Family DBT Skills: Preparing For Change

If you are one of the bright people who recognized that there is a problem in your family that can’t continue without negative side-effects, then congratulations!  You are already off to a good start.  You didn’t tolerate a problem forever.  Recognizing that something must change is often the first step in a long journey toward new family strength.  However, there are many families in this world who will live unhappily ever after, unless the entire family is involved in the process of change.  Building family DBT skills is a big step in the right direction for those families that recognize change is needed.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a proven model for creating family-shifts that help alleviate the agonizing pain that can sometimes be experienced in relationships. Despite its proven effectiveness with individuals battling emotion regulation, families fall behind in learning the skills that create lasting change. Why is it important that the whole family learn DBT skills in addition to their child who is in treatment?

Here are a few core reasons:

  • DBT is not just a theory.  DBT is a skills-based approach to learning how to regulate emotion.  Family DBT skills are important to know and share if you are going to help each other navigate the potholes that frequently arise in the progression through treatment.
  • Change is a family process! People often approach therapy and their family members in the following way, “I would feel better if you would just change”. When we view our happiness as conditional of someone else’s change, we invalidate that person and communicate ‘they’ are the problem. Learning DBT alongside each other, we communicate something entirely different.  Our narrative now says “you are important to me and our success as a family is important too.”
  • DBT gives you a common language.  Learning family DBT skills gives you a common language. When a problem arises, it’s easy for families to fall back into inefficient or disruptive patterns.   Being proficient at DBT allows you to communicate and discuss potential or new solutions that may work better.
  • Shows progress!  If learning family DBT skills is not important to you, why should it be important to your family member in treatment? Learning DBT communicates the importance of progress and change.

If you are not actively engaged in learning and understanding what DBT can do for your child and family, there may be a larger issue to discuss with your therapist.  The way in which parents or family members interact in family therapy is even more important than the content of DBT skills.  Shocked? Don’t worry DBT skills are still very important, but addressing why the whole family is not engaged in the process of change is a top priority.

Here are a few reasons we commonly see that keep someone from being fully engaged in learning family DBT skills:

  • I don’t know what DBT is or why it would be helpful to me.
  • These problems aren’t mine, but somebody else’s so I don’t need to learn DBT.
  • I don’t know where to start or what is going to be helpful for me or my family.
  • Once the problem-person learns DBT then things will be much better for both of us.
  • I don’t have time to learn these skills.

None of the above reasons are bad.  These are common feelings among family members and simply need to be addressed.  Remember, you each have control over the temperature of your relationship. By being fully invested in learning DBT you are a part of the process of controlling the temperature and quality of the relationship rather than leaving it to chance. Reach out to your therapist and be honest with them if you are struggling in an area that might impair your ability to fully engage in family DBT skills.  Don’t allow fear of judgment to get in the way of this communication. Your therapist works for you! Their goal is to help you achieve peace and your family’s ‘happily ever after’.

By: Clay Spencer, AMFT, therapist at Sunrise Residential Treatment Center

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