Most all of us came from a “good enough” family. We got our basic needs met most of the time; that is, we had adequate food, shelter, and clothing. We were mostly supported through difficulties, whether they were school, first jobs, or difficult relationships. This magical chemistry happens through “good enough” parenting and resources.
Parenting can come in the form of birth parents, adoptive parents, grandparents, important near relatives, or family friends – even teachers who somehow communicate to us that we are valued and wanted. We learn in these relationships how to be productive, how to navigate social rules, what values are important, and how to manage difficult people and situations – well enough to live harmoniously for the most part!
How does this happen? Through a complicated and individualized set of communication patterns that are learned by the family members from birth and passed on to their families. Some styles are rich in words and intonation. Some are quiet but rich in physical expressions. Some are both.
But sometimes these patterns break down: they no longer support “good enough” family life. Stress due to financial worries, marital upset, illness both physical and mental, unmet expectations whether realistic or not, lack of adequate structure, intrusion of positive or negative outside influences, and bumpy life transitions can all be the cause of disruptive stress.
The normal flow of life can be slightly or drastically derailed causing additional stress. The family comes to one of many crossroads. Depending on resiliency (a different but related topic) the family re-groups and adapts to meet the challenges. A new pattern of flow and communication is learned by all or most members.
Except when it’s not!
One or more family members struggle to make the necessary changes and the discord affects all members. Yelling, crying, checking out, drugs and alcohol, and poor life performance become the norm for one or more family members. The family may no longer function as a support but as an antagonist.
Seeing the problem immersed in the waters of dysfunction can be such a challenge that parents try to rely on no longer relevant or functional patterns to right the family functionality or bring the straggling family member back to the family. In the face of failure the family itself can become a depressed and toxic unit only able to support basic needs.
Enter the family therapist, trained and experienced in discovering and slowly easing the now tangled communication patterns, pinpointing the original stress that upended the flow, and highlighting support that each individual needs to regain equilibrium in the family.
The success of the contract between therapist and family requires the “intention” to regain family balance. At least one of the parents needs to hold that hope, along with the therapist, and have the motivation to make changes in the process of righting the family’s boat. In time, family functioning resumes, stress is alleviated, and communication is restored to once again create the “good enough” family.
Lesley S. Cunningham is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute
specializing in relationships and attachment issues. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-509-9832.