Academic journal article Family Relations

Boundaries between Parent and Family Education and Family Therapy: The Levels of Family Involvement Model

Academic journal article Family Relations

Boundaries between Parent and Family Education and Family Therapy: The Levels of Family Involvement Model

Article excerpt

Perhaps no issue has plagued the profession of parent and family education more than how to distinguish education from therapy. In order to define a unique terrain for parent and family education, theorists have struggled, without success, to stake out its conceptual differences from therapy. Practitioners, for their part, have continually wrestled with the question of how deeply to go into the feelings and experiences of individuals who are participating in parent and family education activities, without crossing the boundary into family therapy.

Progress on this issue has been scanty for nearly a century. Following a decade that witnessed the consolidation of parent education in the United States, Lindeman and Thurston (1935, as cited in Brim, 1965) wrote that "parent educators are now searching for that new Line of demarcation which reveals where education leaves off and psychotherapy begins" (p. 13). Brim (1965) saw little progress three decades later. His own distinction between education and therapy specified that education focuses on conscious (and near-conscious) aspects of the personality of the learner, whereas therapy focuses on the unconscious aspects of personality. Although this distinction may have made sense when Brim was writing the first edition of his book in the mid-1950s, an era when psychoanalytic therapy dominated therapy practice and family therapy was not yet visible, it cannot be sustained in a era when many models of psychotherapy deliberately avoid dealing with unconscious processes.

The last three decades have not yielded any better resolution of the problem. In their authoritative Handbook of Family Life Education, Arcus, Schvaneveldt, and Moss (1993) articulated, but did not try to resolve, the ongoing tension between "educational approaches and therapeutic ones" (p. 22). However, the authors raised two important questions that the present article seeks to answer: "Is there a legitimate conceptual distinction between these two approaches, or do they simply reflect different points along some continuum? How would clarification of this issue influence the nature of family life education?" (p. 23). The present article argues for a continuum approach to working with families, rather than a dichotomous approach, and suggests that this clarification has important implications for parent and family education.

If education for family life were viewed as a regular academic subject such as geography or mathematics, the distinction between education and therapy would be easy: the former deals with cognitive knowledge only, whereas the latter deals with personal and experiential issues. The problem is that contemporary definitions of parent and family education universally involve a personal and experiential component: the feelings, motives, attitudes, and values of the learners are central foci in the process (Arcus et al., 1993; Darling, 1987). This personal element distinguishes a parent education group from, say, a standard college course in child development.

Here, then, is the conundrum: In order to accomplish its purpose, parent and family education must have more personal depth than other forms of education, but too much depth or intensity risks harming participants, or at least scaring them away. Participants must be able to tell their stories, express their feelings and values, and be encouraged to try out new behaviors. However, if they recount in detail their most traumatic memories, ventilate their most painful and unresolved feelings, or take major behavioral risks, the experience can be damaging.

Why damaging? First, if the context of the program is defined as educational, not clinical, the participant does not enroll expecting highly intense interactions and searing personal disclosures. If such experiences occur, the participant might be overwhelmed emotionally and feel unsafe, even if the disclosures are completely voluntary. Second, if the educator has received the standard training in parent and family education, he or she is not equipped to deal with such intense personal issues, and is likely to feel anxious, incompetent, or legally liable if the interaction gets out of hand. …

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