Family therapy: The importance of the relationship between siblings according to Karen Gail Lewis, pioneer of family therapy

Family therapy: The importance of the relationship between siblings according to Karen Gail Lewis, pioneer of family therapy
Family therapy: The importance of the relationship between siblings according to Karen Gail Lewis, pioneer of family therapy

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, Our brothers and sisters play varied roles in our lives, sometimes contradictory.
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In a world where psychotherapy is increasingly widespread, it is not uncommon to hear that a person consults a therapist to heal from a breakup, to resolve a misunderstanding with their children or to manage a complicated relationship. work.

Therapy is often used to take a different look at our current or past personal and professional relationships, paying particular attention to our relationship with our parents and how it, for better or for worse, has affected us. marked forever.

However, there are therapists who think that to better understand a patient, it is necessary to analyze everyone around them, particularly their siblings.

This is the case of American psychologist Karen Gail Lewis, who has dedicated her career to helping her patients resolve all kinds of problems related to interpersonal relationships.

Also read on BBC Africa:

Photo credit, Karen Gail Lewis

Image caption, Psychologist Karen Gail Lewis advocates sibling therapy.

For Karen Gail Lewis, Analyzing our relationship with our siblings can be the most effective way to discover why we have problems in relationships and communicating with others.

In the 1970s, Ms. Lewis was a pioneer in the emerging field of “family therapy” and taught the discipline at such prestigious centers as John Hopkins University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the Catholic University of Chile.

In conversation with BBC Mundo, she explained how her studies taught her that relationships with siblings have a profound impact on the relationships we have as adults.

I am very struck by the title of your book Siblings: The Ghosts of Childhood That Haunt Your Clients’ Love and Work. How do we make this link?

We must start with the most basic, that the relationship between siblings is the first romantic relationship between peers, because children and parents have different hierarchies.

In the case of marriage, it is also a relationship between peers, regardless of the age of the spouses, so that early childhood – I would say between kindergarten and CE2 – is like a laboratory for learning to manage fights or negotiate to fight, to learn to manage the power imbalances that always exist between peers.

I like to think of the sibling relationship as a first marriage that teaches you – or doesn’t teach you – how to deal with all the problems that will arise in a romantic relationship.

But how can something that happened to me and a sibling decades ago still influence my life today?

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, Often we are left with childhood images frozen in our memories and we don’t know how to act on them.

This is about “transfer between brothers and sisters”.

Part of this early childhood romantic relationship is stored in our memory in the form of frozen images and crystallized roles.

I’ll give you an example: my brother Doug and me. He’s 84 now, and in times when he wasn’t a wonderful big brother, which was many times, he was mean.

Never hurtful, but mean. And he had a special look that I don’t even remember, but when I see it, I identify it and this image takes me back to all the times I saw this image when I was a child.

It’s frozen in my memory bank and, although it doesn’t happen that much anymore, there were times in our lives when we were having a good time and I would see that face and think he was mad at me.

And that was just seeing his face.

We can transfer these frozen images to other people in our lives and we react to them as if they were our big brother or sister.

In this case, how does sibling therapy eliminate these frozen memories?

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, Sometimes memories from the past come back to us suddenly, when we were helpless children.

The first thing to do is to identify them. And help patients learn to recognize when they are transported to a time other than the present.

For example, ask questions like: When you were arguing with your partner or best friend, how old were you at that time?

I must always ask the questions keeping in mind that I am the therapist and that, if the sibling bond exists, it is helpful to ask the right questions.

In most cases, but not always, siblings agree to come to the sessions and, in their presence, it is easier to “recapture” the frozen image.

This is the ideal scenario, but what happens when the sibling doesn’t attend the session?

After 53 years of practice, I can tell you that the ideal scenario does happen, although rarely. But even when the brother or sister does not attend the session, I can also help patients in this relationship.

If the sibling doesn’t come, I help the patient find what takes them back to those moments in childhood, those moments when they feel like they were between 3 and 8 years old.

I try to ask them if they might react differently, even if the sibling in question orders you around or is unfriendly.

This is about sibling relationships, but what about families with three or more siblings?

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, The more siblings there are, the more complex the family dynamic becomes.

I tend to talk about sibling pairs because it’s easier to give examples, but I have dealt with cases of large families.

The largest consisted of 10 brothers and sisters. We did a virtual session and I had to put all 10 on one screen. There was a 20 year difference between the eldest and the youngest.

What usually happens is that there are those who are the most intense, sometimes there are two, sometimes there are three. And often there is a “bad guy” who is blamed for all the problems.

In the case of a family of six siblings, for example, there are the peacemakers or those who don’t want to argue, but that requires me to include them all in the conversation.

Because we must understand that there is no “outsider” point of view on family dynamics. Whether you participate actively or passively, you are always participating.

In general, it is the most active ones who take the initiative, but I have to give way to the calmer ones, because the problem is that of the group as a whole and everyone must feel part of the dynamic.

How important is the role of parents in this dynamic of siblings?

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Image caption, According to Dr. Lewis, 7 of the top 10 causes of sibling conflict are related to fathers.

I always tell siblings and parents that you have to assume that parents are doing the best they can, given the experience they have had with their parents.

But I discovered that of the top ten causes of sibling conflict, seven are related to fathers.

Of course, there are cases where a child is different and not accepted in their own culture or cases where the child suffers from a neurological disorder, but in 7 out of 10 cases, sibling conflict is explained by the parents.

The first and most obvious cause is favoritism, which generates all kinds of dynamics: there is an advantage to being your mother’s favorite, but there are several disadvantages to losing the favor of your father and brothers and sisters.

In some cases, children simply feel disadvantaged because they are no one’s favorite, not their father, mother, or siblings.

Parents also explain that their children do not know how to argue, because they often do not know how to argue and argue in unproductive ways. This is when we notice that a child learns to throw a punch or an insult rather than to argue.

There is another factor I would like to mention: family history. I have recorded sibling conflict that has lasted for five generations, as good and bad relationships between siblings are passed down to children.

Have you ever recommended that someone end the relationship with their sibling?

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I was going to say no, but actually, yes, there were times when I had to say it.

One of the reasons I wrote my book is that we need more therapists practicing sibling therapy, so that people who are considering severing the bond with a sibling can see someone who can help them try to save the relationship before it reaches that end.

I can mention a few options – among many others – that can be tried before breaking the bond, such as writing a letter to the sibling asking for their perspective on a situation or a letter expressing their feelings.

I have even worked in cases of childhood sexual abuse, where the siblings broke off the relationship, but managed to get it back together so they could at least talk about the abuse. And sometimes these relationships are restored.

What I can also tell you with certainty is that I don’t always succeed and that, very often, it’s because there is something that I haven’t been able to see.

So if you’re trying to reconnect with your siblings and failing, maybe you can let a year or two go by, wait for their situation to change, and try again.

Do you have any recommendations for our readers who have a sibling they want to reconnect with but don’t know how to go about it or for those who simply want to have a better relationship with their siblings?

Of course yes: usually, when siblings mend their relationships, it’s because there is at least one who wants to do so.

I would recommend that this person start making a list of taboo topics, those topics that they would never discuss with their feuding sibling, and this list ends up revealing many of the problems they are having.

I would recommend that he choose a less important topic and avoid discussions in his parents’ house. It’s best to meet in a neutral place, like a public place, where you can’t shout.

And when it comes to talking, try to recognize that you have problems and that you can start to solve one by finding out where it comes from.

Don’t get defensive when someone says something to you and you feel the need to explain.

One of the most fascinating things about all of this is that everyone wants to be heard, but for someone to be heard, someone first has to shut up.

Someone has to make the decision to say, “I will first listen and try to empathize with your experience.”

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