Family therapy for parents and children: ‘It removes blame, judgement, and shame’

Communication in the presence of a therapist can teach self-awareness, facilitate empathy and promote mutual respect in the home

Therapists extol the benefits of parents and children coming together in a neutral space to talk through issues and communicate without judgment in family therapy sessions. Patricia Prudente / Unsplash
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“Children often feel that parents are not able to understand them, and vice versa,” says Dr Arfa Banu Khan, clinical psychologist at Aster Jubilee Medical Complex in Dubai.

It's a situation many families will find all too familiar. Certainly it's one which Hollywood actress Jessica Alba experienced, after she recently spoke about how parent-child therapy has benefitted her relationship with her daughter Honor, 13.

“I felt like my relationship really suffered with my parents because they didn’t know how to communicate with me and how I needed to be parented,” Alba said on an episode of Katherine Schwarzenegger’s Instagram live series Before, During & After Baby. “I didn’t want that breakdown with Honor so we went to therapy together.”

Sharing that regular mother-daughter sessions helped the teenager to “really feel empowered to find her voice, speak her voice, and own her opinions", Alba said. “[Honor said,] ‘You need to spend more time with me alone without Haven around.’ That was a big one. And, ‘You need to treat me like I’m me and she’s her. You can’t mush us together.’ I have to say, I kind of still struggle with that.”

The actress also revealed how the pair attend therapy even if there are no big issues to overcome, as a means of keeping lines of communication open.

“Good family therapy attempts to take the blame, judgement, and shame out of family interactions and work toward establishing healthier interactions and behaviour,” says Dr Chasity O’Connell, clinical director at Dubai's Thrive Wellbeing Centre. “It can be so helpful in facilitating connection and providing guidance and strategies on how to communicate better, listen better, understand the perspective of the other person, promote respect and understanding. Also to allow families to make space for big and painful emotions.”

Why have family therapy

“Family therapy is a form of psychological therapy which takes a holistic view of individuals’ problems in the context of the larger unit, the family,” says Dr Ateeq Qureshi, specialist child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “The premise is that problems cannot be fully addressed or solved in isolation without addressing the dynamics, communication, relations and ways of coping within the family group.”

Designed to provide a safe space for both children and adults in which to speak freely, these sessions can foster deeper connections by teaching family members how to validate one another’s feelings and experiences.

“People feel safe in the presence of the therapist because they will actually listen to the individual who is speaking,” says Johanna Richmond, psychiatric therapist and family therapist at Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Dubai. “Often family members just don’t have time to listen to one another or have felt neglected and not been able to express their needs for fear of being dismissed. Also, the therapist can offer solutions to problems, compromises which cannot be seen because of volatile emotions in the home setting.”

There are myriad benefits therapist have seen in families who attend therapy together, not least an increase of self-awareness and an ability to identify their own thoughts and feelings.

“We regularly see an improvement in self-regulation, such as learning better calm-down strategies, how to self-soothe and regulate the self better,” says Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist and education director at The LightHouse Arabia, Dubai. “There is more empathy, and an understanding of how their behaviour has a direct impact on their environment. People become more attuned and considerate to others in their space.”

Don’t wait until problems get too big

It is common for families to only seek out therapy when all other avenues have been exhausted or the issue has become too big to ignore. However, progressive attitudes towards therapy, as well as more people in the public eye speaking out about mental health issues, has helped make therapy as natural to overall well-being as a visit to the doctor or dentist.

A specialist gets to the root of the issue and helps facilitate the conversation so that it does not escalate in a toxic or destructive way
Dr Chasity O'Connell

“Parent child therapy is not only for when there are significant issues,” advises Khan. “From the parent side, it will help them understand their child better. They will further their knowledge and awareness about the child’s growth and developmental stages and appreciate the changes the child goes through and how they can be supportive.”

She further says, “It can also help the child to be more aware and have better understanding of self.”

Richmond says, “Generally, therapy is not covered by insurance so it is only when a parent can see their child is in distress, such as with depression that they will seek therapeutic intervention or other behaviours with which they need external help.

“The therapeutic influence on a family differs according the culture, but some families choose not to ‘hear’ the therapist until they see a pattern in a behaviour and acknowledge that therapeutic intervention was important.”

Criticism, boundaries, structure and rules: the main issues affecting families

While there are many different reasons why families explore parent-child therapy, therapists have identified recurring themes which come up during sessions.

“Communication from parents whereby children often feel and complain of being overly criticised,” says Ateeq is one of the most common issues affecting families. “Parents also usually complain of children not following family rules and boundaries.”

Indeed boundary-setting and rule-making are two of the biggest bones of contentions in families, leading children to wonder why the rules set for them seem harsher than those put in place by parents of their friends.

“In my experience I have seen many parents and children have issues mainly due to their experiences and learning which falls afoul of the generation gap,” says Khan.

It’s a sentiment Ateeq has experienced too. “Parents not being on the same page or having different parenting styles, which is natural and usual but often a challenge,” he says.

Further problems identified as main sources of familial conflict include sibling rivalry, children’s choice of friends and power imbalances in the household.

“This can occur in homes where children rule the roost or by having parents who are authoritarian in their parenting style and believe in the ‘my way or the highway’ approach,” says Kritzas. “There is also the modern difficulty with balancing technology usage, with parents struggling to navigate their own, as well as their children’s relationship with technology.”

Communication at home versus in therapy

“When people communicate, there can be so much that goes unsaid,” says O’Connell. “A specialist gets to the root of the issue and helps facilitate the conversation so that it does not escalate in a toxic or destructive way. There is still conflict, but it is not weaponised.”

Reducing confrontation, achieving clearer context and clarification, and shifting the focus from individuals to the communication are all easier done in a neutral setting which can increase people’s receptiveness to new ideas and ways of thinking.

“Because there is a non-partial third party there is less chance of tempers flaring and slamming of doors and communication about a problem just festers,” says Richmond. “It is addressed with all attendees having to listen to each other.”

“Neutral” and “non-judgmental” are key words for success when it comes to family therapy.

“Many people think that family issues can be resolved by the family members,” says Khan, “but what makes a difference addressing family issues with the therapist is that there is a neutral person who is non-judgemental trying to help the family members resolve the issues and assures complete confidentiality.”

Family communication tips for the home

When embarking on parent-child therapy sessions, families are taught communication skills to use at home and in everyday life. Skills such as active listening, avoiding criticism and confrontation and choosing direct communication such as face-to-face conversation rather than over text message, can all help facilitate clearer, more compassionate interactions.

“One way to reduce escalation is to try to shift from the mindset of ‘getting your point across’ to a ‘curious mind’,” suggests O’Connell. “Getting your point across is all about telling, whereas a curious mind is about listening and understanding. So, try being curious about the interaction: What am I feeling? What am I wanting to say? What might be the other person thinking or feeling? What could I be missing or misinterpreting?”

Richmond also points out the need to be mindful of children’s age in parent-child interactions.

“Once a child is old enough to understand reasoning then a parent needs to not only dispense rules but explain why such a rule is in place,” she advises parents. “Also giving a reason can aid the child to discuss their point of view and be corrected if necessary – it is moral, ethical learning.”

Updated: August 12, 2021, 1:50 PM