child never gets a scrape or cut, but rather provides for the child’s healing when a scrape or cut happens.
Healing emotional wounds are much more difficult. Most of us started our families when our children were young and we instinctively made our families a safe place, bathe, fed, safe place to sleep. As needs become complex we need to think about emotional, psychological, and developmental needs. These areas are where most of us face challenges and frequently the source of deep wounds. The goal of a healthy family is not to prevent a child from ever suffering, but to have the means by which a child may recover from his or her injuries. Most families have a first aid kit with bandages and things to clean a cut, but we equip your family with an emotional first aid kit so that when people feel hurt in daily life, they may come to each other in the family for support and healing – on a daily basis.
Healthy differentiation of self
Most of us will have no trouble seeing ourselves in our children. But have we ever stopped to think of how many of our behaviors (both healthy and unhealthy) are patterned by what we learned from our parents and even grandparents?
Consider how we choose what we do in our free time. It is likely that if you loved sports as a child, you will want your children to play sports too. This is especially true if your father and his father loved sports. If you were taught how to sew or to quilt, and learned these skills from your mother and grandmother, you may find it meaningful to teach this to your children and to spend time with them sewing or quilting. Again, these activities are not in themselves either healthy or unhealthy, but howdo we get our children to do these activities that we were taught to enjoy?
If our children do not want to do what we like, do we allow them to be different? It is important to understand that not every act of detachment from a parent is a sign of rebellion. When we understand appropriate boundaries, when we can demonstrate effective language of what love means, we are able to foster healthy differentiation of self in our children.
When children have their fundamental need to be loved met in a tangible way that demonstrates members of the family, especially the primary care givers, honor the child and love the child, wonderful results happen that allow the child to take ownership of his or her own gifts and talents in a way that they can make their own contribution to the family and to society. However, this is impossible when the primary needs of the individual are not being met by the family. A child will find it very difficult to develop a healthy sense of self if their fundamental need for feeling attached to parents and the family is not met.
Click here to read Christopher Doyle's new article in Issues in Law Medicine about IHF's Healing the Family intensive counseling.
Please contact our office if you would like more information about Healing the Family intensive counseling for your family: E-mail: IHFINFO@InstituteforHealthyFamilies.org or by phone at: (703) 367-0894.