The Family Couch

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“Johnny and Jenny sitting in a tree: K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in a baby carriage!”

The sweet dreams of childhood are simple; but the reality is, being a married couple and raising children often is difficult. What begins as a vision of the perfect family living in the perfect house surrounded by a white picket fence can dissolve into arguments, busyness and chaos. As wonderful as it is, family life isn’t always pretty, and it certainly isn’t perfect. The famous John Lennon song, “Beautiful Boy,” appropriately includes these lyrics: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

The start of a new year is a good time to take stock of the family’s emotional health. Is someone in a slump? Is there unresolved tension? Is a referee needed to help resolve the issue that keeps cropping up?

Debunking the Shame
I’ve been married for 28 years, and my husband and I have survived many stressors: new jobs, relocation, infant death, car accidents, cancer, teen angst, financial struggles and elder care/hospice for aging parents. Now, we’re navigating emptynesthood. One of the main ingredients for the glue that has held our marriage together is counseling. We’ve been in and out of many therapists’ offices –– yes, complete with couches and boxes of Kleenex all around –– but we have learned a lot and grown in our relationship as we’ve traveled this journey together called life.

“Getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness,” says Shannon Crystal, a Charlotte mother of two teens, clinical social worker and counselor with Novant Health. She adds that, for adults and children, realizing the value of expressing emotions and feelings, practicing communication skills and learning coping skills for all the ups and downs is a huge benefit for marriages and families – even healthy ones.

Dr. Paul Krasner with Psychological Health Associates in Cary, refers to the lifespan of a family as a developmental process. Just as bruises, sore throats and sprains need tending to from time to time, so does the emotional and psychological health of a family.

“A trained mediator has objectivity,” says Krasner. “He or she is emotionally removed and can help problem-solve as issues come up.”

Therein lies the key: someone who is an objective third party. Darren Hardy, publisher of Success magazine, makes this point to CEOs and professional athletes, and it speaks to families, as well. Hardy says, it takes someone outside the situation to observe, identify, prod and counsel in order to bring awareness to the adjustments that need to be made.

He adds, “If you want to take your life to the next level, you … want to seek out the best advisors and coaches to help get you there.”

Adapting and Communicating
Most people agree with the famous quote about change being the only constant in life. And, from the newlywed years to the grandparenting years, family life is full of change. Being flexible and able to adapt is important, says Dr. Carolina Castanõs, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Greensboro.

Early in a marriage, and often when babies come on the scene, issues can arise about finances, meddling in-laws and the division of household chores. Bringing an infant home changes a couple’s life dramatically, as new roles are established and all the attention is focused on the new baby.

Beth, a Chapel Hill mom of three girls ages 9 months to 4, says she sought help when her husband finally broke down and admitted jealousy over their “girl time.” She says the counselor they met with helped him to grieve over not having any sons, and she coached them through making some adjustments to their weekends, so Dad and the girls could spend more time together.

Fast-forward to the middle years – the kids are in elementary and middle school, the family calendar is void of white space, and Mom’s and Dad’s jobs are more demanding. Some people refer to this time as “the tired years,” because romance can wane and weariness can set in as a myriad of outside activities and influences tug in many directions.

Castanõs says this is when couples can drift apart. “Patterns are established, and cycles can get negative,” she explains. In her practice, Castanõs not only works with families on understanding family dynamics, learning effective communication skills, managing stress and resolving conflict, she also goes deeper and gets to the underlying emotions.

Finally, parenting through the teen years is about nothing but change. As teenagers grow more independent and seek to take control of their lives, moms and dads can feel anxious, fearful and lonely. And, the teen who spends 80 percent of his or her day listening to music, talking on the phone or texting friends to make plans, also can be very lonely.

“Children today are faced with so many ‘adult’ things they aren’t ready (developmentally) to deal with,” says Crystal from Novant Health. “Having the listening ear of another adult who’s trained to help adolescents is important for teens who need to express their feelings.” Trust, too, is a major issue among parents and teens because students’ peers are extremely influential, and teens who drive tend to spend most of their time outside the home. Cultures often collide, and family upheaval ensues.

“Whether problems at school or problems at home, it isn’t about ‘fixing’ the child,” says Castanõs. “Parents need to be involved.” And, if poor communication among family members has carried on into the teen years, then arguments are inevitable.

Jennifer, a Charlotte mom of two boys, says, “A counselor who isn’t emotionally involved can help everyone have a voice and be heard. Parents are too close to the situation. Teens want it their way. It isn’t about winning or losing, but breaking the cycle of that never-ending argument everyone gets stuck on.”

Dealing … So There’s Healing
Krasner, with Psychological Health Associates in Cary, advises families to be proactive rather than reactive. “Head off potential problems, learn to understand one another better, and get unstuck instead of spinning your wheels so you can move forward,” he says.

Married 38 years and the father of three grown children, Krasner adds that he takes a special approach when dealing with men and boys, who are generally reluctant to talk with a counselor and tend to withdraw.

“I use the term ‘coaching,'” he says, noting sessions are more like coming up with a game plan. “I’m someone who can provide ideas, be a sounding board and help with solutions.”

While men tend to distract themselves with work or withdraw into the television, women process their feelings by talking to family members and friends. When a family is breaking down, there isn’t a lot of effective communication going on.

I admit, I’ve turned to girlfriends many, many times. But I’ve learned it isn’t always the best solution. Family members and friends are prone to taking sides.

“Girlfriends can make you feel good,” says Castanõs, “but that’s not solving the problem.” Moms don’t go see their neighbor for a bump on the head or take their child to their BFF to get stitches. Castanõs says the health of our emotions and our relationships deserve the same professional treatment.

“Deal with the concerns, or they only will get worse,” she advises. “It’s common to view issues as weaknesses, but there’s strength in seeking help … in choosing to heal.”

Lee McCracken is a Charlotte area freelance writer and editor.

How Counseling Helps
Parents and children can benefit from the advice or counsel of a trained professional by:
• Being fully heard.
• Stopping to fully listen to another, or step into another’s shoes.
• Understanding the dynamics of the relationship.
• Discovering old patterns and roles in conflict.
• Learning effective communication skills and how to fight fair.
• Gaining tools to manage stress.