counseling: helping families through conflict
Iíve been working with a student who has lost his parentsí trust. Heís working hard to get back on the right path, but still has to work through the lingering consequences of his past choices and occasional slip-ups. Here are some ways Iím partnering with the family to work through their issues.
Hereís how Iíve counseled him:
1. Write a contract with your parents. Often we think of asking parents to write a contract to keep their kids in line. However, a student who is serious about repairing a relationship would do well to write a contract outlining specific benchmarks they can reach. This will show he is making a genuine effort to improve.
2. Stop pushing their buttons. This is a big issue in many relationships. Iíve helped families through conflict where they intentionally hurt each using hot-button issues as a weapon of choice. This may seem like a no-brainer to tell them to stop pushing each otherís buttons. However, unless somebody points out the pattern, they may not realize itís happening. This is not an easy habit to break. I frequently challenge students to be the one to break this cycle of eye-for-an-eye relational combat. Relationships wonít have peace until they stop destructive patterns.
3. Accept your parentsí authority. Iíve told several students over the years that even when your parents are wrong, theyíre right. They could be legitimately wrong or they could know something the student doesnít. If theyíre wrong and you fight against them, prideful defense mechanisms go up so they have more trouble making things right when the truth is revealed. If parents know something students donít, theyíll be protected from what parents are trying to prevent.
Accepting parental authority goes even deeper than that, though. The Bible commands that children obey their parents and allows parents to kill their children if they donít. I donít bring that last part up because thatís one seed I donít want to plant.
As students learn to submit to authority in the family relationships will be restored, disagreements will be less frequent, and understanding will happen more easily. I explain to students that when thereís not a struggle to get their way, theyíll get more of what theyíre looking for or realize the wisdom behind why they donít.
How Iíve helped his parents:
1. Brag on the student. Even parents with the most strained relationships with their kids well up with healthy pride when they hear me bragging on their child. I get the privilege of seeing students at their best. They wonít throw the tantrums around me like they do at home. Their parents need somebody to remind them that their out-of-control monster actually has a good side and a heart open to serving others, participating in discussions and learning about God.
2. Act as a sounding board. If parents can unleash their frustrations on me for a half hour, theyíll feel better. I can absorb some of the heat they would have otherwise directed toward their kid. Ideally, parents will be part of a parentsí small group where they can support each other. However, since most arenít, we do them a great service if we can allow them to flip the release valve and blow off some steam. By the way, in the course of listening, Iíll validate their feeling and give them encouragement while also doing some reflective listening. However, Iíll also do some bragging on their student like I mentioned in #1 above. In this particular situation, the student had been very honest about his faults, which made it easier to talk with his parents and ensure them that he was on a course for change. Honest admission of fault is an important step toward health.
3. Follow up. One conversation wonít do it. Following up provides a great opportunity to form a partnership with parents, which could lead to great friendships. As we get to know each other better through follow-up conversations, communication will become more natural. Building a history of showing support and helping them through family meltdowns will help future incidents lessen in intensity.
Here are a few points of wisdom I keep in mind when helping families through conflict:
1. Remember their problems are not my problems. I need to realize this situation has probably been brewing for a long time. Typically there are several underlying issues feeding the current crisis. I need to be careful to not take ownership of their problems. I am there as a neutral beacon of sanity shining a guiding light to navigate the situation toward a godly resolution.
2. Donít take sides. Ideally, Iíll express understanding for how each side feels and why they react the way they do. However, itís not my place to choose sides. Doing this can remove my ability to provide effective ministry.
3. Know when to refer. If the crisis reveals issues that are overwhelming to me or I discover abuse, itís important to enlist the help a supervising ministry leader. If itís beyond my churchís ability, I know the church has a list of professional counselors to refer the family to. Instances of abuse will typically need to involve law enforcement. In extreme cases, itís still important to come from the perspective of helping the family, being careful not to communicate judgment. Even through the toughest of situations, God can use the church bring healing.
Helping families though a difficult time gives them tools for healthy conflict resolution. Itís a scary and intimidating part of youth ministry. However, making ourselves available in the ways outlined above makes a big difference.