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Playacting Dysfunction

My favorite class this semester is Marriage & Family Counseling, which is designed to give us a foundation from which we can build when working with couples and families. A significant component of the course is its weekly role plays, where student “counselors” co-counsel student “families” over the course of the semester. Everyone in the class gets to be a family member in a role play family that stays consistent over the course of the semester, and everyone also gets to take turns counseling one of those role-play families. This gives us a chance to apply the theories we’re using and to explore the dynamics of a family counseling session in a safe space.

I’ve been really surprised by how much I enjoy learning about family counseling conceptually and practicing it through role play. When I entered the program, I would’ve said I wanted to work with individuals or with couples, but that I couldn’t ever really see myself wanting to work with families or with children. As I’ve learned about family counseling in the program, I’ve come to appreciate it, and even hope I’ll get opportunities for further training in it. There is a chaotic element to working with families—it’s a lot of different personalities all together in one room, and they’re personalities that know one another very well, so they’re generally less inhibited and more themselves. I think it’s really exciting to feel out the dynamics of a family, and I enjoy the analytical thinking that’s a part of working through the ways the family functions as a system. I’m not bothered by high emotion or a lot of people talking all at once, which are aspects of family counseling that a lot of would-be counselors find challenging. Families are so important and so complicated.

The families that are our role-play families are ones we devised together. We broke into groups and worked out what our roles would be (I am a petulant, angry, rebellious teenage girl) and what the major family conflict would be. You would think that creating these families would be just part of the work you have to do to get to the actual educational exercise that the students who "counsel" us would undertake. And pretending to be the counselor is a huge learning experience, don’t get me wrong, but the process of devising a dysfunctional family was in and of itself an educational opportunity—inventing those dynamics made us think through all the ways families work, and the ways the people in a family affect one another. As the role plays themselves occur, I’m still working on my improv face (last week my “stepfather” referred to my “mother” as “pumpkin” in session, and she gave him a why-are-you-calling-me-that withering look that made me laugh silently behind my hand for what felt like several minutes—later, he said that he knew whether or not my “stepsister” and I were home by curfew even when he and my “mother” weren’t home because, “we get Old Man Stimpleton up the street to check in on you,” and everyone lost it again), but as the semester progresses I’m sure I’ll get better at completely inhabiting my role. And in the meantime, a fit of giggles in the middle of class isn’t the worst thing to ever happen—it's lucky when learning is fun, after all.