For our April evening talk, our committee was delighted to have Graham Shavick present his talk: An Introduction to Family Therapy and Family Dynamics. Graham is a psychotherapist and business coach with a keen interest in working with families and understanding family dynamics.
When I offered to write this review, I started to reflect on my own meaning of family. Looking at the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, I found the following definitions:
- A group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head : household
- A group of persons of common ancestry : clan
- A people or group of peoples regarded as deriving from a common stock : race
- A group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation : fellowship
- The basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children; also : any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family
Graham began his talk by introducing some of the theory and history of family therapy beginning with what is known as the First phase (mid 1950s to mid 1970s). Graham described Don Jackson’s, a pioneer of family therapy, thoughts on family dynamics. His emphasis was more on the exploration of present relationships rather than the past. Graham explained how many systems tend to self-regulate and achieve balance and equilibrium – homeostasis. This is also the case for family systems. Early observations of family therapy showed that although families expressed the need for change, there was also a need to keep the system as it was.
A video of Salvador Minuchin in a family therapy session was very interesting to watch. Minuchin believed in the family as a structure which is subdivided into subsystems: spouse, parental, siblings. Minuchin views were that the boundaries of the subsystems must be clear for proper family functioning. In this approach, the therapist puts him/herself in a position of leadership, evaluates the family system and its structure, strengthens or weakens boundaries while creating new circumstances to enable family members to relate to each other differently. I found that Minuchin’s interventions felt quite challenging to me and I wondered how I would have reacted seeing him be very direct and confrontational towards another family member.
The group shared some thoughts about family homeostasis. Is the aim of families to achieve balance in a self-actualisation kind of way? Or, do they keep family situations as they are regardless whether they are positive or not? Graham clarified that families will aim to achieve homeostasis (whether it is perceived/felt as positive, negative, toxic, etc.)
After the break, Graham presented the Second phase of family therapy (mid 1970s –mid 1980s). This phase is based on the ideas of constructivism, there is not one way of thinking but there are many personal perspectives to the same issue. In this phase, it is believed that the therapist alters the family system by the very act of observing it. I was fascinated by the concepts of Punctuation, incorporated by the Milan Associates and Triangulation. Punctuation is the way family systems are ruled by their beliefs and predictions of other family members’ behaviours and thoughts. In turn, members are surprised at “unusual” behaviour and think about the consequences of their actions on other family members. Triangulation is about the patterns formed in family behaviour that lead to distraction from a main issue within it (for example, a child seeks attention/misbehaves when seeing parents argue with the aim to get them to stop – parents stop arguing to give attention to the child – child performs this behaviour every time there is an argument – parents conclude that the child is having behaviour issues).
Unfortunately, we did not have time to cover the Third phase (mid 1980s onwards). From Graham’s power point slides, this phase concentrates on social and cultural context, the role of language and gender in our family systems and social constructivism (we become people by being socially involved with others in a meaningful way). I will set aside some personal time to investigate this further.
Graham concluded his talk by briefly touching upon the work of Alfred Adler in regards to family birth order. I understood it as: depending on the birth order, individuals may react, feel, and behave differently within the same family not only as children but as adults. We were offered an activity where we had to guess the birth order of the members sitting at our tables. Results were surprising… (I got them all wrong!).
As I read the definitions from the Merriam-Webster dictionary above I am left wondering how the concept of family has changed since my childhood and how it continues to evolve over time. I really enjoyed this talk. To me, there is no doubt that family systems and dynamics present themselves in the therapy room in some way or another. Understanding these theories along with appropriate supervision and self-reflection may give us a deeper insight into our clients’ phenomenology.