Normalization

Normalization is one of the primary techniques of a family therapist. Most family therapists do not put much stock in traditional ideas of “mental illness,” preferring instead to believe that the behaviors that their clients complain about are understandable reactions to tough circumstances. Normalizing is just pointing that out. People come in thinking they (or their kids) are crazy, broken, or bad, and once the therapist understands the situation, they can say something like, “Wow, you two are under a lot of stress! It’s no wonder you’ve been fighting lately. That’s a lot to carry around,” or “Actually, the latest research shows that adolescents need at least nine hours of sleep at night. I don’t think Johnny’s behavior is out of the ordinary…”

Normalization isn’t always verbal, either. It can be expressed by the therapist’s demeanor while hearing about the problem–no shock, no worry, just calm understanding–and in their easy willingness to talk openly and frankly about it. This part isn’t always easy, of course. It takes a lot of self-examination and your own therapeutic work to find your own triggers and ameliorate them.

The idea in normalization is both to educate clients about the situations they find themselves in and to take the pressure to change off of them. Often the stress that they create by ruminating on, arguing about, and trying to fix something that isn’t really the problem has become their main problem. Whether or not it has become their main problem, it isn’t helping.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, May 23, 2010.]

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