So I work with families, right? Big families. Little families. Single parents. Partnered parents. Parents with infants. Parents with teens. Families.
For many complex, varied, and multifaceted reasons, the families I work with are having difficult times. Every family I've ever worked with has wanted to see behavioral change in their children. This is completely logical ... as I'm a child and family therapist; I don't get called when the forecast is sunny and a high of 72.
Child behavior doesn't exist in a vacuum. Families are dynamic, restless creatures with complicated interactions. For me, working with children automatically brings a family component. So, as a professional kid worker, here's some of what I know:
We have to model the behavior we want to see in our kids.
If we want our kids to model gentleness and problem solving, we have to model that.
If we want our kids to get along well with peers, we have to model that.
If we want our kids to display honesty, we have to model honesty.
If we want our kids to be more compassionate, we have to model that.
If we want our kids to stop yelling at us, their peers, the dog, we have to model respectful communication.
Is it always that simple? Of course not. At any given time, there are always a myriad of factors that are taken into account and other points of clinical focus. Am I implying that all families who have children with explosive anger have parents who have explosive anger? A resounding no. However, this is something I find coming up again and again in my work with families. Am I trying to shame families? Oh, please, dear hearts, no. Not at all. There are varied and complex reasons why these behaviors aren't being modeled.
I get that.
But it's a place for growth to begin for the entire family.
Often to introduce whatever change is needed, I work with the family to facilitate a "Full Values Family Contract." Family members (sometimes this has included dogs and cats, too. I'm not picky!) trace their hands on posterboard in a circle. On the inside of the circle we write down what values we want to keep or increase; values such as honesty, respect, fun, laughter, etc. often show up here. On the outside of the circle, we write down what we'd like to leave behind or chance; often, this includes dynamics such as yelling, fighting, and lying. I've found that it is incredibly validating for children to see their guardians participate in this and take ownership for behaviors they would also like to change. It is often a point in which families, even if just for a moment, experience a shared moment of being: This is who we are. This is how we are strong.
We, as adults, have to be examples of what we want to see in our children. I would even go so far as to say it is not fair or reasonable to ask our children to exhibit behavior we ourselves have not mastered. Am I saying parents need to be perfect? Dear heart, please. What kind of a family therapist would I be if I thought parents could be perfect?
What an amazing opportunity for growth. What would happen if we modeled taking a risk to change for the better? What would happen if we modeled grace and compassion for ourselves as we tried new things? What exactly would our kids be seeing? (Our kids, by the way, are geniuses - smart and savvy in surprising ways.)
This, for me, is an exciting part of family therapy. The implications are tremendous.
Effective change. We all jump on board.