I don’t need therapy, they are the one with the problem! How does talking about it fix things between us? This will just make the fighting worse! You are meeting with a family in your office for the second time. This family is composed of a parent, grandparent, and two preteens and everyone appears on edge. You track body language and energy in the room as you begin to explore what family therapy means to each of them. You notice the crossed arms of the preteens, the angry face of the parent, and the withdrawn quality of the grandparent sitting farthest away in the room. How do you respond? What will engage each of them in this process of healing to strengthen their relationships?
When first engaging a family, it can be extremely important to set boundaries as their family therapist so you can begin to engage the family system as a whole. Identifying your role clearly, including your ‘no secrets’ policy, can be helpful for each family member to hear that you aren’t picking sides or aligning in a way that prevents cooperation from all members. Not holding secrets and describing your efforts to remain appropriately transparent with the family can convey neutrality and respect, two elements that can increase willingness to participate and rapport building in your relationship. Reviewing limits of confidentiality can also set the family system up for success in being aware of how you must respond to conflict and needs for safety.
In conjunction with setting healthy boundaries, engaging each family member in exploring their goals for family therapy can increase their motivation and commitment to the work. What would the preteens like to be different? What would make things better in their home? What would the parent like to see in regards to structure of house rules and parenting? How would the grandparent like things to be between their loved ones? Once you gather information from each family member, you can support the family in identifying how these goals can be measured over time to support positive shifts within their relationships and home.
Positive shifts in functioning are the ideal outcome of therapy and it’s possible that the family is engaging in therapy with a sense of urgency to “fix” their problems. Some members in the family can present with a sense of demand to jump in, unpack the conflict, and tackle change in rapid fashion. However, if the therapist moves too quickly, they run the risk of other family members becoming flooded, feeling attacked, or disengaging due to the pressure they feel by other members of the family or by the pace of the process. Here are some examples of what you might notice if things are moving too fast:
- One or more family members gets quiet and refuses to participate
- Body language conveys discomfort such as crossed arms, slouched posture, clutching a pillow to their chest, or avoidant eye contact
- Responding with “I don’t know” when questions are asked
- Increased agitation including rapid speech, flushed skin, facial grimacing, and fidgeting
- Leaving the room or pulling out their cell phone
Noticing these cues can be important in acknowledging a client’s discomfort and attempting to re-engage them in ways that feel safe. Validating emotion is a powerful tool in family therapy and can ensure everyone has an equal voice in the process.
Being mindful of how you engage the family each session in pursuit of their goals can encourage structure, support, and full participation. You may need to explain to one member of the family that jumping right into conflict could deter other members from participating in the future. Addressing immediate concerns with a safety plan can acknowledge the need for structure and safety while still engaging all family members in exploration of coping skills and needs for support.
While the safety plan and goals are being established, further rapport and exploration of family functioning can occur through low-risk activities. Low-risk activities, by definition, are presented as and appear to clients as activities that feel safe and don’t require intense participation. Due to the fact that each family member has a different level of comfort in the room, low-risk therapeutic activities can be a great way to explore their communication and build positive experiences between family members to further encourage participation in the therapeutic process.
Some examples of low risk therapeutic activities:
- Feelings Jenga or Uno with each color or block representing a) things we like, b) things we don’t like, c) things we appreciate about our family, d) things we wish for
- Feelings chip toss game or bingo to explore emotional vocabulary and awareness including sharing of times they felt that emotion
- Feelings charades to reach emotions and body language in each family member
- Cooperative play board games
- Blindfolded obstacle course, drawing or Lego exercises
- Recipe for success with colored sand, containers, and cooperation
- The Ungame
- Family portrait or family tree art
- Family playlist with songs representing their experiences
- And many more
It is important that family therapists consider participating fully in the activities with the family to demonstrate equality, approachability, and cooperation. Many families enjoy the idea of seeing their therapist as a person with their own thoughts and feelings, and engagement in these activities can help a family feel connected. It is, however, encouraged that the family therapist only discloses and engages in activities that support healthy boundaries, and to further evaluate if self-disclosure is relevant and appropriate for their clients.
Introducing creative, low-risk activities can support positive experiences as the foundation for which improvement and repair in the family system can be built. Many activities can encourage new perspective and shifts in thinking by highlighting areas for growth and processing change throughout the activity. Therefore, it is encouraged that we continue to recognize the approachability of therapeutic games and activities in the therapeutic relationship not only as motivators for ongoing participation but insights into the family system as a whole.