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Working with Latina/os in counseling

By Jacqueline Michelle Barthelemy June 20, 2017

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 1, 2015, Latina/os made up approximately 56.5 million of the total U.S. population, making them the largest ethnic or racial minority in the country. The Latina/o population is projected to grow to 120 million by the year 2060.

The question on many counselors’ minds is, how can we work better with our Latina/o clients? With the growing number of Latina/os in the U.S., it is likely we will work with these clients at some point as counselors, and it is our professional obligation to be prepared.

Working with clients in general can be a new learning experience, especially if their cultural background is different from our own. Many master’s programs require counseling students to take a multicultural course to prepare to work with clients of different backgrounds. But textbooks can provide only so much general knowledge. How are counselors supposed to learn how to work with different cultures if they are reduced to a mere chapter in a textbook for a one-semester course?

As someone whose background is Latina, my upbringing has prepared me to better serve people who share my cultural background. Nevertheless, my experiences have made me aware of further areas of growth in serving my clients (for instance, my lack of Spanish fluency is a hindrance).

In my current position, I work with clients and their families to get them more comfortable with the idea of counseling. It is sometimes difficult when working with Latina/o clients because there are so many challenges that bring them to counseling, or there is the stigma of counseling that turns them off to it altogether. If it is their first time going to counseling, their first impression of you, as the counselor, may color all future experiences with the counselors they may see. It is our duty to make clients feel comfortable and let them know that their concerns and goals are a part of the counseling process. Ultimately, clients set the tone for counseling.

 

Traditional Latina/o upbringings

In the Latina/o culture, family comes first (after God); the first relationship you have is the one with your family. Traditional Latina/o families are brought up being very close to their immediate and even extended family members, where everyone cares about everyone. Elders are highly regarded, and children, regardless of age, respect their parents.

Most families live in multigenerational households that include parents, siblings and grandparents. Sometimes extended family members may also reside in the home at one point or another. So when working with these clients, it is best to remember that family plays a vital role in their everyday lives.

When working with the whole family, it may appear that the family is unresponsive to the counseling process. Counselors should be as patient as possible, however, because family members may be waiting for their head of household (typically the male) to start and lead the conversation. The key is to treat and work with the family as a unit because that is how they might live their life traditionally. Family support is everything to Latina/os.

The Latina/o culture has many rich traditions that are passed down generationally. An example is the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead, celebrated Nov. 1-2), during which families gather to pay respect for their loved ones. Often they build altars in their homes or at graves, where they place flowers, pan de muerto (bread of the dead, which is sweetened bread eaten the day of or the week leading up to the holiday as a sign of respect to the departed), pictures and the favorite food of their loved ones. Some say small prayers or retell stories of their dearly departed.

Knowing about this while counseling a family can be very beneficial, especially for those who are grieving. Understanding some of their traditions can help to build trust, connect with these clients and strengthen the counseling relationships. If you are counseling a Latina/o family or client who is grieving, talking about or suggesting the altar can help with the process. However, be sure to remember the origins of the family or client you are working with because different cultures in the Latina/o diaspora maintain different traditions.

Most Latina/os’ identities are strongly rooted in being members of specific groups. For example, if the client you are working with is from Guanajuato, Mexico, she or he will most likely take pride in being from that particular state in Mexico. As counselors, we should always ask clients where they are from to get a better understanding of who they are as individuals. Counselors should also be aware that having this sense of pride can cause conflicts in characterization of identity with other members of Latina/o groups.

Faith in one’s religion also plays a very important role in the lives of Latina/o clients. Religion can set the tone for the family as a whole — the tone being that God comes first, the family trusts in Him, they live their lives according to the Scriptures, and they are good and honest people. Many Latina/o clients have makeshift altars with religious artifacts in their homes where they pray the rosary daily (a rosary is a string of beads; some say a prayer per bead as a way to be closer to God or a saint). When counseling these clients, it is best to remember how important their faith is and how much of an impact it has on their lives and the decisions they make daily.

 

Stigmas of counseling in the Latina/o community

I grew up with the best of both worlds — a mixture of traditions blended with new possibilities. Sometimes those ideas conflicted with one another, however.

My grandparents stressed that if I had issues or problems, that I should share them only with my family and no one else. Our reputation and how the world perceived us was important. To share something too personal with strangers or people outside of the family could change people’s views of me, potentially leading to getting overlooked and judged. On the other hand, my mother told me that people would judge me regardless of what I shared, so I might as well be my most authentic self.

I had an amazing support system in my mother and grandparents. They listened to me and allowed me to feel what I felt, regardless of the situation. My family kept me grounded and later led me to my career path as a counselor. I realized that not everyone was as fortunate as I was to have this incredible family support team to believe in them unconditionally.

When I told my mother about my decision to become a counselor, she was supportive and understood what a counselor was. However, my grandparents had a hard time understanding my decision to go back for more schooling. The first thing they asked was, “¿Qué es un consejera?” (What’s a counselor?). I spent an hour trying to explain, but all they understood was that I was going back to school, so I was probably doing something with teaching (because my bachelor’s was in education).

My grandparents believed in getting an education, but they were confused about why I would want to go back to school again. Had I not done enough the first time around? Why was I delaying working full time? My grandparents, like many traditional Latina/os, did not fully understand what counseling was or why someone would utilize the service. They wondered why you would need to tell your problems to someone else when you have family or could pray about your problems.

I knew that as a counselor, I could be a part of a support system for others and help them reach their goals. When working with Latina/o clients, it is helpful to explain that our job as counselors is to be that support system for them, much like their own families. It is best to emphasize that you want to be able to assist them, offer resources and be another source for them to use in achieving their goals.

In the Latina/o culture, counseling is stigmatized. Many families are brought up not to “gossip” or talk about personal or family problems with strangers. Aside from that, most families do not have a clear understanding of what counseling is. Families stress not talking to others about their issues because they know that people can gossip. For some of these families and clients, their reputations are all that they have, and if they are talked about badly, they take it to heart.

It is our job as counselors to educate others about what counseling is and how the counseling process works. It is best to emphasize confidentiality and the rules that are in place to protect clients, as well as the only times when confidentiality needs to be broken. Having Latina/o clients understand the counseling process and what it entails can make all the difference in building good rapport.

The risk is high for any individual who is an undocumented immigrant. The resources available to these individuals are limited, and they have fewer opportunities to vocalize their needs for fear of being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Clients and potential clients who are Latina/o may be tight-lipped because they do not fully understand where information shared during counseling could end up. Again, I recommend carefully explaining what counseling and confidentiality are.

If the client or family members are working, their work environments may be less than ideal. They may be underpaid or get paid under the table (paid in cash only), and their superiors may subject them to harsh work conditions (for instance, overworking them). Latina/os who are undocumented immigrants live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether today is the day they are going to be deported. Because of this uncertainty, they sometimes do not feel comfortable sharing any personal information with people who are not family. These clients need to know that they can trust the counselor. Counselors need to reassure clients that their offices are safe spaces and what they share will remain confidential.

Some Latina/os choose not to share with family that they are seeking mental health counseling for fear of being judged negatively. When encountering clients who have no family support, it is best to address those concerns and explore other people (both outside and inside the family) they can count on for support.

As a school counselor, I have worked with Latina/o students, and to do so, one of the parents must give consent. The majority of the permission slips come back from the mothers, not the fathers. Typically, it is the mother who is more open to her child receiving counseling services, often on the condition that the father remains in the dark about the services the child receives. One time, I had to stop seeing a student when the father found out the student was receiving counseling services. The father came to the school livid. He gave his verbal and written consent to stop counseling services, and I had to oblige. It was a difficult situation because the student benefited from counseling, and I tried to get the father to see that. Ultimately, however, I had to honor the wishes of the parents and stop counseling services.

Another stigma of counseling with Latina/os is labeling in the educational setting. Many families worry about labels and how they can potentially negatively affect their child. Sometimes these labels can even lead parents to believe something is wrong with the child.

As counselors, it is our job to destigmatize labels and show that labeling is not always negative. When students are struggling academically in school, teachers, school counselors and other staff work together to figure out what is preventing them from succeeding academically. All the necessary avenues are taken (e.g., teacher works on modifying classwork and contacts parents for extra support) before determining a student needs an evaluation to determine if he or she has a learning disability.

When students need Individual Education Programs (IEPs), families are sometimes hesitant to support such plans. They worry what it might potentially mean for their child regarding being labeled. But in these cases, labels can help students receive the necessary services to achieve their academic goals. Remind parents that they are encouraged to be as involved as possible in the IEP process, the process can take a long time to complete (sometimes as long as six months) and that counselors can serve as advocates to assist them with the process.

 

Multigenerational conflicts

Even with what is taught in multicultural classes, not every family adheres to what you assume about Latina/os. As the years progress, younger generational Latina/os are abandoning some traditional norms. They are coming to be their own person and wanting to incorporate new traditions with the ones already established within the family.

An example of this is young Latinas not conforming to the expected gender norms of their culture. Most young Latinas who are raised in traditional families grow up learning that a wife’s place is in the home and taking care of the family, whereas a husband’s role is to provide for that family. Some Latinas are shattering these gender norms and wanting more for their life, such as going to college and putting off marriage and children. This can cause tension within the family unit.

For example, my mother broke barriers in her own family. When she was growing up, it was basically expected that she would be a good person and a future wife. My mother put off marriage and having a child and dedicated her time to figuring out her future. Her parents were not as supportive as she would have liked, and she left home (something that was not expected of young single Latinas).

My mother decided she wanted to go into the medical field, but she did not have her father’s support. Her mother would check on her and take her to night classes without her father knowing. The sneaking around her mother did went on for the duration of the time my mother was in school. It was because of the barriers my mother broke that I have been afforded the life I have now.

As a counselor, you might work with these clients and their families to try to get them to see eye to eye on what traditions they want to continue to uphold. The goals for counseling would be to hopefully reach a healthy and happy balance where everyone in the family is understanding of the others’ opinions.

 

Language barriers

Many Latina/os want and need counseling services, but the language barrier sometimes prevents them from receiving these services. Bilingual counselors are in high demand to reach these families. If counselors can speak Spanish, the family or client may feel more comfortable speaking with them, helping to build good rapport. If you are not fluent in Spanish, there are steps you can take to bridge this language gap, including using digital apps or going to someone who can help you learn the language.

I am not fluent in Spanish, but I have some conversational ability, and this has been a tremendous asset in reaching out and talking with Latina/o clients. If Spanish is your clients’ first language, they may feel more comfortable speaking in their native tongue and may talk more freely about their concerns or what brought them to counseling.

On another note, just because someone speaks a language doesn’t mean they read it well, so be sensitive to literacy levels in a language. Also, just because clients look like they Spanish might be their first language, don’t assume that it is. For example, some Latina/os such as Brazilians speak Portuguese.

 

Breaking down the stigmatization of counseling

How do we get Latina/o clients in our doors if they are hesitant to speak with someone outside of their families? The proactive actions counselors can engage in to break down these barriers include getting familiar with and volunteering in the community. Start small and get acquainted with the community you are targeting. What kind of resources and services does the community offer? Talk and research with other individuals to see how you can have a presence.

While working, see what potential clients are seeking help with (child care, employment, etc.) and figure out where the clients can go to receive those services. Often information is available to help people, but they do not know where to look for it. Knowing where and in what direction to point a client can make all the difference.

Normalize counseling and curtail the stigma; counseling does not equate to being “crazy.” People utilize counseling services for various reasons. Try and provide real-world examples of people taking care of themselves. For instance, you might say, “If you go to see a doctor for a checkup, why wouldn’t you see a counselor for a mental health checkup?” Let potential clients know it is normal to feel overwhelmed. After all, they are only human.

Educate potential clients about the counseling profession. Tell them that your job is not to judge but to listen and work with them to alleviate their stress. Explain that you are there to help them; they decide the counseling process and the direction of counseling. Self-disclose (within reason) about some of your own related experiences with the Latina/o client. Let them know they are not alone in their struggle. Inform them that it is normal to feel stressed and that talking about those stressors can be therapeutic.

Seek others in the community who are working with the Latina/o population, such as doctors, priests and schools. Explain who you are and what you are trying to achieve. Contact local public and private schools to ask about volunteering and working with the school’s counselors to help develop a counseling curriculum. Again, after being seen, you will become a trusted face in the eyes of potential clients. Underfunded schools in particular may not even have a school counselor on staff and would likely welcome the extra support for their students.

Finally, when trying to reach potential clients, think about the community you are working in. Is it in a low socioeconomic area? Is there an issue with trying to afford mental health services? Lack of financial income and insurance are among the reasons that some Latina/os do not seek mental health services. Think about offering pro bono counseling to make quality counseling available to all, regardless of insurance or income.

These clients may be working multiple jobs and face time constraints with raising a family. If they are without a vehicle, transportation to see a counselor may pose an obstacle as well. Counselors might think about being able to point these clients toward quality child care or offering bus passes to help with transportation to and from sessions.

 

Conclusion

Whatever brings Latina/os to counseling, it is important that we do our best to help in whatever way we can. Their first interaction with a counselor may lead them to form an assumption about all counselors moving forward. With the increase in population of Latina/os in the U.S., counselors have to be prepared to better serve these clients and break the stigma of counseling. Counselors must remember to be nonjudgmental and take an active interest in what their clients tell them about their backgrounds. Figure out how to work with others, and see how you can be a positive force in the community you are servicing.

Doing research about the client’s background can help strengthen the rapport between you and show the client that you are taking an interest in what she or he tells you. To work with this community, it would be best to take Spanish-language classes and read as much as you can about the Latina/o culture. Books and classes can certainly help, but the best way to truly serve these families and clients is through community engagement and becoming familiar with their cultural practices.

 

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Jacqueline Michelle Barthelemy is a fourth-year school counselor. She received her master’s in counseling from Saint Xavier University and is currently a doctoral student in the counselor education and supervision program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Contact her at jacqueline.m.barthelemy@gmail.com.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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