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What is a family?

What is a family?

What does family mean to you?

Depending on your experiences of growing up, family relationships, community, and culture this could look very different for different people. “Family” could get you thinking about a birth family, family of choice, foster or kinship family, friends, growing up with grandparents, the family you came from, the family you entered into when you partnered up with a significant other or had a friend’s family take you in, community, stepfamily, blended family, one parent family, fur kids......and even being a part of more than one family.

We play a bit of Scrabble in my house…which includes getting out the dictionary (a great way to connect over a good old fashioned board game with the added bonus of building the vocabulary of the young people in the house… and well maybe the not so young too ;)).

Looking at the dictionary got me wondering – what’s the definition of a family?

Well according to the dictionary it is –

“1. set of relations, esp. parents and children.

2. members of a household; serving the needs of all families; of or relating to a family.

3 all descendants of a common ancestor” (Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary: 1993).

And yes, my dictionary is very old! It was a gift when I started my university studies :) Maybe the age of the dictionary was showing in this somewhat limited definition?

As a Clinical Family Therapist, I know that “family” means so much more.

Let’s consider a rainforest as a metaphor to understand this. Just as a rainforest is more than the sum of all it’s parts, so to is a family more than the sum of the “members of a household”. We know that a rainforest is made up of four parts or layers: the emergent layer, canopy layer, understory layer, and forest floor, each with its own unique characteristics. But if you’ve ever been for a walk in a rainforest, you’ll also know that the rainforest experience is more than just those four layers added up. The overall experience of the rainforest is more than the experience of the individual layers. In Family Therapy we have a saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts”. From this perspective we understand that all parts of a family system are important… and that the family as a whole is more than just a combination of individuals. The family system is an entity in itself if you like.

As a Clinical Family Therapist, I also know just how many and varied different types and constellations of “family” are, and that it’s sometimes helpful to deconstruct myths and dominant discourses about what family “should” be and do.

When we think about family, this can be not only biological relatives, but any other people who are important to us. And our ideas about family can change and develop throughout our lives - ideas like who constitutes our family, how we are in family relationships, closeness and distance with different family members, and how we connect with family members.

Working from a Systemic Family Therapy framework, I take family to mean a family system of any size and composition –a family could be a birth family, family of choice, foster family, kinship family, residential carers, multiple generations, community, workmates, friends, stepfamily, blended family, one parent family, couples, adults with fur or feather kids, Aunties/Uncles/Grandparents raising or helping to raise children ...... and the list goes on.

I understand family can mean many different things,

that families come is all shapes, sizes and constellations,

and I am guided by my clients in what family means to them.

It's also important to consider that for some of us family will involve relationships that are difficult, tense, challenging or conflictual. For others family relationships will be positive, supportive and bring optimistic feelings. For others still, it will be a combination of both of these. And so I am curious to sensitively understand my client’s experiences of family, knowing these can be many and varied.

Interestingly, as a Systemic Family Therapist, because Family Therapy is a way of thinking did you know I can also do "Family Therapy" with individuals?

What do I mean FT for Individuals?

The term “Family Therapy” can be misleading - in some ways it’s a bit misnamed. Yes, absolutely Family Therapy is for families, couples, parts of families, or any time there’s more than one person in the counselling room. And also, Family Therapy is a way of thinking and working that can be used regardless of who is in the room - whether it’s one person (of any age), a couple, adult siblings, a young person and their residential carer, a family, a work team etc. In fact, in some countries Family Therapy is referred to as Systemic Psychotherapy to help avoid the confusion about who the counselling approach is helpful for.

To find out more about Family Therapy as type of therapy watch this Animation

Family Therapy isn’t just about who is in the room - it’s a way of working with whoever is in the room that considers the whole person, their context and relationships and how these impact the meaning people make of what happens in life. This means that I consider how “family” matters, and in a sense how who we belong to and where we come from is a part of us all, even as individuals.

“Our Family”

Recently, I commissioned this amazing piece of art by the very talented Nikeeta. It’s called “Our Family”.

In the words of Nikeeta: This artwork represents family and the journey of being and belonging inside a family unit. To each person family means different things and I chose to outline this in the colourful circles. Not all families look the same and not all of them will travel the same path, but we all call them “our family”.

I love this piece for so many reasons, everything from the design to the colours, but also I Iove Nikeeta’s description that “Not all families look the same and not all of them will travel the same path”.

There are many different families.

Family means different things to different people.

Those differences are part of our individual experience as we all face the challenge of being human in relationships.

Nikeeta’s Bio: My name is Nikeeta and I’m a proud Aboriginal woman born and raised on Tharawal land. My family has been affected by the stolen generation so we have been unable to connect to mob, never the less we are always on a journey to find our roots. My art is my way of connection to my culture and since having my daughter it is imperative I show her how important our culture is and to keep passing it through the generations to come.

If like me you've been inspired by Nikeeta you can find her through her Instragram page and I encourage you to check out her amazing artwork.

When I asked Nikeeta if she would do a commission all I asked for was “something that represented family”, and I couldn’t appreciate more what she has created and the meaning of the piece.

Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist

Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.

Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.

Please seek help from a professional if you require support.

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