Traditionally, people have entered into marriage and family counseling in an effort to settle their differences. The therapist gets the family’s story and gets to work, focusing on negative, unhealthy relationship patterns that exist within the family. In other words, the therapist will ask each family member to tell the others why they are so annoying.
For example, the therapist may ask Mom what things she finds annoying about her husband. Her reply: “He is a slob and obsessed with football.” The therapist then turns to Dad and asks how he feels about this and if he thinks he can change. Then the therapist may turn to Johnny, their 16-year-old son, and ask him what he finds annoying about his 12-year-old sister, Suzy. “She embarrasses me.” “Good, thanks for sharing.” And so the pattern continues.
Another tradition is to ask each family member to identify his or her needs and to tell the others why these things are needed. Then the family members try to meet each other halfway, to compromise. This is known as “mediation” and is a popular, often useful technique.
This is what we therapists were taught in class and this is how we were trained in the field. Focus on what is wrong and ask family members to compromise. Focus on the problems and help the family to fix them. Focus on unhealthy behaviors, point them out as such and help people change.
Family Therapy: A Different View
Let’s shift the focus and, instead of looking at what is going wrong, look at what is going right. Why should family members be asked to give up their favorite, disgusting habits and, in the process, their identities? In answer to this question, a new form of therapy has emerged over the last decade called “strength-based” treatment. Who cares if Dad is always watching TV; is there anything that anybody likes about the old slob? That’s the point, that’s the idea: Instead of having an open forum where everyone feels free to criticize one another, let’s look at our strengths!
Strength-based treatment works something like this:
The therapist will say to Dad, “I’m glad you decided to join us today. That shows me that you are ready to move forward in your relationship with your family. Is there anything else about yourself that says you are ready to move forward?”
The therapist then will ask other family members to respond to and comment on Dad’s responses. The therapist will then ask Mom directly if she has noticed anything about Dad that tells her he is ready to move forward. In this way, the treatment focuses on people’s strengths rather than asking them to get stuck on problems.