Welcome to the third blog in a series about how we search for and nurture the love in our marriages, in our families and in our communities. This series was inspired by the song, “Where Is the Love?”, by the Black-Eyed Peas who sing about community violence and the damage that it creates in families. It’s a deep and heavy song put to rap–it simultaneously suggests hope and despair.
Why has this song struck me so much that I’ve written 3 blogs about it? I have worked with families traumatized by rape, abuse, drugs, suicide and violence. And, I have witnessed their hopelessness and resilience. I was drawn to this work as a Clinical Social Worker early in my career. And, I distinctly remember a time in my professional life when I was still working in community mental health with traumatized families while also providing counseling at a prestigious school in the area with upper class families. While driving up and down Wisconsin Avenue NW, I would recount my daily contacts with clients from both the wealthy independent school and the small public mental health clinic where I worked. While the problems were admittedly different and varied, the pain was very similar–and so are some (not all) of the tenets for healing.
Currently, I practice as a Family Therapist in a private psychotherapy practice in NWDC. I help families reorganize and heal from their own experience of pain. While it is my job to customize interventions that are unique to each family’s situation, I do try to keep a few ideas in mind that I think are useful for all of us as we attend to our own families and interact in our own schools and communities.
First, we need to consider whether families have the basics in place–housing, food, work/income, and childcare. Then, we can begin to work on the structure of the family. In sessions, I often complete a family house activity where we identify what are the primary protective supports, rules/limits, foundational values, roles/responsibilities and social or recreational activities where families have fun together. We do this activity to see if the family is properly supported to function well.
Second, we need to check the health of the parenting relationship and functioning. Do parents have a system where they can manage the needs of the family? I meet with parents and look at the 4R’s–the primary roles, responsibilities, relationship activities, and rules in the family. What is most important is that parents have found a way to take care of daily tasks of parenting and family life that is as organized and as conflict free as possible. If there is a gap, we try to fill it. If there is a conflict over who does what, we try to resolve it or reassign it.
Third, we take a look at family communication and interactions. How do families manage technology and screen time? Is there time enough for families to have 10 minutes of positive conversation daily?–That is all it takes really, and it can be at any point during the day. Do families spend time playing or having fun together? Esther Perel reminds us that playfulness is central to intimacy in our relationships–both intimate and familial. The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project in Washington DC has embraced this notion and created a program based primarily on this–when we create healthy play spaces and we help children play, we promote good development. It is just one example of how one person developed one program that is working to support healthy families in inner city DC. In my opinion, this technique is useful for all families. Play skills translate into coping and relationship skills as children grow into young adults.
Fourth, I look at how families manage the balance between the urge for connection and the urge for autonomy that most growing teens experience. We have to consider what is healthy aggression (I want…I feel…I can…I act) in order to promote empathy (I see you….I feel what you are feeling….I understand you). In promoting healthy aggression, we also need to mine for and to attend to unhealthy aggression in our families and within our children (I fear…I can’t….I hate… ..I take…I/We destroy or something destroys me). Do we let our children explore? Do we let them fail? Do we surround them with a variety of people? Do we let them experience life and tolerate the full plate of emotions that come with those experiences? Are we there to talk it through? Do we attend to moments of unhealthy aggression with compassion and firmness? Do we seek help when we don’t know?
Now is a good time to take the pulse in your own family so that we can join with other families in our community to promote the good in the world. Where is the love? It starts with us, in our own hearts, and in our own homes.