Interventions and Confrontations

testimageInterventions and Confrontations – Are they the most helpful ways to respond to severe problems in a person we care for?

Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other.

Last week a relative called me to talk through their ideas for an “intervention”. They wanted to challenge a friend to admit to their symptoms and agree to get some professional help. I appreciated the deep care behind this request. I heard about how a long term friend had been exhibiting increasingly severe symptoms that were threatening many aspects of their wellbeing. I was happy to be a sounding board for my relative and to share some of my principles for communicating such important concerns to someone we care about. The term ‘intervention’ usually refers to the effort to gather a group of people together and confront a person about their need for help. It is often used in the case of serious drug and alcohol dependence. Web sites on how to do interventions describe the context:

People with serious addictive behaviours are often in denial that they have a problem. When heart to heart talks and other attempts to help prove ineffective, you can join forces with friends, families and a professional interventionist to confront the person with the truth and a detailed plan of action.

Many years ago I was a participant in such a strategy and experienced a long term fall out in the relationship as the years progressed. In more recent years I have come to a different view of such strategies. Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other. Here are the key principles – some of which I shared with my relative:

  • The goal is to express to the other that they are important in my life as opposed to challenging how they are living their life.
  • Rather than confront the other with the problems in their life – which evokes intense defensiveness – I want to express my wish to have them as part of my life well into the future.
  • In conveying my care for having them as a living and important part of my life I will share some of the observations I have had that have triggered my concern..
  • I use the language of “I” rather than “You” in describing what I have observed and what fears for their wellbeing have been activated.
  • I describe the effects on me and our relationship and how this is different to the strong loving bond I am committed to as we continue as part of each other’s lives. This is different to describing my view of the effects on their life – positioning self as the expert overseer of another’s life can be heard as patronising and drive a wedge into the relationship.
  • I aim to talk one on one with the person rather than pull a group together to confront them. A group confrontation easily leaves a person feeling ganged up on.
  • I commit to ongoing contact with the person to show that my care for them is more than words. I don’t expect that just a conversation will change anything. I am committed to addressing my part in any unhelpful aspects of the relationship pattern over the long haul. This means I will not resort to distancing.
  • I will be truthful and not accommodating but my effort at honesty will be from my perspective and principles rather than a dogmatic declaration that I am an expert about the other. My effort towards speaking honestly will be grounded in real examples not in my subjective judgements and opinion.
  • I will watch my tendencies to be an expert about others rather than staying mindful of my own immaturities. I will stay clear of treating another person as a ‘diagnosis’ but rather will view them as a fellow human being who can be an important resource in my life.
  • If I were to focus on just a diagnosis in another it is all too easy to hand them over to an expert program as a way of reducing my own sense of distress- and my responsibility to work on myself in relationship with the other.

I appreciate that it isn’t easy to know how to address serious concerns about another’s life course or symptoms. Are there exceptions? I certainly conveyed to my relative that they know their relationship with their friend and will find their own way to deal with it best. Every situation is different and there may be occasions when a more direct intervention is the most caring thing another can do. At certain times it may be most loving to call in an emergency assessment service. Even in such cases I would aim to be transparent about my willingness to do this if I ever thought that my loved one’s safety or those of another were under threat.

My view is that a group or individual confrontation of another is almost never constructive. It sets up a one- up/one- down relationship where the person feeling challenged is evoked into high reactivity rather than being able to listen. They hear judgement rather than heart-felt concern. They can be fixed into the postion of a ‘patient’ in their relationship system. My system’s lens reminds me that people get into vulnerable symptomatic places in life via their position in their relationship/family systems. This means that if I change how I relate in that system I can contribute to a less regressive and anxious field for the most vulnerable person.


Bowen on confrontation in a family system:


‘As an oldest son and physician I had long been the wise expert preaching to the unenlightened, even when it was done in the guise of expressing an opinion or giving advice….During my psychoanalysis there was enough emotional pressure to engage my parents[others] in an angry confrontation…At the time I considered these confrontations to be emotional emancipation. There may have been some short term gain…but the long term result was an intensification of previous patterns.”

Family Therapy in Clinical practice P 484


‘In those families in which both parents could eventually tone down the sickness theme and relate to the ‘patient’ on a reality level, the ‘patient’ changed. After one family had emerged from their unreality, the ‘patient’ said, “As long as they called me sick and treated me sick, I somehow had to act sick. When they stopped treating me sick, I had a choice of acting sick or acting well.”’

P 86

‘Interventions and Confrontations’ – Jenny Brown



Averting Workplace Burnout

Is this heading towards workplace burnout – what are the contributing factors?

workplace stressRelationship disruption may well be the central unaddressed theme behind people’s burnout experiences. How many of us attend sufficiently to addressing relationship patterns that may be draining our energy, resources and those of others?

The past couple of months at work have been as demanding as any period of work I can remember. With computers crashing and key administrator’s leaving I’ve had to wear multiple hats and extend my working hours to ensure no major balls were dropped. I’ll admit it’s been exhausting however I have known throughout that it was a time limited stress. It was always clear that there was going to be a resolution as our business IT issues were addressed and a new employee had time to settle into their role.
This has prompted reflection on work place stress and what goes into burnout. While a period of overwork can be tremendously challenging it does not take the same toll that relationship disruption and sustained seemingly unresolvable stress does. A leader’s potential for burnout is certainly heightened, if the loss of a team member erupted from relationship discord and the ripple effects of this were infiltrating the organisation. In my recent scenario, the loss of the key staff member was predicted. They had completed part time study and had been open with me about looking for work in their field. The other stressors, while beyond my control, were solvable problems. This is very different from a sense of chronic repeating patterns of people complaining and leaving or of work systems malfunctioning.
I wonder what you think of when you hear of workplace burnout. Usually people associate it with too high a workload. In literature into burnout in ministry positions the most commonly noted contributing factors are: over work, role demand Vs capacity, demands of interpersonal complexity, reliance on solo/self-care and a belief system of selfless service.* Looking into such factors reveals much more than a problem of too much work and not enough leave. The demands of relationship strain and relationship patterns of over – functioning (or over- controlling, – helping) are core elements to the burnout picture. I hear that many overseas mission/aid placements are prematurely ended, not due to cross cultural strain, but to team conflict. Relationship disruption may well be the central unaddressed theme behind people’s burnout experiences. How many of us attend sufficiently to addressing relationship patterns that may be draining our energy resources and those of others.
I well remember some years ago the impact of a tense collegial relationship on my workplace coping. Unlike the recent high work load this earlier period of relational upheaval was infiltrating my sleep patterns and thinking space. The more I focussed on the other the more drained and negative I became. I realised how important it was to see my part in the troubled dynamics and to responsibly attend to the ways I had played a part in mutual misunderstandings and reactions.
For some who are edging on workplace burnout it may be that unaddressed relationship discord at home is driving the intense investment in work. When exhausted collapse occurs it is easier to point to the work load than to the relationship strain that is being bypassed by spending increasing hours away from home.
For myself I have learned to ask the following questions to avert potential burnout at work:
• Is this a factual problem that can be solved in the foreseeable future? If so how can I patiently manage my priority tasks and tolerate the disruption until things are resolved?
• Is this a chronic pattern that repeats and seems to have no foreseeable resolution? If so how can I ascertain my contribution to this?
• Am I contributing to the chronicity by continually worrying about what might happen as opposed to addressing the facts of what is happening?
• What relationship patterns are behind this stress? Is distancing, blaming or over functioning happening? What is my part in this? How can I take the lead in maturely addressing issues with the person/people I am tense with?
• Am I using work as a detour from addressing insecurities in my family relationships as a spouse or parent? How can I ensure that this does not get hidden by my very high workload? Am I being responsible in all my important relationship domains?
I am relieved that the worst of my work stress is now behind me. It was valuable to see that there was no call for panic or reactivity that would spread the stress throughout the team. It continues to be valuable to remember to always address my part in relationship patterns that can drain energy from self and others. This period has also been a welcome prompt to reflect on how I am going to gradually move towards some semblance of semi-retirement and free up space for projects beyond my current work. I am committed to a better balance in how I spread my God given energy around the various domains of my life.

Dr Bowen and different versions of stress & anxiety:

A key variable of family systems theory is the degree of anxiety – this includes the intensity and duration of different types of anxiety. “All organisms are reasonably adaptable to acute anxiety. The organism has built in mechanisms to deal with short bursts of anxiety….When anxiety increases and remains chronic for a certain period, the organism develops tension, either within itself or in the relationship system, and the tension results in symptoms’ or dysfunction or sickness.” P 361-2

* e.g. of burnout literature and clergy
Grosch, W. N., & Olsen, D. C. (2000). Clergy Burnout: An integrative account. Psychotherapy in Practice, 56(5), 619-632.
My literature review in this area comes from the master’s thesis of psychologist Amanda Mason (which I hope will be published at some time)

‘Averting Workplace Burnout’ – Jenny Brown

Help that Doesn’t Assume

grandmother washingRecently I chatted with a woman who was distressed by the developing tension with her daughter –in- law. She was devastated that her son’s wife and mother to her 2 young grandchildren had conveyed that she no longer needed her regular visits. I asked about how she had been interacting with her son’s family and she reported that she had made every effort to be as supportive as possible. I heard that when she was on ‘grand parenting duty’ she’d take on a range of jobs to assist her son and daughter in law manage with their full time workloads and the demands of their young family. This included doing vacuuming, washing and other domestic chores. Additionally she would add extra things to the children’s routine that her daughter in law had written out for both grandmothers. Her thought was that an extra trip to the park would surely be helpful and guarantee the children a better night sleep. She was shocked to hear from her son that these acts of service had been interpreted as a negative judgement on her daughter in laws domestic standards and a lack of respect for their parenting practices. How painful for her to find that her well intentioned acts of help were experienced as intrusive!

I can certainly identify with the propensity to assume I know what will be helpful for others and to just dive in and action this. Throughout my growing up years I developed a strong sensitivity to others struggling to cope. My own mother was burdened by the load of caring for her elderly father as well as her 5 children and I discovered that ascertaining ways to help my grandfather, and in turn reduce her stress, was rewarded with a close appreciative response from my mother. Hence I entered my adulthood with a well-honed tendency to mind- read what I think others need without actually finding out what they think.

Having awareness of my priming to assume what will be helpful to others has enabled me to pause before rushing in to other’s space. It may sound incredibly basic but I am practicing asking others what I can do to be helpful – NOT jumping in as if I’m the expert on their emotional state. When one of my family members was recently going through a time of distress I made sure that I did nothing without checking in first, asking what they would like from me. I readily offered a few ideas of what I was able to do to lighten their load but I ensured that I was not invested in doing any of these things. It was entirely the call of the members of the household. This still doesn’t come easily to me as I can impulsively be ‘overly helpful”. I have come to see however that over- helping and assuming I know the perspective of another is actually an invasion of their privacy and personal space.

Dr Bowen observed the tendency of humans to move into either ‘over responsibility’ or ‘under responsibility’ when there is insecurity and stress in a relationship. The ‘over responsible’ one steadies her/himself through feeling useful to the other while the ‘under responsible’ one stabilises her/himself by drawing strength from the attentiveness of the other. The overly helpful person can easily burn her/himself out and neglect addressing their less interpersonal responsibilities such as financial management and administration. The under functioning one becomes gradually more unsure of him/herself and may become vulnerable to symptoms of depression, substance misuse and/or inability to manage life’s tasks. Help that affects a person’s ability to manage their own life responsibilities is actually not help at all. Help that assumes what another needs is also not help but is a contributor to misunderstandings and relationship discord.

Pulling one’s self out of such patterns is a way of addressing one’s own part in a relationship disruption. While misunderstandings in relationships can be deeply discouraging, being able to adjust how we respond to others needs or helping gestures provides a basis for bringing good to another and to our relationship. For the distraught mother in law who had been trying too hard to help her daughter in law, she could find an alternate path of asking her son and daughter what ways they would like her to assist them. This enables people to interact more respectfully without stepping into territory that belongs to others. Of course this woman’s son and daughter- in- law were contributing to the misunderstandings, however the most helpful thing any of us can put our energy towards is averting attention from blaming or mind reading the other to addressing our own part in unhelpful patterns.

Relevant Questions from “Growing Yourself Up” about ‘over – helpfulness’.

“Caretaking is an easy way to cover over unaddressed insecurities in much the same way that leaning on another as a prop can be.” P 89

“If a parent confided in us or leant on us when things were tough…we’re likely to be at easing giving advice but less comfortable accepting it from others.” P 38

“She needed to find a way to be real about how much she cared for [the other] without this compulsion to take care of [them]. Caring about another would come to mean something very different …than taking care of another.” P 59

“I am committed to not taking over and doing for another what they have the capacity to learn to do for themselves. (Not crowding another’s breathing space so they can develop their own capabilities and coping skills)” p 228

This grandmother “could see how much she had assumed her role as grandmother without asking her son what he thought.”  P 204

In Family Therapy & Clinical practice Dr Bowen wrote of the problem of being overly helpful as a counsellor/ health care clinician:

“When the therapist allows him/herself to become a “healer” or “repairman,” the family [client] goes into dysfunction to wait for the therapist to accomplish her/his work,” P 158 FTCP

‘Help that Doesn’t Assume’ – Jenny Brown

How our family of origin affects us AND how we affect each family member

family diagramThe desired outcome of Bowen’s family of origin coaching of an individual was for them to move beyond blaming or labelling family members as saints or sinners, and towards being able to accept the patterns over the generations that shape the relationship positions that each person comes to occupy

Most of us are interested in how our family of origin has shaped us. I have found that many people think in terms of cause and effect about how a parent or an event from the past has made life more difficult for them in the present. Much therapy takes this linear approach to exploring the past. For example, a detrimental parenting relationship is used to explain a person’s current sensitivities. In contrast a systems approach always looks at how each person and each generation affects the other in a circular (back and forth) way. For example one’s parents are understood in the context of their marriage, involvements with each child and the position they had with their parents growing up. The current sensitivities are understood through identifying family of origin relationship triangles that one participated in (I.E. How one related to each parent and how alliances impacted the relationship with other family members). A bigger picture of interactions across the generations diverts from blaming a parent for one’s current life difficulties.  This blog is an excerpt from an article I wrote and published in 2008 explaining a Bowen systems approach to looking at family of origin. I trust this will be of interest not just to therapists but to any who seek to constructively understand the influence of their previous generations.

Family of Origin Psychotherapy in a Nutshell

Coaching an individual to research their own patterns in their family and to redefine themselves in less anxiety driven ways is aimed at increasing their level of differentiation of self. This is not identical to the concept of individuation (Jung, 1954) or self-actualisation (Maslow, 1968) which focuses on growing away from family symbiosis through realising intra-psychically one’s separateness. Bowen’s concept of differentiation places an equal emphasis on staying meaningfully connected to significant others, as it does on expressing individual thoughts and beliefs. “The ability to be in emotional contact with others yet still autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning is the essence of the concept of differentiation.“(p.145, Kerr and Bowen, 1988)

Prior to focusing on the family as a system, Bowen had trained in psychoanalysis and undertook many years of his own analysis. In reflecting on the outcome of his early analytic training, he stated that “during my psychoanalysis there was enough emotional pressure to engage my parents in an angry confrontation about childhood grievances that had come to light in the snug harbour of transference. At the time I considered these confrontations to be emotional emancipation……The net result was my conviction that my parents had their problems and I had mine, that they would never change, and nothing more could be done.” (p. 484, Bowen, 1972)

Bowen was not satisfied with this outcome as he began to see from his clinical research that each family member participated in a reciprocal (circular) process of making compensations for others. This meant that with careful research of family patterns it was possible for an individual to begin to relate more from self and less in reaction to others, and that over time the efforts of one person might shift the functioning of the whole system. The desired outcome of Bowen’s coaching of an individual was for them to move beyond blaming or labelling family members as saints or sinners, and towards being able to accept the patterns over the generations that shape the relationship positions that each person comes to occupy. From this more neutral position, the individual is able to develop a person to person (not person to group or couple) relationship with each member of his/her family where differences can be expressed without attacking, defending or withdrawing. Bowen referred to this approach as ‘coaching’ as opposed to ‘therapy’ because the emphasis was on preparing for change efforts in the clients natural system of relationships, rather than a healing emphasis in the relationship between therapist and client. This has been likened to the coach of a sports team who is “on the sidelines. Both serve as teachers/consultants who prepare the players/clients, but the players/client(s) need to translate the learning into action on the playing field and the family turf.”(p. 22, Titelman, 1987)

Given that most clients of psychotherapy are motivated to address a problem in the here and now, a family systems therapist will begin with a focus on the problem bearer and gaining symptom relief (working in the foreground). Nonetheless, as family members start to understand their part in the interactions that maintain the symptom and how patterns of managing relationship anxiety are passed down the generations, they may choose to continue working with the therapist to look at the broader generational context. In the early stages of this work the focus is on gathering information about the family relationship history and exploring the functional roles the client occupied in their family. (Examples of functional roles are: problem solver – problem maker; anxiety generator-anxiety soother; supporter-collapser; energy lender-energy borrower)

A three generational family diagram/genogram is used as a way of mapping family history and looking for emotionally reactive patterns. The coach helps the client to identify gaps in knowledge, as highlighted by the genogram and hypothetical questions are used to explore what process is likely to ensue if the client is to get to know each family member better. When an understanding of the systems way of dealing with anxiety about relationship attachments is achieved they are encouraged to plan brief steps of contacting family members and subsequently observing and listening to them in a research minded way.

This information is brought back to therapy/coaching and further hypotheses are developed about the role the person plays in the system, what a less reactive role would look like and what might be the reactions of others to any changes they may make. The individual focuses their thought and effort on changing the way they relate in their family, not on trying to change others. There is rarely a termination of the work but rather a spacing of appointments to longer intervals and an encouragement to return at any time to continue the work of differentiating which is framed as a lifelong effort. The coaching effort aims to assist the client to work at being able to maintain their objective thinking, whilst in the midst of a tumultuous emotional family situation, yet still being able to stay in contact with family members.

Distinguishing Family of Origin Coaching from Traditional Individual Psychotherapy

The key distinction between family systems coaching and individual therapy that has evolved from psychoanalysis is that the focus for change is in the natural system of the client’s own family, as opposed to the in-session therapeutic relationship. Rather than the therapist seeking to facilitate a corrective relationship within the transference of the therapist client system, the therapist encourages the client to take action in their family system. Reflections are not on the individual’s intra-psychic processes but on their own family’s intergenerational patterns of relationships.

Similar to traditional individual approaches, family systems coaching emphasises the importance of the therapist managing their counter-transference. This is achieved by resisting the invitation to take sides (called ‘triangling’) and thereby staying out of the patterns of the client’s system. Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick, who have applied Bowen’s approach to a feminist and multicultural framework, remember Bowen saying that 50% of the therapist’s energy is directed into the work itself and 50% is directed into staying out of the client’s family process. (p. 283, McGoldrick and Carter, 2001) A good deal of work on the self of the therapist is required  to stay engaged with a client without getting drawn into alliances, over responsibility, or withdrawing. Hence when a therapist can work on managing their anxiety when in contact with members of their family of origin, it is viewed as a constructive way of learning how to resist client’s invitations to loan support to their reactions to others. The premise is that “working toward becoming a more responsible and differentiated individual in one’s own family provides an avenue for lessening tendencies to become over involved with one’s clinical families, and it helps the family therapist avoid emotional “burnout”, a common occupational hazard for psychotherapists.” (p. 3-4, Titelman, 1987)

Researching, observing, planning and thinking are given priority over insight, emotional expression, support and interpretation in Bowen’s Family of Origin approach. Questions are focused on observable patterns of reacting by asking “What happened? Who was involved? How did each person respond?”; rather than on the particulars of a dispute, how one feels or what their interpretations are. The family systems therapist emphasises each person’s participation in the system, not what motivates individual behaviour. Instead of asking the individual to give direct expression of affect to the therapist, they are asked to reflect on what their feelings tell them about the relationship patterns in which they are involved.

Read the full article here.

Going Home Again: A family of origin approach to individual therapy

The paper was originally published in Psychotherapy in Australia Vol.14 No.1 pp. 12-18. 2008

For opportunities to explore this approach further (not just for clinicians) see the FSI conference offerings this June

The FSI – 2016 Conference – The Multi-generational Family

The FSI – Systems in Ministry Symposium and Your Family of Origin


‘How our family of origin affects us AND how we affect each family member’ – Jenny Brown


Speaking From Self Rather Than Speaking at Another

SpeakingWhen we want to be truly heard by another it is useful to speak on our own behalf rather than telling another what to think, feel or do. A focus on correcting or directing another is most likely to me met with one of the 3 types of reaction:

  1. Defend,
  2. Attack,
  3. Withdraw.

In contrast being able to clearly say: “This is what I think and this is how I feel about it and therefore this is what I am going to do”; will be most likely to be heard as coming from your inner conviction.

The following excerpt from my book gives some examples of what speaking from self rather than speaking at another might sound like in parenting (you may wish to reflect on how this might apply to other relationship contexts):

Getting clearer about an “I” position; Rather than a “You” focus on the child:

The key principles for holding an “I” position: The parent manages themself, not the child. They don’t try to control what is beyond their own choice to activate. They don’t expect words to achieve much and are willing to action what they say. They don’t crowd a child’s developmental breathing space by pushing or pulling them into behaving as they desire.

Saying to a child that:

  • “You must stop doing that or I will send you to your room”’ might be replaced with:

“I am going to have to go to another room because I can’t concentrate on this task while there’s so much noise.”

  • “If you stop that screaming now I will buy you a treat at the checkout” is replaced with:

“I’m not going to keep shopping with all that fuss. If the screaming keeps up I will go straight home. I’ll come back and do the shopping later instead of going to the park this afternoon.”

  • “I will give you extra pocket money if you put an hour of homework in each night.” Is replaced with:

“I see it as your responsibility to satisfy the schools requirements, and I will not step in at the last minute if you haven’t managed to get things done on time.”

  • If you don’t stop fighting with your brother I’m going to take away your play station.” Is switched to:

“I expect that you two need to learn how to play together co-operatively and I believe you can find a way to do it.   If I come back in 5 minutes and you still haven’t worked it out, I won’t be willing to keep the computers on for the rest of the day.”

  • “How dare you swear at me? You are grounded!” is replaced with:

“I’m not willing to be generous when I experience so much disrespect.   I am pulling out from giving you that lift to your friend’s house today.”

  • “Ok, I can see from you blank look you aren’t getting far with that homework and its due tomorrow, let me help you out.” Is switched to:
  • “I’m hearing your complaints about this assignment. I’m willing to let you talk it through with me when I’ve finished my task; but I’m not willing to do any of the work for you.”
  • “Will you stop that whinging right now or I’ll stop all our visits to the park this week.” is replaced with:

No reaction from the parent who continues to go about their own business.

  • “Great job! That’s the best drawing of a tree I’ve ever seen. You could be a great artist one day” Is switched to:

“I’m really interested in what you’ve created; I’d love to hear about your drawing.”

 There is no magic in using the words of the “I” position. The impact is not so much in the language but in the parent’s inner conviction and their perseverance to continue to demonstrate this in action. The child senses the difference of the parent’s inner conviction and, after a time of testing, begins to manage them self better. It takes some dedicated time to think things through for yourself to know what your limits are and how you will live by them. Be prepared for your child to test out whether you really mean what you are saying you’re willing and not willing to do. After a time of testing your resolve, they will come to appreciate that they are dealing with an adult who is not having a knee jerk reaction but is clear and trustworthy.

‘Speaking From Self Rather Than Speaking at Another’ – Jenny Brown

Are you a leader or follower as a parent or a dog owner?

Are you a leader or a follower with your dog?    


Are you a leader or a follower with your children?

yelling parent

I think there are some parallel principles to being a pack leader with a pet dog to being a parent leader with children. While clearly dogs and children have different needs and developmental trajectories both need good leadership for them to thrive. I think the current child focused trend has produced a lot of parents who are followers, not leaders. They parent in reaction to their child’s emotional state as distinct from parenting from managing their own emotional state and from clear leadership principles. Its not easy to reverse this trend when it is mirrored in schools and health professionals offices.

I respect the central ethos of the training principles of Dog Whisperer, Caesar Milan. Watching his television series illustrates clearly that the most important work in assisting a problem dog is for the owners to address their anxious way of relating to their dog. The work of change comes from the owner not by focussing on changing the dog. The following 10 questions from Caesar Milan are a checklist to ascertain if you are your dog’s pack leader. this gave me the idea to write some parallel questions for parents and their children. See what you think of such parallels?

You know you are a follower in your pack if you can answer yes to any of these questions: You know you are a follower  with your children if you can answer yes to any of these questions:
1.       Does your dog wake you up?

If your dog wakes you up, it means he doesn’t respect you. In order to correct this behaviour, you will need to change your dog’s habits to let him know that you are the one who will wake him up. So if your pup tries to wake you up, simply ignore him. And then when he finally exhibits the desired behaviour, reward him for following your lead.

1.       Do you wake up according to the demands of your child?

If your children expect you to rise and schedule your night waking and early morning according to their requests it indicates they have not learned to respect your schedule. Even if you need to check briefly on them when they call on you at night, you can demonstrate that it is not yet your time to be out of bed. When they show respect for this schedule you can demonstrate your appreciation for this.

2.       Do you reward your dog at the wrong time?

Don’t pet your dog when she does something wrong. This affectionate act — or reward — nurtures the very behaviour that you don’t want and will only convey that it’s okay for your dog to act that way. Instead, learn how to master affection.

      2. Do you give your child rewarding attention at the wrong time?

Focussing sustained attention on your child when they have not behaved appropriately is nurturing their irresponsible behaviour. They will become accustomed to your engagement when they are misbehaving rather than being given time to reflect on their poor choices or naughtiness.

       3. Do you feed your dog before you feed yourself?

A dog mom makes her babies wait to eat. So it should be no different with you as a Pack Leader. Instinctually, dogs know that the Pack Leaders eat first. So feed yourself before you feed your pup to show that you’re the leader.

     3. Do you allow your children to help themselves to a family dinner (pizza, desserts, treats) before you have commenced eating or given permission?

A parent is in control of serving food. Hence it provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate order and leadership.

    4. Does your dog enter or exit rooms ahead of you?

Just like with food, dogs instinctually know that the Pack Leader is in control and should be the one to lead. Dogs don’t walk ahead of their Pack Leader, so you will need to change your role if you’re the one following your dog around the house.

    4. Do your children rush ahead of you when visiting others? Do they rush into lifts and buses without waiting for others to exit? Do they rush to play without helping you unload the shopping?

Being clear about expecting your children to wait, help, and not rush to their play is a clear way of holding leadership in an everyday activity. “I expect you to help me unload the car before starting anything else.” Or “Hold on now, I am not going to tolerate you rushing in before others have left the bus.”

    5. Does your dog jump on you?

Jumping is a dominance behaviour. Enough said. So when your dog jumps on you, he’s asserting his dominance over you. But you can’t just jump on your dog, so you need to let your dog know that his jumping isn’t okay and learn how to manage jumping issues.

    5. Does your child push into your physical space? Shoving or pulling or poking you?

By stepping back and creating your space boundaries, you are demonstrating helpful leadership. By not giving any attention or responses when being prodded and pushed you make clear that this is not an acceptable way to get something from another.

    6. Are you your dog’s source of excitement?

Without rules, boundaries, and limitations, you make yourself out to be a playmate instead of a leader. Remember, your dog needs to follow a Pack Leader to feel secure and to be balanced. Strive to be your dog’s source of calmness and direction by creating your dog’s calm, submissive state.

    6. Have you oriented much of your life towards providing play, activity and entertainment for your child? Do you demonstrate through providing constant novelty activity that it is your job to keep them entertained? Are you always too busy and stressed? Or do you set aside other life responsibilities to attend to your child’s activities.

Remember your child needs you to provide opportunity for them to practice slowing down, Periods of quiet, calm, alone time. This starts with a parent who practices this in their own life on a daily basis.


    7. Does your dog have the run of the house?

She is on your bed, on the sofa, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, and going berserk at the front door if anyone dares to ring the bell. You need to set boundaries for your pack, so she knows what is and isn’t allowed. Follow these tips for building boundaries with your dog. Claim your space; teach your dog to wait; correct at the right time.

    7. Do your children have the run of your house? Do they come into your bedroom without knocking? Do they come into your bed when they choose?

Do they leave their stuff anywhere?

Think about how you can be in charge of when your children enter your space and how they take up the household space. Parents who have no boundaries when a child is anxious contribute to a child becoming increasingly anxious and unable to self-regulate.

You have the capacity to say “I will tell you when it’s OK to have special story and play time in our bed.” Or “I will not be serving dinner until that mess has been put back where it belongs.”

    8. Does your dog turn a deaf ear to your commands?

If you haven’t trained your dog in basic obedience, you are losing pack leadership points. Work on teaching your dog these five essential commands to establish yourself as Pack Leader and curb behaviour issues; Sit, come, down, stay, leave it.

    8. Does your child ignore your requests?

Improving your leadership in all the above areas makes it much less likely that a child will ignore you. If you just try to get a child to do what you want without working on broad leadership behaviour it is likely to become a  futile power struggle.

An instruction that depends on the child’s co-operation is less effective when re-building your leadership than a request where you can control the consequences. E.g. – when you serve food, go out, provide a lift, take them to a favourite place, pay for something.

    9. Do you yell at your dog?

Yelling is actually the best way of making sure your dog 1) never listens to you, and 2) develops fear and anxiety because of your unbalanced energy. So instead of yelling at your dog — which gets you nowhere, fast — try being calm and assertive.

    9. Do you yell at your children?

Highly reactive parents equates to highly reactive children.

Yelling is actually the best way of making sure your child 1) never listens to you, and 2) develops fear and anxiety because of your unbalanced energy. So instead of yelling at your child — which gets you nowhere, fast — try being calm and assertive.

And when a child is demonstrating their own calm self-management come alongside them and calmly show an interest in what they are doing.

    10 .Does your dog pull you on the walk?

This is the ultimate sign that you have yet to master pack leadership. On top of that, if you don’t walk your dog daily, it’s hard to establish your leadership. That’s why mastering the walk is essential to every Pack Leader.

10. Does your child dictate what you do on an outing?

Rather than every outing being focussed on the child’s interests include something you need to do before going to their preferred activity. They can benefit from developing capacity for delayed gratification and respecting your priorities.

Remember, when it comes to pack leadership, you are the one in charge. By setting boundaries now, you and your dog will be in great shape towards building your relationship and strengthening your bond for years to come. Remember, when it comes to parent leadership, you are the one in charge. You are not becoming a follower of your child’s moods and wants. By setting boundaries now, you and your children will be in great shape towards building your relationship and strengthening your bond for years to come.

count your “yes” answers.Here is Ceasar Milan’s checklist scoring:

0 yes…………………………………… You are the Pack Leader / or parent leader (it may well be a mythical being who can completely answer yes to every question all the time)

1 – 10 yes…………………. You are not the Pack Leader / parent leader YET.

Change does not happen overnight but in small steps of self-management. The effort is on changing self for the benefit of the dog and the child. I know I have often failed to be a calm assertive leader as a parent and dog owner. Rather than beat myself up I can get back on track with my own leadership project.

*10 signs that you are not yet a pack leader –

‘Are you a leader or follower as a parent or a dog owner?’ – Jenny Brown


Resilience: all about relationships

relationships crowd“Are more of my energies going into reading and trying to manage relationships than going into my responsibilities?”

The topic of resilience has been getting lots of attention over the past years. It seems that many have realised that it is more helpful to aim for improved resilience than increased happiness. The core of resilience is seen in how well one deals with life’s setbacks. Think about it for a moment: What will be more useful in equipping a person for life’s daily challenges? Will it be striving for positive feelings? or will it be nurturing the capacity to bounce back after disappointments?

In the day to day efforts to be more responsible in relationships I thought that it might be useful to consider resilience in the context of our relationship sensitivities.

Definitions of the concept of resilience abound! I think it’s helpful to think of it as: The capacity to stay on track with goals and tasks in the midst of challenging environments. The majority of approaches to promoting resilience focus on the individual. They describe how a person can mobilize certain mindsets that allow them to see failure as opportunities rather than as a personal condemnation. This individual cognitive reframing and techniques for self-soothing can certainly be helpful in learning to not be crushed by disappointments; however they leave out the importance of relationship dynamics to our resilience. It’s easy to see external events like loss of job or an illness as the greatest threat to resilience but it is important not to underestimate the way that relationship dynamics can subtly drain a person’s capacity to manage life effectively. A useful question to ask is: Are more of my energies going into reading and trying to manage relationships than going into my responsibilities?

I recently spoke to a woman I will call Leanne, who was increasingly stressed at her workplace. She had taken on a job in a community organisation and was looking forward to making a real contribution. After just 6 month in the job however, she was losing the ability to focus on her work tasks because all of her energy was consumed by trying to work out the relationship dynamics. She sensed that one colleague didn’t value her and had started to seek reassurance from others at the office.  Her boss had initially been available and supportive but she was now sensing a withdrawal of his involvement. She began imagining that he doubted her capabilities and that her colleague might even be bad mouthing her behind her back. Leanne had gone from an enthusiastic confident worker to an anxious and self-doubting person within a short time.

As with so many of us, Leanne’s sensitivities to relationships were a huge part of her lowered resilience. She was able to be productive when she felt valued and validated but any sense of disapproval and loss of attention would derail her from functioning well. All of us have emerged from our families with varying degrees of sensitivity to relationship undercurrents. The most common sensitivities are to approval, expectations, attention and distress in others. Which of these are most likely to destabilize you in your relationship contexts? What perceptions of others are most likely to distract you from managing life’s tasks? Is it seeing another upset and feeling that somehow you are responsible? Is it when you lose a perceived sense of importance or a shift from getting attention?

* this blog appeared in the Family Systems Institute blog July 2014

Here is a summary list of the common relationship patterns (drawn from family systems theory) that can impair people’s resilience.  Each of these patterns deserves a blog all its own but a brief checklist might open up more ways of understanding how relationship context affects us all. See if you can recognise any of these going on in your life at the moment:

  • Through too much togetherness: When people invest in needing to be close and connected all the time it is hard to get on with life’s responsibilities. Sensitivities to being connected, through approval and validation, start to take over all other important tasks.
  • Through too much distance: When people use distance to deal with tensions with others it increases the awkwardness in relationships. Negative distance and avoidance skews people towards blame and superiority. This distracts people from their own responsibilities as well as getting in the way of sharing resources and good team work.
  • Through over functioning for others: When people start to be overly helpful in telling others how to think and behave it can get in the way of them solving their own problems and can promote dependency and reduced competency.
  • Through being part of triangles: When people experience tension and distress in one relationship it is all too easy to find a 3rd party to vent to about this. Venting, complaining and gossiping to others about an absent party can seem to reduce our angst and worries, by having someone align with our point of view. The initial problem is prevented from being addressed in the relationship it belongs in. Detouring relationship tension also reduces resilience as we don’t get good practice at expressing differences and working them out person to person.

Leanne was able to see how her dependence on others being warm and attentive towards her was threatening her capacity to manage in her job. As an individual she had all the competencies necessary to do her work well but in relationships she could so easily lose her sense of capacity and become consumed by feeling left out. It was helpful for her to consider how this developed in her relationships in her original family. She realised that it would not be an easy pattern to adjust but that she could re- build some resilience by taking the focus of trying to get steadiness through relationships and instead get back on track with performing her job duties well. She could stay in friendly contact with her colleagues without getting caught up in figuring out what they thought of her.

We all inherit different degrees of relational and emotional resilience from the families we grow up in. there are many variables that go into this complex process that help make sense of the different capacities family members and people from different families have to cope with the fortunes and misfortunes of life. Bowen theory provides a way to grapple with this and to research in our own lives the ways that we interact within our relationship environment and its impact on our moments of apparent strength and episodes of greatest vulnerability.

For reflection:

Can I recognise any of these going on in my life at the moment?

  • Too much togetherness: Sensitivities to being connected, through approval and validation, start to take over all other important tasks.
  • Too much distance: skews people towards blame and superiority.
  • Over functioning for others: can get in the way of others solving their own problems
  • Being part of triangles: Venting, complaining and gossiping to others about an absent party -we don’t get good practice at expressing differences and working them out person to person.

Some Bowen theory quotes on resilience in the context of relationships

From Dr Michael Kerr:

Instability in important relationships threatens people in two fundamental ways: (1) it jeopardizes the security of attachments on which their well being depends, and (2) it overloads their ability to cope with adverse social stimuli. Given the impact of unstable relationships, it is not surprising that human beings have evolved finely tuned sensitivities to social cues that alert them to threats to important relationships. We watch others for signs of attention and approval, we assess their expectations and whether we are meeting them, and we sense their distress.

The ability to observe relationship processes and one’s part in them more factually is referred to as emotional objectivity. It is a necessary step toward being able to be present in an anxious family without one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions being governed by the powerful relationship currents. If one person can get more objective about how family interactions contribute to the difficulties and change his part in those interactions, it calms the system and opens up new options for problem solving. Paradoxically, being more of an individual in a system promotes closeness and cooperation.

Ref : Why Do Siblings Often Turn Out Very Differently? Chapter in Human Development in the Twenty-First Century: Visionary Ideas from Systems Scientists Editors: Alan Fogel, Barbara J. King, and Stuart Shanker Cambridge University Press – 2008. 206-215. Michael E. Kerr

‘Resilience: all about relationships’ – Jenny Brown


Once a Parent Always a Parent

parent generations [1166589]I have come to see that balance of connection and respecting autonomy remains  important whatever life stage the relationship is going through.

The intensive days of parenting are well and truly behind me. I recall them well. So much activity and so much constant change in a child’s life! -Adjusting to changing teachers, friends, subjects, sports, hobbies, technology, trends, – alongside their constantly changing bodies, cognitions, emotional expressions and fears. The challenge was always around how much to intervene in the child’s efforts to adapt to change and how much to step back and allow them to find their own way. Now that my children are well into adulthood my role is indeed very different, and my responsibilities substantially less. Given this, I kind of expected that I would have transitioned out of my parenting role taking up much energy, yet surprisingly I find that my grown children and their goings on are still very much in my thoughts. I have come to see that the parenting dilemma, around when to get involved and when to step back, remains a constant through all stages of life.

Just this last month I realised that I hadn’t had the usual catch ups with one of my daughters. I was wondering how she was going with a number of changes in her life including her work situation and paused to consider: what was the appropriate amount of contact for me to have with her? I always want my daughters to know of my interest in their lives but I don’t want to convey intrusiveness or worry. This is the very same dilemma for a parent of a younger child: How do I stay an interested support for my child while at the same time promoting their independence? Of course children’s developmental capacity for independence is very different in the younger years. In the initial stages of my children launching as adults I knew how important it was to step back and not impede their growth in responsibility and independent functioning. I think sometimes I’ve tended to go too much in this stepping back direction and not appreciated the value of regular contact. In my clinical practice I saw so much of over involved parents and dependent young people which primed me to focus on the independence side of the relationship balance. This meant that I sometimes avoided asking about aspects of my children’s lives that I thought might encroach on their adult launching. I have come to see that balance of connection and respecting autonomy remains important whatever life stage the relationship is going through.

As I reflect on the appropriate contact to have with an adult child I remind myself of my goal to be a loving, interested presence in their life and to also convey respect for their autonomy in making their way in life. It’s less about how much contact –although that question is worth asking – and more about the tone of the contact. I try to think more about my relationship with the child than getting caught up in thinking about their life issues. This might sound a bit uncaring. However when I think about myself in the relationship, instead of just thinking about the other person, I’m reminded of the effect I can have on them and how I want to address this. If my focus is all about them, it’s all too easy to fall into directing the proceedings of their life – which results in either anxious dependence or anxious distancing from the child. Being a calm loving presence can be easy when we know that our child’s life is going smoothly, with few changes making demands on them. It gets much harder to keep a relationship balance at times of perceiving stress and challenge in a child’s life. I make every effort to keep my anxieties to myself since my children and every other person in my life have enough stress of their own. I have learned that I can’t easily hide my worry from my children, it has a way of getting through and therefore I need to responsibly work out my worries away from relating to my children.

As I consider whether or not to make contact with one of my children I consider firstly the practicalities: Is there good quality, non-distractable time for me to make contact? Is it likely to be convenient for them? Then I consider the relationship: Am I calling out of interest and support rather than out of worry? Am I as open to sharing news of my life as I am hearing their news? Am I clear that I want to understand how they’re thinking about life’s challenges before jumping in with my thinking? The other area I keep in mind is not to parent on behalf of my husband. This means that I don’t convey too much news with him from my catch ups with our daughters. We discuss our mutual thoughts about our children and work to stay independently connected. (I admit this is an ongoing challenge to keep in balance)

So even when children have flown the coop and care taking is no longer an active part of the parent role, the work of being a supportive parent continues. Indeed I agree with the adage: “Once a parent always a parent.” There is always occasion for stepping in a bit more and for knowing when to step out of the way. My effort is to convey genuine love and interest without pushing any of my anxiety into the mix. Seeing the back and forth of the relationship rather than just focussing on the child helps enormously in not going too far in an unhelpful direction.

Questions for reflection

  • What do I see as the bigger picture goal as a parent? How much of my relating promotes responsible independence for each of my children (whatever their age)?
  • How do I manage my worry about my children? Does it get sprayed into the relationship unhelpfully?
  • What is the difference between thinking about myself in relationship with my child, rather than just thinking about my child? Which focus is most helpful for my child’s growth in appropriate independence?
  • In what ways did my own parents relate in ways that assisted me to be a responsible member of society? What are ways I can address any gaps in this as an adult?

Relevant M Bowen Quotes on parenting (from family Therapy in Clinical practice)

The motivated parent must carefully define his /her responsibility for self in his/her family, the operating rules and principles within the area of his/her responsibility, and what he/she will and will not do in relation to those who go beyond those rules.

The important principle is that the parent calmly defines self and rules and consequences, communicates them when they are sure of them and is prepared to stand on the consequences of broken rules if need be. P235

The parental problem was transmitted to the child through making a project out of the child…… parents who could make a project out of themselves was a turning point in both the theory and practice of family psychotherapy. P96

The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s (parents) anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. P381

“Once a parent always a parent” – Jenny Brown


From Convicts to Functional Families – Exploring my Family History

Henry and Jenny small melville
Photo is of my 3rd great grandfather and mother who are both 2nd generation from convict parents. My second great grandfather is 1st on the left.

When I look at the visual diagram of my generational family I can see just how small we all are in the relationship web. For me this is grounding, humbling and strangely steadying.

Have you ever wondered if there is any tangible benefit in knowing details of the generations of your family? What insight does it really give to note interesting relatives in terms of their successes or misdemeanours? These are questions that have motivated me to do some extra family research over the recent holiday period. I’ve always known that, from one line on my mother’s side, I have two first fleet convicts as my ancestors.  My additional research has found another 2 convicts whose daughter married into that line. Across the other ancestral lines there is a mix of free settlers who came to Australia in the mid-1800s. Some came on assisted passage as domestic workers, labourers and tradespeople (such as a coach builder) and others came paying their own way having left behind in England families of relative substance such as Grazier landholders and business owners.

Seeing the bigger picture of my family over 5 to 7 generations does broaden my sense of the diverse influences that have been part of shaping myself and my current family. It lifts my view above the often exaggerated entanglement in present day issues.  One aspect of the facts of my family history that have particularly intrigued me is the rapid progress and resilience of my convict lines. From the first generation of these families since their transportation from England and Scotland there are signs of significant resiliency and progress. They produced many children who (apart from twins who died in childhood) lived long lives with apparently stable marriages and families. There were many more infant deaths from the family lines of the free settlers. This got me wondering about what factors contributed to such progress for those who came from a struggling petty criminal underclass.  What enables families who face such adversity to improve their functioning in society?

My hunch is that the convicts in my family had survived much adversity in their months in overcrowded prisons in England and on the arduous 8 month journey to Australia. The survivors were well trained to adapt to extreme environments and challenges. Some of the free settlers however were less experienced in enduring exceptionally poor conditions.

It is also interesting for me to consider what enables people to lift their functioning in society over the generations given the common pattern of multi-generational social dependency. As I look at the facts of the social and vocational positions achieved in the convict descendants it is striking that they were not in any way reliant on handouts after their original land grants. The onus was on each to lift their functioning to build a stable life for their families. The opportunity to build personal agency and competency is clearly a factor in a family lifting itself from imprisoned criminals (albeit often minor offences) to respected contributing citizens of a community. I am mindful of Dr Murray Bowen’s perspective on social processes that can impair group’s opportunities to adapt and progress. Too much benevolence can prevent groups from developing goals for themselves:

The poor are vulnerable to becoming the pitiful objects of the benevolent, over sympathetic segment of society that improves it’s functioning at the expense of those pitied. Being over sympathetic with less fortunate people automatically puts the recipients in a one down inferior position (Bowen FTCP p 445).

My sense is that there were not the resources for too much benevolence in the early Sydney colony. Sadly the treatment of the indigenous people in these times has often been destructive and disenfranchising; and the generational social swings from harsh treatment to over benevolent handouts has entrenched significant social difficulties for many.

Of course my research has opened up many more useful facts of the many generations of my family. I’m as interested in ascertaining those who have done poorly over the generations as those who have prospered as this gives useful grounds for understanding variations of resilience in my family systems. As I ponder the potential benefits of researching one’s multi-generational family Bowen’s ideas on this resonate with me. Family history research sets a context where:

One can get a sense of continuity, history and identity that is not otherwise possible… [and] can provide one with a different view of the human phenomena than is possible from examining the urgency of the present (Bowen FTCP p492).

I agree that there’s something clarifying about getting outside of the ‘urgency of the present”. It’s been a profitable exercise to revisit my family history and fill in a few more of the gaps in information using some books and an online research site. When I look at the visual diagram of my generational family I can see just how small we all are in the relationship web. For me this is grounding, humbling and strangely steadying.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How much factual information (as opposed to myths and emotive stories) do I have about all sides of my family for at least 4- 5 generations?
  • What do the gaps in my knowledge suggest about distance in relationships down some family lines?
  • What interesting data emerges about strengths and vulnerabilities in my family genealogy? Am I as interested in the challenging sectors of the family as the more noble elements?


Additional relevant quotes from Bowen

My goal was to get factual information in order to understand the emotional forces in each nuclear family, and I went back as many generations as it was possible to go. P 491

In only 150 – 200 years an individual is the descendent of 64 – 128 families of origin, each of which has contributed something to one ‘self. With all the myths and pretence and emotionally biased reports and opinions, it is difficult to ever really know “self” of to know family members in the present or recent past. As one reconstructs facts of a century or two ago, it is easier to get beyond myths and to be factual. P 492

‘From Convicts to Functional Families – Exploring my Family History’ – Jenny Brown