Managing anxiety in the family

Strategies for changing our relationship dance

Rhett Smith Image Rhett Smith | Aug 10, 2011

Photo by William Stitt

When I work with families in a therapy setting, I can learn a lot by how a family situates themselves in my office.

In fact, where they sit is often diagnostic in and of itself. How close are they sitting to one another? Where are the parents sitting? Where is the kid sitting? These are all things I pay very close attention to in the initial seconds of a family session because their physical proximity to one another and the way they position themselves says a lot about the emotional proximity and issues that may be present in the family.

More often than not, family members unconsciously arrange themselves in the shape of a triangle with the parents sitting on my couch next to one another while their kid sits across from them. I on the other hand usually pull up a chair alongside all of them as we begin to enter into the process of better understanding the reasons why this family has found themselves in my office.

Me: “So what brings you in today?”

Dad: “Our daughter has been having all kinds of problems at school. She isn’t doing her homework, and she hardly seems like she wants to hang out with her friends. I don’t know if this is normal for her age, but it’s the same way at home too. She doesn’t want to be a part of the family and the only things she enjoys doing are talking to her friends on Facebook or texting them.”

Me (to myself): “Pause. Take a breath.”

In the initial moments of our session, the problems within the family system have already been defined and framed around one key person: the kid. I am told that if I can somehow just fix the teenage daughter, then apparently the entire family system will get better. The parents speak as if their daughter isn’t present in the room, using a depersonalized tone that communicates that if I just tinkered with their child long enough, surely she will begin to behave differently.

This might be how a typical family therapy session begins, but at some point during our initial meeting I ask the question…

Me: “How is your marriage?”

Mom: “What? This isn’t about my husband and me. Our daughter is the one with the problems. After all, that’s why we’re bringing her into counseling.”

Forming Triangles and Placing Blame

The self-arrangement of the family into a triangle is apropos for my work with them. It is usually the very formation of an emotional triangle within a family that creates some of the unhealthy functioning that has brought them into counseling.

I would estimate that in about 70%-80% of the situations in which kids are brought into my office for counseling, the presenting problems have less to do with the individual child, and more to do with what is happening in the larger family system, and more particularly in the couple’s marriage (or former marriage). The children have often become the scapegoats or the symptom-bearers for the marital problems.

In family systems theory, a triangle is often formed when two people in relationship experience conflict or anxiety between them. In order to deal with this anxiety and conflict, they triangle a third person in an attempt to lessen it. 1

In other words, when a couple is having difficulty in their relationship, or there is anxiety and stress created by a lack of connection, they often pull a child into the center, making that child the focus of their problems. This movement gives a struggling couple something to focus their energy on, and for a time creates the illusion that things in their marriage are actually okay. They might even feel closer to each other because they are working together on the same “problem.” In fact, they are desperately trying to avoid the difficult work of looking at their relationship.

About a month ago I taught a parenting class about family anxiety at my church, where I serve as a part-time staff member to provide counseling and education to families, youth and the youth staff. In that class I was hoping to bring awareness to what marriage and family therapist Murray Bowen talks about when he describes the family as a nuclear family emotional system.

One of the patterns that Bowen describes is the impairment of one or more children.” This impairment occurs when:

“…spouses focus their anxieties on one or more of their children. They worry excessively and usually have an idealized or negative view of the child. The more the parents focus on the child the more the child focuses on them. He is more reactive than his siblings to the attitudes, needs, and expectations of the parents. The process undercuts the child’s differentiation from the family and makes him vulnerable to act out or internalize family tensions. The child’s anxiety can impair his school performance, social relationships, and even his health.”

So what happens when parents are unable to deal with issues between them in their marriage? Someone usually suffers and I find that it is usually one or all the kids within a family system because they end up absorbing the anxiety for other members of the family. This often sends the message to the kid that “something is wrong with me,” and can in and of itself become a self-fulfilling prophecy where the kid actually begins to live into the behaviors that the parents describe. The kid may surmise to themselves, “Well, if I’m the problem, then I will show my parents what a real problem is.” At this point families often become stuck in a pattern of negativity.

Taking Responsibility for Ourselves

In order for things to change within a family, everyone must begin to take responsibility for themselves. One of the things that I have learned as a marriage therapist is that it is quite common for a spouse in the marriage to hold the belief and verbalize it as something like, “If you would just stop being critical… [or if you would just stop nagging me…or if you would just clean up after yourself…] then our marriage would be great.” When couples put responsibility for change solely on their partner, they are living in a fantasy land.

This line of thinking often extends beyond the boundaries of a marriage and seeps into the entire family system. It’s much easier for us emotionally to believe that it is our children who have the problems, and if we could just fix them, then things would be fine. We find ourselves saying things to our kids like, “If you would get your act together then we wouldn’t have these problems.” Or “If you would change, then your mom and I wouldn’t be yelling at you all the time.” Parents may not be saying that out loud to their children, but many are processing these kinds of thoughts internally.

Recognizing Our “Pain Dance”

Besides being in private practice as a therapist, I am on staff at The Hideaway Experience 2 which hosts marriage intensives bringing together four couples over a four day period. The couples participate in marriage therapy in a group context with two therapists present. It has been a powerful experience for me, and I have learned a lot in this setting about how our issues in marriage impact our kids and entire family’s lives. And the good news is that we can do something about it.

In the model 3 that we use at The Hideaway we help couples better understand what we refer to as their Pain and Peace Cycle. The Pain cycle is simply the negative pattern of interacting that couples get locked into, grinding any understanding of an issue or conflict resolution to a halt. We are wired such that over time when we experience certain feelings (i.e. abandonment, not good enough, rejected, etc.) we learn to behave in an automatic, instinctual way (withdraw, get angry, criticize, etc.). These are patterns that have been hardwired into us over time in our family of origin, in important relationships, and in our marriage.

Once a couple understands the negative pattern of interaction that they are stuck in, then we begin to help them form a new pattern called the Peace cycle. The Peace cycle is a positive pattern of interacting that is based on the truth of who God sees us as and the healthy behaviors we engage in based upon that belief.

This Pain and Peace cycle is all about couples becoming aware of their negative patterns of interaction, taking responsibility for them, and then working on forming new and healthy patterns of relating to each other.

But here is the beautiful insight I have gleaned from the model. Our kids push the same buttons that our spouses and others push. So if a parent can take responsibility in their adult relationships, then they can also take responsibility in their interactions with their own kids. When we take ownership, we de-escalate the conflict on both levels.

Creating a New “Family Dance”

Creating new patterns of change in our marriages and family lives do not happen overnight, but instead take a lot of practice. I wish there was some magic bullet, but there isn’t. The good news is that there are several things we can begin doing today to become more aware of and start the process of implementing in our own lives and the lives of our families.

Knowing Where You Begin and End…

Knowing where you begin and end in relationships is what we might refer to as establishing healthy boundaries. I like to think of it as one’s ability to stand on their own two feet. I shouldn’t be dependent on my wife or my young kids to prop me up. Marriage and Family Therapists talk about the concept of differentiation a lot, which essentially is the process of balancing life’s two greatest forces – the desire for separateness and the desire for togetherness. Why is knowing where you begin and end important? Because when you know this, you then know what you are responsible for in yourself.

So beginning the process of taking responsibility for yourself (and in the process de-escalating conflict in your family) means that you need to establish some healthy boundaries. If you don’t know where to begin, one place to start is by looking at Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s classic, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. 4 I think it’s a no-nonsense, straightforward, practical look at what boundaries are and how to set them. They have also written Boundaries with Kids and Boundaries with Teens editions.

Practicing Self-Awareness…

My own therapist told me at one point to go about life as if there was a huge “spotlight of awareness” shining its light on everything that I did. He wanted me to just be really aware of myself in the moment. I think one of the ways couples begin to make changes in their marriages and in their families is just becoming more aware of themselves in relationship to others and then to simply begin to experiment with new types of interactions. This is something that I have done in my own marriage as I have begun to experiment with taking responsibility for my Pain Cycle and working to bring about my Peace Cycle.

Learning to Self-Soothe…

I have a ten-month-old son who loves to suck his thumb. What he is essentially doing is soothing himself, especially when he is anxious or upset. It’s a way that he copes. As adults we may not suck our thumbs, but there are other ways we can self-soothe. For example, learning not to be reactive but to sit with our own anxiety for a bit is a form of self-soothing. It would be easier for us to argue with our kids, but self-soothing requires us to show some restraint and patience in our interactions. We can self-soothe by exercising or by practicing calming breathing patterns. 5

Seeking Help…

Sometimes we just need help from those who are not intimately involved in our marriages and families. We need someone to walk alongside of us and lead us through new territory. Sometimes good friends can help if we can be honest with them. But we may also need more help to change, which is when we can seek the help of a professional therapist. It’s a scary thing to do for many people, but it may be the thing that helps you break out of old patterns and forge a new—and healthier—relationship dance.

Beyond the Triangle

There’s no denying that most teenagers do have problems that need to be addressed. But if we really want to have healthy families, often we need to begin with the adults in the family taking responsibility for themselves. Rather than point the finger at our kids because they might be convenient scapegoats for our anxiety and conflict, real transformation lies within a family’s ability to do the hard work that relationships require.

1. Murray Bowen emphasized that people respond to anxiety between each other by shifting the focus to a third person creating what is known as triangulation. The Bowen Center:

2. The Hideaway Experience: Marriage Intensive,

3. See 5 Days to a New Marriage by Terry Hargrave and Shawn Stoever:

4. Cloud, Henry. Townsend, John. Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. Zondervan.

5. There are also plenty of unhealthy forms of self-soothing that people engage in such as compulsive or addictive behaviors, so it’s important that we learn and practice ones that are beneficial to our personal and relational growth.

Rhett Smith Image
Rhett Smith

Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in private practice at Auxano Counseling in Plano, TX. He is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? and his latest book, What it Means to be a Man: God's Design for Us in a World Full of Extremes. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary (MDIV, MSMFT) and lives in McKinney, TX with his wife Heather and their two kids. You can read more about Rhett's work and connect with him at

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