We’ve always had one TV in my house. My thought has been that we can negotiate and compromise and that this is, indeed, an important thing for us to do as a family. I’m certainly not about to judge others for the number of televisions they might have, however it worked for us. That was, of course, until Covid happened and we found ourselves in isolation. One of the first things we did then was to order a second TV. In many ways this highlights for me one of the most important questions I find myself asking when I work with families, namely who needs to come together and who needs to separate. What I realised over Covid is that because in my family there are lots of things that usually take us in different directions, like school, work and sports, we typically spend much of our time at home in activities that bring us together. Whether that’s making pizza or negotiating what we will watch on TV our time at home tended to centre on family activities. Covid however increased the amount of time we all spent together and created a situation in which we needed to have the opportunity to separate. Much like a new developmental stage Covid created a new challenge in our family and we needed to adapt to this.
In many ways this reflects the sort of transitions we often find ourselves needing to support families to adjust to. Children are constantly growing and families change over time. The need for individuation emerges, as does the need to connect or reconnect. The question of who needs to come together within a family system and who needs to have some more space is such a key one in therapy and the answer is different for individual families, whose relationships have often been moulded by their experiences. The answer is also different at different points in time, with developmental stages requiring families to readjust. For example, often unsettled babies develop a really close relationship with one parent and there needs at some point to be a connection with the other parent in order to balance the family system. Similarly, adolescents need to be given more space and autonomy within the family system in order to develop. Sometimes the answer to this question is so clear that a family can readily reflect on this if you raise the question overtly with them in therapy. Other times it is more complicated and there are layers or patterns that have built up over the years, with deep seated alliances or problematic interactions.
When working on helping members of a family to develop connection or allow separation there are a number of elements that I find useful. Firstly, I think it is helpful to understand the story, or the narrative, the family has. There are undoubtably times when a child can become the “problem” in a family or when a parent has internalised the idea that they are secondary and can’t provide the succour that another parent can. Understanding the origins of these narratives and gradually thickening these by gently bringing in other examples is useful in helping to shift these narratives. For example, you might draw out times when the parent has successfully calmed the child to help further develop the story of their relationship.
Sessions also create an important space that gives the family an opportunity to interact in a different way. Activities that bring the family together and have them all work on the one thing will create opportunities for closeness, while activities in which they share individual ideas will support separation. Having this happen within a session allows you to closely observe the dynamics within the family and naming these often highlights them in a way that allows the family to be more mindful of these patterns. For example, noticing that a parent’s brusque response when a child is hurt and being gently curious about what the child might need helps the parent to be conscious of this interaction and supports them to try a different way of responding.
Talking with the family about how they can accommodate the need for more connection or more separation in their daily lives is also important. For example, a parent who struggles to connect with a child might be able to build in some one on one time with that child or a mother who feels overwhelmed and needs some alone time might be able to schedule something each week that allows her to recharge. Family life is so busy that often this is about creating rituals. Routines such as a family movie night or a father daughter bike ride each weekend create structures that support the family to engage with this process. Adopting rituals that meet the needs of the family with the understanding that these may change as the family grows and develops can be really helpful.
Over Covid I have realised that watching TV in bed with just one of my children at a time is a lovely experience and even that occasional moments of watching TV alone actually feel quite luxurious! Indeed, the question of who needs to come together and who needs to separate remains very relevant for families who are still in isolation. More generally though it is a great question to keep in mind when working with families, helping them to adapt as they face new challenges or developmental stages.
Dr Fiona Zandt
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