What You Think You See Is What You Get

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

I stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant recently. I love their freshly made strawberry jam, but when I reached for the bowl, I found packets of a brand-name jam instead.

"I'm confused," I told the cashier. "Why did you stop making your own jam?"

"Oh, it's the same," she said. "We just got tired of scooping it into containers. It got too sticky."

I started laughing. Nothing against that brand name, but I often wished that I had the restaurant's jam at home because it was so much better than any store brand.

I expected that to be true, so I was convinced that it was.

Families are like that, too. We assume something is true about someone in the family, and that becomes the narrative about them whether it's true or not.

Often, families come to see me with a "problem" person in mind: a child who's acting out, for example. That problem becomes the story through which the entire family system sees that person, and everyone unconsciously looks for things that reinforce that idea (a process called confirmation bias). Someone gets labeled as the "problem" and becomes the identified client for the family.

We don't really need an identified client, though, unless the family is using health insurance (someone must be diagnosed for an insurance company to pay for treatment). From the actual therapy point of view, I believe more in family systems than in labeling someone as the problem.

In a family system, there's a reason for everything that happens; the system stops functioning - or even existing - without those repeating, predictable interactions and behaviors. And since the only job of a system is to maintain its status quo, family members often unconsciously support problem behaviors even though they want positive change.

As I often say, I'm not a blame guy. Pointing fingers doesn't help, especially since we can always find exceptions to problem behaviors when we try. It is important to explore how problem behaviors impact the client and the family, but it's even more important to look for what that person and the family do well.

For example, parents often tell me that their child is "out of control," but when we explore the day-to-day routine, we frequently discover that the kid makes good choices much of the time - sometimes, a great majority of the time. But since the family focuses on dealing with the problem behaviors, the individuals only see what they expect to see: a problem child who "can't do anything right."

This is enough of a problem when it happens to an adult, but it's magnified in a child. Children live up to what you believe about them. Notice the good things they do and expect good choices from them, and they'll try to live up to that, too.

And that's true whether we're talking about families or your favorite "homemade" jam.

-Carl Grody, LISW-S, is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.