Lois Zsarnay
LMFT, BCPC, RD

Ventura Family Therapy and Family Counseling

I love working with families. Often times parents will bring their children in for counseling as a complete family. Whatever the situation is I love working with families and working on what each family member's role is. Family Therapy and Family Counseling can be the entire family coming in because there are a lot of conflicts going on. Perhaps the whole family is just trying to prepare for aging parents, grandparents, kids leaving for college, or whatever the struggle may be. All of those relationship related issues are a great reason to come in for family therapy. Any life changes that are putting pressure on the family relationships can benefit from getting an outside perspective and learning new skills to handle life's challenges. Most of us were not really taught how to manage the stressors in life. Our parents did the best that they could for us and now as parents we are continuing to do the best we can for our children. Think how much better we could do at that if we took a class or got some tutoring ourselves!

For example, when I counsel a parent of an adolescent, I will ask them what their job is as a parent, "Define your job as a parent". Then, I'll ask the adolescent child what their job is as an adolescent, "What are you supposed to being doing right now?" They'll usually look at me puzzled, "What do you mean?". To be a good parent, we often have to do things that are tough for us to do (i.e. tough love) so that can be difficult for some parents. It can be tough to be ok with their adolescent being angry or upset with them when we set the boundaries and say "no" or set consequences (and enforce those consequences) for an inappropriate behavior. The adolescent also needs to become aware of what their job is right now. It is to figure out who they are separate from their parents and how to manage in the world filled with other people. Defining each of their roles as their "job" often helps them to take things a little less personally. Sometimes we get so caught up in the moment of what's going on right now that we forget what our destination is in this journey called life. If we don't know where we are trying to get to then we probably won't get there without a lot of wandering around first. We know how that feels - to look back on things and say the "woulda, coulda, shoulda!" Developing a road map with the destination in mind but allowing for some flexibility in the route we take to get there is critical! I feel that is a key basic concept of Family Therapy and Family Counseling.

Family Roles

We all have jobs and roles that we play, so I work with the parents on their jobs as parents. Such responsibilities include helping their children to grow up to be productive, well-adjusted members of society who can support themselves and be independent.

Naturally, we all hope for our children to have a better life than us and that they are happy and content with their life - this is one of our jobs as parents. In this process, parents have to prepare their children for working for other people as employees.

So, when we have to discipline our children or teach them that there are consequences to their choices, it is important to put in perspective the reason for doing this. Are we disciplining them because someday they will need to be subordinate to a supervisor at work? When a child is told to clean their room they need to understand there can be consequences for not doing it. Just like when they're an adult and their boss tells them to complete a project with a deadline, if they don't do it then they won't have a job. Parents need to teach their children and prepare them for the natural consequences that exist in the world.

I teach part-time at a local community college. Some of my students don't understand when they receive a bad grade because they have missed class excessively, or have missing assignments. They don't understand that their bad grade is a result of their attendance or productivity. I have to reflect this concept to them and explain that, just like in real life, if you don't show up for work then you don't receive payment. As a student, payment for coming to this class is receiving a better grade. The concept with a child is the same and I express this to my clients. The child's payment for performing duties such as chores is that they continue to receive their privileges, and if they're not doing their part of the job then they don't receive those privileges. The parent's responsibility is to enforce this concept so that the child grows up with an understanding of how the world works and with realistic expectations of the world. If they don't understand the consequences of their choices, it is typically because someone didn't teach them those life lessons.  Their parents didn't prepare them for the real world.

One of the worst things is when a parent tells a child to not do this, to not do that, or to not do such and such. All of those things are "dont's", but the child has never been told what to do. Therefore, it is important to embrace a situation as an opportunity to teach a child what is appropriate restaurant behavior, store behavior, use of their voice, or social etiquette such as conversational politeness or respect when speaking to others. Whatever the case is, certain social behaviors need to be taught so that when the child grows up they don't become a nuisance to others, not understand why other people don't like them, or not understand that they're either losing or not getting jobs due to their attitude, whatever the case may be.

Family Exercises

It is important for the family to work together. Sometimes I have them do a teambuilding exercise, something that they can't complete without working together. Think of a three-legged race in which people are forced to cooperate and work together or they can not even compete in the race. These exercises force family members to talk through their issues and no one person can be the boss or be totally leading without gaining the cooperation of others.

Co Parenting

Parents need to maintain a united front with their children and be consistent in the way that they handle things. Co-Parenting is a great thing which more people need to practice.  So many parents divorce, and following the divorce they do not practice any sort of coparenting. They don't discuss issues such as "What are we going to do for consistency for our child." Matters like these are really their job as parents. After agreeing to have a child together, parents need to work together for the rest of that child's life, so they need to discuss and determine how they can work together, what they can agree on, and what each person is willing to compromise on. There are instances in which one or both parents - even if they may not be completely comfortable with some things - will need to be able to concede that they're willing to give something a try and then re-evaluate it later. Obviously if that thing works with the child then it can be continued, and if not then something else can be tried.

Child Counseling

I don't typically work with very small children. Younger children generally need play therapy with an appropriately equipped play room. Usually children are at least six to seven years old before they are mature enough to benefit from "talk therapy" or can benefit from doing family type of work. In cases where I'm working alone with the child I usually prefer that the child is around ten to eleven years old or older. For children between six & ten, I would explore the options with the parents to see what would be the best fit for their needs and offer referrals if appropriate.

One of the things that I am often reminded of when working with children and adolescents is this very famous statement:

"...It is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil. A sinner in a world ruled by God may be bad; but there is always a certain sense of security to be derived from the fact that the world around is good—‘God's in His heaven—All's right with the world!’; and in any case there is always a hope of redemption. In a world ruled by the Devil the individual may escape the badness of being a sinner; but he is bad because the world around him is bad. Further, he can have no sense of security and no hope of redemption. The only prospect is one of death and destruction."

~Dr. W. Ronald D. Fairbairn (in a paper in 1952)

This statement explains why children will internalize anything bad that happens around them and make it their fault.  This is a key point we have to work on in sessions so the person (who may now be older but have always accepted the blame for what ever it was that happened) doesn't continue to carry that baggage around on their back for the rest of their lives.

I really enjoy working with adolescents! They can be very blunt and straight forward as well as really needing to hear some tough things from someone other than their parents (who they may be tuning out or minimizing). I have been playing World of Warcraft (WOW) on-line for several years now. I started playing when my daughter was in high school as a way to connect with her. I continue to play for a few reasons. One important one is that it allows me to also connect with my adolescent clients because I understand on-line gaming. I am also able to explain to parents how the games are designed to get kids to spend more and more time in the make believe world. I actually take my Addictive Disorders Studies classes at Oxnard College to a computer lab, sign on to my WOW game and show them how quickly the game can get people caught into playing it more and more until, for some people, it becomes an addiction. The games are developed using psychological principles of operant conditioning and the developers have done a very good job of it! For some people, they would rather live in that make believe world than in the real world because their experience of the real world is that it's too harsh or painful for them. Now some people would say, "oh they're just too sensitive." Well, children are born with a tendency towards a certain temperment and a "sensitive temperment" means that they will actually physically feel things more intensely than other people. That is exactly the type of temperment that often feels the need to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol or escape real life through a make-believe world because they don't know the skills to manage their feelings of being overwhelmed by the world's harshness. My therapy dog, ZsaZsa works really well with this type of client. :)