Monthly Archives: September 2014

Midcourse corrections

By Stacy Notaras Murphy September 24, 2014

Picture a female client facing a bleak employment market, stressing out about finding a new living space and struggling to find a boyfriend who wants the same things she does. She also suffers from low self-esteem and has been dabbling in some disordered eating.

Based on that description, perhaps you are envisioning a millennial in her mid-20s. In fact, this client could just as easily be 60 years old and confronting the same complicated issues that we typically Lady-Smallassign to younger people. Women in “midlife,” defined for our purposes as age 45 and beyond, may face career issues, changes in their primary coupling, challenges parenting adult children and becoming caregivers to their own parents — all at a time of life when Hollywood tells us they should either be enjoying complete success or be thoroughly ignored as popular culture trains its spotlight on ever younger role models.

Counselors serving this population can help put today’s struggles in the context of the woman’s entire life, assisting her with making sense of the past and deciding whether a new lens could be used to process her current circumstances. These counselors must be capable of navigating a variety of topics, from sexuality to career development, often while bumping into lifelong stereotypes about women’s self-worth and poor boundary-setting skills. The rewards are manifold for counselors who can work in this space, and the experience can enrich their own understanding of development across the life span.

Carolyn Greer, a longtime American Counseling Association member and an adjunct professor at Texas A&M University-Central Texas, was inspired by the major transitions women in midlife often face, including moves, divorce, the death of loved ones and new family arrangements. She and a counseling colleague developed a workshop to help women facing these circumstances explore some of the new pathways before them, while also considering the mental, physical and social changes associated with these changes. Greer highlights her own personal interest in an evolving approach to adult development.

“As I have aged and dealt with many personal situations, I have gained better insight into what Erik Erikson proposed with his stages of adult development, a theoretical approach I learned in my counselor training and have continued to teach in my counseling courses,” says Greer, who adds that her membership in other organizations studying adult development deepened her interest in questioning old thinking about aging.

“As life expectancy extends, the expected ideas about what individuals will look like, feel like and be doing by middle age continue to be questioned,” she says. “Erikson called ages 35 to 60 middle age, with an expectation that the adult would be at a point midway of having many accomplishments that lead to the personal life dream. However, what once was midlife, with all the preconceived thoughts, no longer fits the picture.”

“The life expectancy in 1900 was 47 years, but in 2000, it was 77 years. So, what is middle age?” Greer asks. “Adding to changes in this picture, what one looks like as an aging adult is [changing] as more and more effects from improved medicine, exercise and environment tend to lead to a more youthful life and outlook. There is an accepted premise that the current 50-year-old is the previous 40-year-old, and the changing age concept continues upward. Adding to these phenomena, the fastest-growing population group in our country is 85-plus, with an ever-increasing number of adults living to 100 and above.”

Changing relationships

With such a wide definition of midlife, counselors must be able to walk with these women through an array of topics that can have an impact on mental health. Jean Dixon, a licensed professional counselor with private practices in Houston and The Woodlands, Texas, leads several groups that help empower women facing life transitions. Noting that at age 42, she also is experiencing transitions unlike those earlier in her life, Dixon says she understands the immense change and growth occurring in midlife.

“It’s like adolescence all over again but with the added advantage of wisdom,” she says. “[Women at midlife] are often experiencing emotions that are deeper than they have experienced in the past. Due to increased awareness of themselves, others [and having more] experience, this new stage of life can be trying but also very exciting. It’s a lot for them to take in and process.”

For some women, midlife becomes a time to consider past unresolved issues that they did not have the time or energy to address previously. Dixon says these clients often feel that they need direction and a dedicated space to process their feelings. In her experience, empowerment is a very popular topic for this population.

“These women are often successful in life but continue to feel a sense of low self-worth,” she says. “Many … are wanting to work after being at home with children [but] are facing self-esteem and self-worth issues related to being out of the workforce, feeling inferior to younger women and sometimes even to their own [adult] female children who are not always supportive. … These younger women can be critical, as they have their own self-centered desire to keep mom as mom.” 

Dixon mentions a client who attended one of her women’s empowerment groups. “She talked about how her grown girls would comment to her, ‘Why do you need that group, Mom? You don’t struggle with empowerment.’ Their concept of her as ‘Mom’ was that she was in charge, and she was of them, but they did not see what she felt about herself.”

Carol Boyer, an ACA member in private practice in Montclair, New Jersey, mainly works with women ages 25 to 60. She advises counselors to be on the lookout for relationships as a key component of many of the struggles women face in midlife. For example, she recalls one of her clients who ended a romantic relationship.

“It was her choice to end it, but now she feels like she lopped off her arm and is having trouble moving forward,” Boyer says. “One of the things she brought up was, ‘I’m 60, and I don’t want to start with someone new.’ As we get older, if we’re not in a stable, continuing relationship, I think it can hit us harder when we break up. We are not as resilient as we were in our 20s. The stakes are higher. We aren’t as comfortable in looking for the next one. Meanwhile, we are bringing more baggage to the situation.”

Dixon has found that her clients in midlife possess great interest in discussing their sexuality, often for the first time in their lives. Some are struggling with the way their bodies are changing, while others have accepted those changes but are noticing that sex has a different meaning for them at this stage.

“They often come to therapy asking for help being more open-minded with sex or wanting to help their partners develop a healthier and mature relationship with sex,” Dixon says. She notes that often these women are with partners whose sex drive has decreased, while their own libido is stronger than it was at earlier stages of their life. Dixon works with these women to adjust to the changes and helps them develop the communication skills to address the shifts with their partners.

The women’s husbands or partners often have difficulty adjusting to the changes, at least initially, Dixon says. “I have heard my clients comment that at first, their partners did not really like hearing them speak [up] or share their opinion, and that this would create power struggles,” she says. “But in time, most of them come to appreciate it and can see that the power equality feels more intimate and increases their enjoyment of each other. The intimacy actually encourages other types of intimacy as well and can rekindle old flames.”

Continued career development

With longer life expectancy comes the desire or need to continue investing in a career. As such, career development issues often work their way into therapeutic discussions of life satisfaction and meaning-making. But the career development needs of women in midlife may be quite different from what career counselors typically see.

Jill Dustin, an ACA member and assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, specializes in career development. She has found that women in midlife often exhibit a strong desire to embark on new career-related adventures, such as tackling long-held goals or changing careers entirely. But at the same time, they also have financial concerns and struggle with work-life balance, just like younger workers often do. She notes that women in midlife also struggle with barriers to career success that may be structural or even related to their physical and mental health changes at this stage. Finally, women in midlife may be recognizing career dissatisfaction and a loss of self-identity.

Boyer has witnessed this struggle in her own office. “Some people at this midlife point say to themselves, ‘This is the best I’m ever going to feel, ever going to do. This is the most money I’m going to make.’ People get stuck when thinking that forward motion is not an option anymore,” she explains. “There’s a loss when we believe we’ve reached the end of our promotional ability. People find themselves a little depressed that life is kind of over and that things are just going to start getting worse. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Boyer could cite herself as an example of why that line of thinking is too limiting. “For me, I went to grad school at 45, and I’m about to turn 57,” she says. “My career is still on the ascendancy. While chronologically I’ve reached midlife, professionally, I consider myself quite young in the profession. It’s all relative.”

When teaching counseling students how to help women with midlife career development issues, Dustin emphasizes that each woman is unique and comes to the process with diverse experiences and challenges. “It is very important that counselors working with women in midlife do not stereotype their clients,” she advises. “For example, counselors should not assume that since their client is in midlife, she is experiencing a ‘crisis.’ This certainly is not the case. Many women experience midlife as an exciting time of transition in which they can redesign their lives and explore careers that hold greater meaning for them.”

Career development is often viewed as a separate entity from personal counseling, but in reality, Dustin says, it is very personal and can be transformative. For that reason, she encourages counselors to include career development as part of their work with female clients in midlife.

“I would urge [counselors] to actively engage their clients in their career development,” she says. “This can be achieved by supporting, encouraging and empowering women throughout their journeys and assisting them in discovering and uncovering their strengths, barriers, types of support, goals, fears, abilities, values and desires.”

Methods in midlife

While the counseling methods applied to working with midlife women may not be too different from those used with other populations, the enthusiasm these clients show for trying new things can be inspiring. From empowerment workshops to psychoeducational book groups, psychodynamic analysis to mindfulness, women in midlife are often accepting of diverse approaches.

Greer has witnessed this herself. She explains that her workshop for midlife women in transition was not designed to be a clinical experience. But the end result is that many of the participants evaluate their own lives and set out in new directions that were mostly unknown to them at the beginning of the class.

Boyer also agrees, noting that she has used mindfulness techniques to help women connect with their bodies and become more aware of how they experience stress — something many women go through life never truly understanding. She recalls a 51-year-old client whose menopausal symptoms brought her into counseling. But the client’s mother was also in a nursing home, and on top of that, she was managing the stress of a change in her workplace review process and a complicated issue in her marriage.

“She is managing the aging aspect while she’s in a situation caring for her mother because she is an only child. Meanwhile, she’s trying to do an impossible job professionally and trying to save a marriage at the same time,” Boyer reflects. “She’s feeling misunderstood and it’s overwhelming to have to deal with these things all at the same time. Her energy level is different than it has been in the past, her moods are more labile [and] she doesn’t have the same kind of resources to bring to the other issues in her life.” Working with clients to simply name the stressors can be a major turning point for those who have spent decades ignoring their own needs, Boyer says.

Assertiveness training and building decision-making skills are other common techniques used with these clients. Dixon adds that basic decision-making can be a challenge for women in midlife who have rarely felt heard by their families or communities. She explains that they struggle with saying “no” without feeling guilty, often viewing themselves as one-dimensional beings: mothers, wives, workers or children of aging parents.

“Long-standing roles as ‘doers’ and caretakers take a toll,” Dixon says. “These women often report feeling depressed and lonely and very often just not knowing who they are or what they want. For example, often these women even struggle with deciding where they want to go to dinner. They are afraid to make the wrong decision. Having someone angry or disappointed with them is a big deal and creates such anxiety that they would rather just leave decisions to others.”

Dixon also finds that many of these women are afraid of being alone or being left by a partner. “Their sense of self and self-confidence is so low that we work on basic skills and communication, as well as self-talk and self-acceptance, for quite awhile,” she says.

She advises counselors to be sensitive to the client’s past experiences when working with current struggles, noting that understanding how the client managed transitions in her past can offer good direction today. She also suggests asking the client about current resources and supports, as well as what supports she may have possessed in the past. Then ask how her life is similar or different as she transitions through this current stage or challenge. For example, Dixon notes that women in midlife may suffer from anxiety or depression as their bodies age and they face new medical challenges. Being able to connect current frustrations to old struggles that they may have overcome — an eating disorder, for instance — can be transformative, Dixon says.

Dixon’s love of working with women in midlife comes from the joy she finds in helping them finally release their inner voices. “To help someone value and learn to listen and respond to themselves is the greatest gift I receive from my work, and these women have it in them so strongly it can’t be stopped,” she says.

However, Dixon acknowledges, fear of change is the main obstacle to making progress. “Change is hard, and the work it asks of us can often seem insurmountable,” she says. “That is why I spend so very long sometimes just working on the value of the person, improving and uplifting [the women’s] belief in themselves as they ready for the work it will take to change. But many times, luckily, the beauty of working with these women … [is that] they are ready for the work. They actually love the work because it is so very self-satisfying and serves their confidence, and they see their worth increase steadily. It is very satisfying work.”


Contributing writer Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago relationship therapist practicing in Washington, D.C. To contact her, visit

Letters to the editor:

Group Process from a Diversity Lens: Who’s going to stand up?

By Lee Mun Wah

The final vignette of this series reflects an actual situation that occurred in my diversity workshop. I am including my thoughts/rationale and the intervention I used during the situation, as well as questions for other group facilitators to consider, possible group/dyad exercises and a summary that helps to place the event in a larger societal context.

All the vignettes in this series have been adapted from my diversity training manual, The Art of Mindful Facilitation, although the manual is not necessarily meant to be a faithful adaptation of the video clip that accompanies each vignette. I am also including an example of the presenting workshop issues related to the vignette — in this month’s case, the issues of blame, shame and hurt.

This is an interactive process, so I ask that readers follow the steps below in their suggested order:

1) Watch the short video clip below:

2) Return to this article and read the vignette.

3) Answer the practice process questions following the vignette.

4) Before reading further, write your own intervention.

5) After writing your intervention, read the remainder of the article, which includes my thoughts, the intervention I used and a summary.

For an introduction to this series, read “Group process from a diversity lens” in the April issue of Counseling Today.


This vignette emerged from a corporation workshop in which I was discussing how most discrimination takes place. All of the folks in the workshop were standing around, saying nothing. (Unlike therapy, where there is a case assessment, participants who speak out at our workshops are not necessarily planning to. Instead, they are stimulated to speak out either by my stories or our films.)

An African American man, Rufus, finally shared how tired he was of never seeing white folks stand up against racism and sexism. “We don’t have very much chance and never get the support from any white people,” Rufus exclaimed.

I asked the group members to stand if they would be willing to stand up against sexism. Everyone did with the exception of one EuroAmerican man. When I asked the group who would stand up against racism, once again, everyone stood except the same white man, named Charlie.

Rufus was furious, yelling out, “What the hell is wrong with you, Charlie? Can’t you look at me? Stand up!”

Charlie shook his head sideways, looking only at the floor. The room was dead silent for what seemed like minutes.

Practice process questions for the facilitator

1) What came up for you when watching the video and reading this vignette?

2) What are some of the key words to focus on?

3) What angered Rufus? Why?

4) What is familiar about Rufus’ frustration?

5) What is Rufus saying he needs and wants from EuroAmericans? Why?

6) What came up for you about Charlie? Why?

7) Were Rufus’ accusations of Charlie justified? Why or why not?

8) With whom would you work first? Why?

9) What are the major issues here?

10) How would you include the group?

My thoughts

Obviously, there were a lot of emotions going on in the room. Sometimes it is easy to become frightened by the chaos and volume of voices and miss the pain and anguish that is being expressed. As I was watching Rufus, I kept thinking of how liberating it must be for him to finally express himself, and yet at the same time, how frightening it must be because of the possible consequences. What Rufus was doing required a whole lot of risk-taking.

I wondered if Rufus trusted what he was seeing, particularly when all the white participants stood up. I kept wondering if Rufus thought they stood only because of peer pressure or their fear of an angry black man.

When Charlie didn’t stand, although his action (or inaction) was puzzling, there was a sense of relief in the room, as if an opening to something more real, direct and deep was going to take place. Charlie’s body language told me that this was not just an act of defiance. His face and depressed body language spoke to a deeper story.

The trick was figuring out how to acknowledge Rufus while still being able to help Charlie feel safe enough to open up. This would require a lot of diplomacy and some good old-fashioned luck. I sensed that the opening lay in Charlie’s journey of getting to this room. If Charlie were to heal, it had little to do with Rufus and much to do with Charlie. My work would involve becoming a bridge for the two of them — an entrance to the past.

My intervention 

I asked Rufus to tell Charlie why he was so angry with him and what was familiar about this scenario. I then sat next to Charlie. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him that I knew this wasn’t easy.

After Rufus finished, I told Charlie there was something I was wondering about. I asked him what was familiar about the scenario that had just played out with Rufus.

Charlie waited for a moment and then shared in a very quiet voice that his father was an alcoholic and that he and his brother often hid and kept very quiet because if his father found them, he would beat them in a furious rage. I asked him how those experiences in his family affected him today. Charlie answered, “I guess I’m still running and hiding.”

diversity_puzzleI next asked the group if they had known these things about Rufus or Charlie. No one raised their hand. I then proceeded to share with the group that both of these men would need their support in the days and months ahead. Rufus had shared that he needed folks to stand up for him against racism and sexism, while Charlie needed to know that he no longer had to run away or hide — that he could speak up without being harmed or abused. The group members wholeheartedly raised their hands in a show of support.

Rufus walked across the room and hugged Charlie. Sobbing, Rufus said, “I am so sorry. I just didn’t know.”

Charlie said to the group and Rufus, “And I guess what I need to do is take a chance again.”

Group/dyad process questions

1) What came up for you during this experience?

2) Who did you identify with? Why?

3) What was good about this experience? What was hard about it?

4) Why do you think Rufus was so angry?

5) What’s familiar about this experience for you?

6) Have you ever not stood up against something you knew was wrong? Why?

Workshop issues


The definition of blame is assigning responsibility for a fault or wrong. Those who are heavily into blaming often feel powerless and/or overwhelmed by some perceived wrong. As a consequence, something in their lives remains unfinished and continues to wound and stimulate them.

Inquire whether they are blaming an individual, a group or an institution. The perpetrator or institution may be unavailable for dialogue, which brings about feelings of depression and hopelessness for the person or persons who were wronged.

Those who are blaming are often unable to be direct with their own feelings. Hence, they are often left with unfinished feelings that foster resentment and anguish.

What kinds of “rewards” do they get from being victimized? On the other side, what is lost from their lives when they are unable to feel relaxed and safe?

Suggested interventions

1) Through the use of role-play, have the participant confront his or her perpetrator(s) by choosing audience members who most closely represent the perpetrator(s).

2) Have the participant share what he or she needs to heal.

3) Ask the participant what effect this experience has had on his or her life. What has the participant “lost”?

4) Ask what part of the perpetrator(s) is also a part of the participant.

5) Does the participant want a solution?

6) Explore the kinds of feelings the participant is withholding.

7) What is the participant’s individual, group or family history regarding this issue?


The definition of shame is a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of embarrassment, guilt, disgrace or unworthiness.

The difference between shame and guilt is that people who feel shame think they are inherently shameful, whereas people who feel guilty typically associate that feeling with a specific act or situation.

People who feel shame often look down or avert their eyes when talking about their experiences. Have them look up, not only to face those around them, but also to be seen, accepted and possibly forgiven.

Shame often “freezes” people to the past and makes them feel powerless. The work is to have them relate what happened and how it affects them today. This gives their shame a face and present-tense reality.

Suggested interventions

1) When the person is finished sharing, have the group notice the impact of what happened to that person.

2) Have the group repeat back what it heard.

3) Ask group members if they have ever felt ashamed and didn’t want anyone to know about it. If they are willing, have them share their personal stories.

4) Have the group members share how they feel about this person. In the cycle of shame, a main cause is the feeling of unworthiness. By having group members share how they feel about this person in a positive way, they offer acceptance and healing.

We all have something of which we are ashamed. To go on with our lives, we need to take responsibility, forgive ourselves and others, and then try again.


The definition of hurt is to feel pain or distress. Being hurtful is to cause distress to someone’s feelings.

Hurt is usually a painful experience that is unfinished. It takes energy to suppress one’s pain and to move on. However, that pain usually goes somewhere and can be triggered at any time by some familiar stimulus.

One of the manifestations of having been hurt is the fear of conflict. Another is the fear of being hurt and/or of hurting others.

Most participants deal with the present tense of a person’s hurt rather than exploring the root of the individual’s pain.

Suggested interventions

Participants who have been hurt often need to retell their stories and, in the process, be believed, understood and empathetically embraced.

Participants need to go back to the “scene of the crime,” expressing what happened and how it affected them, both then and now.

When hurt is unacknowledged and invalidated, it becomes anger. Allow the hurt to have a safe place to be expressed.

If participants have a set script to describe their hurt, ask them what is familiar about this and what the “rewards” are for playing out this scenario once more.

Use audience responses — repeating what audience members have heard and using the participant’s name — to help the participant feel seen and heard.

If participants are unable or unwilling to talk about their hurt, have the audience notice what happens when one feels unheard and unseen. The trauma can cause people to withdraw or to blame themselves to keep from being hurt again.

To help someone return to the scene of the crime, try to reconstruct the period of time and surroundings as closely as possible. A good storyteller uses key words that the participant used. This creates an “emotional ambience” that will translate into a trusting connection with the participant.

Often, it is easier for participants to share what they don’t need before identifying what they truly need to heal.

Group summary

As the facilitator, I presented the following summary to the entire group:

“What we can see here today is that everyone has a story. Sometimes it’s easier to make assumptions because of someone’s silence or anger. But behind each of those emotions is a journey that begs for compassion and understanding. We have only to ask and to be willing to listen and try to understand.

“What Rufus asked for was for someone to stand up. It took a lot of courage and risk-taking for him to share his pain and anguish today. This company and community are lucky to have someone so brave and courageous. I was also touched by his reaching out to Charlie and taking responsibility for his assumptions.

“I also want us to remember the words that Charlie shared with us — that given all that has happened to him, maybe it is time to stop running. He might be able to do that now that he has shared his story.

“All that Rufus and Charlie wanted were to be treated kindly and justly. That is a world worth standing up for and fighting for — a just and equitable world for our children and ourselves. Perhaps that is the secret to world peace — taking care of each other, one person at a time.”


Lee Mun Wah is a Chinese American documentary filmmaker, author, educator, community therapist and diversity trainer. For more information, including a link to his services and trainings, visit the StirFry Seminars & Consulting website at

Letters to the

All in the family

By Laurie Meyers September 23, 2014

Paerent-childWhen Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote in his novel Anna Karenina, “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” he was definitely on to something. A dysfunctional family environment has myriad effects on its members — effects that are intricately woven by factors such as personalities, communication abilities, attachment issues and sometimes even family violence.

But Tolstoy’s narrator got it wrong upon saying, in contrast, “Happy families are all alike.” On the face of it, the inaccuracy of that declaration seems obvious: Of course no two families (or people) are alike. But the more substantive implication — that people from happy families emerge without problems, untouched by the environment in which they grew up — is also false.

For good or ill, our families — of origin or the ones we choose — shape us all in some way. A family’s influence on its members is lifelong, and counselors must keep that effect in mind as they seek to understand and treat individual clients. Some counselors choose to place even greater focus on family as a primary factor in overall mental health and wellness, adding family counseling to their practices, calling clients’ family members in to discuss specific issues or simply learning the concepts behind family systems theory as another way to inform treatment.

We are family

It starts at birth, as we enter the world, confused and a little bit cranky. How much of who we are is already inside us? Nurture versus nature has long been the subject of debate, but the authors of a 2013 article in The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families make their argument clear in the article’s title: “Nurture Is Nature: Integrating Brain Development, Systems Theory and Attachment Theory.” Their position is that parents and caregivers introduce significant environmental stimuli when the brain is still forming, and these influences shape how the brain develops.

As children grow, they continue to seek information about the world and themselves. Along the way, parents and caregivers teach or help them learn many fundamental skills: how to talk, walk, tie their shoes, use utensils and, most critically, interact with other people.

“Parents are the ultimate teachers. They teach their children what to think about the world, what is important or unimportant and about their own self-worth,” say researchers Shea M. Dunham and Shannon B. Dermer in the first chapter of the 2011 book they co-edited with Jon Carlson, Poisonous Parenting: Toxic Relationships Between Parents and Their Adult Children. Dunham and Dermer go on to assert that directly or indirectly, parents teach children how to feel and how to love both other people and themselves.

In fact, a research review, “The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation,” published in the journal Social Development in 2007, found that children learn emotional regulation through observation, modeling and social context, particularly in the family environment. Emotional regulation is the ability to identify and control emotions — to know when and how it is appropriate to express certain feelings. According to the article, family factors that influence emotional regulation include parenting style, the strength of the emotional attachment between parents and children, family expressiveness and the relationship between the parents. The authors state that the lessons of emotional regulation learned within the family set the stage for additional emotional and social learning from other sources, such as peers.

But some families don’t model healthy emotional regulation for their children. This may be because of abuse, neglect or simply that the parents or caregivers never learned to regulate their own emotions. Children who do not learn emotional and social cues at home often have difficulty interacting with peers and teachers. These children are at greater risk of falling behind in school, developing learning difficulties and acting out.

Sadly, some families aren’t just behind on the social learning curve; they are instead actively abusive or neglectful. In the past 20 years, large studies by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and partner institutions have found that children who are exposed to high levels of violence or who are victims of trauma such as physical or sexual abuse and neglect suffer significant emotional, developmental and physical problems. These children are more likely than their peers to struggle to keep pace in school, smoke, abuse drugs and alcohol, and commit acts of violence. These effects, along with significant health problems, continue into adulthood. (For more on the effect trauma has on children, see “The toll of childhood trauma” in the July 2014 issue of Counseling Today.)

In other instances, families can’t control the traumas their children are exposed to. For instance, many families that are economically disadvantaged have little choice but to live in neighborhoods that are violent and dangerous. However, research suggests families that feature healthy attachments and strong parenting styles can help mitigate the trauma. A 2004 study, “Exposure to Community Violence and Violence Perpetration: The Protective Effects of Family Functioning,” published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, found that children from supportive family backgrounds who were exposed to excessive neighborhood violence were less likely to be violent than children from dysfunctional family environments.

Other research has found that family support can make a significant difference in both the prevention and successful treatment of substance abuse, mental health, school and peer problems.

A surprising discovery

Many family counselors would say that these effects are examples of systems theory at work. Systems theory holds that all of the parts of any system, such as a family, are interdependent and affect each other in ways that may not be obvious.

“Seemingly unrelated parts of systems are more related than we think,” notes David Kaplan, the American Counseling Association’s chief professional officer and a past president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC), a division of ACA.

As an example, he cites the experiences of a group of pediatricians working with children with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that causes the body to destroy all insulin-producing cells, at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia during the 1960s. Type 1 diabetes can be difficult to control, but these physicians developed a plan that combined diet modifications and a strict schedule of insulin injections. Because individuals with Type 1 diabetes are entirely dependent on insulin (not having the ability to make their own) and because people with any form of diabetes must watch what they eat to help keep their glucose levels under control, it was critical that the children and their parents followed the physicians’ plan.

When a child was first diagnosed, the doctors would sit down with the parents and explain the details of the plan and how to follow it, Kaplan says. Most of the children they treated did pretty well after being put on the plan, but a small number of the same patients kept appearing in the emergency room with diabetic comas caused by hyperglycemia, an excess of sugar in their blood. After each emergency, the doctors would meet with the child’s parents and review the plan again. Still, some of the same children continued to show up in crisis over and over again.

Finally, the pediatricians began searching for similarities between these children — not just with their physical health but in all areas of life — and eventually identified one big common denominator: All of them came from homes with significant parental conflict. The children would see their parents fighting, get scared and stop taking their insulin because when they did, the resulting illness would unite their mothers and fathers. Once the child was better, however, the fighting would resume, and the cycle would start all over again.

Clearly, something had to change. So the doctors sat the parents down once again and told them that the best thing they could do to improve their child’s health was to work on their own relationship with each other. These parents weren’t neglectful, Kaplan points out. They had done their best to follow the treatment plan, but they were thinking only about the mechanics of the disease and not the other influences surrounding their child, he explains. This idea that the family environment could significantly influence treatment was new to health care. In fact, although the idea has gradually gained acceptance, it is still not an active influence in many health systems today.

Counselors, however, had already been exploring the influence of the family environment. Family counseling was unofficially “born” in 1942 with the founding of the American Association for Marriage Counselors. And today, family counselors continue to preach that physical and mental health issues are intimately connected to the family environment.

‘Live’ dynamics

From the perspective of systems theory, people represent just one piece of various systems that are always “running.” A family runs by simply going about its daily routines, interacting with and influencing each other. Sometimes the system runs smoothly, while other times its “pieces” encounter a monkey wrench, says Esther Benoit, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and ACA member from the Hampton Roads region of Virginia.

Systems theory is related to the idea that a body in motion tends to stay in motion and that systems are generally self-perpetuating, Benoit says. The system — in this case, the family — will continue to try and function as it is, even if it is malfunctioning and the resultant effects are harming or breaking down the system.

Benoit offers an example of how this might play out in a family. A couple has a child who is having disciplinary problems at school that are caused or exacerbated by marital tension at home. Focusing solely on maintaining discipline will not correct the behavior, she says, because the tension, unless addressed, will still be there.

Family counselors believe that even issues that seem specific to an individual client can be connected back to the family. “Both individual and family therapy offer an approach to treatment and a way of understanding human behavior,” says Brandé Flamez, IAMFC’s representative to the ACA Governing Council, “but a major premise of family therapy is the belief that most problems originate and can be solved within families.”

Not all family counselors use family systems theory, but the idea of connection still underlies their work. Karena Heyward, a family counselor and LPC from Lynchburg, Virginia, admits she’s biased, but she believes all branches of counseling can benefit from the principles of family counseling.

“As human beings, we do not live in isolation. Our stressors do not typically occur in isolation. So, why would we tackle these stressors in counseling in isolation?” she asks.

“Show, don’t tell” is a classic piece of guidance that is often handed out to aspiring writers and journalists. Family counselors contend that “showing” is also an important factor in their work with clients.

“Family counselors look for family dynamics to be re-created in the counseling room so we can continue the healthy patterns and make changes to things that are not working for the family,” explains Heyward, who is also an ACA member and assistant professor at Lynchburg College.

“Instead of individuals talking about their experiences with someone, you get to see it live [in family counseling],” says Greg Czyszczon, an LPC and ACA member in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “That has so much potential for healing if we have a good ‘road map’ and a good sense of where they are stuck.”

As Czyszczon watches these live scenarios, he looks for clues concerning why a family is struggling to resolve its problem and how he might help the family move forward. “We guide them to have a different experience of enactment,” he says.

For example, if parents are having difficulty getting their child to go to bed, Czyszczon will ask them to reenact their bedtime ritual. The details — spoken and unspoken — of the interaction unfolding before him allow him to come up with alternative scenarios the family can try. Changing the interaction could involve helping the parents understand what the child is trying to communicate by acting out and resisting going to bed. Or it might involve helping the parents explore different ways of approaching bedtime.

Individual vs. family counseling

Family counselors eagerly extoll the benefits of family therapy and even encourage counselors who work with individual clients to consider the family environment. For instance, bringing in family members to help an individual client work on an issue can be very beneficial.

David Lawson, an LPC and professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, had a client for whom the validation of others was very important. The client’s husband was a taciturn, cerebral man, and she really wanted him to talk to her more. She also wanted him to listen to her concerns and participate more in her counseling.

“So we tried to break it [the problem] down into pieces,” Lawson recounts. “She said she would love to have him sit down and talk to her about something for an hour. We started with trying to get him to talk for a few minutes on something that he was really interested in, and then we would add to it gradually.”

Once the woman got her husband talking — and listening — to her, she was able to open up about her concerns. He eventually agreed to come into some of her counseling sessions so that he could better understand what she needed, Lawson says.

However, family counselors emphasize that individual counseling is very different from family counseling. In individual counseling, the individual is the client; in family counseling, the family is the client.

“I think there are several difficulties that novice family therapists often encounter,” says Flamez, an LPC and national certified counselor (NCC) who counsels at-risk youth at a community center in Corpus Christi, Texas. “[These include] overemphasizing content over process, focusing too much on one member of a family, trying to make everyone happy and overemphasizing verbal statements as a way to change families.”

“Other difficulties include failure to engage each and every family member in the session, failing to establish the structure of the therapeutic session or failing to focus on the family and what they want,” she continues.

Family counseling is not for those who have difficulty multitasking, adds Benoit. “There’s so much going on [in family therapy]. You have multiple people giving you so much information, both verbal and nonverbal,” she explains. “And then [you have] the points of connection between them, with all these interactions and subtle patterns. A lot of family work is about the space between people.”

“Initially, family counseling looks very similar to individual [counseling],” Benoit explains. “You are still doing active listening, but one of the key differences is that you are checking in with multiple people. You’re not just listening to one person and watching what they are not saying, you’re also looking at how other family members are reacting.”

For instance, a female client may be in tears while telling her story. As Benoit listens, she might also notice that the woman’s husband has shifted his posture, turning away from his wife. Benoit files this away so that she can return to it and ask about it once the wife has finished talking.

But even counselors who prefer to work primarily with individual clients shouldn’t disregard the influence of family when treating these clients. ACA President Robert Smith believes it is important for all counselors to learn as much as possible about a new client’s social systems and family in the initial sessions.

“A systems assessment during beginning sessions may help determine whether the family is playing a role in helping the client maintain a problem or a set of problems,” explains Smith, who helped to found IAMFC in the late 1980s and later served as its executive director.

Adds Lawson, “Looking at family cycles and stages can be helpful even if a counselor doesn’t see [himself or herself] as a family counselor.” For instance, if a client is being particularly resistant, the reason might connect back to the person’s family background, and the client might not even be aware of it, he says.

“Any counselor needs to understand that the past is present,” Lawson says. “Our families are always there — even when they’re not. They’re ghosts in a sense.”

And those ghosts might be more active than a client realizes, Lawson notes. When a client mentions unresolved past issues and grievances with family members, those same complaints often pop up in the present, he says. As an example, he mentions a client who comes to counseling and spends a significant amount of time complaining about his or her current relationship with a spouse or partner. “When a client gets upset with a partner, I will stop and ask them about the people in the past,” Lawson says.

He asks them to consider what percentage of their distress might actually be tied to a family member, such as a father or mother, rather than the spouse. Together, they will look at the source of distress and talk about loved ones in the client’s past who also displayed these behaviors. Upon doing so, Lawson says, clients often realize that although they have been attributing all of their anger or sadness to a spouse’s behavior, much of it relates back to unresolved issues with a parent or other caregiver.

Lawson urges counselors to proceed cautiously when helping clients resolve past issues. “You have to be careful to not paint parents, even horribly abusive ones, as monsters, even if they were,” Lawson cautions. “Even if a client is criticizing a parent or partner, don’t join in. Those emotions can change, and the client may then turn on you.”

“There is often a part of the traumatized client that loves that parent, is still emotionally connected and remembers only good,” he continues. But the client also harbors memories of the hurt and abuse, so Lawson finds a way to help the individual integrate those conflicting emotions.

“In various cases, I have helped people totally cut themselves off psychologically and physically [from their abusers],” Lawson says. “They may not speak to them, or only do so once a week, but they still need to find a place for them [cognitively and emotionally].”

He helps these clients make a place emotionally to remember some good things about the person but also teaches them not to look beyond those small moments for more.

Of course not all clients have unresolved traumas or current interpersonal problems, but counselors may still look back to the family to uncover clues to an individual’s persistent emotional issues.

“Even in the absence of participating family members, bringing in that sense of family as an extended system can be helpful,” says Benoit, who is also a professor in Walden University’s marriage, couple and family counseling program. She will often ask clients to complete a genogram, in which they list three generations of their family members and note any elements of physical, mental and relationship health of which they are aware. This might include causes of death (including suicide), history of mental illness, chronic physical illnesses, divorce, and emotional or physical trauma. When clients look at their family history plotted out in the genogram, it can be easier for them to identify patterns, Benoit says.

Culture clash

When many people think about the concept of family, they still picture a white father, a white mother and 2.5 kids. Although counselors are aware that there are many colors, definitions and configurations of family, without the experience of growing up in a minority culture, it is difficult to understand the extra challenges facing these diverse families.

One example is the many immigrant families who come to the United States looking for a better life. Many of these immigrants are met with outright hostility and a dearth of opportunity. The pressure of adapting to a new life and culture creates problems that go beyond the stress and strain of everyday life, notes Kathryn Norsworthy, an ACA member who works with local aid organizations to provide counseling services around the Orlando, Florida, area to migrant workers from Mexico, Central American and Haiti.

“Oppression can seep into family dynamics,” explains Norsworthy, a counseling professor at Rollins College in Winter Park. “For example, in a migrant family, one of the things that happens is that quite often, the children and teenagers become the public face of the family because the adults don’t speak English or don’t speak it well. So, kids and teens become translators and the navigators of public systems — the family advocate.”

In playing this role, children and adolescents have to deal with adult-level institutional barriers, assuming responsibilities that are beyond their years, Norsworthy continues. The parents often feel humiliated because they can’t take care of their own interests, and the family hierarchy is upended. The younger members of the family are elevated to a place of power that is inappropriate. Counselors working with these clients need to be aware of these skewed dynamics to help the families cope with the tension it creates, Norsworthy adds.

In addition to the role reversals and upended power dynamics, immigrants also face a culture clash — not just with their new home country, but within their families as well, Norsworthy says.

“In this country, quite often, people of color will tell you they are reluctant to identify themselves as American because it seems like [to do that] you have to give up who you are, be like other white people,” she says. “They feel like they lose big parts of who they are.”

“Parents have very strong ties to their original culture that they want children to know about, and they often parent through the framework of their culture,” she continues. Meanwhile, their children — like kids everywhere — are just trying to navigate their environment and find a place to fit in. “The kids are being pulled toward assimilation and internalizing the values of this culture, and the parents are upset because they don’t want them to forget where they came from,” Norsworthy says.

These parents and their children may also clash over educational and career choices. That’s true for many families, of course, but for immigrant families, there is often an extra layer of anxiety. The parents fear their children won’t be able to overcome the barriers that the parents themselves faced or still face.

The parents of one family with which Norsworthy worked were from West Africa, but the children had been born and raised in the United States. After the daughter started college, she decided she wasn’t really ready and didn’t want to keep attending. She voiced her desire to stop for a bit and find a job doing something that interested her to see how that worked out. The father was adamant that leaving school was unacceptable. The only option was for her to finish college. He was so resistant to discussing other alternatives that Norsworthy probed further to see what was behind his anger.

“It was because of the struggle he had when he first got here,” she explains. “He could see that the only way for people with West African background to succeed was to have all the resources that were possible, and for him that [meant] education. He was afraid she would face more racism and discrimination by walking away from her education.”

Once the reason was out in the open, Norsworthy was able to successfully work with the family, helping the daughter to understand her father’s concerns and helping the father to accept that the daughter needed to find her own path to success and belonging.

The Haitian migrants with whom Norsworthy works face fear and superstition surrounding their Voodoo religion. Most Americans don’t understand the religion, associating it instead with the occult or black magic. This can be a problem especially for Haitian children and adolescents, Norsworthy says, because when they go to school, they hear negative comments about their parents’ spiritual practices, and the children absorb that. Because of such reactions, the Haitian migrants feel they have to be very discreet about their religious beliefs and sometimes give up their practices altogether, she says.

That scenario offers a valuable lesson to all counselors working with individual clients or families from a different culture. Because these clients’ religious practices or other customs can be so different from the “norm” in the United States, and thus so easily misunderstood, it is important for counselors to educate themselves about these practices. This is particularly important, Norsworthy says, because immigrants often find solace and a kind of sanctuary in their culture and religion. These things often connect them to the places where they grew up and still consider “home.” Counselors need to draw those cultural connections and strengths out and not just focus on the problems that immigrant families might be confronting, she says.

“A lot of times, they have strong faith traditions that ground them as they face barriers and challenges in life,” Norsworthy says. “These communities will have different traditions that connect them to their cultural roots.”


Children caught in the middle

One of the most difficult challenges a family counselor can confront is a family facing divorce, particularly when child custody issues are involved, says Ruth Outz Moore, a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor in Savannah, Georgia.

Matters can become further complicated when the breakup involves a same-sex couple who have children. Although a growing number of states now allow same-sex couples to marry, many states still do not, and this can be a particularly knotty problem when it comes to custody issues, says Moore, a member of the American Counseling Association. Even in states where these couples are legally married, a parent can find himself or herself shut out depending on how the law is written and interpreted.

“Sometimes the idea is who is the biological parent?” Moore explains. “For instance, in a lesbian couple who become parents through one partner being inseminated, even though they are equally parents, if they split, the biological parent can say that she doesn’t want the other parent to have contact with the child.”

“I have worked with many parents who have lost relationships with children because of this kind of inequality,” she continues. “I worked with a heterosexual male-female couple in which the mother ended up in a same-sex relationship. The father got so mad that he attempted to use that to deny her custody of the child.”

Moore also worked with a child whose parents were splitting up because the father was transitioning to a woman. The child was naturally upset about the divorce but was also confused because his father was becoming a woman, she says.

Children are very resilient and can adjust to a wide range of circumstances, including a parent’s transition, says Moore. But too often, she says, one parent is trying to deny the other parent custody, and the child is left wondering, “What do you mean my other mom isn’t my mom anymore?”

— Laurie Meyers


Further reading

  • Youth at Risk: A Prevention Resource for Counselors, Teachers and Parents, Sixth Edition, David Capuzzi & Douglas R. Gross, 2014
  • Family Violence: Explanations and Evidence-Based Clinical Practice, David M. Lawson, 2013
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, Fourth Edition, Courtland C. Lee, 2013
  • Casebook for Counseling Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Persons and Their Families, Sari H. Dworkin & Mark Pope, Editors, 2012
  • Family Matters: The Intertwining of the Family With Career Decision Making, Second Edition, Robert C. Chope, 2012
  • Understanding People in Context: The Ecological Perspective in Counseling, Ellen P. Cook, Editor, 2012
  • Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families, Richard C. Henriksen Jr. & Derrick A. Paladino, 2009
  • Family Counseling for All Counselors, David M. Kaplan & Associates, 2003
  • Techniques in Marriage and Family Counseling, Volume One, Richard E. Watts, Editor, 2000
  • Techniques in Marriage and Family Counseling, Volume Two, Richard E. Watts, Editor, 2002


The International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of the
American Counseling Association, was chartered in 1989. Its members help develop
healthy family systems through prevention, education and therapy.
For more information, visit


To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:

Esther Benoit at

Karena Heyward at

Greg Czyszczon at

David Lawson at

Brandé Flamez at

Robert Smith at

Kathryn Norsworthy at

Ruth Outz Moore at


Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

Letters to the editor:

ACA’s first counselor compensation study reports varied pay, good benefits

By Bethany Bray September 18, 2014

The American Counseling Association recently released its 2014 counselor compensation survey, the organization’s first large-scale effort to determine the salary levels, health care and other benefits earned by those in the counseling profession.

The project determined that the average primary salary for counselor educators is $66,405 annually. Rehabilitation counselors make $53,561 on average annually, while school counselors have an average salary of $53,299 per year. Mental health, clinical mental health and community counselors were found to have the lowest average annual salary at $40,422. All other counselor specialties were put into the category “other,” which was determined to have an average primary salary of $51,074 annually.

Close to 9,000 counselors – ACA members and nonmembers alike – were surveyed in the fall of 2013 to determine the average salaries. As a whole, counselors’ retirement, health care and other employer-sponsored benefits were found to exceed national standards.


Chart from page 28 of the American Counseling Association’s “2014 State of the Profession: Counselor Compensation.”

David Staten, president of the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association, a division of ACA, says he is “pleasantly surprised” by the survey’s average salary figure for rehabilitation counselors.

“That number is encouraging, but there is more work to be done to enhance the salaries for all counselors,” says Staten, a licensed professional counselor and professor of rehabilitation counseling in South Carolina. “Given the rigorous academic training and the pending debt from student loans, it is imperative for counselors to be adequately compensated for their hard work. Most counselors are not in this profession to become rich. However, we push our clients to maximize their potential in all aspects of life — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, etc. Thus, I believe we should strive to reach those same standards.”

For those reasons, Staten says he believes all counselors should be making a minimum of $100,000 annually.

Stephen Giunta, president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association, another division of ACA, expressed appreciation for ACA’s first effort at calculating average salaries for the profession. However, he thinks the initial survey is far from conclusive.

“While this first effort of its kind does give us an initial view worthy of our consideration, I look forward to subsequent surveys with a larger number of participants. With over 120,000 licensed counselors in the field, I encourage everyone to participate in succeeding surveys because far too many questions are left unanswered,” he says.

Giunta, a licensed mental health counselor and clinical supervisor in Tampa, Florida, says it would be helpful if future surveys asked clinicians about the rates they charge.

“We all know that insurance providers’ reimbursement rates have been relatively flat for over a decade, but I wonder to what extent clinicians have raised their rates over the same time period,” Giunta says. “I am also interested in knowing the parameters that clinicians in private practice have set for indigent rates and sliding scales. I suspect far too many clinicians, particularly young professionals, have set indigent and sliding scale rates below their hourly break-even cost points. Specific to part-time private practice, I wonder what percentage of those individuals have boutique, cash-only practices.”

A look at the numbers

In the 100-page survey report, ACA cautions that the average compensation figures should be regarded as a “rough estimate” because counselor pay varies widely by geographic and work setting.

When broken down by region, counselors in California were paid the most ($64,197 average annually), while counselors in Hawaii and the Northwest were paid the least (a little more than $43,000 annually, on average).


Map from page 64 of the American Counseling Association’s “2014 State of the Profession: Counselor Compensation.”

“We all know that counselors aren’t in this profession for the money,” writes ACA CEO Richard Yep in the survey’s executive summary. “But we did find that counselors can be well-compensated in many ways besides salary. Benefits such as health care coverage for counselors exceed the norm for the U.S.”


Chart from page 29 of the American Counseling Association’s “2014 State of the Profession: Counselor Compensation.”

Eighty-three percent of counselors who responded to the survey reported that they have medical insurance coverage, and 76 percent said they have an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Counselors’ amount of paid time off, however, varied widely. Overall, 20 percent of counselors said they receive three weeks of paid time off annually; 13 percent said they received more than six weeks; and 14 percent said they received none at all. Counselor educators (20 percent) and mental health/community counselors (21 percent) were the two groups with the largest percentage of respondents who reported receiving zero paid time off.

Seventy-seven percent of counselors reported receiving paid training; 39 percent received tuition benefits, while 33 percent received paid supervision hours.

The survey also found that a significant number of counselors work two or more jobs or combine multiple part-time positions. According to the survey data, 34 percent of counselors hold a second job outside of their primary counseling position.

“In my opinion,” Staten says, “these statistics underscore the importance of counselors being able to secure a salary that compensates them for their efforts. Also, if counselors are busy juggling multiple jobs, how much does lifestyle contribute to burnout?”

Counselor educators are most likely to hold a secondary position; 57 percent of counselor educators who responded to the survey said they worked more than one job, such as an adjunct faculty position or in a private practice. It’s important to note, however, that the survey’s average salary figure of $66,405 is for primary employment only and does not include secondary positions.

Twenty-four percent of school counselors said they hold a second position. In fact, of the 2,860 school counselors who said they work more than one job, 428 reported having more than one “second” job.

On average, counselors of all types who work multiple positions make an additional $3,133 annually, according to the survey data.

“Although a significant proportion of counselors are holding down a second job, that job is, in most cases, likely a chance to further grow or explore a passion for counseling, rather than a means to make ends meet,” ACA wrote in the survey report.




About the survey

ACA’s entire membership body was invited (via email) to participate in the 46-question, web-based survey. A sampling of counselors outside of ACA was also contacted via state licensure and certification lists and other databases.

Counselors from 49 U.S. states took the questionnaire (no one from Rhode Island responded), as well as a small sample of international counselors.

The largest percentage of the 8,949 survey responders were from the Midwest and Southeast regions of the United States.

The full survey report, which is available for purchase through the ACA bookstore, breaks down the data by education level, certification, work setting and many other subcategories. Salary figures for the five categories — mental health counselors, school counselors, rehabilitation counselors, counselor educators and other — is dissected in great detail by geographic region, salary distribution, amount of paid time off, health benefits and other factors.





2014 State of the Profession: Counselor Compensation is available from the American Counseling Association bookstore by calling 800-347-6647 ext. 222 (ask for item #78097).





Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at


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Critical social skills to incorporate in a 21st-century social skills group

By Aaron McGinley September 16, 2014

If you provide counseling services to clients who have autism, or any of several other mental health conditions, at some point you will inevitably work with them on social skills. And if you are like many of the practitioners I know, you have a sizeable collection of the various resources and materials available to support work on social skills. Why shouldn’t you? The works of Jed Baker, Michelle Garcia Winner and Carol Gray, among others, are full of insightful and engaging techniques to help polish interpersonal skills.

The challenge for many clinicians is how to fit these various curriculums into a world filled with Instagram, Facebook and the dreaded Snapchat. To update an old saying, this isn’t your father’s selfiesocial world.

The bulk of most social skills curriculums are appropriately focused on “in-person” social skills. Issues such as personal space, body language, conversational cues and job interview skills still offer overwhelming challenges for some individuals with special needs. But the social norms found in everyday interactions are further complicated by rapidly evolving technologies and social media platforms. Effective social skills instruction needs to reflect this reality and the changing norms that accompany these rules. If we are going to teach social skills effectively, our curriculums must reflect the unwritten rules of the 21st century.

Anecdotally, I have found that clients benefit from the same instructional strategies that are used with more traditional social skills training programs. Visual supports, direct instruction, role-plays, social cognition exercises and other strategies can still work to address Facebook faux pas, Snapchat social rules and email etiquette. However, such difficulties cannot just be added in on the fly. Because smartphones and tablets are fully integrated into today’s world, they also need to be fully integrated into any robust social skills curriculum.


The art of the ‘selfie’

Although “selfies” are a popular part of youth culture, and a tempting means for socially awkward youth to engage with their social world, the wrong type of selfie can sabotage a youth’s reputation, or worse, compromise his or her safety.

A social skills instructor might help a client recognize some of the unwritten social rules of selfies:

  • Don’t post more than one selfie in a day
  • Try to post selfies only at exciting new events
  • When possible, try to include other people in your selfie

Social media savvy

The time is gone when social skills instructors could easily redirect residents away from computers and toward the day-to-day challenges of social interactions. Social media use is now a regular part of most cultures, and the socially awkward youth cannot easily avoid the world of social media. At the same time, social media can be a source of challenges such as cyberbullying, Internet safety issues and other difficulties that are beyond the scope of this article.

With that said, there are some ways that social media savvy can be combined with common social skills lessons:

  • When doing a lesson plan on hygiene/fashion and reputation, have students show or draw their Facebook profiles for feedback from the group.
  • When discussing conversational skills such as active listening, discuss how these rules apply to online conversations.
  • When discussing boundaries, bring up such issues as what sorts of comments should go on a public wall, how often to “like” someone else’s pictures and similar issues related to conversational boundaries. 

Email etiquette

Politeness, self-advocacy, follow-through, conciseness and other important social skills do not stop at the Internet’s door. When working with students on social skills, it might be helpful to support them by offering email etiquette lessons.

  • When running a lesson on “think before you speak,” suggest that students find a point person to run sensitive emails by before sending them.
  • When facilitating a discussion about self-advocacy, discuss how to practice self-advocacy in an email.
  • When discussing conversational skills such as manners, touch on how to incorporate these skills in email communications.

Let’s talk texting

At some point, many socially awkward young people get involved in tricky texting situations. Some do not recognize the challenges that can come along with “sexting.” For others, the challenges of dealing with unrequited love via text can be too much. A social skills instructor can:

  • Discuss texting styles
  • Help students understand what types of conversations should happen via text
  • Discuss the frequency of texting as it applies to different types of relationships, such as friends, teachers and other social roles


Between the time this article was written and posted, online social norms might have evolved dozens of times. But this only underscores the importance of being intentional about incorporating technology etiquette into social skills work. So sit down, pull out your social skills curriculum and ask yourself …“Is my social skills curriculum ready for the 21st century?”




Aaron McGinley is student member of the American Counseling Association living in Asheville, North Carolina. In addition to serving as a social skills consultant at Beacon Transitions, an independent living program for young adults, he works as a clinical intern at Caring Alternative as he completes his work toward a clinical mental health counseling degree at Montreat College. Contact him at



Update: Aaron McGinley gave a TED Talk on this topic in September 2016. See the video at




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.