There is a famous African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This essentially means that raising a child is a communal effort. No matter what this village may look like—friends, family, or other trusted loved ones—the idea is that its efforts will impact the child.
Family relationships play a major role in how a person presents to the world. During the impressionable stages of childhood to the exploratory stages of adolescence, our view points, values, relationship with emotions, and understanding of self and others are impacted by our interactions (or lack thereof in some cases) with our family and primary caregivers.
Here are four main areas that can be impacted by family relationships and experiences:
- Emotional health – In the early stages of development, imitation is the first way a child learns how to interact with their environment. Children inadvertently learn how to respond to stress or conflict by observing their family’s behaviors. Throughout a person’s life, they tend to model these behaviors in their interpersonal relationships. This conditioned behavior can be positive if effective communication, conflict resolution, and healthy coping skills were modeled. But this conditioned behavior may also be viewed as negative if drinking or drug use, intimate partner violence, or intense arguments were modeled.
- Mental health – Generational cycles—negative patterns or traits that are passed down from our family history across several generations—are not a myth. These cycles can be affected by trauma, poverty, influence, or privilege and greatly impact who children become. Families that foster healthy communication and show love, encouragement and affection can have a positive influence on a child’s mental health and connections with others. However, families that have heightened stress or lack safety, acknowledgment, and emotional support can have a negative influence on a child’s mental health.
- Self-esteem – Throughout my life, I have been guilty of being my biggest critic instead of my biggest cheerleader. When I catch myself engaging in negative self-talk I ask, “What would my mother say if she heard me talking to myself like this?” Since she has always been supportive of my endeavors, she would be disappointed to hear me speak not so highly of myself—but everyone does not share that same experience.The social support we receive from our loved ones can contribute to feelings of self-worth. Additionally, fostering an environment of encouragement, optimism, and safety may enhance self-esteem and assist in shaping views of self and compassion toward others. Conversely, a lack of social support can result in a person feeling insecure and unsure of themselves at work, school, and in other environments.
- Relationship (connection) with others – There can be a correlation between our relationships with our caregivers and our romantic dating behavior. This can affect our partner selection, relationship values, and our ideas on love and marriage. Personally, when working with clients who repeat negative patterns in relationships or who struggle with relationship issues, I typically take an assessment of their attachment style. An attachment style is the particular way in which an individual relates to other people. Our attachment style forms at the very beginning of life and influences our intimate relationships.
Therapist assessment tips
As a therapist, many times the intake form is the first snapshot we have of our client—who they are, where they may work, and the current issues they’re struggling with that prompted them to seek therapy.
Here are some assessment questions that can help with incorporating intersectionality in the early stages of treatment so you can learn about your client on a deeper level than what is presented on the intake form:
- Describe how your culture impacts your thoughts and beliefs.
- What parts of your identity are important for you to share with me?
- What about your upbringing do you think impacts you as an adult?
- Is there anything about your relationship with your family that would be helpful for us to explore?
- Growing up, was religion or spirituality practiced in your family? If so, what was that like? Do you still share similar beliefs now?
Family relationships and the holidays
A trend I notice every year is an influx of clients returning to therapy during the holiday season. For some, the holidays mean more family time, which can elicit feelings of anxiety or stress. Others may have feelings of depression as they reflect on family members who may have passed away, or feelings of isolation if they are estranged from family and have to celebrate alone.
Although the holidays are marketed as a joyous occasion filled with family and cheer, this is not the case for everyone. It’s important to be mindful during this season and check in with clients in case they need additional support.
Each person you come across has a story to tell. I’ve found that no two people have the same story and I believe that our families and environments play a huge role in that uniqueness. When working with clients, be mindful that their behaviors and current viewpoints may be affected by their family of origin. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great way to identify how thoughts conditioned from family experiences may impact the way we feel and in turn manifest in our day-to-day behaviors.
Stephanie Anyakwo is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst located in Los Angeles CA. She specializes in treating individuals with anxiety, ADHD/Autism, adjustment disorders, stress, self-esteem and relationship issues. Her goal is to destigmatize the negative connotation of therapy in minority communities and make it accessible for all those in need.