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Family Systems Therapy

In this video, Dr. Toni Schindler Zimmerman explains how a family systems practitioner works with families that have seperated.
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Systems therapy is often used to treat families, particularly those who’ve been affected by divorce and separation. I asked Dr. Toni Zimmerman, a professor of psychology at Colorado State University, some questions about how one does this. What does it mean to work with a family as a therapist using a family systems approach? Well, the most important thing that happens in family therapy is to invite all participants, whether that’s an individual in therapy, a couple, a family, to begin to think about problems and solutions systemically.
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And we really want to introduce a way of thinking, which is that the way I think, feel, and behave affects how you think and feel and behave and that we all are in this feedback loop together. And so the more that we can begin to think about problems in that way, in that cycle, in that system– that is a important key beginning to successful family therapy is systemic thinking. If a clinician were to treat a child from a divorced family, where the parents do not get along at all, what might be the best way to treat the child from a family systems perspective?
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So in that case, I definitely think that you do not want to bring two parents that do not get along into the same therapy room. There’s a reason why they made a decision to get a divorce and to not spend time together. But you can work with each of those parties individually, when possible, towards a similar goal. Those houses don’t have to look the same. They don’t have to have the same parenting techniques. I think that children can adapt to living in different kinds of ways in different houses.
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They know that you can behave differently in school versus at grandma’s house or– so I think as long as both houses are functional, I think that children can adapt to that and teenagers can adapt to that. I think the most important thing is to honor the other family. That’s where it becomes really difficult. And so I think you just really directly talk to parents about when they subtly– by rolling their eyes– or not so subtly– when they verbally put down another parent or talk poorly about them with a child– again, seeing that systemically– that will have a reaction. That will have a reaction.
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The research shows us that what that reaction will do in terms of prediction for how that– predicting how that child or that teen might– what might happen as a result of that happening repeatedly– their relationship with that parent as well as the other, their trust in caring adults, their split loyalties– all kinds of things happen that those– so really working hard to stop that behavior primarily– and then depending on the age of the child, I think really early on, teaching a child to have some agency and to be able to say when I hear that happening or when I see that happening, to really understand that you have the right to say stop.
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I don’t want either one of you to talk bad about each other with me– just finding that agency. And that’s not easy. But again, there may be different ways that you can do that with each parent to really say I don’t want to participate in that. What are some limitations of other therapeutic approaches compared to family systems therapy? Well, I think a systems approach really takes into account multiple systems, whether that’s judicial, other people that are involved, maybe a guardian ad litem. There can be many people involved and many systems involved, especially in a high-conflict divorce. And so a systems therapist, I think, is helping the family system while paying attention to these other systems.
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There may be things that you can and you cannot do because of a custody battle. There may be things you can and cannot say because of the legal situation and so really paying attention to those broader systems and how those are being helpful or not. When is it important to coordinate care with other professionals, such as courts or health care providers? What barriers might there be to do this? Well, I think one is that sometimes those systems can be really helpful and be in place to support the family. But sometimes, they can also be– add to the conflict, particularly when people are in court for custody for decision making.
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And so I think one of the most important things as a therapist is to report on what you observe. Don’t try to make decisions. Often, there are people put in place to make decisions, and you are one person that is giving some feedback. And it’s really important, as a therapist, that you aren’t taking everything that someone says in therapy and then reporting that. But what do you see? What do you witness? What do you hear? You certainly don’t want to be making comments about somebody who’s not actually your client. You want to be talking about the clients you have and the progress you see them making and the barriers you see them experiencing.
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If a parent does not have decision making or choice in selecting their child’s therapist, how can they ensure that their child is getting the right kind of treatment? So often, you’re in a situation where you maybe don’t have say about what therapy services your child is going to partake in. So I think having a say is really important, even if it’s just giving an opinion or an idea or a list of therapists or that you have some reasons for that having to do with expertise– that you try to have some agency, some say in where your child goes. So that’s step one, I would say.
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And then be involved– so even if you’re not– don’t have the decision-making power to see who they see, you certainly can contact that therapist, have a release of information, be involved in the therapy, make sure that your perspective is heard, and that what you see as would be helpful is heard. I think the more that a therapist has access to all parties, the better that’s going to go.
We learned about family systems earlier in this course, and this approach is important to use when providing support and intervention for families that have separated. Dr. Toni Schindler Zimmerman explains how a family systems practitioner works with families in these types of situations.
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Positive Parenting After Separation

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