Home PageBlogEricksonian Philosophy in a Family Setting

By Rachel Heslin

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 24 seconds

When I was a child, my father was attending graduate school at USC, working toward his doctorate in educational psychology. Each time he would learn a new theory, he’d enthusiastically come home and try to apply it with my younger brother and me. It was kind of hit-and-miss in terms of efficacy, but we seemed to have turned out okay.

One of the things I notice in retrospect is how, as he grew in experience, his understanding of these theories, and application of that understanding, became more fluid, more nuanced as he shifted from learning to knowing. When he first started studying under Erickson, it felt (from my admittedly limited perspective) that Dad’s focus was on acquiring techniques: How do you tell a story? What tone and cadence of voice and choice of words do you use to help the client slide into a trance state to best facilitate an induction?

But, over time, it became clear that the Ericksonian philosophy is so much more than just a set of tools. At its core, the aspect of Erickson’s legacy that had the greatest impact on our family was its foundation of respect: respect for the client and the assumption that we all have the tools and resources we need in order to live happy productive lives. Clients aren’t broken; everything that they do, even if it might appear outwardly destructive or self-defeating, is in the service of self-protection. Clients don’t need to be “fixed”; they merely need assistance to become aware of their own resources and strengths.

So how does viewing the therapist/client relationship as a partnership translate to a family setting? As an adolescent, I actually found the model quite frustrating. After all, parents were supposed to represent The Law, and teenagers were supposed to rebel against The Law. How was I supposed to properly fulfill my role as Rebellious Teen if my parents continued a willingness to negotiate with me?? I don’t mean I was never given any boundaries or that my parents would consistently give in to my whims. Instead, whenever I’d issue what I considered a righteous ultimatum, they would respond, “If you feel that strongly about it, maybe we can work something out.” We would talk about concerns we each had and what options were available, and we were usually able to come up with a solution that we all could live with – which confused the heck out of the adolescent me because it was so different from how I had thought parents should act.

But then it came time for me to look at parenting from the other side. When my husband and I were first seriously considering starting a family, I found myself beset by doubts. How would I know how to make the right choices? To do the right thing? To know which decision would be best for my child? Troubled, I asked Dad for advice.

His answer was, simply, “Ask the child.”

That one statement transformed my journey into motherhood. A child, like a client in a therapeutic setting, is not an object to be acted upon, but a living, breathing, feeling human being with deep, innate resources merely waiting to be encouraged.

My son is now seven, and he continues to amaze me. As his parents, my husband and I do our best to encourage him to develop societal skills: kindness, consideration for others, and an acceptance of responsibility and accountability for the consequences of his actions. Beyond that, we see ourselves as facilitators, not creators. By listening to him, encouraging his curiosity, and being aware of who he is, rather than attempting to imprint our own preconceived notions of who he “should” be, he has blossomed beyond our wildest expectations, bringing joy and sunshine wherever he goes.

So thank you, Dr. Erickson, from whichever cloud you may be watching us, for giving my family the gift of respect. Its impact will be felt far beyond the young psychologist you taught, all those years ago.


This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 31, Issue No. 2 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.

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