Family Therapy: Addressing the Communication Break Down

by Julia Albores, LCSW

Conflict, differences and disagreements are a natural part of family life.  When a family’s communication system is working well, problems get resolved and everyone moves on.  On-going family conflict, however, is often a reflection of a communication break-down.   With today’s reality of increasing work demands and busy lifestyles, there are plenty of opportunities for communication problems to occur.  Despite all of the new technology and the million ways to send messages across the airways, we still somehow lack the time and ability to really connect.

Typically family communication issues get noticed when one member, often a child, starts to show signs of stress.  The not so subtle signs of stress show up as anger, irritability, yelling at other family members, breaking house rules and/or fighting at home and in school.  These children are waving a red flag that things are not quite right.   Some less obvious signs of stress manifest as depression, withdrawal, anxiety and excessive fear.  These behaviors are not only worrisome for the individual, but they can also impact the rest of the family. Mom and/or Dad’s time may be constantly pulled in to help manage the anxious behavior of one child, while siblings get ignored or neglected.  Often the child who waves the red flag becomes the identified patient, the child with the problems; however, he may simply be carrying the symptoms for the whole family.  

Individual problems can, and often do, involve the whole family; larger family issues can prompt negative behavior in the individual and/or negative behavior begins to impact adversely upon the rest of the family.  When one member of a family is struggling, the rest of the members can have very different responses which, in turn, can cause subtle or not so subtle imbalances.   Each member of the family has their own story about how they are experiencing stress.    Frequently, when one person holds the sadness of an experience, another can hold the anger, but these are two parts of a whole.  Once the whole family is in the room together, all of the feelings get heard and all of the pieces of the puzzle come together and problems come into focus.  Family therapy makes use of the whole system as a resource for healing and change.  

I often see families who have all the right intentions to connect but somehow keep missing each other.  Teenagers have no problem articulating the communication break-down, “I don’t talk to my parents because they wouldn’t get it.” Or, “They think they know what I am going through, but they have no idea.”  Parents have the bigger picture in mind, looking toward the future with hopes of school success and better opportunities down the road.  Kids, on the other hand, are more concerned with the here and now of their daily experiences, getting over the latest academic or social challenge at school, for example.   So how do we get these two different worlds to intersect? Or better yet, how do we prevent them from becoming so distant in the first place?

The power of family therapy lies in opening up communication.  The problem may or may not point to larger issues in the system as a whole, but when families come together to communicate and work on problems, creative and systemic solutions take place and everyone benefits.  

What are some basic strategies to help families address communication break-down?  As a family therapist, I often start by helping families build new routines and habits that center on connection and develop active listening skills.   

One of the hardest challenges to improving communication is finding the time to slow life down and focus on connection.  You can start by identifying the best times of the day to connect.  First thing in the morning while scrambling to get ready for work or school, for example, is usually not the best time.  On the other hand, at the end of the day when the day’s activities are winding down and everyone is relatively calm and relaxed can be a good time to take a few minutes to connect.  Doing something fun and sharing focused attention builds connection and may be all that is needed.  There are also those unexpected moments when life’s unique circumstances offer an opportunity to connect: you happen to find yourself with the unusual luck of being on an uncrowded subway car and still several minutes from home; or the therapist or doctor is running a little late and you have time to talk in the waiting room.  Throughout the day you can ask yourself, “Does this seem like a good time to connect?” And at the end of the day ask, “Did we connect enough today?”  Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot. 

Another important task geared to improving communication is helping parents turn down the multi-tasking-problem-solving-brain and turn up the actively-listening-brain.  Active listening is often a lost art for parents who are running ragged trying to meet all of life’s responsibilities.  Let’s face it, getting ready for work in the morning, while simultaneously getting kids ready for school—IS – near rocket science.  Dr. Craig Kinsley a psychologist at University of Richmond found that there’s actually hard science behind why Mom’s, in particular, seem hard wired to solve problems and think several steps ahead.(1)  In the study led by Kinsley, female rats who had recently given birth performed better on learning, memory and cognition tasks than non-mothers.  They concluded that the mother rats were better at problem solving, handling stress and completing certain memory tasks.  Parents are on the job all day and we better be or we’ll miss the boat, or the bus or train, as it were.  The hard task is balancing this revved up wiring and energy to get things done with an equal dose of communication and connection. 

As a general rule, active listening should precede problem solving.  In fact, through active listening a parent can guide a child to solve problems for themselves.  Active listening is a skill that is targeted at gaining a deeper understanding of your child’s feelings and experience.  Carl Rodgers, the founder of the humanistic approach to psychology, called it “reflection of feelings”.  Dr. Thomas Gordon, widely recognized for his pioneering work on communication, developed a communication model that includes active listening and is now used in 45 countries around the world.  The effective use of active listening skills by parents has been shown to lead to positive change in children’s behavior. (2)  With kids, active listening not only helps them to feel understood, but it also helps them to understand themselves.  There are many resources that offer parents guidelines for how to connect and build effective active listening skills.  A brief list is provided at the end of this article.

Here are some basic skills of an active listening approach:

  • Slow down and find a good time to connect
  • Offer your undivided attention
  • Focus your attention on the your child’s words/emotions not on what you want to say
  • Be willing to listen to and accept your child’s feelings (though you need not necessarily agree)
  • Reflect back the meaning and emotions of what you hear

 “Sounds like you were pretty mad, when… “,  or “I hear that your feelings got hurt when…   ”

1. Ask clarifying questions: “So when you say __________, do you mean___________”  “Can you describe that part more for me?” 

2. Test your understanding of what you heard: “I think I hear you saying__________, do I have that right?”

Our kids come to us with a problem and we come back with a million ideas for how to fix it.  Can our undivided attention and active listening be what they really want and need? 


Motherhood Induces and Maintains Behavioral and Neural Plasticity across the Lifespan in the Rat; Kinsley, Craig Howard Archives of Sexual Behavior , February 2008, Volume 37, Issue 1, pp 43-56

The effects of a mother’s use of I-messages and Active Listening on a Child’s behavior in the home; Chant, Christine; Nelson, GeoffreyFamily Therapy, Vol9(3), 1982, 271-278

    Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children by Thomas Gordon, Ph.D.

    How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

    Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.d