Family Therapy: Small Word, Big Difference

Carl Grody
Carl Grody


It's such a small word, but it counters so many issues that bring clients into my office. “I can't do that homework.” “We can't communicate.” “My kids can't get along.”

The words we use and the concepts we embrace affect how we see the world and our place in it. Often, our ability to succeed or fail is influenced by the words we use with ourselves.

“Can't” is a particularly powerful word, and it has its place. For example, it protects you if you're standing at the edge of a cliff wondering if you can fly. Knowing that you can't saves you from stepping off the edge and flapping your arms. But “can't” certainly would've hampered the Wright Brothers as they tried to invent a safe way for humans to fly.

Quite a few clients say “can't” to me. For example, a teenager who's a good student recently sat slumped in my office and said, “I can't understand the math. I've tried, and it's just too hard.”

“Have you had this problem with math before?” I asked.

Head hanging, he said, “No. I've always figured it out.”

“Was it always easy?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

So we explored what he'd done before. If he was confused, he'd do extra homework, ask his teacher questions and generally just work harder until he understood. This time, that didn't work.

“I just can't do it,” he said.

“Yet,” I said. “You can't do it yet.”

We discussed other times when he'd been stuck. In each instance, he'd told himself that he couldn't do it, but he kept working until he discovered a way to make it happen. We shifted the focus to “yet” and explored ideas he hadn't tried before.

As we talked, his parents decided to hire a tutor a couple afternoons a week to help him. Finally feeling some hope, he sat up straight for the first time that day. A few weeks later, his grade was up and he had a newfound confidence in himself.

“Yet” is such a small word, but it contains a lot of hope.

I remember a couple that came in for counseling saying, “We can't get along.” They'd been stuck in that place for months and were considering a divorce. “Things are just getting worse,” the wife said, “and the kids are starting to notice. We can't agree on anything.”

“Yet,” I said.

We explored the specifics of how they communicated, and we tweaked a few things so they felt safer talking with each other. We practiced the new approach with a small problem, and as they gained confidence, we moved on to more important issues. It was hard work, but they went from “can't” to “can” in a handful of sessions.

And it all started with “yet.”

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