One of the basic building blocks in developing a healthy family relationship is maintaining open communication among members.
This seemingly obvious requirement is nonetheless difficult to accomplish, as participants in the What is a Healthy Family workshop, held Thursday, 18 August, learned.
Susan Schlosser, family therapist at The Counselling Centre, and Cindy Blekaitis, counsellor at the Women’s Resource Centre, took about 10 participants through the intricacies of family relationships.
‘When we grow up in a family where we are not allowed to express ourselves, we become out of touch with our feelings, and are not able to talk about them. This will affect our future relationships,’ Ms Schlosser said.
Family members also need to feel comfortable dealing with any important concerns.
‘There are always going to be sensitive issues in a family. If we avoid it, it builds up until it explodes,’ she said.
The two counsellors compared features of both a healthy and unhealthy family and how to recognise what indicates a dysfunctional unit.
‘We want to understand the healthy characteristics of a family along with the dysfunctional characteristics of a family and how to transition to where we want to be,’ Mrs. Blekaitis said.
As they explained what a healthy family entailed, they also pointed out how those characteristics could be turned around in a dysfunctional environment.
For example, there is a healthy way to express anger, Ms Schlosser explained, with the family member working through the feelings and being able to let go of them and forgive.
In a dysfunctional family, the anger is held on to and may be the only feeling allowed.
Healthy families also need to encourage honesty, open discussion, sharing of feelings and the spending of quality time together.
Conversely, a dysfunctional family accepts lying, does not discuss important issues, discourages any display of feelings and finds little time for each other, Mrs. Blekaitis explained.
At the workshop, participants also learned basic speaker-listener techniques which can promote healthy dialogue within the family.
‘Sometimes the issues can’t get resolved but if a person listens and offers empathy, sometimes you just need to know if someone is listening,’ Ms Schlosser said.
The counsellors had participants practice a technique that encourages both speaking and listening. The technique is based on the speaker being allowed briefly to say his or her piece and the listener being given a chance to paraphrase what has been said, indicating they really listened and understood.
‘Communication is about how you can be a better speaker and how you can be a better listener.
‘If what you say is listened to and reflected back, that is empowering and encouraging. These are the basics of communications,’ Ms Schlosser said.
Janelle Rivers is one participant who felt the workshop was worthwhile.
‘It was very enlightening, like opening your eyes from the darkness to the light. It pinpointed things you were doing and didn’t realise,’ Mrs. Rivers said.
She believes what she learned at the workshop will translate into better relationships.
‘It will help me to communicate better with my daughter and my husband,’ she said.
Mrs. Rivers, whose daughter will soon turn seven, explained that the pressures of work can spill over into family life.
‘After a stressful time at work, you don’t want to hear noise when you get home. As a parent, you don’t realise there are times when you are blocking your family out. This will help me to listen better,’ Mrs. Rivers said.
When she returned home after the workshop, Mrs. Rivers put into practice what she had learned.
‘I went to bed happy because I listened more attentively to my daughter. I don’t want to hold her back by me not hearing what she’s saying and supporting her feelings,’ Mrs. Rivers said.
Mrs. Blekaitis was pleased with the reaction to the session, after which those attending filled out evaluation forms.
‘Overall, the workshop was rated excellent by the participants, so I think they benefited from it.
‘Most of the participants indicated they wanted to learn more so I think we will hold one again,’ Mrs. Blekaitis said.