When a Family Member Goes to Therapy

Change is hard. This is one of the first things I say to clients new to therapy. Now, obviously they made the appointment and are sitting on my couch…you would think they are ready. They want the change, right? So, of course they want anything positive associated with introspection and communication. Here’s the thing though about change. Newton tells us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This applies to therapy and I’ve witnessed it many times.

A client comes into her fourth session after a deep and thoughtful third session the week prior. She left last week feeling ten feet tall after rediscovering her passion for positive feedback and gaining courage to be direct and upfront with her family. That weekend she sat her mother down and was ready to demonstrate all of the techniques she had practiced last session. She just knew that implementing her therapy goals was going to help her find healing with her mom. But, as you could predict, things did not go well at all! Mom resisted and put walls up as she had done a thousand times before. The client comes in to session defeated and honestly a little irritated with therapy (and the therapist!)

This is the moment when I say, “well what happened?” (Semi-intentionally irritating question, right?)

The client says, “well, nothing happened! Nothing changed! It didn’t work!”

Here’s where I remind the client…change is hard. YOU changed…but mom didn’t. YOU changed your words, mom played back the same conversation over again. YOU changed your intentions, your vocabulary, your belief that change is good…but your family/spouse/children/friends/co-workers have not been sitting with you in therapy for three weeks. Most of the time, a family can resist one of its members changing. It is not the expectation. This is especially true when a family has long lasting, deeply rooted patterns. One cog in the system moves and the machine jolts to a halt! The family will attempt to restore order and normalcy and the “changer” will feel much pressure to fall back into the groove.

Now, this isn’t always the case, and in some (wonderful) rare instances, the whole family will be in my office, ready to discover the change at the same pace. In other cases, the “changer” is the last one on board, and the family system has been begging him/her to change with them.

What can they do to help me change?  

The biggest indicator for positive change to “stick” in a family is two-fold: flexibility and support. A husband who is on-board with his wife entering the therapy process has to be willing to embrace her attempts for change and to “try on” her new ways of communicating and interpreting her world. He can flex with her by patiently catching his usual patterns of communication and attempting something new himself. A parent can flex with a child in therapy by allowing them to take the lead on family interactions and recognizing how they feel led to respond differently. Also, verbalizing support for the “changer’s” attempts at change can go a long way. Sending messages of recognition and understanding can feel like losing 10 pounds, wearing new jeans and having everyone at your office notice immediately. It feels good to begin to accomplish your goals…even while you are in process.

What can I do to help them help me change?

Here’s how I tell my new clients to accomplish the flex-factor within their family system. Don’t make lofty promises of change or share more about your sessions or your therapy goals than is necessary. Simply help others anticipate your change and verbalize your needs.

Next, when you recognize your shortfalls and attempt to correct them, others may feel you are calling them out for their problems as well. It’s the same feeling we all get watching Biggest Loser on TV. When the formally obese people throw out the Cheez-Its and stop going to McDonald’s for dinner, you want to change the channel! Be proud of your strides in self-awareness, but don’t prescribe your journey for others. Let them continue their journey and be inspired by yours if indeed they too need to change.

Finally, when you attempt something new in communication with those closest to you, make them aware. Don’t spring it on them. Frame up your new attempt with a disclaimer. “The next conversation may not be suitable for the weak at heart.” Hand them the script and let them know you’ve made changes to your lines. They won’t be blind-sided and may be excited to read re-writes.

Or, sadly, your family or close friends may throw the script in your face. It happens. Here’s where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Resistance can happen…so process it and grieve it with your therapist. Perhaps the very resistance you are now experiencing is the very thing you have feared for years! AND, that’s the fear that has kept you in the old ways of thinking for so long in the first place. Good thing you are in therapy and good thing you can process it with all the new found changes you are making.


Good luck and happy flexing!

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