Many more families in therapy during the pandemic and lockdown

29 - May - 2020

“Now is proving to be a really important time for families to revisit their relationships, resolve old conflicts, find new ways of communicating and build the relationships they’ve always wanted”. Says Psychotherapist Nicholas Rose.

As a practice we have noticed a huge increase in people wanting to talk about family in therapy. For some it has meant starting family therapy, we have seen a doubling in the numbers of our family work; otherwise the subject of family is coming up in sessions with all our other clients. Senior Associate and Family Therapist Marybeth Mendenhall “Children are talking about their families, adults about difficult family dynamics, couples about the conflicts they have as a couple in relation to each other's families and then there are many young people back from university - so difficult dynamics have been impossible to ignore”.

In relation to this we having been thinking about the concept of "optimal frustration" this is a bit like how we seek help for toothache once it gets to a particular level. In relation to families, the existential challenge of the pandemic, lockdown and need to look after our most vulnerable means that we fall back on our most important relationships - those of the family - this falling back shines a spotlight on disappointments, old wounds and power struggles and people are wanting to talk about that now because it is a problem now. (This is unlike other psychological struggles such as trauma, bereavement, anxiety as it is too soon for those - people are living through those and will bring these to therapy later).

Meanwhile Senior Associate Psychotherapist Monika Smolar thinks “it is natural for us to want to be the best we can be in our various family roles - and so people have been speaking to us about how to resolve old conflicts and how to develop the kind of relationships for which they have always yearned”. Continues Marybeth “Difficult relationships between parents and their teenage and adult children are particularly prevalent - it can be so difficult to navigate the boundaries, power struggles can form and cycles of argument and conflict about being the one who is right can be painful and exhausting for both. With teenagers it can be so alien for them to be stuck at home with family and they can feel constrained and oppressed. They are without their tribe - other teenagers”. 

Meanwhile for parents trying to navigate the multi-faceted challenges of work, money, caring for elderly relatives they can also feel suffocated by the presence of young teenage energy, meanwhile they have to fight their ambivalence and keep the young in doors. For those with elderly parents or family members who need shielding the nature of those relationships is suddenly changed, parents having to accept help from their children when it's always been the other way round. 

Says Nicholas “Of course at the centre of all this are misunderstandings and in therapy we help people to see the other person's perspective. We get family members to share how they feel about situations and this reveals that negatively interpreted actions are in fact based upon good intentions. Family members can feel more relaxed together and then change how they interact, working together rather than feeling as though they have to take a stand against the other”.

As Associate Psychotherapeutic Child and Parent Counsellor Kati Mencer points out “It is not all negative though, many parents have reported marked improvements in their children's behaviour, as therapists we are not surprised as we work on strengthening attachments between parents and children. The stronger the base for attachment the more settled, relaxed and connected the parent and child can feel - we have noticed this with children who are looked after and adopted. The extra time, the having been thrown together, has for some really allowed firmer bonds and trust to form”.

For some families this is a time where many are looking to heal old wounds, to find new understandings and to fix dysfunction. Yes, we know that for other families tensions are building, domestic violence increasing however in both cases there are some central communication elements which determine what happens for each family.

The lockdown, being furloughed, home working, shielding of the vulnerable are all contextual factors that have meant family members have ended up spending more time together and for many it has highlighted the recurring disappointments that have always caused hurt and conflict. We are working with families who are wanting to break those destructive and painful patterns.

Adds Nicholas “The extra time that many people have is perfect for creating the opportunity for families to talk and luckily we have the technology to work with those where concerns are most pressing, moving forwards as the lockdowns are eased and space develops between family members there will be a sense of loss that again gets families asking whether they could be closer”.

In concluding Marybeth reflects “for many, the lockdown has enabled families to slow down and pay more attention to their intimate connections within their wider social worlds.  What is coming to the fore is that from cradle to grave, human beings are hardwired to seek not just social contact, but also physical and emotional proximity to special others who are deemed irreplaceable. Physical or emotional connection with special others, often a parent or sibling creates a sense of security and a safe haven.  If there is conflict within these close relationships it impacts the feeling of being in a 'safe haven' and has an impact on the wider family drama as a whole”.