Are you a family member of a therapy patient? Whether your child, spouse, sibling, or other family member is attending therapy, chances are you have some questions. When one person in a family is struggling with an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issue, it affects everyone in the household. Unfortunately, a lot of family members don’t know how to act around the patient and so sometimes do more harm than good. Of course, we all have good intentions, and it makes sense to want to be involved. However, there are certain guidelines that people would do well to follow in order to best support the therapy patient.
Stop trying to “fix” them.
This seems to hold especially true for men, including fathers, brothers, husbands, and boyfriends. For whatever reason (genetics, social factors, etc.) men like to look at a problem, analyze it, and decide upon the best approach for solving the problem and making it go away. Unfortunately, this often means looking at the family member in therapy as “the problem” and setting about trying to “fix” the person. The best thing you can do is recognize that their therapy is out of your control and that there is nothing you can do to make this so-called problem go away. This is often a particularly touchy subject for parents, who feel responsible for their child’s health and (understandably) think they should have a say in the treatment approach. Contrary to what people sometimes think, the best thing you can do for your family member is let go of the reins and put some trust in the therapist. After all, they are the trained professional who best knows how to deal with mental health! If there is something you can do, they or your family member will let you know. Second of all, looking at the person as “a problem” won’t help the situation. It will only damage the relationship and make the person feel shame and guilt. Everyone has their shortcomings and needs a little help. In this case, your family member will be helped by attending therapy, not, in most cases, by your input.
Patience, patience, patience. Did I mention patience?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you might not see improvement or change in your family member attending therapy for a while. If the patient just started seeing a therapist, drop any expectation that they are going to come home from the appointment a new person. It can take weeks or months before you start to notice anything different. Respect the process. Try not to put pressure on your family member or ask a lot of probing questions about their progress. As the therapist and patient build a relationship they will begin to accomplish more and more, but this can only be done as work over a series of appointments builds on itself. If you have patience, your family member attending therapy will undoubtedly share with you what they feel comfortable and allow you to celebrate successes with them when such milestones are reached.
Therapy is a tough process and not always fun! As your family member processes their emotions and faces difficult obstacles, there may be times when they bad mouth therapy, insist on quitting, or reject the therapist’s advice. It’s not helpful to get into an argument about it with them, but show your support for their commitment in any way you can. Whether it’s prompting a dialogue about the reasons they are struggling, sharing a story with them about a time you wanted to give up on something but persevered, or ask if there is anything you can do to help them with an assignment or make the task more bearable.
You don’t have to understand what they’re going through, just try to understand they’re going through something.
It can often be hard for families of therapy patients to deal with the depression, anxiety, eating disorder, grief, or trauma that their loved one is experiencing. Many times this is because the family member has no direct experience with the mental illness or life experience. It’s OK to not understand, and in fact you may be met with frustration if you try to act like you “get it” or know exactly what they’re going through. Faking it won’t help anything. All that’s really required of you is that you understand your child, sibling, or significant other is struggling and dealing with something very difficult for them. Don’t feel pressured to relate or tap into their exact emotions. Sometimes a simple acceptance of their struggle and a shoulder to lean on is all that is required.
Establish appropriate boundaries.
This one looks a little different for everyone and takes significant communication to agree upon limitations. Sometimes this means taking a step back if you are a person who is typically overly involved in their loved one’s life. There’s no need to attend every session or know every detail of what was discussed! On the other hand, this can also mean relaxing the boundaries. If you are skeptical of therapy, distance yourself because it’s “not your problem,” or are frustrated with your loved one for needing help, you have probably built a brick wall between yourself and your family member attending therapy. Try to keep an open mind and participate in sessions if and when necessary. Spark a discussion regarding the boundaries that will work best for both parties.
I hope this helps! Do you have any other questions regarding this topic? If so, leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.