Perspectives: MIY&S keeps the focus on relationships

Many communities in the greater Seattle/Bellevue metropolitan area each have their own social service organization dedicated to their support; ours is Mercer Island Youth and Family Services (MIYFS), headquartered in Luther Burbank Park.

Over the years, MIYFS has been a frequent contributor to The Reporter. Whether submitting articles pertaining to family relationships, mental health, school success, employment, drug and alcohol issues, or summer volunteerism, MIYFS has focused on supporting our island community. However, to this point, articles have been largely in response to community events, rather than delivered systematically.

Now, MIYFS, in collaboration with The Reporter, is delighted to announce the inception of the monthly YFS Perspectives column as a means to provide a forum for our staff of professionals to communicate about community well being and vitality. Topics will be issue-focused and authors will rotate among MIYFS staff.

Our inaugural topic addresses the relationship between youth, families, and community.

MIYFS family therapists are trained to focus on the relationships connecting family members more so than any one individual, in essence making the family relationships the client. We call this thinking systemically.

Many families begin therapy because one individual is seen as disrupting family functioning. Therapy initially focuses on helping family members think systemically about the issue and gain awareness about their own impact on “the problem.” One way to facilitate this process is to draw parallels between the family’s functioning and that of other natural systems. This demonstrates the inevitable impact of each individual’s behaviors on the family as a whole. One useful metaphor to invoke this image is that of touching one arm of a hanging mobile to notice the movement caused throughout every branch of its “system.”

From this “systemic perspective” we then look anew at the family member with the "problem." The relationship between each family member and “the problem” is highlighted, not in order to blame, but instead to highlight the tangible impact each family member can have on healing it. This perspective emphasizes the previously untapped potential within the family for healing, connection and hope.

Focusing on relationships more than individuals helps generate healthier family functioning. This approach is equally successful when applied to other naturally occurring systems such as social systems like the broader Mercer Island community.

Although communities are of an exponentially larger scale than families, both behave as systems. Family members each have distinct roles and tasks that influence the functioning of the whole. Distinct elements of our community function similarly. Our parents, youth, families, schools, faith groups, service organizations, seniors, entrepreneurs, police, and government branches each impacts the functioning of the other, and therefore in the community system as a whole.

So where do youth fit in? In natural systems, including families and communities, we find that the more vulnerable members are significant barometers of a system’s health—these are often its youth.

What, then, do our youth tell us about the functioning of our families and our community? What do their behaviors suggest about the impact of our roles as members of both? Our youth give many clues about their families and communities: they overflow volunteer programs, they can abuse substances, they contribute to our Blue Ribbon award-winning schools, they report huge pressure to fit in, they are religiously active, they create neighborhood gangs or posses, they excel in sports, they feel overwhelmed, they work towards college, they can fall on their face and they can astound with their brilliance.

We invite you to take a moment and think about both your family and community group affiliation, notice your potential for impacting these systems, and join MIYFS in taking action in supporting the vitality of both our youth and our community as a whole.

Derek Franklin works at Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. For more information on the organization contact Gayle Erickson at 236-3525 or

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