It is May and graduation is around the corner. I just completed teaching 27 graduating MSW students about family therapy theories. Structural family therapy, Strategic and Brief Therapies, Experiential Family Therapy, Bowen Family Systems, and Object Relations Family Therapy were all covered to varying degrees with a slight emphasis on Minuchin's work. Nancy Boyd-Franklin's work with African American families was read and discussed. Role plays, videos, powerpoints, lectures,class discussion, and my own demonstration of my clinical work on videos have all occurred. The theories are highly relevant to their practice and some of them have shown up on the licensing exam that students can take post-graduation.
I love teaching family therapy because it informs their individual and group work, too. One cannot work with an individual client without considering their family context. The biggest change for me in 30 years of teaching is in my own understanding of social work practice. I have always emphasized the importance of joining with families, that if there is no joining, the brilliant technqiue that has been learned is meaningless. What has been added to my class and my own work are two things:
1. Getting comfortable with the client's or family's pain - brief treatment models tend to gloss over sitting with the pain as they hurry to find a solution. Solutions are necessary and brief treatment is often driven by insurance claims and the family's being unwilling to stay in therapy - especially if there is an element of involuntariness to the treatment. Focusing on what works rather than the deficits makes sense - but allowing a family (or individual client) to express pain and to sit with it for a while is necessary, too. In that way, they are being heard and they are being told consciously or unconsciously that they are able to feel pain and not be incapacitated by it;
2. Getting comfortable with ambiguity - Pauline Boss has written beautifully about ambiguous loss. This is connected to the global ambiguity of life. For some things there just are not any clear answers and the social worker and the family (or client) have to get comfortable with not knowing the answer. This can result in some discomfort (the first point). When I was younger I thought there was an answer to everything - there is not.
My hope is that as they work with people they will be like lighhouses - they will have suggestions for how to move forward but will also be comfortable sitting with them and listening. Creating a context where love can be expressed in the family is one way of offering hope. My hope is that as they advocate for those who need help, hold the hands of those in pain, and interact transparently and with cultural responsiveness, that they are offering guidance coupled with comfort. If they do, they will be prepared for their future as advanced practitioners.