Why Family Therapy can break down the barriers we didn’t know were there

I post quite frequently on the SNJ Facebook and Twitter accounts, articles about mental health difficulties faced by young people today. The posts come from a wide variety of sources and cover the breadth of the subject. As the parent of a child with significant anxiety myself, it's an area I'm particularly interested in.

Often our readers note that so many of the articles seem to take the professionals' viewpoint that parents are to blame for their children's mental health difficulties. This then becomes the public narrative: if your child has mental health difficulties, it's your fault and you're therefore a "BAD PARENT"

Where do such intolerant attitudes come from? Even if we have personal experience of mental health problems within our own family, it's so easy to make a knee-jerk judgement of others based on a headline. We all have a unique perspective based on our own prejudices, experiences and upbringing and this could explain why, when our children do face issues, we often find ourselves incapable of giving them the help they need.

The parental guilt trap!

My own experience, which I have previously written about ‘CAMHS nearly broke us’, details what we went through while my son refused to go to school for nearly four years. Despite being a qualified therapist myself, I felt helpless and unable to support my son the way he needed. This was in part due to the pressures on me from the various agencies involved (school, CAMHS and the Education Welfare Officer) and my own sense that I had failed my son by not being able to get him to attend school.

But it wasn’t only that, I felt I had failed as a Mum, period!

Let's face it, parents don’t need an article written by a professional or in the press to make them feel they are to blame, we already feel it. Our sense of responsibility to our children far outweighs anything anyone else could ever tell us. Which is why I know that those articles aren't the cause of making us feel to blame, they evoke the feelings that are already there, simmering in the backs of our minds.

History repeating itself? – Not this time!

This week my son, now 16 and finally at college, has been ill and not been able to go. For the first couple of days I was fairly okay with it, by day three I was remarking that he really needed to go in on Thursday as I didn’t want him to slip with his attendance and feel he couldn’t go back. My own anxiety had rocketed and it was because I just didn’t feel I could go through another period of refusal, albeit college this time. He reluctantly went in on Thursday and by Thursday night was running a temperature and had a hacking cough. He said to me, ‘If I don’t go in on Friday will you shout at me again?’

I stopped instantly what I was doing, as realisation hit me. ‘Oh my God I wasn’t shouting at you this morning, I was just so so anxious about you not going’, I said. I sat down on his bed and we talked about the differences between being cross and being anxious and how they can appear so similar, but be so very very different. It was very refreshing and came about because I put my own agenda and anxieties to one side. Instead of reacting, I responded. I had no idea that he thought I was cross and he had no idea that I was sickeningly anxious.

family therapy image

Why family therapy can help

This is where family therapy can be really helpful because it can take out the instant assumptions we make when dealing with very stressful situations. It can give us that little bit of time to ‘apply the brakes’ and think, ‘what else could be happening here?’ We can learn things about ourselves that we were previously not aware of and we can learn things about our relationship with our children that we didn’t know.

Throughout my training and my own therapy, I’ve learnt that the way my son speaks to me sometimes reminds me of my relationship with my own Dad when I was growing up. He was very opinionated and quite literal, so of course our relationship had its difficulties. For me now, as an adult, it meant I could easily forget to be the parent in the relationship with my son and occasionally, respond to him like I was a teenager, defending my decisions and arguing with him and I wasn’t aware I was doing it. In the counselling environment it is referred to as transference.

Self awareness is key!

Understanding our own emotional processes and that of all the family is where family therapy is beneficial. The Association of Family Therapists says a therapist should be:

  • Inclusive and considerate of the needs of each member of the family and/or other key relationships (systems) in people’s lives
  • Recognise and build on people's strengths and relational resources
  • Work in partnership ‘with’ families and others, not ‘on’ them
  • Sensitive to diverse family forms and relationships, beliefs and cultures

Ultimately, this atmosphere enables people to talk, together or individually, often about difficult or distressing issues, in ways that respect their experiences, invite engagement and support recovery.

As a therapist, I hear of situations where one member takes full responsibility for everyone being happy within the family, a family member is blaming everyone else for their unhappiness, or one parent is hyper-controlling. All of these situations are difficult for nearly all families and this impacts on the behaviour of everyone, quite often negatively. Talking about them with a person who is completely independent can be a huge relief. It can also help knowing that you are not alone.

The can of worms is already open!

Therapy has been described by some people as ‘opening a can of worms’ but if you look objectively at a situation, the can of worms is already open. Parents and youngsters are dealing with so many situations that have never been dealt with before and you don’t know what you don’t know. There are no precedents and there is no normal. It is tough, really tough.

CAMHS have family therapists, but I know from my own experience in my area that there is very little availability and a referral was unlikely. However, there are charities that offer free or reduced cost counseling, individually or for families and these include:

  • Cruse for bereavement care
  • Beat for eating disorders
  • Mind for mental health problems
  • Relate for relationship counseling

Making an appointment with your GP and discussing what is happening at home can be a real turning point and many GPs have a counseling service available within the surgery that they can refer you to.

It maybe that family therapy isn’t available in your area but don’t give up, go to your GP and see if you can access some individual therapy via the NHS – It’s an opening to talk about how you feel about your home situation and may lead you to be able to access some additional family therapy so it is certainly worth a go.

Seeking help when your family is struggling to hold it together is a strong and selfless act and something to be encouraged. Do what you feel is right and you can’t go far wrong!

Angela Kelly
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Angela Kelly

Psychotherapist & SEND parent at Emotions Counselling & Psychotherapy
Angela Kelly is a practising psychotherapist in Surrey. She is the parent of two sons who have autism and ADHD. Angela is a team member of Special Needs Jungle
Angela Kelly
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  • Comment from Sally Gregory: I wanted to comment on availability of counselling. In Sheffield, MIND closed its doors for individual counselling due to high demand. My GP could only offer 6 x 50 minute counselling sessions and there was a waiting time of around 3 months. There was a wait of 10 weeks for the initial 15 minute triage phone call before counselling could be offered/arranged.

    When my son was referred to CAMHS we waited 3 months, but the waiting time has crept up to around 6 months. Waiting times in the past have been 1 year. I am frequently hearing about children/young people who are being turned away. One very recently was told CAMHS could not see them because they were too busy!

    I felt I had no choice but to pay for counselling for myself. I have had 10 sessions at a cost of £450. Counselling only works if you can actually access it in the first place!!

    Thank you

    Sally Gregory