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John C. Friel, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist

There is no family that is without its strengths as well as its limitations . Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between family strengths and family limitations. For example, "sticking together" in the face of terrible odds, no matter what the cost, can be a great strength at times, and at times it can be a great limitation.

The need to grow up and become a separate person at times collides with family members' needs for closeness and connection in families, and sometimes this "collision" can result in hurt feelings, shame, or other wounds that go underground and fester, sometimes for years.

When family members haven't spoken to each other in years, or when family get-togethers turn into family nightmares when these wounds surface, it can sometimes be very helpful to have everyone sit down in a room, in a structured setting, with a therapist who will set the agenda and structure the session so that it is relatively safe for people to speak and be heard. Under these conditions, little miracles sometimes occur.

I have found that the simple process of mapping out the family's structure on the flip chart in my office can open up a wealth of healing; especially when I tell everyone in the family that if, for example, there are five of them in the room, there will be five versions of what happened as they were all growing up, and that this is perfectly normal, and "correct."

As each family member helps to fill in the spaces and gaps in the family structure with his or her own, unique recollections and interpretations , the family often begins to work as a team for the first time in years. As I said, it can be quite a healing process. And as each family member begins to see his or her own place in the family, and contribution to whatever is painful, it can be even more healing.

Does every family member have to be present for this process to work? No. I encourage everyone to become involved, but sometimes it is not possible, either because of travel or schedule difficulties, or because one may not wish to participate. The family members who do participate can begin to understand the family better, and their role in what went on and in what continues to go on.

It is very often the case that a after a few hours of this kind of concentrated work, enough of what has kept everyone stuck for so long has been "worked loose," at which point the family can "go it alone" just fine. Indeed, after 3 or 4 hours of this kind of safe, structured work, many families feel like they can move forward with a new perspective, a new understanding, and a new appreciation of the family's strengths and limitations.