WFU Department of Counseling: Family Counseling with Dr. Sam Gladding – Ep. 4

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Audio Transcription:

Bob Nations: Welcome to Wake Forest University’s department of counseling’s podcast. I’m Dr. Bob Nations, one member of the faculty and I have two other faculty members here today and we’re gonna be talking about family counseling. I’ll have them introduce themselves.

Shannon Warden: I’m Dr. Shannon Warden.

Sam Gladding: I’m Dr. Sam Gladding.

Shannon Warden: Bob, family counseling.

Bob Nations: I know, the person who wrote the book.

Shannon Warden: I love it, he’s sitting right here with us.

Bob Nations: I know it, I know it.

Shannon Warden: I’m excited about it. Well, Sam let’s just jump right in. Tell us at a basic level what is family counseling?

Sam Gladding: Family counseling is pretty transparent in that when we describe it, we are literally talking about working with couples and people who are married and people who aren’t, as well as families, whether they are newly formed families or aging families. So, it’s dealing with those individuals who are connected psychologically, biologically, economically, socially, who consider themselves a part of a family. And everybody has a family, whether it’s an adopted family or a biological family or it’s just people that you consider in your neighborhood your family. Everybody has those individuals in their lives who are part of their family.

Shannon Warden: That encompasses about everybody really Bob. You know, I think some students may come to our programs, either the online master’s in clinical mental health counseling or the online school counseling program or campus MA programs in clinical mental health or school counseling.

Bob Nations: Yes.

Shannon Warden: They may come into these thinking, yeah I wanna be a family counselor and they may have a very narrow sense or definition of what that means. Sam, you just defined family counseling very broadly, very accurately as our life and our society has evolved over time. So, students should be hearing oh wow, it’s much more than just a very narrow definition that I’m preparing to encounter multiple looks of a family, multiple definitions of family. So, I think as a student myself once, and you guys too, we come in with a certain understanding and our training really does advance our understanding. So, Sam, tell us about how family counseling differs from individual counseling.

Sam Gladding: Sure. Family counseling has some different theories than individual or even group counseling. It’s much more systemically based. That is we see a family regardless of how we define it, like an organism as a biologist might see it. And that is – let’s just take a human being. We are part of all that we are, if you will, physically. So, the brain can’t say hey I’m so much more important that you are, we can do without you, thank you very much. Or the foot or whatever. But it’s a system.

So, like a physical entity, a family is only as strong as its weakest member, as its weakest link. So, if I have a bad heart, than I need to help strengthen that, rather than dismiss it or let it deteriorate. And so in working with families, we realize that if a family is going to do well, it needs to not scapegoat individuals in it and it needs to build on its strengths, not on weaknesses.

The old Johnny Mercer song that you’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. In some ways, you can say that might be a family song or that might be the theme song of family counseling, rather than Sister Sledge of we are family.

Shannon Warden: Another good family song.

Sam Gladding: Another good family song, but not the one you wanna be singing. So, go for Johnny Mercer.

Shannon Warden: I love that’s a better picture of accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

Sam Gladding: Right.

Shannon Warden: Yeah. Building on the strengths. All right, well Bob, it makes me think of group counseling too –

Sam Gladding: Yes.

Shannon Warden: – it seems like there must be some similarities too.

Sam Gladding: How do see it different Sam from group counseling to family counseling, and is there a difference?

Sam Gladding: There is a difference, it’s a really good question Bob. So, back in the 1960s, there was a theorist by the name of John Bell. And he basically though that family counseling was like group counseling that people would come in and as he saw it they were strangers to each other. His ideas were sincere, but they were not very useful. And because in a family, you have a different relationship with people. While you might do some role plays in a family, you’re also going home with members of that family, usually. Unless they leave you at the office, because they’re so mad at you. But no, I’m being a little facetious there.

But it’s a different connection. And so, again, you’re seeing it as an entity, whereas in group counseling, while it might be an entity, those separate parts that can go off by themselves and still function like a flock of birds again. They’re a folk of birds, but they can go off individually and do just fine. But a family, again, is more like an organism that is together. And while you might not like parts of it, and you might really enjoy other parts of it, you can’t just dismiss any of it, because again it is an entity. And as I said before, it’s only as strong as its weakest member.

Shannon Warden: That’s good Sam. I have to say, I was thinking about when you were talking about a stranger there, immediately a Ronny Milsap song, a stranger in my house –. I’m sorry for that digression but it was there, had to say it.

Sam Gladding: This is your hit parade.

Shannon Warden: Yeah. And we might be dating ourselves for any of the younger listeners, so you have to beef up my understanding of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.
Sam Gladding: They’re good. They’re good.

Shannon Warden: They are good. All right, so there’s that different connection, personal connection, different investment the family’s gonna have in one another that a group won’t naturally or necessarily have is a big distinguisher there.

Sam Gladding: Can I interrupt you for just a second?

Shannon Warden: Yeah.

Sam Gladding: Just say there’s more intimacy and there’s more history. So, looking at those two variables, you don’t have that in a group and when a group counseling session is over, again people go their separate ways, but with the family, they go together. But much more intimacy, much more history, much more insight into who each member of that family is, or the perception of who those members of the family are by individuals in the family. And they may be right or wrong, but they’re there. And it’s not a new perception usually.

Shannon Warden: That’s good. Bob, all three of us have done a good bit of family owner time and I know students come into their training with us and many of them are appropriately daunted by that task of how do you manage, right, all of the –

Bob Nations: With a couple or a family, they’re saying – I can do one-on-one. I feel okay about starting out that, but then if you get more than one in the room, there’s that – now what?

Shannon Warden: Exactly. So, Sam, when you’re getting that question in the family counseling class, how do you encourage a student that they’re gonna be able – and I know with time, they’re gonna be more able, but for that new counseling student, what encouragement do you give to them that they are going to be able to counsel with multiple people – being a multiple person family? Maybe they’re present with them.

Sam Gladding: One of the things I say that we talk about also with individual counseling is awareness of self and awareness of others. And so in individual counseling while you’re aware of yourself, you only have one other person to be aware of. In family counseling, it’s awareness of self and how am I relating to these different people and what am I noticing? Non-verbal, as well as verbal, what are the dynamics?

So again, we talk about content and we talk about process. Process, process, process is one of the things that I tell students in regard to family work because there is a lot of process involved. Content’s important. It is in all of our counseling. It’s not by content that you’re going to really help people be better. And I think in a family people either get better or they get bitter. And one of the things we’re trying to do is to help them be better yet than they are as an entity and as individuals.

Shannon Warden: That’s good. And you know, family counseling is so important in understanding these dynamics, the self-awareness, the process piece and all of the other intervention that goes into family. It’s so important that this is a required class for all, be they on campus or online. All of our master’s students in either clinical mental health or school counseling. That’s how important it is.

Sam Gladding: Well, and it’s important because whether you’re in clinical mental health counseling or in school counseling or some other specialty, you’re always going to see families. So, if you’re in school and you think you’re not going to see families, think again. And if you’re in clinical mental health, you’re definitely going to see families. So, it’s kind of like be prepared. And it’s what you don’t know that hurts you. And so we want students to know as much about the different types of families and there’s so many varieties. As well as how they function, as well. And it’s about their own family. So, we’ll have them do genograms, that is looking at their family tree and what has happened there so that they don’t get hooked on somebody else’s disorder or thinking that may get them completely kind of out there in regard to helping the family where they’re trying to do something for themselves rather than realizing they have a family there that that’s why they’re there.

Shannon Warden: That’s a good point. Well, it makes me think too, and I know this is part of what you’re saying Sam that counselor, not that we have to be perfect, our students we tell them that, we’re not perfect, you’re not gonna be perfect. But that bitter or better applies to us as individuals and that self-awareness, those are related ideas of how am I in my family life and is there work that’s distracting me about my own family issues keeping me from, perhaps, working as effectively with this family in front of me?

I like to encourage students, I know you guys do too that you don’t have to be perfect, but you do need – and our programs are gonna do that to you, student. The program is gonna stretch you on a personal growth level so that you don’t have – well, you’re always gonna be doing your own personal work, but so that that doesn’t interfere with you doing that effective work with those clients. So, I guess it does come back to bitter or better. It’s not gonna pay to be a bitter counselor. We gotta always be bettering ourselves. I like that, better yet.

Sam Gladding: Right. And to be informed, because again if you know something about your family, then you can let that rest and do your best in regard to working with the family that’s before you.

Shannon Warden: That’s good encouragement. For us as practitioners, but also for students.

Bob Nations: It is, it is.

Shannon Warden: Well, Bob I’m wondering – I mean we’ve got the guy sitting here with us. He’s written the book and he’s done all this great work over time. What else do we need to know from him right now about family counseling?

Bob Nations: Well, I’m curious about how effective family counseling is and is it more effective for some disorders than others?

Sam Gladding: Very, very, very good question and I appreciate your asking that because there is a good deal of research about that. One of the things that we can say about family counseling is that a lot of disorders originate in families and a lot of the ways they are solved is through working with families. So, let me give you two examples, they both start with the letter A and that is addiction and anorexia or really any kind of eating disorder. But basically, both of those usually start within a family environment. And the dynamics surrounding both of those can be quite different. But what they have in common is that a family can either be hurtful or helpful in people overcoming those two disorders.

So, one of the ways to help individuals is not through just one-on-one counseling. I’ll again give you an example. When I used to work as a clinician in mental health before I went into academia, we would sometimes see individuals who had, let’s just say an addiction problem and we’d work with them for a long time. And then we’d find that in a few months while we thought they were better, it was like they were back in our office. And we even kidded around that we must have a revolving door out there, not just any kind of door. So, if you work with a family though, family members can, again, be encouraging and they can also set up structure that is helpful to you as a family member who’s trying to overcome something that is bringing you down and keeping you from functioning well, either personally, interpersonally or in society. And there’s a lot of research on that.

Bob Nations: Exciting to know, yes.

Shannon Warden: It is exciting. So, I think Bob, for students who are listening and they maybe see themselves as family counselors, this is great information because they’re –

Bob Nations: It certainly is.

Shannon Warden: – recognizing, hopefully recognizing, that family counseling is an essential part of what we’re gonna do as a professional counselor being in the school or in a mental health agency and that I know too, Sam you may wanna speak to this, that sometimes even when the family members are not present, we are still working with a client who’s the product or who’s been heavily influenced from that system. So, the system in some ways is still very present, even though the family members themselves might not be there. So, you can, in essence, do family systems work with less family members present.

Sam Gladding: You can actually do family systems work with an individual. I recommend that if you can have as many members of the family there as possible. But most of us carry around three generations in our minds. And that is from grandparents, if we knew them, or older individuals if we have a family that we have created rather than inherited. Parents, and ourselves, whether we had siblings or not. If we have been married and have children, then we carry four generations, because we see previous generations in what those offspring are doing.
So, it’s important to know who has made up our family or who we consider as our family because that’s gonna impact us. If we’ve been hurt by someone or abused, a lot of times there’s gonna be what we know as rumination depression or there’s gonna be acting out or there’s just gonna be anxiety. Murray Bowen says that we all have some anxiety that we’ve inhered from those who were in our past. Some people may be more fortunate than others have less of that. Some people, unfortunately, get a lot of that. But just because you have something that’s potentially detrimental to your life, doesn’t mean you have to have that forever or that it has to become full blown. That you can work it out – almost made a reference to the Beatles there, but okay –

Shannon Warden: I think you still made it.

Sam Gladding: – they were right in what they say. But again, family counseling can help people alleviate some weaknesses in their lives and accentuate some positives or discover some positives that they may not have been aware of before.

Shannon Warden: That’s good. Bob, we did it.

Bob Nations: We did it. Wonderful discussion on family counseling with Sam Gladding.

Shannon Warden: It was. Sam, thank you. Sam, thank you so much.

Bob Nations: Thank you.

Sam Gladding: My pleasure, thank you.