The idea of “healthy functioning” is a model used in family therapy. This concept allows a therapist to diagnose the particular difficulties in a given family structure. Healthy functioning is one model among many. It is one that can be integrated with a Christian worldview, so it is helpful for therapists and families who share that worldview.
Salvador Minuchin came up with the theory of Structural Family Therapy in 1974. This technique concentrates on:
- Authority structures within the family,
- Relationships within the family,
- Boundaries the family has with its outside environment.
Malachi 2:15 (NIV) reads, “Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.”
In this text, we can see a biblical view of the family. The institution of marriage provides the basis for the family structure. Marriage is intended to be a faithful covenant between a husband and wife. Christian family therapy works from this belief and can integrate therapy such as Structural Family Therapy, which seeks to create a strong marriage with boundaries that are both authoritative and permeable.
We believe this will provide the best environment for all members of the family to grow and thrive individually and in their relationships with one another.
That’s why a stronger marriage is always the goal of Christian family therapy. Strengthening the marriage means focusing on both spouses’ responsibility to love and submit to one another, as we see in Ephesians 5:21: “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” A healthy and flourishing marriage provides the best environment for children to grow and mature spiritually and emotionally.
It is a myth that staying together no matter what is always best for the children. A bad marriage is harmful to children, even if they have good parent-child relationships.
According to research, negative patterns in marriage are detrimental to children’s self-esteem. Simply staying married isn’t enough to prevent these harmful effects.
Whether hostility between spouses is overt or covert, it will affect the children, even if the parent-child relationships are strong. In fact, children of divorce seem to experience fewer ill effects than children whose parents have high-conflict marriages.
This doesn’t mean we aim for divorce! Rather, it means the importance of a strong marriage is paramount in family therapy.
Young children often like to hear the story of how their parents met and eventually got married. This is probably because they have a fundamental developmental drive to learn how to be loved. Seeing an example of love may be just as important to their self-esteem as receiving love themselves.
A good family counselor will assess the state of a marriage and how its functioning affects other relationships in the family. Troubled marriages sometimes result in one or both spouses transferring their emotional connection to the children, which is a dynamic called triangulation.
Because the parents don’t have a stable marriage, they use their child(ren) as a kind of relational buffer. One way this frequently plays out is that a good cop/bad cop dynamic arises in disciplinary situations. One parent disciplines and the other rescues. Both parents then focus on the issues with the child, forging a sense of connection in the only way they can.
As long as the child’s behavior problems continue, this parental connection will continue as well. Children desire stability, so they subconsciously perpetuate their misbehavior, and the over- and under-functioning of the parents’ response continues as a way to bring some kind of balance.
To address this situation, a family counselor will seek to realign the family’s structure and interactions. This starts with addressing the fundamental disconnect between spouses and how their child is involved.
The next goal is to help both spouses work together to meet their child’s developmental needs. This shifts the focus from behavior problems and the current dysfunctional approach. Instead of zeroing in on the children, spouses should ask whether they are meeting one another’s needs, or whether they have become overly involved as parents to make up for the problems in their marriage.
This is important to address because if children are used in order to buffer a lack of connection between parents, they can feel isolated as they grow up because they were forced to abandon their childhood too soon.
Instead, they had to accommodate their parents’ needs. A family counselor will help spouses focus on each other’s needs and work together to develop a healthy joint parenting approach as a couple, with the goal of nurturing their children as they grow and develop.
The concept of boundaries is another important topic for family counseling. Boundaries involve how the family unit relates to the outside world. The dynamics involved here greatly impact how and whether each individual family member’s needs are met.
What needs does a family unit fulfill? There are two, primarily: a need for togetherness and a need for individuality.
There are four kinds of family boundaries usually discussed in the therapeutic setting: rigid, enmeshed, diffuse, and permeable. The first three are considered unhealthy.
Rigid boundaries create a closed system. The needs of the family unit and maintaining a sort of homeostasis among members are more important than each individual’s growth and development. Rigid boundaries are maintained by an authoritarian approach from one or both parents.
In a rigid family environment, children are instructed what the rules are and how to act. There is little to no room for learning by making mistakes. Children are considered too immature to think for themselves. The parents focus on control of ideas and behavior, with the goal of preventing the children from ever straying from the parents’ ideology.
This can be a trap for Christian families who overemphasize authority and obedience and underemphasize God’s work of grace in individual hearts.
Train up a child in the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. – Proverbs 22:6
There is a vast difference between 1) training a child and 2) telling them what to think.
The process of training children means setting boundaries and allowing them to have some freedom to make their own decisions, depending on their age and maturity level. This freedom should ideally increase as children get older. This is part of allowing them to function and flourish as they become adults.
If they never learn to make decisions for themselves, they may ultimately rebel because they so desperately desire to assert their individuality.
So how are rigid boundaries addressed in family counseling? The counselor will work with parents to teach their children what they believe while still allowing each child to be an individual who has to think for him or herself.
Rules and boundaries are so important for children. They need to know what’s expected of them to feel safe. They need to have consequences for bad behavior. But they also need freedom of choice and to know that they are loved unconditionally even when they fail.
A family with enmeshed boundaries is on the other end of the spectrum from the family with rigid boundaries. Rather than focusing on authority and submission, the enmeshed parent (also known as a “helicopter” parent) hovers over the children trying to protect them from harm and suffering.
A parent with enmeshed boundaries will attempt to prevent natural consequences for actions (such as bringing a child’s homework to school if they forgot it or micromanaging every aspect of a project).
Enmeshed boundaries can be difficult to address because they seem to be rooted in niceness, caring, and love. But they are actually not loving because they can prevent children from developing in a healthy way to become fully-functioning, independent adults.
Enmeshed parenting is often rooted in neediness on the part of the parent(s) themselves. Perhaps they were raised in a neglectful or abusive home and want to protect their child from ever experiencing that kind of suffering.
Unfortunately, overprotectiveness also prevents a child from having experiences they need to grow and mature. And it creates an artificially safe environment so that the child is not equipped to deal with the real world when the time comes.
Possibly without meaning to, an enmeshed parent sends their child the message that they can’t make it in the world on their own. The goal instead should be to teach the child how to navigate their own needs and to depend on their parent appropriately but not solely.
Discipline your children, and they will give you peace, they will bring you the delights you desire. – Proverbs 29:17
The type of family with diffuse boundaries lacks engagement, expectations, and rules. Individuality is the emphasis by default. The children simply raise themselves, while the parents treat them as peers or try to get their children to leave them alone.
Diffuse boundaries often arise by default when parents become overwhelmed with stress and the demands of life, so they struggle to focus on the needs of their family. The children end up running wild with no direction, and this exposes them to harm from lack of oversight and training.
Family counseling for diffuse boundaries will teach parents how to build a support system and parent effectively, with an emphasis on engagement within the family.
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly on them. – Ecclesiastes 9:12
Permeable boundaries allow the family to shift flexibly between togetherness and individuality based on each member’s needs.
These four types of boundaries don’t mean that every family fits neatly within a specific category. Sometimes families have characteristics of multiple kinds of boundaries, or their approach varies based on their season of life or challenges they’re facing.
Also, a family can experience an unexpected circumstance like a job loss or a health crisis, and unhealthy boundary types can begin to characterize their previously healthy dynamic.
The overarching goal should be intentionality. Rather than simply reacting to the stress of life and raising a family, spouses should work together to help everyone within the family grow in godliness and love for one another.
Sometimes a crisis reveals unhealthy patterns, and this can propel a family to seek help and to work on how they parent and relate to one another, when easier times may have allowed them to neglect these dynamics and think all was well. Family counselors assess all of these factors and try to look at the big picture to provide the most effective support.
Most importantly, family counselors strive to treat each person within a family. If one person in your family is struggling or you’re going through a life transition and want to be on guard against problems, please don’t hesitate to call the family counselors at Santa Monica Christian Counseling so we can walk with you through this process.
“Family walking on road”, Courtesy of miyeon, ABSFreePic.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Family bike ride,” courtesy of tropicofkansas, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Family in Woods,” courtesy of Montgomery County Planning Commission, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SAY 2.0); “End of the Walk,” courtesy of Seth Lemmons, Flickr.com, CC BY 2.0 License