Struggling with Family Therapy

There is a considerable literature about family therapy and I have nothing substantial to add to this. In any event, I am trying to give an account of a process of professional learning, not a dissertation on intervention techniques. Although I did do some specialist family therapy training, and had some albeit tentative, experience of family therapy, ‘tentative’ remained the right word.

I found that the delivery of family work required a very different approach from that I applied in the rest of my work. It also involved new emotional challenges to which I think I was not then equal. I acted these difficulties out in the very first formal family therapy session I ‘conducted’, in partnership with my professional supervisor. To my distress, I found myself incapable of uttering a word through the entire session. No doubt, trying to work with my supervisor (the first time we had shared a case) contributed to my paralysis – not only was he more experienced and self assured, but given the dynamic between us, I felt scrutinised and judged. But the heart of the problem, I later came to believe, concerned the way I brought my own family experience into the family therapy session. In my own family, I was the youngest and was hidden behind a noisier, more dominant (as I experienced it) brother. I tended to retreat into a sort of passive acceptance of my junior status, until I had to assert myself, and this would then involve a combination of grumpy adolescence – especially towards my mother – and periodic outbursts of rage – especially towards my brother.

Having then not found a secure adult presence in my own family, I didn’t seem able to find such a presence in the formal family therapy session and regressed to a silent passivity. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of this, and whilst I did continue to do some family work and found a way of being present and active with more experience, I had no enthusiasm for making family work a larger part of my social work practice. It is the case that leading family therapy sessions called for a more active interventionist style from the worker than I comfortably adopted. I was only just beginning to try out (other than in Court settings) more publicly assertive roles at that stage in my professional life, and I found family therapy work too uncomfortable a place to learn.

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