Chapter 7

Stress in psychotherapists who work with dysfunctional families

Philip Barker

While psychotherapists who are not family therapists may at times be faced with the task of working with dysfunctional families, this chapter will deal principally with the specific stresses family therapists are liable to face. Family therapy will be defined as psychotherapy which aims primarily to bring about changes in the functioning of family systems. While this may or may not involve meeting the whole family group at every therapy session, the focus is on promoting change in the family system, rather than on any particular member. Change in individual members of the family, which is what is often sought, may be expected to follow changes in the functioning of the family system as a whole.

Family therapy is a complex and usually challenging undertaking. Many family therapists would probably agree with Framo (1975:18), who wrote: ‘Speaking for myself, changing a family system is the ultimate professional challenge; it is perhaps the most difficult of all therapeutic tasks, but also has the greatest pay-off. ’ It is not surprising, therefore, that this activity can be stressful.

Wetchler and Piercy (1986) presented a wide-ranging review of the literature on how stress may affect family therapists, and in particular their own family lives. They quote Chessick (1978) and Fine (1980) who believed that listening to the problems of others ‘takes its toll on the very wills and souls of therapists, leading to increased depression’. Among the possible stresses suggested in the literature are ‘prima-donnahood’, that is, when the lure of admiring clients tends to pull the therapist away from his or her family who do not bestow upon the therapist the same praise; and the use by family members of the therapist’s profession by exploiting that member’s weak spots, for example with reproachful phrases such as, ‘And you call yourself a family therapist!’

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