Growing up through the life cycle – these podcasts are deigned to prompt thinking about one’s own life adjustments as well as reflecting on the experiences of members of the broader family.
To listen on iTunes, click HERE.
Growing up through the life cycle – these podcasts are deigned to prompt thinking about one’s own life adjustments as well as reflecting on the experiences of members of the broader family.
To listen on iTunes, click HERE.
Given how much my book is about applying Bowen’s theory to understanding the commonalities of the families we all grow up in, it’s timely to use this excerpt (from ch. 3) as a mini blog to provide a crash course in family systems concepts. You will recognise them, described in everyday language, all the way through this book.
Bowen researched his own family over the generations and came to see similarities in coping patterns with those families with more severe psychiatric symptoms. He noticed that there were two forces at work in relationships that drive predictable patterns of behaviour: these are the togetherness force and the separateness force, which are both essential for individuals in their relationships. The core concepts of Bowen’s theory describe the ways that family members react to the threat of loss of togetherness and explain the variations in how different families and individuals manage life challenges. These core concepts are: triangles, which describe how tension between two people gets detoured to a third party, such as when a wife discusses marital grievances with a friend rather than their husband or when a parent discuss parental grievances with a child rather than their partner; differentiation of self, which describes the extent to which family members can stay in their own skin — maintain their individuality — while relating to each other and still being part of the family group; fusion, the opposite of differentiation of self, where boundaries are lost in the pull for family togetherness; the nuclear family emotional system, which outlines the three ways that one generation of a family can reduce individual relationship discomfort — these are the conflict-and-distance pattern, the over- and under-functioning exchange between spouses, and the anxious detour onto a child. The family projection process explains how insecurities in adults can be managed through shifting the focus to the next generation; the multigenerational transmission process describes how parents’ anxieties are not transmitted equally to each child as each gets varying degrees of a parent’s worry focus; emotional cut-off is a common way that family members use distance to reduce the sense of loss of individuality in relationships; sibling position was seen by Bowen as formative in an individual’s relationship sensitivities; and societal regression process showed how the same anxious patterns in families can be seen in institutions in the broader society. All of these ideas, linked together, help show how every individual is part of a much bigger stage of actors in the same improvised play, building a storyline through their interconnections.
To see things from a systems perspective requires getting out of a ‘cause and effect’ way of thinking to seeing how every person’s impulses are part of a circuit of reactions that flow like electric currents around relationships. It’s as if relationships are a kind of dance, with each person responding intuitively to the dance steps of another. These circuits of emotional and behavioural responses in relationships shape how each individual develops. Hence getting real about ourselves in our original families requires us to get honest about how our emotional responses and behaviours flow onto others and influence how they appear to us. The good news, from a systems way of thinking, is that changing our emotional reactions and behaviours eventually flows onto changing the entire circuit of the system. That is if we can hold onto the principles that drive our change efforts in the face of others’ anxiety. This is how we can make a positive difference over time, not just for ourselves but for everyone we’re connected to.
Photo with permission: A Schara
Jenny Brown in conversation with Dan Papero reveal a fascinating historical context for the development of Bowen theory as well as the world of psychiatry and the family therapy field that emerged after World War 2.
This podcast explores the growing up years of Dr Murray Bowen and his family background. This is all presented from the perspective of Dan Papero PhD, MSW who worked alongside Dr Bowen for several years.
We can’t survive without them but at the same time it’s in our relationships that we can so easily get unravelled. Either we feel like we lose ourselves or we feel burnt out from futile efforts to make things right for another. In our relationships we can experience the very best of ourselves and the very worst.
One of the most common maturity blocks in our relationships is to lose sight of our part and to focus on changing, blaming or comparing ourselves to others. It’s common to think that others are the ones who need to “Grow up!” We try to push them to be more mature only to discover that our efforts just don’t work and can even intensify the relationship challenges we are struggling with. It’s a huge step of maturity to appreciate that relationships and dealing with others will become more rewarding when we work on ourselves. This growing up effort goes into=
It’s an interesting and rewarding experience to learn to see how to shift our less mature responses in relationships. Learning to recognise when
Recognising such patterns enables us to make new choices that enable us to bring our best to our relationships.
Genuine maturity is about deepening our understanding of our self in all of your key relationships – from the family we grew up in, through periods of singleness, in the intimacy and trials of marriage, in the vulnerability of our sex life, in the daunting task of raising children, in the midst of competition and performance pressures at work, and adjusting to aging. While the effort is on self and not others, growing up does not happen in isolation but in the pushes and pulls of complex relationships. It’s our important relationships that provide the very best laboratory for growing up. They also provide the best motivation to work hard at being a mature resource for those we care about.
I wonder if this all sounds a bit too much like hard work in your already hectic life; yet if there’s the chance that this effort can unveil a very different picture of yourself in your relationships, it might just be worth giving this journey a go.
This blog summarises key research of Dr Murray Bowen that shaped his theory. It was a key part of my PhD discussion of results. Hence it is timely to post it. I recommend that any who are interested in family and relationships have a read of the quotes from Bowen’s research (this article was originally posted March 2014 www.thefsi.com.au)
A feast of key quotes:
“Anxiety is inevitable if you solve the problem. When anxiety increases, one has to decide whether to give in and retreat or carry on in spite of it. People can even grow and become more mature by having to face and deal with anxiety situations.” p119
Blog post by Jenny Brown
What a satisfying experience to read: The Origins of Family Psychotherapy, This book contains the key research papers from the NIMH* project led by Dr Murray Bowen in the latter 1950s. (Edited by Jack Butler PhD)
Why, you may well ask, was this high on my summer reading list? Don’t I know how to switch off with some good beachside appropriate fiction? Well I did manage to also enjoy a satisfying piece of fiction but I found Bowen and his team’s research papers totally engrossing. They took me on an excursion into how a new paradigm emerged from carefully constructed observational data. It was such a unique vantage point to see how Bowen and his collaborators, over a 5 year period of observing 18 families who were in hospital (averaging a year) with their highly symptomatic young adult member, began to see and document clear evidence of how the family is an interdependent unit. (additionally data was gathered from a number of outpatient families)
I have written copious notes from this book but thought I would try, for this blog, to pick some highlights. It’s not easy to edit out any of my standout quotes but I have chosen some that I think best express the key themes that stood out for me:
The observations reveal how the symptomatic individual is wired to the responses of all family members. In the same way each family member, whether responding with distance or with intense helping efforts, is continually shaped by each other. While this research involved people with severe forms of psychosis, the term schizophrenia could be replaced with the term “symptoms in offspring”.
There was “A shift from seeing schizophrenia as a process between mother and patient or as an illness with the patient influenced by the mother to an orientation of seeing schizophrenia as the manifestation of a distraught family that becomes focussed in one individual.” P25
“It was possible to see the broad patterns of form and movement that had been obscured by the close up view of the individual. ….The family view in no way detracts from the importance of the familiar individual orientation. …..the individual orientation can be more meaningful after it has been possible to see the family patterns.” P 158
“On one level each family member is an individual. But on a deeper level the central family group is as one. Our study was directed to the undifferentiated ego mass beneath the individuals.” P 109
There are valuable insights in these papers about the way the workers can be inducted into being rescuers or experts and the effect of such postures. The worker’s self-awareness comes to be seen as of equal importance of the family’s problem solving efforts.
The therapist aims “to be helpful while staying detached from the other person’s immaturities…It is helping with a problem without becoming responsible for the problem….Our greatest philosophy I would say that our greatest help is in helping people to define their dilemmas. Our greatest energy goes into preventing staff from trying to solve dilemmas.” P 54
“When I feel myself inwardly cheering the hero, of hating the villain in the family drama, or pulling for the family victim to assert him/herself, I consider it time to work on my own functioning.” P 116
The senior social worker/case worker on the research project Ms B Basamania writes:
Anxious family members “didn’t deal with each other but turned to therapist as ‘expert’. The higher the anxiety and tension, the greater they turn to the outside as though the tension decreased with distance.” P141
“The philosophy on the project was based upon a regard for the family and its capacity to nurture human growth…. Therapeutically a guiding principle was to respond to the families in a way that would promote growth.” P143
The research papers describe the detail of the ‘action dialogue’ of the family member’s reactions to each other (both psychologically and physiologically). The emerging theory is seen in descriptions of repeating patterns such as “the interdependent triad” of parents and “patient” (it was a number of years before Bowen clarified his concept of the triangle), the circuitry of the “over adequate/ strong one and under adequate/helpless one”. There are some clear descriptions of how growth occurs “in-situ” of the family and not in the restorative (healing) relationship with the therapist. This paradigm shift in therapy approach was a direct outworking of the paradigm shift from individual thinking to seeing the family as an interdependent unit.
“The families present a group picture of helplessness and inadequacy. They deal with many life problems as burdens to be endured rather than problems to be solved. Therapeutic emphasis is directed at this helplessness. When either parent is able to become active in solving such a problem, the emotional adjustment of the entire family changes.”P39
“Families are not really helpless. They are functionally helpless. When the family is able to become a contained unit, and there is a family leader with motivation to define the problem and to back his(her) own convictions in taking appropriate action, the family can change from a directionless, anxiety-ridden floundering unit, to a more resourceful organism with a problem to be solved.” P118-9
“The parent’s sureness of themselves may be almost more important than what they do. If they are filled with doubts and apologies, the patient resets adversely; whereas, if they feel sure of themselves, they can behave in bizarre ways without alarming or disturbing the patient, or without upsetting the patient.” pP97
At the heart of systems change is finding a way to tolerate anxiety: If I had to summarise this important research project and its findings it would be:Managing self in relationships in the midst of arousal. (The concept of Differentiation of Self) Or : How families and workers strive to find a way to operate thoughtfully in the presence of the inevitable anxiety generated in close proximity to other human beings; especially when some are reacting out of helplessness (and equally out of anxious helpfulness). This finishing quote I have selected from Bowen is a valuable encouragement in this effort:
“Anxiety is inevitable if you solve the problem. When anxiety increases, one has to decide whether to give in and retreat or carry on in spite of it. Anxiety does not harm people. It only makes them uncomfortable. It can cause you to shake, or lose sleep, or become confused or develop physical symptoms, but it will not kill you and it will subside. People can even grow and become more mature by having to face and deal with anxiety situations. Do you have to go on treating each other as fragile people who are about to fall apart?” p119
The Origins of Family Psychotherapy: The NIMH Family Study Project. Murray Bowen, MD. Ed Jack Butler PhD. With contributions by Michael Kerr, MD, and Joanne Bowen, PhD. New York,: Jason Aronson, 2013.
Note: the proceeds of this fine book are being donated to the work of the Bowen Archives.
*National Institute of Mental Health
I wonder, what does it say about our current level of societal maturity that Christmas is being increasingly secularised? – Seemingly driven by an anxious harmony force that declares we must not offend any who don’t share the basis of the ‘Christ Mass’.
I sometimes hear that people find it off-putting when I identify myself as a Christian. Is it the same when we hear people identify themselves as Buddhists, or atheists? I am guided by a principle that I will not push anyone to agree with my faith position. It’s the push that is alienating for people – not a calmly expressed stance. I am also clear that it wouldn’t be authentic for me to isolate my beliefs from any part of my work, my relationships, my writing. I think it is a sign of a more mature society when people are respectful and interested in other people’s faiths and philosophical positions. My life has been enriched by many such opportunities – being invited to participate in Hanukah celebrations in a neighbour’s home and to converse with a warm Muslim man as I appreciate his guided tour around his neighbourhood. I’ve also valued talking to atheists who explain to me calmly how they cannot conceive that science and God can co-exist and are able to listen to my view that science increases my awe of the God in whom I have come to know. I don’t appreciate it when there is a mocking tone to any discourse on belief and indeed I have encountered such arrogant dismissiveness expressed by people across many belief systems.
I wonder, what does it say about our current level of societal maturity that Christmas is being increasingly secularised? – Seemingly driven by an anxious harmony force that declares we must not offend any who don’t share the basis of the ‘Christ Mass’. For this end of year blog I am posting excerpts from my book on maturity and belief. I do think that the full variations of maturity are evident in all sectors of religion and society including in the Christian church. I trust you will find it useful to consider what maturity you have brought to how you have come to and express your beliefs.
Chap 10 – Developing mature beliefs
Compliance, rebellion or examination
‘The pseudo self is made up of … beliefs and principles acquired through the relationship system in the prevailing emotion … beliefs [are] borrowed from others or accepted in order to enhance one’s position in relationship to others.’1
—Murray Bowen MD
‘We will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching …’2
—The apostle Paul
Each chapter of this book on adult maturity has mentioned the value of considering carefully what values and ethics you choose to guide your behaviour and help you act consistently. When it comes to beliefs, it’s simple to go along with the viewpoint of your majority group, your parents, your cultural group or your peer group. If you’re carrying unaddressed resentments towards your parents there may be a tendency to take on beliefs that are the opposite of theirs. Whether you adopt beliefs to comply with or to rebel against others, in each scenario there isn’t much thought and effort going into the process. This leads to beliefs that are superficial. They can chop and change according to the emotions of the group you’re in. Such pseudo beliefs won’t hold much benefit for you in determining how to make a difficult choice when you are under pressure. They won’t help you to take a position on what you believe are important issues if you are easily thrown off course by another’s disapproval……………………………………………..
It’s not unusual to think that overlooking differences and viewing all beliefs as sharing common ground is a mature stance. It’s worth asking, however, whether this is a thoughtful position or an anxiously driven desire for pseudo harmony. A desire to blur distinctions may be more about discomfort with being in contact with different views, driven by a togetherness force, rather than a conclusion drawn from examining the basis of different views. Theologian and historian John Dickson makes this point in stating that ‘by seeking to affirm the sameness of the world religions [we] … are in danger of honouring none of them. As unpopular as the idea appears to have become, we simply must allow the world religions to have their distinct voice and to express their different points of view…………………………………
Theologian and philosopher Douglas Wilson has described these maturity problems well in saying that, ‘Those who blindly follow traditions and those who blindly throw traditions overboard share at least ignorance in common. One keeps what he does not know, another throws away what he does not know.’3
The key maturity challenge is to get beyond blind acceptance or rejection of any set of beliefs and values. This asks a great deal of us. In particular, it asks us to take time to reflect on what we believe and what creed we live by. It’s not easy to carve out reflection time in this pressured world. It sure is easier to come to conclusions based on subjective whims and what brings us the most comfort and acceptance from others……………………………………………….
Questions for reflection
»»How much do I know about my family’s beliefs and traditions? How have family members determined what they believe? Have they come to their beliefs for the sake of harmony or have they independently figured out their faith and ethics?
»»How much have I adopted or rejected my family’s beliefs and ethics without personal investigation? What could I do to consider my own guidance system in a thoughtful way?
»»Are my spiritual beliefs embedded in subjective experience or are they balanced with thinking about evidence and logic?
»»Do I get uncomfortable and avoid the issue of my selfishness and wrongdoing? What do I want to be the factual basis for knowing if I have wronged another and need to make amends?
»»How can I make time to unravel my thinking around an important issue, tracing it from its primary source to the position I currently hold, rather than borrowing opinions that are most comfortable to me?
»»What steps will I take to explore what gives my life integrity and purpose?
And I extend to you, from my faith position, warm tidings of Christmas joy – ‘Joy to the world the Lord has come let earth receive her King.’ And let heaven and nature sing of love, grace and genuine peace for all.
Wishing all a Merry Christmas, Joyful holidays in your faith & family traditions, and a Happy New Year!
And for any curious to hear a thoughtful audio about the basis of my faith and of Christmas:
*My blog will resume January 11th 2017
‘Faith – polarising and harmonising’ – Jenny Brown
A helper is interested in assisting another to discover what part they play in problem patterns.
When I first met Ahmed he explained the distress of being a father to a young adult daughter with a long history of eating disorders and impulsive behaviours. He and his wife Lina had supported many years of various treatments for their daughter Samira. Their focus had been trying to understand her diagnosis and finding a treatment that would fix her distressing symptoms. I conveyed to Ahmed that I was willing to meet with him to lend a hand to his efforts to assist his daughter. His wife was also welcome to come to our sessions if she wanted to. It wasn’t necessary for Samira to attend. This was a great surprise and relief to him, particularly as his daughter was resistant to seeing yet another helping professional. His surprise was that I thought that just one family member, who is not the symptomatic person, can utilise help for themselves that can benefit the whole family. Ahmed and Lina started coming to meetings and piecing together patterns of relationships around their daughter. We worked like a research team examining descriptions of interactions and seeing what clues emerged to how interpersonal reactions had contributed to generating and maintaining their daughter’s difficulties. Over time Lina came to see how much she had focussed on assisting her daughter to cope with life challenges throughout her school years. She had been very sensitive to her daughter’s upsets and had taken on the responsibility of smoothing things over for her. Over the years she could see that Samira had become increasingly needy as well as entitled. She also saw that her well-meaning efforts to relieve Samira of any distress had left her daughter with little capacity for managing her own strong emotions. For Ahmed, the exploration of the relationship dance around Samira and Lina revealed that he had become passive and resentful as a parent. He was anxious not to impinge on his wife’s management of Samira and would only assist when Lina was at her wits end. At other times he stayed distant but was silently critical of what he judged as Lina’s overly soft approach. When he stepped up in response to Lina’s requests he would be excessively stern as a corrective to his view of his wife’s parenting. He and Samira would then get caught in conflict and Lina would step in to mediate. This left Samira caught in a confusing triangle with her parents. The pattern that was uncovered revealed that Samira had become accustomed to being rescued by her mother and dismissive towards her father’s reactive attempts at limit setting.
Questions that explore interaction
It took a number of sessions to clarify these repeating patterns between Lina, Ahmed and Samira. Questions were asked each session that focussed on how each person responded to each other. “How did you respond to Samira’s distress? What was her response? Then what happened? Who was involved in these upsets? How? What effect could you observe? How were you affected? What was your response? How did this impact your parenting partnership? How did this play out between you? What differences could you notice in how Samira responded to each of you? What do you notice is different in your response to your son when he’s stressed?” We rarely talked in detail about Samira’s individual symptoms. Rather we reflected on longstanding patterns of relating and how these patterns shed some light on ways Samira was struggling to mature and manage her life without depending on or opposing others. Ahmed and Lina could begin to see that their daughter was so caught in reacting to and leaning on her parents that she had not developed enough capacity to independently manage stress. Her symptoms revealed the overflow of her anxious self in her family.
Questions also focussed on important events in the family’s history and considered how these contributed to more anxious ways of relating. For example: What was going on in the family around Samira’s birth and early years? When did the family immigrate? Where was extended family during the early childrearing years? What were the circumstances of each grandparent’s health issues and the death of both grandfathers? When did Lina lose her job? What changed in family responsibilities with this loss of income? Every significant change in the family over time revealed a parallel of increased sensitivity to Samira and her struggles to cope at school. It was interesting to compare this investment in Samira with her older brother who had not been viewed as so vulnerable. Ahmed and Lina began to see that their son had developed more life coping capacities for himself without his parents trying to be overly helpful.
Broadening the view past individual diagnosis
Unlike previous treatment, which focussed on treating Samira’s symptoms with new medications and individual therapies, this helping process broadened the picture to viewing the family as a single system. If one person can change the way they are interacting, then others will make compensatory changes. Ahmed adjusted his reactionary parenting. He stopped trying to be the tough parent when Lina was struggling and instead worked to have a separate and consistent relationship with his daughter. His efforts were often clumsy and based on ongoing trial and error but he was keen to learn from each interaction about how he could better contribute to the well-being of his family. Lina determined to reduce how much attention she gave Samira during her struggles and to say “no” to her when she became excessively demanding. Every step was a challenge for both parents. They valued the opportunity in our meetings to review what they observed and experienced as they endeavoured to respond differently. Both parents were working on the part they had discovered they were playing in fuelling a regressive pattern with their daughter and each other. Samira had her part in it all as did her brother but the parents were helped to just focus on observing and modifying their part in the dance. A helping relationship that focuses on patterns or process is pivotal to enabling this. If the helper continues to ask about the content of opinions, symptoms and criticisms the parents would have remained blinkered in a narrower view of the problem without discovering pathways to bringing their best to their daughter, their marriage and their other important relationships.
From trying to change others to changing self
Ahmed had commenced counselling thinking that his wife and daughter needed to change. After exploring how each of them affected each other he appreciated that he had a contribution to the family problem. Rather than experience a sense of blame he felt a sense of agency as he had discovered something constructive to work on. It was important to him and Lina that they figured their own way through their problem patterns instead of being instructed to change. Both parents described feeling ‘back in the driving seat’ as parents. They could see gradual improvements in their daughter’s impulsivity which gave them hope that they could make a difference by being less reactive and having clearer positions as parents. Additionally they became interested in the influences of their families of origin and the sensitivities they had brought into their marriage and parenting.
A systems lens guides the helper
The focus on patterns is different to conventional ideas of helping that involve advice giving, interpretations or education about individual’s symptoms. I do need family systems theory as a road map to lead me in this questioning process about relating process. Questions are guided by an ability to identify common patterns of triangles, over and under responsibility and reactive conflict and distance. I have found the shift to asking questions starting with: Who, When, Where, What and How, is liberating as a helper. It reduces my responsibility to solve other’s problems. It keeps me from taking sides around people’s opinions. It prevents me from looking for a singular cause to a complex problem. It allows me to collaborate with others in learning about their particular ways of dealing with tensions in their life and relationships.
Even for the non-professional helper it is worthwhile to ask questions about how the other person is managing their difficulty and how this is played out in their relationships. For example when a friend wants to talk through a problem with a person at work, rather than ask about their view about this other person, ask about how they have been responding to the situation. When does it happen? Who is involved? How do they each get involved? What has been helpful in their efforts to deal with the challenge, what hasn’t been helpful? This can be of greater assistance to another than asking them to vent about their problem and speculate about cause. It can provide a person with an opportunity to think more broadly about their difficulty and gain perspective on how they can address what is within their control.
‘Helping to See the Part a Person Plays in Patterns Around their Problem’ – Jenny Brown
I am feeling close to burn out in my work. I provide my clients with lots of affirmation, good listening and suggestions from my training on the best ways to improve their situation or reduce their symptoms. After about 6 sessions I often feel stuck and frustrated.
What are the key pitfalls in offering help and counsel to others? Most problems in helping efforts occur in the ‘one up, one down’ relationship pattern. In my last blog I mentioned how I developed the ‘one up’ position in my family of origin and how this fuelled some unhelpful patterns in my early counselling work. I have also written about this pattern in the chapters in my book [Growing Yourself Up] on understanding family of origin, marriage, parenting and workplace. It is such a central relationship dynamic to any group that it deserves a bit more elaboration. Dr Bowen called this the over- under functioning reciprocity. This is where one person responds to the distress in another with increasing support, while the other responds to the support with reduced responsibility. It happens in a circular back and forth pattern that can start on either side of the relationship. People who feel most secure and affirmed being helpful to others find themselves connected to people who are most comfortable when others are paying them attention in a caretaking manner. In many ways the conventional counselling relationship is set up in this way.
So what’s the problem with this? I recall speaking to an experienced counsellor, Fiona, who came to me for supervision saying:
I am feeling close to burn out in my work. I provide my clients with lots of affirmation, good listening and suggestions from my training on the best ways to improve their situation or reduce their symptoms. After about 6 sessions I often feel stuck and frustrated. My clients say they get so much out of coming to talk to me but they don’t seem to be making any progress in between our sessions.
Fiona and I teased out her pattern in her counselling relationships. She could see how much her clients liked coming to see her because of her warmth and attentiveness. On the other hand she could also appreciate that she was helping in a way that was inadvertently fostering dependency. On behalf of her clients she was doing most of the work to sooth their insecurities and think of ways to address their difficulties. Her clients always felt buoyed after a counselling session and they liked the advice they heard, however because they hadn’t come up with their own solutions they couldn’t find the inner resolve to implement or stick with Fiona’s suggestions. As we explored this approach to counselling and the varied ways it took over a client’s own responsibilities Fiona could appreciate how this fed into her exhaustion and confusion. Increasingly she found herself referring her clients on for more intense therapy or for psychiatric assessment. Previously unbeknown to her, she had been playing a significant part in her clients reduced progress.
Fiona began to see that her position in her family had contributed to her tendency to be so helpful. Her younger sister had many symptoms during their school years and she had learned ways to reduce her parent’s stress by taking on some of the caretaking. She would spend many hours with her sister distracting her when she was depressed and would include her in her social activities. Fiona found it helpful to see how her caretaking posture was so well honed in her family. Her counselling training had acted to consolidate this pattern.
Fiona’s effort went into reducing her support for her clients. This seemed so counterintuitive and yet she understood that she did not want to continually promote dependency. She retained her commitment to good listening and conveying a tone of warm respect. Interestingly she did report her effort to reduce her tone of concerned compassion as she could see that it fed into her client’s perception that she was more on their side than any member of their own family. She began to increase the time gap between her sessions to communicate that she wanted to give people adequate time to observe and experiment with ideas in their real world and to use counselling as a place to review instead of a place to be changed. Rather than give advice she asked questions about the clients own problem solving efforts – what had they learned about what was helpful and what wasn’t? She became more careful about sharing information from professional training. We talked a good deal in supervision about when she would ascertain the appropriate timing for sharing information. Her new rule of thumb became to ensure her client had explored their own patterns of coping thoroughly before she would convey relevant professional knowledge. She would select carefully the information to share that matched her client’s own descriptions. For example when a woman she was working with said that she always did better when she slowed things down, Fiona opened up a conversation about ways to reduce the physiological effects of stress and anxiety. She was able to add some ideas for temporary stress reduction in a non-authoritative manner. Her key message in sharing information was: “This may or may not be helpful for you but might add to the ideas you are trialling.” As a professional helper Fiona was learning to collaborate with her clients, jointly investigating their patterns for dealing with their symptoms or challenges in their important relationship contexts. This more equal posture was very different to the previous ‘one up, one down’. It was providing Fiona with a new way to view her helping efforts and provided a platform for a sustainable counselling career.
Next blog: a story of triangling/side taking in a helping relationship
‘The One Up, One Down Pattern‘ – Jenny Brown
All this focus on maturing self, begs the question: Is it sufficient just to work on growing ourselves up in our relationships? Surely there’s a place for being a counsellor and helper; a place for guiding and supporting others in finding ways out of troubles?
A core message in my book, Growing Yourself Up, is that the best way to help others is to work on fostering our own maturity. A more mature presence in any group assists others to be more thoughtful and less reactive. Conversely the reactive, less mature responses of gossiping (triangling), avoiding, taking too much control, blaming and being defensive, all contribute to others getting stuck in their problem issues.
All this focus on maturing self does, however, beg a valid question. Is it sufficient just to work on growing ourselves up in our relationships? Surely there’s a place for being a counsellor and helper; a place for guiding and supporting others in finding ways out of troubles?
Indeed there are many circumstances when the role of helper is needed. Many of us are in positions where we are called on to lend a hand to others in distress – as helping professionals, pastoral care workers, volunteers in community organisations. Or perhaps we often find ourselves in the role of ‘accidental counsellor’ in our communities and workplaces. People seem to open up to us or we just happen to be sharing an office space or place waiting at the school gate with another who tells of their trying circumstances. In such situations it is senseless and probably selfish to simply say to ourselves: ‘I am just working on being the most mature person I can be.’
Some of us are prone to running away from people in distress. I think of those well known to me who learnt to stay out of the way of family member’s problems and to allow the worry to be managed by others. For many people they lowered their own stress by distancing and staying well clear of other family member’s upsets. They became accustomed to the over- responsible family members taking this on. For such people the effort to be a more mature helper will involve being more attentive to others who are struggling. It will require tolerating their strong emotions without jumping in to give strategies or change the subject; and maintaining genuine ongoing contact with people in their seasons of anguish.
For others, including myself, the most comfortable place was to be in the middle of helping others. Distress in another was a signal to move in and make things better. This place in the family earned a sense of importance and being appreciated. As a confidant to my mother I learned to be helpful by letting her vent about her worries about my siblings. I would join in the triangle dance by discussing ways to assist the absent 3rd parties. On one occasion I recall going into one of my sister’s bedrooms to open up to her about personal details of my life and in turn to see if she would open up to me. I didn’t do this of my own accord. My mother suggested this strategy I order to prevent my sister from distancing further from the family. I was learning to help by creating indirect communication in my family. I didn’t realise at the time that this was not helping at all (Although I do recall it being a very awkward interaction with my sister). Rather it created more confusion and stress in relationships.
As a helping professional I can look back and see that much of my early counselling was via triangles as I had been primed in my helping role in my family growing up. I would join the client in focussing on their worry about another person – for example their child or spouse. I would listen to their descriptions of the problem behaviours in the absent third party and give possible explanations for this. I would join the client in strategizing about how to change or straighten out the other. Added to this I would offer my client empathy for the hard time they were having caring for or putting up with the other. People appreciated all of this help and I was validated as a novice helping professional. I have come to see however that even help that people are grateful for may not be helpful in the bigger picture. Help that bypasses a person looking at their own responsibility will not assist to make genuine change in a relationship. Help that focusses on what one thinks another should change will inject pressure into the relational space of this person which will not promote thoughtfulness. It will predictably promote resistance or increased neediness.
If you’ve previously thought that helping is a simply natural human instinct, you may well be asking yourself why add all this complexity? Does the business of helping others need to be so fraught and messy? Sadly the anxieties that flow in all our relationships can complicate natural processes of caring for others. Over the coming weeks my blogs will explore help that is helpful. What are the ways to best lend a hand to another who is struggling in their relationships or in dealing with life challenges?
‘The Grown Up Helper’ – Jenny Brown
How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically. It often just seems the right thing to do. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression
How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. I was chatting to a Mum last week about her 7 year old who was crying about not wanting to do swimming lessons in the school holidays. She had been learning swimming with her older sister throughout the year, and while she hadn’t been enthusiastic, she was making progress and participating. On the cusp of the holiday swimming program this little girl declared that she was afraid of the water and didn’t want to be made to do swimming. I explored with the mother her possible responses to this protest. She was clear that swimming lessons were important due to the family’s proximity to the beach. For her it was not just an extra-curricular activity, it was about ocean safety. She did reflect that this younger child tended to become anxious and slip backwards just as she was making some maturing progress. Her responses had often been to sit down with her daughter and try to talk through her worries. She would suggest strategies for managing her fears but found that the more she reassured her daughter the more her daughter seemed to express her apprehensions.
In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically. It often just seems the right thing to do. A parent can try to get to the bottom of their child’s setbacks by focussing on their fears and feelings. It can be quite disillusioning when the child then regresses further in response to such attention. A parent may then get frustrated with the child or teen and shift their positive attention to more negative cajoling: “Come on you can get yourself to swimming lessons; you’ve been doing it all year. You’re just being difficult!” The negative attention often leads to more ‘stuckness’ for the child and parent and the tone of their interactions easily becomes tense.
I recall a period in my own parenting, after an inter country move, when my then 3 year old began showing distress when I left her at her nursery school. She had previously been very happy to have me leave and had commenced her new ½ day pre-school with excitement and confidence. When she showed her 1st sign of separation distress I recall the staff becoming anxious about the child who had travelled all the way from Australia. They strongly encouraged me to stay with her to assist her in the transition and this synced with my own concerns about by child’s vulnerability. Some weeks later I was still sitting beside my daughter in the welcome circle joining in the children’s action songs and assisting with the afternoon activities. I often think I should have been put on the pay roll. Predictably my daughter did not increase her autonomy but became habitually distressed with the first inkling of separation. At the time I did not see the part that I had played in reinforcing her regression.
Bowen observed that when a child is focussed on anxiously they respond with increasingly impaired behaviours. This can happen in families, in schools, in psychological treatment. It is predictable that as a child reaches a new developmental milestone of more independence and mastery of skills, that they exhibit episodes of retreat to an earlier stage of dependence on caregivers. This is part of the growing up trajectory. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression. In essence, they ignore the child’s reversion behaviours and invitations for the parent to treat them as if they were back in a more dependent stage. When the child resumes their age appropriate functioning, the parent attends to the child with calm reassurance.
What might this look like? Drawing from the example of the 7 year old’s protests about swimming lessons: Firstly the mother will recognise her own uncertainties and steady herself so as not to inject her sensitivities into the child’s situation. When the objections arise the Mother can demonstrate with a brief comment that she will not entertain such protests. This is followed up by ignoring continued winging/wining from the child. The parent does not give attention to the child’s upset in the form of concern, advice or stern lectures. Any parent will find this challenging and will need to attend to their own discomfort in reaction to their upset child. It is predictable that the child will up the ante of their upset for a time. They will give this up when they can sense that the parent is going to maintain their resolve. When the child moves back into participating in their swimming classes, as they previously had been able to do, the parents acknowledge the child’s efforts and show interest in what they have mastered. They take care not to ‘over- focus’, through exaggerated praise or reward for what is simply the child’s appropriate engagement in their life activities.
Looking back on my own nursery school internship with my then 3 year old I can see how helpful it would have been to ignore the initial displays of separation distress – To give the usual loving gestures of good bye and to leave calmly. At the afternoon pick up I would show an interest in her activities but not give my attention to discussing her earlier upset. With the passing of 25 years it is much easier to see a way through. At the time I was working through my own separation challenges from my extended family and I can see how this made it difficult to distinguish between my insecurities and my child’s emotions. Growing ourselves up as parents (or carers) requires managing our own insecurities so as not to allow them to spill over into our relating with our child.
The current tide of parenting is all about attending to a child’s distress and showing sensitivity to their needs. Challenging this ethos guarantees emotive counteractions from many ‘child experts’ and conscientious parents devoted to the path of tuning into their child’s emotions. Of course there are apt times to listen well and support a child as they face real challenges. This is different to attention that reinforces a child’s natural moments of resisting steady steps towards increased maturity. A parent who can see their part in these patterns can be the very best resource for their child’s resilience.
Key questions for reflection
To read more see: p 106 – 129 in Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. Jenny Brown
If you’re going to assist your child to grow their resilience, the first step will be to increase your own resilience in tolerating your child’s upset without feeling compelled to rush in and smooth over everything for them. The grown-up parent, who really wants to be a loving resource to their child, is prepared to work on themselves and not make a project out of their child. P 108
Relevant Quote from Murray Bowen MD
The process begins with anxiety in the mother. The child responds anxiously to the mother, which she misperceives as a problem in the child. [The father usually plays a role – he is sensitive to the mother’s anxiety, and he tends to support her view and help her implement her anxious efforts at mothering] The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. Once the process has started, it can be motivated either by anxiety in the mother, or anxiety in the child. In the average situation there may be symptomatic episodes at stressful periods during childhood which gradually increase to major symptoms during or after adolescence. P 381 FTCP
‘Knowing when to ignore our children’ – Jenny Brown