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Family therapy and cultural conflicts

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I recently had the privilege of treating a family who spoke my first language, Hindi. My patient, Ms. M, was 16 years old and struggling to adjust to her new life in the United States, having recently come from India. America’s schooling, culture, and “open society” was a contrast to her life in a semi-rural town, especially her close-knit family structure in which her parents and siblings are everything. Due to their cultural beliefs and religious faith in Islam, both Ms. M and her father were initially resistant to begin treatment for her depression and anxiety. “Let’s give it a trial” was the attitude I finally got from the father. But to me, there was a clear discordance in the communication among the family members in addition to the primary mental illness that led them to come for treatment. I was attracted to work with this family because I had a reasonable understanding of their faith, their culture, and their family system, and I have an inclination toward spirituality. Even though I recognized this family’s social isolation, I wondered why they were still in a state of unrest, given their deep commitment to their faith.

Ms. M was isolating herself at home, in an environment that wasn’t supportive of talking about her concerns. These included being bullied for being “different,” for how she dressed, and for having home-cooked traditional meals for lunch, and being unable to socialize with most of her male peers, except for those from her same community. This led her to dream of returning to India.

The family did not have a social life. Ms. M told me, “I wanted to socialize, but I cannot because of my faith and religion.” So she chose to wear attire to identify with her mother and her culture of origin. She also did this to hide her emotional pain from enduring trauma related to bullying at her school. It was a challenge to understand how faith, resilience, and trauma were intermingled in Ms. M and her family.

I saw Ms. M and her family for 12 one-hour family psychotherapy sessions. The initial session unfolded uneasily. It was a challenge to build rapport and help them understand how family therapy works. Circular inquiries to each family member, specifically to get the mother’s point of view, brought mourning, shame, and guilt to this family. The importance of marriage, education, and immigration were processed in reference to their culture and their incomplete acculturation to life in the United States.

I wondered if there were other families with different cultural backgrounds who struggled with similar conflicts. I also wondered if those families understood the value of family therapy or had ever experienced this therapeutic process.

The 3 key signs that made me believe that this family was making progress through our work together included:

  • They complied with treatment; the family never missed a session.
  • The parents acknowledged that their daughter was doing better.
  • The mother brought me a dinner as a gesture of gratitude in our last session. This is a particularly meaningful gesture on the part of people with their cultural background.

I clearly remember our first meeting, when Ms. M asked me disapprovingly about family therapy, “Why do we need to come here? Can’t we do it at home?” The question itself gave me the answer, for our goal for family therapy was to get her to function better at home and school. Although we ended our work together after 12 sessions, I hope this family continues to participate in therapy, to resolve the difficulties they are now aware of as a result of our family work.

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