We have thirty years of experience in family and relationship therapy. We teach healthy parenting skills especially with difficult adolescents and young adults. We help families deal with addiction as well as depression and anxiety that affect the family system
UNDERSTANDING THE FAMILY AS A SYSTEM
Each of us belongs to many social systems. Our family is one; the people we work with is another; the friends we spend time with; the neighborhood we live in. Each group of people we join with forms a social system.
Everyone wants to belong, to be close to other people, to work together, to enjoy each other, to have a place of his own; but when people are close, they sometimes collide.
Systems make rules and assign roles in order to make relationships between members go more smoothly and to cut down on the friction, allowing time for work and play. Rules and roles work best when everybody knows what they are and agrees to follow them. Each person knows his responsibilities and what he can expect from others. Together, the system works out ways to live as a group and to cope with problems.
People in systems have wishes and needs and feelings. Sometimes these needs conflict with the way the system runs. People grow. Systems must grow with them. Everything that happens in a system, in some way, affects every person in that system.
Systems are designed for the way things usually are. When the unexpected happens, it puts a strain on the system. Maybe Mom has to go to the hospital, or Dad loses his job. There might be financial difficulties, the family moves or there is an unexpected pregnancy, illness or even a death in the family. A son or daughter growing up puts a strain on the family system, because, no matter how much you plan, growing up is full of surprises.
Systems under stress need to put lots of energy into solving their new problems, leaving less energy to meet the members’ needs. Rules and roles have to be changed and comfortable ways of behaving must be altered. When a system meets a crisis, it’s very easy for the stress to become distress. External stress tends to unite the system against a common threat, but, sometimes, the threat is from the inside. Internal stress tends to fragment the system, with the consequence of individuals fighting each other for a place in the system. Real or feared separation is the main cause of internal stress in social systems.
The tension people feel under stress is called anxiety. A little bit of anxiety—or even a moderate amount—gets us moving. We try harder to solve the problem so we can feel more comfortable. Too much anxiety has a different result. When we’re overwhelmed by anxiety, we can become bewildered, confused, panicky or helpless. The problem seems to grow and grow and melts into all our other problems, until we grind to a halt and don’t know where to turn. Then things become a crisis.
Every system and every person meets a crisis once in a while where they need help. Fortunately, a little bit of help often goes a long way in a crisis, because what is needed most is somebody to assist in directing the energy and anxiety towards seeing the problem more clearly, getting the necessary information, dealing with the feelings involved and obtaining the needed help.
As a therapist, Dr. Paul Standal believes that, with some guidance, members of any social system can find solutions in a crisis, finding their way back to a state of balance and again. He helps social systems like a family find consensus helping all individuals in formal and informal positions of power commit to making changes in the system. Without consensus, the changes are unlikely to occur.
At the same time, change requires understanding the ways of acting which are expected or required of people because they hold certain positions in a system. Each person must perform certain functions because he or she plays a certain role. If a person who plays an important role in a system leaves that system, it is important to determine what his role was, and to clarify the abilities of other people to take over his functions. If the stress is from outside of the system, the system will unite to deal with the stress. If the stress is from inside the system, the system may begin to break down, resulting in fighting among members.
Often a system will try to deal with a problem by blaming it all on one person. This person becomes a scapegoat or the “identified patient” who needs to be fixed and who is seen as responsible for all the difficulties. Then the system tries to push him out in the hope that, when he is gone, the problem will be gone, too. This, of course, may not work.
When Dr. Standal works with systems having problems and seek his help, it is important for him to be aware of his own beliefs, values and prejudices, as well as those of the people he is helping. He needs to assess the problems of the whole system and also those of the individual people in the system.
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