Every therapist has stories of households struggling with debt/legal problems/constant fighting/you name it, and of heads and co-heads of those households who demand the therapist “fix” the one family member who’s the cause of it all, the one who:
Then, when the therapist asks how the rest of the household might be enabling the problem, the self-appointed spokesperson is indignant: “What are you talking about? He’s the problem!”
As Charles Schulz once said through his character Snoopy, “It never fails. Just hint that some of their troubles might be with themselves, and they get mad at you!”
Still, a household is a unit. And when one family member has a problem—whether of the extreme nature described above or involving more mundane struggles with schoolwork or difficult friends—how the rest of the household reacts to that problem affects how the person with the problem deals with it inside and outside the home.
Here are some ways you can help—and encourage other family members to help—when your child (or spouse or extended-family member) has a problem.
Many a teenager has a huge problem that could have been stopped as a small one if she hadn’t been afraid to confide in Mom or Dad. If you tell your kids, “Don’t ever even think about doing this or that,” they won’t ask you for advice when that situation comes up: they’ll rely on their own judgment or their friends’, when what’s needed is mature perspective. Make it clear you will always listen empathetically and without judging, however guilty your child feels and however disappointed she expects you to be.
Many households have certain issues—from mental illness to teen pregnancy to failing in school—they regard with an attitude of, “Not in this family—ever!!!” If it does happen “in this family,” their idea of the next best thing is to hide it. No one’s saying you have to post all your family’s struggles on social media, but the “elephant in the room” approach generates despair in the person with the problem, and strains relationships inside and outside the home.
The message everyone needs to be clear on is that getting through this—together—is more important than what anyone else thinks.
The opposite of the “guilty secret” approach is giving all the attention to the person with the problem and forgetting that others in the household have needs and concerns. Especially when one of several siblings is suffering through no fault of his own, the other kids often stand miserably in the background, feeling neglected and unloved but not daring to protest for fear of “Don’t you have any sympathy for your own brother?” reprisals. Of course there are periods when one person needs extra care, but do make sure everyone gets individual attention on a regular basis. If the whole family shares in coping with problems, the whole family also deserves to have individual needs met!