Family sessions are sometimes like a shoving match during a football game; everybody points fingers at everyone else and expects the referees to figure out who started the fight.

Family sessions are sometimes like a shoving match during a football game; everybody points fingers at everyone else and expects the referees to figure out who started the fight.

I don't have a penalty flag in my office. I don't need one. It's not my job to fix blame, no matter how much a family wants that.

Blaming is human nature. When things don't work out, we automatically try to determine why, as if assigning blame will make things better. Unfortunately, that normally doesn't fix the problem. Blaming just leads to more conflict as people defend themselves and point the finger at someone else. (This might be rare in some families; in other families, it might be a normal Thursday.)

I see this dynamic on a regular basis. Most families come in with the idea of who in the family really "needs" therapy - the "problem client." And often, that problem client is a child who's acting out, and the parents tell me, "Just fix 'em!" But if it was that easy, there'd be no need for family therapy (or referees' flags, for that matter).

Nothing happens in a vacuum. When a child acts out, there's normally a reason for doing it, and often that's because the family system needs the behavior.

"Hold on," I hear you saying. "How can a family need a negative behavior? That makes no sense."

Here's an example. Let's say there's a family with a depressed parent. (We'll say Mom, but that was just the result of a coin flip.) Kids know how to handle a parent being mad at them, but they're confused by sadness. They start to worry about whether Mom is OK. Will she get better? What does she need to be happy again? What will happen to them if Mom gets worse?

Eventually, Johnny (another coin flip over Suzie) is going to break a family rule, and suddenly Mom gets angry. Mom starts yelling at Johnny, and then she gets madder when Johnny repeats the behavior again and again. Johnny doesn't really want to keep getting in trouble, but he keeps breaking the rules anyway.

The reason is simple. When Mom's mad, she yells. And if she yells, she has to have energy. And if she has energy, then she's no longer sad - at least, not in that moment. Therefore, Johnny keeps "fixing" Mom's depression.

That's an example of the function of a behavior. Behaviors continue because they serve a purpose in the family system, even if the behavior is seen as "bad." That's just one example, of course; there are as many possible reasons for behaviors as there are families. The key is to figure out the real purpose so we can then explore ways to make changes in the family system so the behavior is no longer needed.

Blaming each other just gets in the way.

- Carl Grody, LISW-S, is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.