An interview with Maria Sikoutris Di Iorio, Clinical Director at Hellenic Therapy Center
Family therapy is a form of psychotherapy that seeks to reduce distress and conflict by improving the interactions between family members. Its goal is to nurture change and development within the family unit. It is a counseling method to help family members interact and communicate more effectively with one another.
Maria Sikoutris Di Iorio, the founder of Hellenic Therapy Center (567 Park Ave, Suite 203, Scotch Plains), is a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist. A graduate of Seton Hall with a Post Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy, Maria has been counseling individuals, couples, families, and children for over three decades and has taught at the Rutgers School of Social Work. She specializes in working with couples dealing with issues of conflict and helping patients improve communication, resolve conflict, and deal with issues of infidelity.
Maria has extensive experience in treating the entire family in order to assess the role of each family member and then make recommendations. She is currently studying with Esther Perel, who is recognized as one of the most insightful voices on personal relationships today and is also currently studying to become certified as a sex therapist.
Why is family therapy important?
“Often a parent will call me and say, ‘Will you help my ten-year-old child?’ Before I can meet with the child, I need to understand the family background,” Maria said.
Everyone in the family unit plays a part and it is important for Maria to understand all parts in order to help the family. It could be that there is conflict within the family and if a child experiences a lot of yelling and conflict, this can cause fear and anxiety in any child. Therefore, everyone needs to be involved in the therapy session. Of course, there are many times when Maria will schedule individual sessions within the family therapy for personal and confidential information to be shared.
“You can’t just treat a child and expect change to occur. It requires family involvement because children can’t do it all on their own she,” further explained. “If the parents keep exhibiting the same behavior, the kid won’t get better.”
“When children come in for therapy, we ask for all members to come in because each person plays a part in a family system that is not working the best that it possibly can,” she explained. “Each person has to take responsibility. In the sessions, we work to explore how each person contributes to what is happening in the family unit.”
Maria says that being a family therapist can be very rewarding work especially when she works with family members who are not talking to each other.
“Sometimes there are family members who have not been talking for years. Then, eventually, they are talking instead of holding a grudge,” said Maria, who is married and has three adult children of her own.
“You don’t have to agree on everything; you can agree to disagree. I see a lot of people who have had cutoffs. I see it a lot with divorced families and with blended families,” Maria added. “Treating families and couples is what I specialize in and enjoy the most.
What role does the outside world play?
“Every situation is a case by case basis. People can be impacted by the expectation of what others place on a family,” said Maria, who is a married mother of three. “In our area, a lot of kids go away on Spring break, but many others do not. Then they feel looked down upon because they aren’t going away.”
Social media plays a role in these feelings.
“People put up pictures on Facebook that make their lives seem wonderful, even though they are truly unhappy,” Maria said. “If you knew the inside story, you wouldn’t think their lives are so great. Then the kids put the pressure on the parents. How can it not cause conflict? It happens all the time and then parents feel a sense of guilt because they cannot bring their family to Florida or the Caribbean.”
The Most Heartbreaking
The most heartbreaking sessions for Maria are when an adult child has an addiction.
“The parents want to help so much, and you can see the pain, but the individual is not ready to stop. They might need addiction treatment,” Maria explained. “It’s very hard for parents to let go and to realize that they can’t fix it. It’s hard to watch. I can’t help them; I can only help them to understand the person who is addicted has to want to make the change and learn new ways of relating.”
A common challenge is dealing with a family member who thinks “the other person has the problem and they have no problem whatsoever.” She points out that in a family, everyone plays a role when relationships are not working.”
The most common problem
According to Maria, the most common problem is a lack of communication. In her experience, women are more apt to share and want to explore. Men often still play the traditional role of being strong and stoic.
“For many men, it is hard for them to admit how they feel. In my experience, more women are open to it, and once they do, the men open up.”
“When families don’t understand each other, they can be quick to judge, blame, and accuse. I try to get them away from that type of thinking,” Maria said.
When is it time to see a therapist?
Maria says that when couples can’t speak to each other, if they are living like roommates and there is no intimacy between them, they come in.
“Often couples will wait until it has gone on too long,” Maria explained. “With families, there could be physical or verbal abuse, and it becomes too hard to be in the same home. People don’t seek help early on. It usually happens after they are already in the midst of something.”
Maria sees the impact that having a child with special needs has on parents and siblings.
“When parents focus on the special needs child, does that child get all of the attention? What happens to the other children? There are so many different layers,” Maria said. “You have to ask, ‘What is it like for you when something happens? To the parents, you ask ‘What is it like for you when you work all day and then come home to three kids?’ Then the children learn what life is like from their parents’ perspective. Sometimes the healing begins to take place right before your eyes during the session.”
Maria is proud that she has partnered with Christina Chororos, Certified Pain Management Coach of Kairos Chronic Pain Coaching.
“The impact that chronic pain has on an individual and family members as well as caretakers, is astounding. As Michelle Obama beautifully said: ‘You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.’ Our goal is to have a deeper understanding of chronic pain, its impact on self and others and acceptance into a new way of being.
There are people who want to just talk. They can bounce things off. Some have been coming for two years. It depends on the issue.
“Clients call and ask, ‘How long do you think this will take?’. I really can’t say, it’s an individual thing,” Maria says. “It ends when the client says, ‘I no longer need therapy and they are feeling better and able to function better.’ Often it’s at least a year or two process. It’s an individual decision.”
Increasingly, patients are adult daughters who come in with their moms.
“Sometimes, the therapy session is the only way they can share how they feel without being scolded or yelled at,” Maria said. “Each has a chance to be heard. It involves being quiet long enough to hear what the other person has to say without making judgements.”
Clearly, it’s much more acceptable to admit being in therapy now than it was in decades past.
“Years ago, you didn’t tell anyone you were in therapy because it was shameful. It was a cause of embarrassment,” Maria said. “It is very different today. Today, mental health is considered a priority and a critical part of overall health.”
Contact Maria Sikoutris Di Iorio at
Hellenic Therapy Center
567 Park Ave, Suite 203
Scotch Plains, NJ 07076
Monday – Friday: 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Saturday: 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.