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By: Antonia C. Siy, M.A.
Getting Back on Track with Family Counselingby Antonia C. Siy, M. A.CEFAM / Center for Family MinistriesAntonia Siy (Nina) is a CEFAM Senior Counselor ...
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Getting Back on Track with Family Counseling
          By: Antonia C. Siy, M.A.

Getting Back on Track with Family Counseling
by Antonia C. Siy, M. A.
CEFAM / Center for Family Ministries
Antonia Siy (Nina) is a CEFAM Senior Counselor
and teaches courses in pastoral counseling at the Loyola School of Theology of the Ateneo

             “My children are fighting all the time.  Once, they really hurt each other, and I had to bring them to the doctor.”
“My son won’t go to school.  He won’t even get out of bed in the morning.”

            “My daughter has all these new things that she says her friends gave her.  But I suspect that she’s stealing money to buy them.”

            “I’ve caught my kid in so many lies, I just can’t trust him any more.”

            “My in-laws are driving me crazy with their interference, and my spouse won’t do anything about it.”

            “My spouse doesn’t listen to me and keeps making major decisions without consulting me.  I can’t stand it.”

            “My spouse has always had a problem with alcohol but it always seemed under control.  Now, I’m really worried because our 14-year-old was caught drinking gin on campus.”



These are some of the problems that people bring up in family counseling.  What is family counseling?  How do you know if your family needs it?  What happens in family counseling?  Where can you get family counseling?


What is family counseling?


            Family counseling is a way for families to solve problems with the help of a counselor who has received training in working with families.  Family counselors can come from a variety of backgrounds—psychology, psychiatry, social work, education, theology, law.  They can be regular lay people or they can come from religious communities—priests, ministers, nuns.  Whatever their background, it’s important for counselors who work with families to have a grounding in family dynamics (or how relationships are formed, maintained, and changed in families) and in counseling and therapy approaches.


            How does family counseling work?  While different counselors use different approaches, in general, family counseling sees problems that a family experiences as arising from a “stuckness” in the way the family members relate to one another.  In their attempt to resolve an issue, the family can try to apply a solution.  Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.  A parent can try scolding, lecturing, and punishing a child who misbehaves in some way.  Sometimes, this strategy can stop the misbehavior, and can teach the child a good lesson about appropriate behavior.  Sometimes, it just drives the misbehavior underground and opens up the possibility of worse behavior in the child.  Sometimes, the silent treatment can work in resolving conflict between spouses, allowing each some breathing space to calm down.  Other times, this can widen the emotional gap between spouses so that a little bit more trust and intimacy is lost, opening up the possibility that one or the other’s motivation to invest more in the relationship lessens.


            Problems come up when families lose the flexibility to try out alternative ways of relating and coping to address their problems.  So they get stuck in ineffective ways of doing things.  It’s like getting stuck playing one note instead of learning a wide repertoire of relationship symphonies.  Scolding the child doesn’t work, but scolding is all the parent knows how to do or feels capable of doing.  The silent treatment doesn’t solve the fight, but it feels safer than direct confrontation.  This stuckness in ways of relating is hard to see when one is caught up in it.  This is when a family counselor can help provide a different perspective on how things can be done.


            What’s obvious here is that good family counseling doesn’t assign blame on any one member of the family.  It’s not about finding fault with anyone.  Somehow, what one person in the family does affects and is affected by what other members do.  So family counseling can help each family member see his or her part in the problem and ultimately, in its solution.  To remain fixed on the idea that the family’s problems are the fault of one person makes the other family members feel helpless.  Change is only possible if that person changes.  And we all know how hard it is to make other people change.  But if the family can see that each member can do something within his or her own sphere of influence to help move the family in a better direction, this helps family members feel more empowered to contribute toward the kind of relationship they want to have.


            This is an important idea to remember.  Parents often bring children to counseling, begging the counselor to “fix” their kids.  Spouses do that with each other, too—“Fix my wife/husband, and our problems will be solved.”  The unspoken message from the family members seeking help is, “I am powerless to do anything.”  By seeing the larger picture and by helping the family see the larger picture, family counselors offer a more hopeful, empowered view of the family.  As J.C. Wynn, a noted family therapist said, “By the family, you are wounded.  By the family, you are healed.”  Recognizing our own role in the creation and maintenance of our problems, we can exercise our choice to change for the better, invoking God’s grace which is always available to us.


How do you know if your family needs counseling?


            Each family has its own unique ability to tolerate and deal with the stress brought about by problems.  Some families become very anxious with what would seem to others to be minor issues.  Some families remain in such a state of prolonged denial over problems until a dramatic life-threatening crisis occurs.  It’s important to remove the old stigma about counseling or any form of psychological or psychiatric intervention—i.e., that it’s only for the “crazy,” “mentally unbalanced,” “incompetent.”  Counseling is a resource for families, and like any resource, it’s value is best appreciated when it is used.


            It’s good for families to try to work things out on their own, maybe with the help of extended family and friends.  But if, despite that, family members are still experiencing dissatisfaction or distress in their relationship, and if this is showing up as problems in school, work, or everyday living, it often helps to consult a professional.  Don’t think of it in medical terms if it makes you uncomfortable to think of your family as so “sick” or “dysfunctional” that you need to get “treatment.”  You can think of counseling as a way of getting more information or as getting a consultant on family matters to work with you or as getting a coach to help you develop new skills.  You’re not “sick.”  Rather, you’re “growing” and “developing more of your potential” as a member of your family—as spouse, parent, adult child of your parents, and so on.


What happens in family counseling?


            Family counseling is best seen as a process, rather than as a one-shot deal.  While it is possible to see a counselor only once, the idea is that whatever inputs you get from your session is supposed to initiate a new direction of growth and learning for you.  More typically, however, family counseling takes place over several sessions, about 3-6 (or even more) sessions, depending on your problem and the resources you have to make the required changes in your relationship.  The counselor will want to do what is called an assessment of both the problem situation (its history, your attempts at solving it, family background information) as well as your resources and strengths as a family.  The counselor will work with you to formulate goals for counseling so you have a clear idea of what you want to happen as a result of counseling.  Your family members will be asked to try out new ways of relating that you can practice during the sessions and that you can begin doing at home.  All through this, it’s important that you be as open as you can with your counselor—asking questions, voicing feelings, providing information, and even expressing any misgivings or doubts about what is happening in counseling.  Many family counselors want to establish a collaborative partnership with their clients to ensure that they are working toward a common objective.


Where can your family get family counseling?


            There has been a growing recognition in recent years of the need of families for more resources to support them in their struggle to cope with the stresses of modern life.  One of these resources, of course, is family counseling which has become more available in the way of professionals trained in its methods and techniques.  Outside of the traditional support networks of extended family and friends, many people seek help from their pastors, so one place to ask for assistance would be your parish or church office.  If the priest or minister there doesn’t provide counseling himself, then ask him for a referral to a counseling service.  The guidance office of your children’s school can also provide a referral, although many guidance counselors provide very good first-line counseling help for their students and their families.  Family-oriented organizations such as Marriage Encounter, Couples for Christ, and others can also be sources of referrals.  In some larger companies, the personnel or human resources departments provide referrals as well.  Or ask at the larger universities and colleges with graduate programs in clinical psychology and counseling since they often have an allied counseling center.  Then there are the support groups for families with special needs such as adoptive families, families with substance abuse problems, families with members diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), etc.  The members of these different support groups work with counseling professionals and can refer other families to them.  The government’s social welfare department (DSWD) and NGOs such as Bantay Bata Foundation maintain directories of family counseling and support resources especially for crisis counseling in cases of domestic violence.


            The Center for Family Ministries Foundation or Cefam is also a valuable resource for family counseling—both curative and preventive.  Cefam’s main counseling center is located in the Ateneo de Manila University campus in Loyola Heights, Quezon City (tel. 426-4289 to –92), and it has a satellite counseling office in Don Bosco Parish in Makati (tel. 894-5932).  For those who find these locations inconvenient, the Center can also provide referrals to other counseling professionals.


            The important thing for a family in trouble is to be able to recognize that it does need help, to have the courage to seek help, and the determination to cooperate with the counselor to help themselves.


The great family therapist Virginia Satir said that the purpose of families is to grow people.  It’s a wonderful way of thinking about what we all get from our families and also what we contribute to them.  Parents grow children, but children also grow parents, for as they say, the value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults.  And in their marriage, wives and husbands have the capacity to bring out the best in each other’s persons and the opportunity to help the other outgrow his or her imperfections.  The ideal then is that the family helps each of its members achieve their potential through nurturing relationships fostered by a sense of belonging.


Despite all the dire warnings to the contrary, it’s an ideal that can be within the reach of any family.  This is family counseling’s firm belief, and it is a hope that family counselors offer to families that come under their care.



Ruben M. Tanseco, S.J. has traveled a long way. He joined the Jesuit order fifty years ago, after emerging from both Benedictine portals (San Beda High School Class 1949)...

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