Family Systems Approach: a parable of mountains and canyons

When asked about the Family Systems Approach at Sunrise Residential Treatment Center, we always cover the facts. 

  • Family Therapy
  • Parent Support Calls
  • Parent Coaching
  • Parent Workshops
  • Family Retreats
  • Intentional Transition Planning
  • Home Visits
  • In-Home Therapist Visits
  • Alumni Family Support

But this list of offerings doesn’t encapsulate the difficulty, emotion, and hope behind family work. Our Recreation Therapists and students share that component best…

…A few of us jumped in a van and set off for Dixie Rock, the destination of our rappelling adventure. On the ride, one Sunrise student shared her journey of before and through Sunrise Residential Treatment Center. She had not wanted to enroll and was quite displeased about living at Sunrise at first, but has since turned 18 years old and decided to stay at Sunrise for support as she attended college classes. As she shared about her journey, she applied sunscreen to her face and arms. I smiled to myself as I thought that wearing sunscreen wouldn’t be the only decision she would thank herself for once she was older. Taking a cue from her, I asked if I could use a squeeze of the lotion as well.

Dixie Rock overlooks the entire Saint George valley, and giant Utah mountains loomed in the distance in almost every direction. It was picturesque especially with the end-of-day lighting. As we repelled, the therapist who had driven us told a story: 

Two backpackers met for coffee to discuss their next backcountry excursion. One backpacker was a father. A blue backpack rested by his dusty hiking boots. The other backpacker was a daughter. Her red backpack was bulging with gear.

Father laid his map on the table between their mugs and directed their route to the top of the mountain. Daughter rolled her eyes and pointed to an alternate route.

Father said, “No. This one.”

Daughter exclaimed, “No! This way!”

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

Daughter picked up the map, tore it down the middle. She handed Father his route, placing her own in a pocket of her red backpack.

“Agree to Disagree.” She remarked, hoisting her pack over her shoulder. “See you at the top.”

“At the top then.” Father grumbled.

And they set off on their own routes.

Father hiked. His trail led him to the top of the mountain.

Daughter hiked. Her trail led her to the top of the mountain.

They caught sight of each other, continuing on to meet in the middle. But meeting in the middle was impossible. What they found between them, was discouraging and seemingly impenetrable. It was a slot canyon 10 feet wide and 10 stories deep.

Daughter pulled out her map.

Father pulled out his map.

Right where it had been torn apart, the elevation lines of a slot canyon were etched into the geography.

Father and Daughter made eye contact across the canyon. Options floated through the dry air.

“We can part and take separate routes back down the mountain.”

“We have been apart for so long.”

“You could hike down and come back up my route.”

“That seems hardly fair.”

“Then, the only thing left to do is meet in the middle.”

Father and Daughter both shrugged the backpacks off of their shoulders. Under the hot sun, they unloaded climbing gear, preparing to repel off the ledge of their stubbornness. Father tied-in and descended first. He led the trail of compromise and lowered himself over the edge of the slot canyon.

Daughter, sweating from the work of preparing for her descent, quietly and slowly made her way over the edge of the sweltering rock face.

Father and Daughter dropped lower and lower and lower into the canyon. Their hands burned, their muscles strained, their pride was heavy as they both worked toward the compromise of the canyon floor.

As Father’s feet touched the dusty land, he waited, patiently, for Daughter to do the same.

Four feet on the solid earth.

Two hearts with the same intention.

One family willing to put forth time and energy into making their relationship work.

Father and Daughter, Daughter and Father, set off side-by-side across the canyon floor together.

As the sun set over the valley, we sat and chatted more about life at Sunrise RTC. “They tell that story during family retreat sometimes.” stated the student who had shared her story with me in the van. “It resonates a lot for me. When I arrived at Sunrise, I was the lowest I ever want to be. I climbed a mountain to feel healthy and happy again, and I know my parents did too. We got to the top and realized there was still a lot to be done as a family unit. I’ll keep growing and evolving, and I hope they do too. I’ll slip up once in a while, and I’m sure they will too. But as long as we’re willing to be there for each other, we’ll be able to take on the challenges. Knowing I have their support helps me be able to take on my own challenges.”  

The ride back to campus was quiet and comfortable. We drove with the windows down, breathing in the dry warm air, and feeling certain that we could handle the challenges that life could bring us tomorrow.