At Nutley Family Service Bureau (NFSB), people often come to The Center thinking their problems exist in an individual vacuum. Someone might say something like, “I’ve been depressed” or “my child is misbehaving at school” and look at the issue from the perspective of an individual.
At NFSB, we use family therapy to help individuals see themselves in the larger family system. In other words, there’s not necessarily something wrong with you as an individual. There could be something wrong, however, with the bigger picture.
“As an agency, we find the most success by changing the way people think about problems in the larger family system,” said Tricia Politi, MSW (Master of Social Work), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) at NFSB. “This approach to family therapy helps to relieve the client of anxiety and stigmas so they don’t see the problem as their personal responsibility. I find this to be hopeful, and we always seek to create hope for people.”
When you detach the problem from an individual and examine the larger system, the family starts to see things differently and can make adjustments to how the entire family operates. This empowers the family to thrive.
Here is one example of how we applied this approach at NFSB.
Understanding the True Source of Challenges and Finding the Strength to Make Changes
Jane first came to NFSB for supportive therapy because her husband, who suffered from severe mental illness, was a client. She eventually decided that she needed her own therapy. When someone is seriously and persistently mentally ill, there are often deeper problems for spouses, families, and extended support systems.
Tragically, Jane’s husband died while we were working with the family. She continued with therapy throughout this difficult time. We learned that many of Jane’s struggles could be traced back to her upbringing.
“Jane was raised to believe her role as a child was to please her parents and make them happy,” Tricia said. “She was not entitled to her own thoughts and must not deviate from her parents’ values or how they lived. Her husband was raised the same way. She knew this didn’t seem right, but everyone else in her life was telling her it was right.”
Jane’s parents would go to her home whenever they wanted. They tried to influence her financial decisions. They tried to make Jane feel bad whenever she did something without their approval.
Jane also had children with behavioral and emotional problems and her parenting was constantly questioned. Her parents felt like they could discipline the children and believed hitting them was appropriate.
“Research has shown this doesn’t help,” Tricia said. “It actually hurts because it chips away at the child’s self-esteem and removes a child’s sense of safety and security. Because the children’s father was gone, they needed to understand that Jane wasn’t going anywhere.”
Jane understandably struggled with depression. She struggled to get out of bed one or two days a week. She accepted help from her parents because she was so exhausted and had no other choice. They made Jane feel as if she owed them something for their support.
The primary goals of family therapy were to help Jane take better care of herself and support her children in a more consistent way. The first step was to help Jane realize that she was correct to believe something was wrong.
“Jane received validation that she was entitled to be her own person and make her own decisions,” Tricia said. “We created a genogram, which illustrates family relationships and how values are passed down from generation to generation. When you step back and see this drawn for you, you begin to see that something is not inherently wrong with you. The larger family system could be the problem.”
To address issues with her parents, Jane needed to create boundaries where none existed. One important step was to move to a new home that she could make her own. Through family therapy, Jane has learned to send the message to her parents that they don’t get to decide how Jane will live her life. There are lines that her parents could no longer cross.
Jane was able to find placements in schools that specialize in her children’s special needs. Jane is also putting more effort into herself when her first instinct had always been to neglect herself. She is even thinking about going back to school to pursue a new career.
“It’s amazing what she was fighting against,” Tricia said. “I could only imagine what she could achieve if she had just minimal support from the people in her life. The changes Jane has made have invigorated her sense of confidence in her own abilities. Positive feedback and support have helped her realize she’s on the right path.”
Taking a more holistic view of the family and having flexibility in our approach to therapy were critical to helping Jane. We were seeing her husband at first. Then we saw Jane on her own. Sometimes we met with Jane and her husband. We also had sessions in which the entire family was present.
“Family therapy at NFSB is not just what we do in the room,” Tricia said. “It’s how we as an agency view our client base, which allows us to provide so much more for these families. That’s just wonderful.”
To learn more about our family therapy services or discuss any challenges you may be experiencing in a confidential, non-judgmental setting, please contact Nutley Family Service Bureau today at 973-667-1884.