Monthly Archives: February 2017

Helping children and families address and prevent sibling abuse

By Diane M. Stutey February 28, 2017

Counselors play a fundamental role in the well-being of children and adolescents, including serving as advocates against abuse. We are trained to assess and intervene if clients are experiencing sexual, physical or emotional abuse or neglect. Children are a particularly vulnerable population given their size, power status and general lack of knowledge about how to protect and defend themselves against such threats.

Unfortunately, the abuse of children by adults continues in today’s society, even though it is illegal. Yet abuse of children by adults may not be as prevalent as other forms of abuse that children experience. For instance, they might suffer physical or emotional abuse from other children or peers, which is commonly referred to as bullying.

A less frequently explored form of peer-to-peer violence is sibling abuse. In the past, sibling abuse, which was often mislabeled as “sibling rivalry,” was considered to be a normal rite of passage that most children experienced. Today, many researchers posit that sibling abuse may be more prevalent than other types of family violence.

In 2007, Mark S. Kiselica and Mandy Morrill-Richards reported in the Journal of Counseling & Development that up to 80 percent of children may experience some form of sibling maltreatment. In 2010, Deeanna Button and Roberta Gealt reported in the Journal of Family Violence that 3 to 6 percent of children experience severe physical abuse (which may include the use of weapons) by a sibling. In addition to potentially being the most prevalent form of abuse for children, sibling abuse is often the least reported and least researched form of family violence.

As a former school counselor and elementary teacher, I was very surprised when I first learned about the possible high rates of children experiencing maltreatment by a sibling. I was researching the topic of teen dating violence for my dissertation, and one of the articles mentioned the possibility that teenagers who enter into violent dating relationships might have experienced violence with a sibling as a child. I knew there was a link between child abuse and dating violence, but I had never considered that sibling violence might also be a precursor. I became very curious about sibling abuse and ultimately changed the focus of my dissertation to examine school counselors’ attitudes and beliefs about sibling abuse.

Initially, I wondered if other counselors had already learned about sibling abuse; perhaps this was something I had simply missed during my training on child abuse and neglect. However, as I examined the literature on sibling abuse, I found that only one article had been published in the counseling literature on sibling maltreatment (the article by Kiselica and Morrill-Richards). My dissertation findings confirmed that school counselors were often unaware of sibling abuse and received little to no training on the subject, meaning that it might continue to go unaddressed. It seemed imperative to me that our field needed to start a dialogue and research around the topic of sibling abuse, especially as I continued to learn about the negative psychological ramifications associated with it.

Consequences and complications

Through my review of the literature, I discovered that children who suffer from sibling abuse experience myriad negative consequences over time. Many of these harmful side effects are similar to those faced by survivors of child abuse.

Survivors of sibling abuse have reported problems with depression, drugs and alcohol, sexual risk behaviors, low self-esteem, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder and an increased risk of continuing the cycle of violence into their teenage years and adult lives. Counselors work diligently to prevent clients from experiencing adverse childhood experiences, but we may not be addressing sibling abuse because of a lack of awareness about this issue or a lack of reporting by clients and family members. This could result in the possibility of clients being harmed, both in the short and long term.

Further complicating this problem is the fact that there are currently no federal laws, and few state laws, to protect children and adolescents from abuse by a sibling, other than in cases of sexual abuse. So, even when counselors determine that sibling abuse might be occurring, it can be difficult to protect children from this form of abuse.

Counselors have shared that when they call child protective services (CPS) to report sibling abuse, they are typically instructed to call the police. When they call the police, they are generally told that this is a “family matter” and the counselor should contact the parents. One problem with this scenario is that sibling abuse occurs at higher rates within families in which domestic violence or child abuse is present. So, working with the child’s parents or guardians may not always be beneficial because of the presence of intrafamilial violence.

There is often a cultural silence that exists with all forms of intrafamilial violence, including sibling abuse, wherein children are told to keep family matters private. When family violence occurs, there are often threats made not to report it to anyone. So even children who might recognize that they are being abused by a sibling may not seek help because of the fear of breaking family bonds or the threat of retribution. In addition, many people normalize violence between siblings, excusing it as sibling rivalry without fully understanding the damage that can be caused both short and long term. Children may seek help from their parents, only to be told that what they are experiencing is normal or to “toughen up” or “fight back.”

Counselors can take several precautions to ensure that they are advocating for all clients when it comes to sibling abuse. First, counselors who are unfamiliar with this phenomenon should educate themselves about the topic. Sibling abuse can occur across the same domains as child abuse, including sexual, physical and emotional. Sexual abuse of a sibling is often referred to as incest and may include touching, fondling, indecent exposure, attempted penetration, intercourse, rape or sodomy. Physical abuse of a sibling might include slapping, hitting, biting, kicking or causing injury with a weapon.

Sexual and physical abuse may be the easier forms of sibling abuse to detect and report because of the physical evidence and a clear line being crossed. However, verbal or emotional abuse can occur along with or independent of sexual or physical sibling abuse. This psychological maltreatment might include name-calling, ridicule, threatening, blackmail or degradation. Abuse between siblings might also include property or pet abuse and relational aggression.

Similar to the definition of bullying, sibling abuse is viewed as a unilateral relationship in which one child uses his or her power to control and harm the other. With sibling abuse, however, the perpetrator has greater access to his or her victim. This close proximity can lead to additional layers of emotional abuse, such as damaging a sibling’s property or torturing or killing a pet.

Once counselors have more insight into sibling abuse, they can begin to integrate this knowledge into their work with clients. Elysia Clemens, of the University of Northern Colorado, and I adapted a five-step model to assess and intervene with sibling abuse. Heather A. Johnstone and John F. Marcinak developed the original model to be used in the nursing field when there was a suspicion of sibling abuse. Although our adapted model was specifically designed for implementation by school counselors, I have adapted it here to be useful to all counselors.

Our adapted model consists of counselors working with clients through five phases to assess, conceptualize, plan, intervene and evaluate for sibling aggression. Detailed information about each of the five steps can be retrieved from an article we wrote for the Professional School Counseling journal in 2014. That article includes a decision-making tree to help school counselors determine when to stop and report sibling abuse versus when to continue working with the client and family through each of the model’s five phases.

Assess for sibling abuse

In the first phase of this model, the counselor should assess for sibling abuse if there are red flags similar to those we might observe with child abuse (e.g., unexplained bruises, the child seems fearful of his or her sibling, etc.). This can be done by asking a series of questions: Is the client being hurt by his or her brother or sister? What kind of aggression is the child experiencing? How often is this occurring? Is the child afraid to be left alone with his or her sibling? Has the child reported this to anyone in the family? If so, what happened?

Remember that although it may be easier to identify and document physical or sexual violence or abuse, counselors will also want to inquire about emotional or verbal abuse. It is also important to note that the term sibling might pertain to a variety of people living in the home, including biological siblings, half brothers or sisters, stepsiblings, adoptive siblings and foster siblings. In some cases, there may also be what is described as a “fictive” sibling — a child living in the home who is not related but who assumes the role of a brother or sister.

It is important during the assessment phase for counselors to determine whether the sibling aggression would be defined as violence or abuse. If it is determined that the aggression is bilateral, there may need to be intervention on multiple levels within the family. The family may need some psychoeducation about sibling violence, including ways to intervene more effectively and provide proper supervision for all siblings.

If it is clear that there is a perpetrator and a victim of sibling abuse, then it is important to first assess how best to protect the client being victimized. Options may include reporting the case immediately to CPS, calling law enforcement or consulting with the client’s parents or guardians to determine whether they are willing to work to put a stop to the sibling abuse. Counselors will need to make this decision on a case-by-case basis. In our model, we emphasize the importance of working with the parents or guardians if at all possible. However, if the counselor assesses that the parents or guardians seem unwilling or unable to protect their child or may also be involved in intrafamilial abuse, then reporting to CPS or law enforcement would be the best decision.

Conceptualize with clients

Assuming that the parents are willing and able to work with the counselor to protect their child, the counselor will move on to the second phase, which involves helping the client and family conceptualize what type of sibling abuse is occurring. During this time, it is important to provide the family with some psychoeducation about sibling aggression. Helping the client and family understand the difference between sibling abuse and sibling rivalry is a key piece of this conceptualization.

The counselor will also want to differentiate between mild and severe sibling aggression. In the book Sibling Aggression: Assessment and Treatment, Jonathan Caspi explains sibling aggression on a continuum from sibling conflict to sibling abuse. Conflict or competition between siblings (e.g., fighting over who gets to pick the movie you watch or who has the best report card) would be considered mild sibling aggression, whereas severe sibling aggression would include violence and abuse. Examples include the aforementioned forms such as sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Counselors can also help parents conceptualize when and where the abuse is occurring and discuss ways in which providing better supervision and interventions would be beneficial.

Another key component to the conceptualization phase is to help the family gather more information about the goals and misbehavior of the sibling perpetrator. It is important to put mental health services in place for both the victim and the perpetrator of sibling abuse. The sibling perpetrator may have also experienced abuse or neglect of some kind, or the child may have some underlying mental health issues that need to be addressed.

In addition, other siblings in the family may have witnessed the abuse without experiencing it firsthand. It is important to work with the parents or guardians to ensure that these siblings who were not targeted also receive counseling services if necessary. The counselor can help the client and the family to conceptualize each of their roles in promoting better and healthier sibling interactions.

Plan for safety

Initially, parents or guardians may be unaware that sibling abuse is occurring in their home. One of their children might have complained about a sibling’s behavior, but the parents or guardians may not have realized the magnitude of the situation or didn’t possess the awareness that it went beyond normal sibling rivalry. During the conceptualization phase, the counselor works with the client and family to increase this awareness. With this knowledge, the family can start putting a safety plan in place. 

It is important for counselors to work with their child clients to create plans that ensure they are safe and being properly supervised in the home. As counselors, we may be working with multiple family members throughout this process. Our work may include counseling the sibling victim, sibling perpetrator and nontargeted siblings, as well as consulting with the parents or guardians.

It is also critical for all members of the family to have input on the safety plan and for the counselor to ensure that they understand their role in the plan. If it is determined that the sibling abuse is occurring during a certain time of day or in a particular place, the counselor will want to address this in the plan. For instance, if the sibling perpetrator shares a room with the victim, the counselor should explore with the family how this might be escalating the problem and creating an unsafe and unsupervised environment. Part of the safety plan might include setting aside a space in the house where the sibling perpetrator is not allowed to go, thus ensuring that the victim always has a “safe zone.” In addition, if weapons such as belts, knives or other objects have been used to inflict sibling abuse, then removing or restricting access to these objects is another element to address in the safety plan.

Choose interventions

Once the family is able to conceptualize the sibling abuse that has been occurring and has a safety plan in place, the counselor can work with the family to implement additional interventions. Sometimes, simply providing a greater level of awareness of the sibling abuse and establishing safety boundaries within the home might put an end to the abuse, making these additional interventions unnecessary. However, this will more likely be the case if no other forms of family violence are present and if the sibling abuse that occurred was milder in nature.

In instances in which intrafamilial violence may exist or the sibling abuse is more severe, it is important for the counselor to address the long-term impact of sibling abuse on the child victim, the sibling perpetrator, the nontargeted siblings and the family. Counselors can look at interventions that might help young children or adolescents break the cycle of abuse. There are no evidence-based programs for sibling abuse at this time. However, one way for counselors to help these clients is to explore evidence-based programs that have proved effective in working with children and abuse, including trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy, game-based cognitive behavior group therapy and play therapy.

In addition, counselors may want to recommend some parenting programs aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect, such as the Incredible Years parents training program, SafeCare and Project 12-Ways.

Evaluate if the plan is working

A key component of the evaluation process is for counselors to consult and collaborate with other professionals. As previously mentioned, the five-step plan discussed in this article was originally designed for school counselors. One piece of advice we give to school counselors is to work as part of an interdisciplinary team within the school setting to help sibling victims and perpetrators. This may include working with school administrators, teachers, nurses, social workers or psychologists. In addition, school counselors can seek permission from the parents or guardians to consult with outside counselors who may be providing services to their students outside of the school setting.

It is just as imperative for clinical mental health counselors to consult with school counselors regarding sibling abuse that is occurring in families. Establishing and maintaining an ongoing dialogue between mental health professionals is essential to evaluating if the family’s safety plan is working and if the client feels safe and supported.

In addition, counselors will want to continually evaluate with the client and the parents or guardians regarding whether the safety plan is working and if the sibling abuse within the home has stopped. Counselors should recognize that it might take some time for sibling aggression to stop completely. However, during this transition we want to ensure that the sibling victim is feeling safe and that the parents or guardians are providing proper support and supervision. At any point within these five phases, counselors can report sibling abuse to CPS or law enforcement. Although there are no federal, and few state laws, to protect children from sibling abuse, parents and guardians can be reported to CPS for parental neglect if they fail to provide proper supervision for their children.

Summary

Sibling abuse occurs more often than is reported and can cause serious ongoing psychological damage. Counselors can play an instrumental role in helping their clients acknowledge and put a stop to sibling abuse. Utilizing the five-step plan discussed here is one way for counselors to assess and intervene on behalf of child and adolescent clients who are experiencing sibling abuse.

In addition, counselors have the ability to increase awareness about the topic of sibling abuse in their communities and schools. We can educate those around us about sibling abuse, collaborate with others in the mental health and social services fields to better define what constitutes sibling abuse, and advocate for state and federal laws to protect children from sibling abuse.

There are several excellent resources for counselors and parents who want to learn more about ways to address and intervene with sibling abuse. I have listed a few of them here.

  • Sibling Abuse Trauma: Assessment and Intervention Strategies for Children, Families and Adults by John V. Caffaro and Allison Conn-Caffaro (1998)
  • Sibling Aggression: Assessment and Treatment by Jonathan Caspi (2012)
  • Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Trauma by Vernon R. Wiehe (1997)
  • What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse: Breaking the Cycle of Violence by Vernon R. Wiehe (2002)

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Diane M. Stutey is an assistant professor of counseling and counseling psychology in the School of Applied Health and Education Psychology in the College of Education at Oklahoma State University. She is a registered play therapist supervisor, licensed professional counselor, licensed school counselor and national certified counselor. Contact her at diane.stutey@okstate.edu

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

Conversion therapy: Learning to love myself again

By Luke Romesberg February 27, 2017

When I was 14, I came out as gay to my parents. I was confident in my decision and felt ready for the world to meet the real me. Many argue that I was too young, but I had recognized and understood my feelings for a very long time. I just needed everyone else to catch up.

I was raised Catholic — not strict Catholic, but Catholic nonetheless. I attended church with my mother every Sunday, and also catechism class before or after Mass. My father always stayed home. He is Lutheran but quit practicing many years ago. Regarding politics, my parents were, and are, Republican. As with religion, my mother took an active role in this area. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, made up mostly of middle-class Caucasians, and always had dreams of leaving for a large city.

Athletics were a large part of my childhood and adolescence. Ice hockey, football, baseball, soccer — if it was available, my father had me involved. As it turns out, I was not bad at athletics, but not fantastic either. My academics were much more important to me. This seemed to be a source of disappointment for my father, which I believe fractured our relationship at that time. Technology also fascinated me. I spent much of my time playing video games and surfing the internet. The internet would become one of my only outlets during some of the most painful times in my life.

 

Coming out

Despite aspects of my upbringing that many would regard as combative to the LGBTQ community, my hopes for coming out remained positive. I devised a plan. Being a millennial, my instinct was to scour the internet for thoughtful ways to reveal my identity to my parents.

After much research, I decided a letter and CD would suffice. I wrote a long, detailed composition explaining many aspects of my identity that I had kept hidden. I expressed my feelings that I was a Democrat, was done playing sports in high school and identified as part of the LGBT community. By the time my parents were reading it, I would already be at a friend’s home, where I planned to stay for a few days (also noted in my letter).

Feelings of pride and happiness surrounded me. At the same time, anxiety consumed me. I was nervous yet ready. I assumed that revealing my identity would be the most awkward aspect of coming out. Little did I know then that those feelings of awkwardness would only increase for many years.

My perfect coming-out plan crashed and burned one fateful night. During a shopping trip, I purchased a baby pink, size-small T-shirt. I loved that shirt. I would likely still be wearing that shirt if my mother had not thrown it away — and if I could still fit into a size small — but that is another story for another day.

The shirt was flamboyant. That was my goal. I felt comfortable in my identity and was ready not just to come out, but to burst out. I had been stifled in a world of sports and overt masculinity for years. This pink shirt gave me hope. It would be the catapult to my coming out.

The shirt forced people to make assumptions about me, and I welcomed them. What I had not considered, however, were the assumptions my parents were making. The sight of me wearing this vibrant shirt triggered something in them. They became more inquisitive and increasingly watchful. They asked questions: What are you doing? Where are you going? Why do you spend so much time on the computer? Who are you talking to? Who are you texting? So. Many. Questions.

Something changed. We all knew something was different, but nobody vocalized it.

Everything came to a head one night when my father walked into my bedroom holding my pink shirt. With some colorful and hurtful language, he told me the shirt made me “look” gay. His anger seemed to grow with every passing statement.

My anger also grew. I walked to my bookshelf, snatched the letter hidden within a book, and threw it at him. My parents would never receive the CD.

I watched as my father’s anger turned to sadness. He read the letter, and tears formed in his eyes. To this day, I have seen him cry only twice — at his father’s funeral and on this night.

This is when my mother entered the room. “What’s going on?” she asked, concerned. My father handed her the letter. She cried. She screamed. She shouted, “Oh, my God!” Repeatedly. She paced around the house. My father was practically frozen.

I remember feeling upset, but nowhere near their level. What had just happened? Was this really that terrible? To my parents, it was.

My mother rushed to my grandparents’ home, only three houses away. She informed them of the situation. I wasn’t present, so I can only imagine the state of panic that immediately filled the home. My grandparents on my mother’s side held even more intense religious and political views. This was not looking good for me.

I went to sleep that night, tears in my eyes and nervous to attend school the next day. What I had thought would be an awkward, yet happy, moment with my parents turned out to be anything but.

 

Conversion therapy

I revealed my sexual orientation on a Tuesday. By Friday my parents had arranged a meeting with a therapist. They told me he was a religious counselor. This seemed frightening already. He was going to “fix” me. He would make everything “better.”

I didn’t understand exactly what this meant. I didn’t need fixing. I was fine with my identity. I thought maybe my parents needed fixing.

Given that my town was so small, meeting with a conversion therapist was going to be an ordeal in and of itself. My mother’s sister, who had been informed of the situation, located a counselor. They told me he was “the best.” His office was in Philadelphia, nearly six hours’ distance from my hometown. My parents demanded that I miss school on Friday. Despite my protests, we would make the trip to Philadelphia together to meet him.

My memories of this initial session are blurry, although I remember being hounded with questions. Was I ever sexually assaulted? No. Had I ever experimented with same-sex partners? No. Was I happy with my body? No. I was 14 years old and going through puberty. Of course I wasn’t happy with my body.

The questions continued. Did I want to be straight? “Yes,” I answered, even though my brain was saying, “No. Hell no.” I wondered, “Who is this man? What do these questions have to do with my sexual orientation? What is he going to do to me? How is this stranger going to help me change something that I do not want to change?”

Over the course of the next year, I would be a participant of conversion therapy. My sessions were weekly phone conversations that cost my parents a small fortune. The sessions began as an hour in length and then decreased to 30 minutes. As I “improved,” my sessions decreased further to an hour every two weeks and, eventually, to 30 minutes every two weeks. The sessions would occur until I was healed of all of my sexual orientation issues. I was going to emerge a heterosexual young man.

My body was a frequent topic in our sessions. My therapist seemed obsessed with it. I was ordered to take off my shirt and look in the mirror. He would then say, “Please describe what you see. Tell me what parts of your body make you insecure.”

I told him that my stomach was a source of insecurity. He encouraged me to describe it. Allow me to repeat: I was a teenager. My body was changing daily. Many teenagers are insecure about their bodies. The last thing they want to do is discuss the details of these changes with a strange man on the phone.

Nevertheless, my therapist told me that my insecurities were likely negatively impacting my feelings of masculinity. My low levels of masculinity were a reason that same-sex attractions were occurring.

“Same-sex attractions.” He always said that. It was a way to pathologize my feelings. This term was used to separate me from my identity. I was not to refer to myself as “gay.” I was not gay. I was suffering from same-sex attractions.

This is where he first began to break me down. He created some cracks, which would only grow in time.

During the course of therapy, my life at home was changing rapidly. I was now being watched. I was forced to defend all of my actions. I was no longer allowed to watch certain TV shows. If anything surrounding the LGBTQ community was mentioned, I was never allowed to watch that show again. My parents began searching my phone records and forced me to call every number they did not recognize while they listened. They found and called a suspicious number only once but, thankfully, he immediately hung up and blocked my number.

My text messages were read. All of my contacts were questioned. My instant messaging account was reviewed. My computer was moved to the living room. When I used it, my mother would attempt to catch me doing something wrong. She caught me talking to a guy once, but I cut the computer’s power before she could read the conversation. My parents seemed to blame technology for making me gay. My mother once accused me of looking at a stranger the wrong way and swore that I secretly knew him.

I also had to clarify to my mother that I was not a pedophile and had no interest in children. I was no longer allowed to hang out with girls. My former best friend became less than an acquaintance. My parents condemned me for going shopping. I was allowed to wear only certain clothes.

Everything about my life that had once been comforting was stripped away. I was being forced back into the closet. My love for myself was disappearing.

As therapy continued, the therapist informed me that the combination of a “sports dad” and an “overbearing mother” were additional reasons that I was suffering from same-sex attractions. On a related note, he told me that my volatile relationship with my father and my noninterest in sports also contributed to my same-sex attractions. My father and I were instructed to spend more time with each other. Father and son bonding time would surely change my sexual orientation.

My father and I awkwardly began attempting to hang out. We would go out to eat, go to the mall, go see a movie. You know, a stereotypical girls’ night out.

My therapist even suggested that we try more “masculine activities,” such as visiting the batting cages (something I still despise) or throwing a football. One night, my father and I went to see King Kong together as a supposedly masculine activity. At the end of the movie, I left in tears, crying at King Kong’s tragic death. I doubt that is what either my father or the therapist had in mind.

Despite some setbacks, I was making “progress.” I informed my therapist that I was going through a gray area regarding my sexual orientation. This was all nonsense of course. I was still just as gay as ever; I was just telling him otherwise.

I told the therapist my gray area consisted of a lack of sexual attraction to either sex. He informed me this was normal and represented the lessening of my same-sex attractions.

Little did he know that most of my responses could now be credited to Google. That is the power of technology and the internet. I had researched and became an expert on conversion therapy. I now told him everything he wanted to hear. As a result, I was able to trick him into believing that I was changing.

Therapy continued. I was making strides, leaps and bounds even. I was moving quickly. I was turning into a proud heterosexual. In reality, nothing about my sexual orientation was actually changing. But my previous feelings of comfort and confidence were gone. I felt trapped. My parents and therapist analyzed everything I did. Being the authentic me was no longer an option. I was a stranger in my own body. My insecurities grew. My feelings of self-doubt and depression increased. I was forced back into the closet. The love I had for my identity vanished.

Therapy ended roughly a year after it began. I was “cured.” I finally felt a taste of freedom.

However, despite no longer having to deal with my therapist, my parents now believed I was “fixed.” I feel as though they were in denial, just as I was pretending to be straight. We were all lying to one another, and we secretly knew it.

Everything was not fine. I was still gay. My parents knew it. I knew it too, but we were now back to square one. The next four years proved to be draining. Coming out once was difficult enough, but now I had to find the courage to come out again.

 

Life after conversion therapy

When I was 17, my parents seemed either in complete denial about my sexual orientation or had silently accepted that I was likely going to remain my gay self. Either way, we had not engaged in an actual conversation regarding my sexuality.

Eventually, I began working for a major political campaign in the Democratic primary race in 2008. Here I would meet many like-minded individuals and fellow members of the LGBTQ community. I even met a guy with whom I would have a short-term relationship while he stayed in town for the primary. After many years of feeling trapped and questioned for my every move, I had finally found what I considered a safe zone, an oasis.

My parents weren’t supportive of the Democratic Party and didn’t approve of my volunteerism, but at least they couldn’t accuse me of things when they knew where I was. I began heading to the campaign office almost every day. The office officials quickly promoted me from volunteer to intern, which ultimately helped in my college searches and even landed me a scholarship. This was an extremely positive experience for me. I enjoyed my time spent there and met amazing people who provided me with feelings of inspiration, confidence, courage and, above all else, hope. The love I once had for myself began growing again.

Armed with my newfound positivity and support system, I was ready to once and for all set the record “straight” on my same-sex attractions. I arrived home from a particularly good night at the campaign office. My father was watching television but eventually began making his way to bed.

I stopped him as he headed up the stairs. I told him that “it” was out. I no longer cared. There was nothing they could do to upset me or tell me who I was. I was probably smirking when I told him.

My father’s face twisted. He didn’t say much but did mention being nervous and embarrassed about what everyone else would think. I didn’t care what anybody else thought. I had just come out — again.

This time it was different. I was older. I was more mature. There would be no argument. I loved myself again.

Over the course of the next few months, I began coming out to others, including my close friend. In midsummer, I put my “status” on Facebook. I received messages from concerned classmates and family members: “Your Facebook has been hacked!” I told them, no, it was true. I was gay. I was no longer afraid to reveal it.

I received unwavering support. People sent me positive messages. I entered my senior year of high school with the support of so many. My love for myself blossomed. I was back to my old self. My parents began adjusting too.

I would go on to college in Pittsburgh to study journalism. However, I would quickly change my major to psychology. My time in conversion therapy provided only one positive quality: It lit a flame in my heart and created a burning passion for caring and providing for the LGBTQ community.

I knew I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be on the other side of this battle. I wanted to do the complete opposite of what my therapist had done for me.

Over time, my parents grew and changed as well. They found love too. Now they accept and support me in all of my decisions. It is truly amazing how things can change.

 

Today

In 2013, I moved to Chicago, where I would eventually receive my master’s degree in counseling and become a licensed professional therapist. Immediately after, at the age of 24, I entered a doctoral program in counseling education and supervision. This leads me to where I am today — and to the ultimate point of this story.

It is essential that the effects of conversion therapy are made widely known. I believe this subject is still in need of increased awareness. Many do not understand how harmful conversion therapy is, and others are entirely unfamiliar with it. Even though my experience with this “therapy type” was not nearly as severe as what others have gone through, it still caused issues that I had to battle.

I was ultimately able to make it through the difficult times these events caused, but many others in my situation do not. As reported by an American Psychological Association task force, people who have gone through conversion therapy face 8.9 times the rates of suicidal ideation, 5.9 times higher rates of depression and are three times as likely as their peers to engage in the use illegal substances and risky sexual behaviors. These statistics simply cannot be ignored. The issues listed are all too familiar for me, even with my somewhat minimal exposure to conversion therapy. It took years of personal reflection and growth, finding forgiveness toward my family, and learning to love myself again to overcome the damages caused by this so-called “therapy.”

As counselors, it is imperative that we do not impose our own value system on our clients. We must always work to ensure that we do not commit any acts of maleficence. Conversion therapy is, without doubt, an act of maleficence. If we find ourselves disagreeing with someone’s sexual orientation, it may be time to take a step back and evaluate our own principles, morals and why we chose to enter this field.

It is our job to know and understand the facts behind conversion therapy. It is not our job to tell people how to live or to attempt to change a client. Rather, we must always work with our clients to support them in their true identities.

 

 

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Luke Romesberg is a doctoral student in the counselor education and supervision program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He is a licensed professional therapist and certified alcohol and other drug abuse counselor. His areas of specialization are LGBTQ issues, addictive behaviors and behavior issues in youth. Contact him at lwr4409@ego.thechicagoschool.edu or on Twitter @LukeRomesberg.

 

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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.

Fostering a brighter future

By Bethany Bray February 23, 2017

In fall 2015, there were 427,910 youths in foster care, according to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, marking the third consecutive year that this number has increased nationwide. Of those youths, 61 percent were removed from a home because of neglect and 32 percent were removed because of a parent’s drug use.

Given those statistics, it’s not surprising that many of the youths in foster care have trauma histories, but the process of being removed from a caregiver is traumatic for a child in and of itself, says Evette Horton, a clinical faculty member at UNC Horizons, a substance abuse treatment program for pregnant women, mothers and their children at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. “Any kind of separation from your primary caregiver is considered trauma, no matter what the age of the child,” says Horton, a licensed professional counselor supervisor (LPCS), registered play therapy supervisor and American Counseling Association member.

For youths in foster care, attachment and trust issues, stubbornness, defiance and a host of other behavioral problems are often a result of the trauma they experienced in — and associated with the removal from — their biological homes. “The best foster families don’t take the child’s behaviors personally or as any kind of statement about them or their parenting. The kids are just coming in with what they know,” Horton says. “The best foster parents I’ve ever worked with understand that what the child does, it’s not about them [the foster parents]. The best foster families understand that [the child] is coming in with skills that they’ve developed to survive.”

Stephanie Eberts, an assistant professor of professional practice at Louisiana State University, agrees that addressing trauma should always be on the minds of counselors who work with children and families in the foster care system. “The behaviors that [these children] are showing, a lot of them make [the child] very unlikable. If we as adults can see past that, we can help the children. If we can’t, then we sometimes perpetuate the cycle they’ve been caught up in,” says Eberts, an ACA member with a background in school counseling. “It’s really important for us as counselors to help these children heal from that break they’ve had from their caregivers, the trauma they’ve experienced and the break in attachment.”

To that end, Horton says that counselors’ skills and expertise with children and families — as mediators, relationship builders and client advocates — can be integral to improving the lives of children in foster care, while also supporting their foster families and biological families, as appropriate.

“Counselors shouldn’t underestimate their power to advocate,” Horton says. “Judges, lawyers and guardian ad litems aren’t trained to understand what the child needs, socially and emotionally, and we are. You shouldn’t underestimate the power of your words and your voice to impact a vulnerable child. A child who has been put in this unbelievably complex situation needs someone to speak on behalf of his or her mental health needs.”

Ground rules for practitioners

Horton oversees the mental health treatment of children, ages birth to 11 years, whose mothers receive substance abuse treatment at UNC Horizons. Through her work, she has the opportunity to see both sides of the foster care coin. In some cases, a mother is able to make the progress needed to be reunited with her children who have been in foster care while she was in treatment. But Horton also sees mothers who are unable to maintain their recovery. In cases in which a child is being put at risk by the mother’s substance abuse, Horton must file a report with child protective services (CPS). Throughout her career, she has assisted biological families, foster families and children with the transitions into and out of foster care, and also worked with the court system and CPS.

For counselors unfamiliar with the complexity of the foster care system, Horton stresses that practitioners must be very careful to identify who, exactly, is their client. This in turn will dictate with whom a practitioner can share information, to whom they have consent to talk and who needs to make decisions and sign paperwork on behalf of a minor client. For children in the foster care system, the legal guardian is often CPS. This can become even more complicated for practitioners when a child is returned to the biological parent’s home on a temporary or trial basis. In such instances, CPS still retains custody of the child, Horton explains.

“These are very, very complicated cases, and you need to support yourself,” Horton says. “Make sure you are careful, regardless of how well-trained you are. These cases are tough — really tough. Do not hesitate to work with your supervisor [and] peers and get support.”

Eberts suggests that counselors working with families and children in the foster care system educate themselves by reading the client’s case file thoroughly and collaborating with caseworkers and the biological family (if possible) to find out more about the child’s background. If details are missing from the case file, particularly about the circumstances of the child’s removal from the biological parent, counselors should attempt to speak to a caseworker or other official who was on-site as the removal happened, Eberts says.

However, Eberts notes, practitioners should also be aware that case files often contain details that can spur vicarious trauma. “Reading some of the children’s files can be really heartbreaking. That self-care piece that we talk about so much with counselors is really, really important [in these cases],” she says.

Counselors as translators

One of the most important ways that counselors can support foster parents and improve the lives of children in foster care is to “translate” the children’s behaviors for those around them. This includes explaining what a child’s behavior means and what motivates it, and then equipping both the child and the parents (both foster and biological parents, where appropriate) with tools to redirect the behavior and better cope with tough emotions.

Eberts shares a painful example she experienced while working as a school counselor. A young student told her foster parents that she didn’t want them to adopt her. Stung by the girl’s pronouncement and taking her words at face value, the couple returned her to the foster care system for placement with another family.

“These kids have experienced a lot of loss and abandonment,” Eberts says. “[This child] was just testing her potential adoptive family — testing whether or not they were going to abandon her. The behaviors [these children display] are often protective.”

Children in the foster care system often present behaviors associated with trauma, Horton says, including:

  • Attachment issues
  • Behavioral issues
  • Nightmares
  • Anxiety
  • Separation anxiety, including trouble being alone
  • Developmental delays, including being behind in speech, language and school subjects
  • Tantrums
  • Trouble sticking to routines (as Horton points out, children in foster care often come from homes in which structure and rules were limited or nonexistent)

Despite their good intentions, foster families may not always understand a child’s behaviors, and adults may interpret a child’s symptoms of anxiety as defiance. For example, the foster parents of a child who refuses to eat vegetables or who puts up a nightly struggle over going to bed may feel the child is being stubborn or testing their authority. In reality, Horton explains, the child may never have been fed vegetables or slept alone before. Misunderstandings can be further compounded when a child comes from a different culture or socioeconomic background than his or her foster family, she adds.

Sarah Jones, an ACA member and doctoral student in counseling and student personnel services at the University of Georgia, agrees. Jones and her wife are foster parents. Over the past five years, they have had 20 different children, all under the age of 7, stay in their home. Jones says the vast majority of children she has seen in the foster care system in Georgia have come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. It is common for these children to present insecurities about food, shelter and other basics, she says.

Foster parents and counselors alike “can give [these children] a glimpse of what the world can be. It can be a place where there is enough food, where there is enough love,” says Jones, who presented on narrative techniques with college students in foster care at ACA’s 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal.

At the same time, Jones stresses that counselors should avoid assigning blame to the biological parents, the child or a system in which caseworkers are vastly overworked and underpaid. Jones thinks of it this way: The moment when a child is removed from his or her home is the low point for the biological parent or parents, but things will not necessarily stay that way.

“It’s like we’re taking a snapshot of someone in their worst-case scenario and making generalizations for their entire lives. … Sometimes we equate that to [these parents] not loving their kids, but sometimes love is not enough,” Jones says.

Counselors should also be aware that CPS usually tries to exhaust every possibility of having children placed with a biological family member before they are placed in foster care, Jones says. In some cases, children in foster care have parents and relatives who have died, are incarcerated or involved in other situations that make them unable to care for their children. “To be in the foster system, it’s not a problem that can be fixed in six months [or a short period of time],” she says. “It means that the biological parents don’t have a network that could take the child.”

Responding effectively

B.J. Broaden Barksdale, an ACA member and LPCS in Katy, Texas, has worked with children and families in Texas’ foster care system for 18 years. Initially she did home monitoring and assessment of foster families and then transitioned into working as a therapist with children and families in the system.

The behavioral issues with which children in the foster care system often struggle can be accompanied by tantrums, outbursts and emotional flare-ups, Barksdale says. She likes to use trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy and the Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) to provide these children and their families with tools for better functioning.

TBRI’s four-level response method helps caregivers to redirect the child’s behavior while maintaining a connection and using the least severe response possible, Barksdale says. Counselors can use this method in their own work with foster children and in coaching parents and caregivers on how to use the method at home.

Level one: Playful engagement. To start, a caregiver or other adult should remain playful and light with the child. For example, if the child comes home from school, slams the door and drops his or her backpack on the floor, a caregiver could respond with, “Whoa! What’s this?” or some other lighthearted remark, Barksdale suggests. Then the child could be given a do-over. Or, if a child makes a demand of an adult, such as “Give me that!” the reply could be, “Are you asking or telling?” If the child doesn’t have the right words to ask appropriately, a counselor or parent can phrase the question and have the child repeat it. Regardless, Barksdale says, the key is to maintain a kind, playful tone and to redirect the child to keep the situation from escalating.

Level two: Structured engagement. If a child does not respond to an adult’s initial playful response, the next step is to offer choices. If a child is refusing to go to bed, give the child a voice and ask what would help him or her get to bed on time. For example, “How about turning off the TV 30 minutes earlier? How can we compromise?” This empowers the child to choose, avoids a power struggle and teaches the child compromise and conflict resolution, Barksdale says.

Repetition and consistency are key, she says. “The repetition is retraining their brain. … Giving them choices helps them learn to make choices,” Barksdale says. “And once they do it, praise the heck out of them. Try to always find something to praise, even if it’s as small as coming home without slamming the door. It’s all in how you say it — ‘We don’t hurt the dog’ instead of ‘Haven’t I told you not to do that?’”

Barksdale emphasizes that the adult should also consider the bigger picture of the child’s day. Has the child been overstimulated or particularly busy? Does the child need some quiet time, a drink or a snack, or something else?

Level three: Calming engagement. If a situation escalates to this level, the child should be given time to pause, cool off and think things through. Barksdale encourages foster parents to designate a space in the home for this very purpose. It should be a safe, comforting space where a child can spend time alone, relax and be quiet while an adult is nearby, she says.

Level four: Protective engagement. When a situation escalates to the possibility of violence, a caregiver can use accepted restraints to calm the child (but only if trained to do so through the foster care system or another agency). The adult must stay calm and reassuring and should remain with the child until he or she is calm enough to talk through the situation.

“These kids are combative about authority, hypervigilant and don’t trust anyone,” Barksdale says. “You have to teach them what they have never learned. You have to be compassionate and get them to trust you. If you don’t build that trust, that felt safety, you can’t move forward.”

In addition to providing consistency, it is essential to address behavioral issues immediately as they unfold, Barksdale says. Through TBRI, she uses the acronym IDEAL to teach this to parents:

I: Respond immediately.

D: Directly to the child, through eye contact and undivided attention, with a calm voice. Barksdale says she often gets down on the floor with younger children to better connect and because it makes her appear as less of an authority figure.

E: In an efficient and measured manner, with the least amount of firmness required.

A: Action-based, by redirecting the child and providing a do-over or giving the child choices. This could include role-play, in which the adult acts out two responses that the child could choose, one of which is inappropriate.

L: Level the response to the behavior, not the child. Criticize the behavior as being unacceptable, but not the child, Barksdale explains.

“You want to give them voice and build trust,” she says. “If they understand that you’re trying to be in harmony with them, they engage. Remember that these kids may have had no relationships, no attachment, since birth. … If there’s relationship-based trauma [in the child’s past], that can only be healed through forming healthy relationships.”

Eberts agrees, noting that counselors should consider the backgrounds of the children they are working with and the reasons they were removed from their biological homes. Counselors can then use that information to identify the child’s major needs.

For example, Eberts worked with a foster family that included an 8-year-old boy who was placed in foster care when he was 2. His biological parents had issues related to drug use and were running a methamphetamine lab in the home when he was taken from them. The boy was prone to outbursts that sometimes became violent.

“For the first two years of his life, he was not getting the kind of attention and care that he needed,” Eberts says. “We used that information to help his foster parents understand that when he needs something, he won’t ask for it in a way the foster parent might expect. … He did not have the attachment needed to connect with other people.”

Eberts worked with the child on building connections with people and trusting that his needs would be met. She used play interventions to help the child learn to express himself, identify emotions and process his frustration. Eberts also equipped the foster parents with tools to de-escalate his tantrums, including recognizing the cues the child gave leading up to his outbursts, and calm, consistent methods for responding when outbursts took place.

“He was very challenging, but things did get better,” Eberts recalls. “It was hard work and took a long time. [The foster mother] had to work on herself quite a bit to understand when he was starting to escalate and how to de-escalate him [by] using a calm voice and helping him to self-identify emotion … in a way that wasn’t combative or defensive. He wasn’t student of the year by the end of the year, and he still struggled with attachment, but the skills that the foster mother had learned helped a great deal. He was on the road to having a much better life experience.”

“He was violent because he was sad and he didn’t know what to do with it,” Eberts says. “These are kids who have so many emotions, they don’t know what to do with them. They don’t know how to express them.”

Tips for helping

Counselors can keep these insights in mind when working with children and families in the foster care system.

Regression is common. For children who have experienced trauma and instability, progress will often be accompanied by spurts of regression. For example, a child who is potty trained may suddenly start having accidents when moved to a new foster home, Horton says. Counselors should coach foster parents not to get discouraged if a child regresses.

“Help the family understand that this will pass. It’s part of the road,” Horton says. “We have to remind people that this is actually common. It’s all very new and confusing to [the child]. All of us regress when we’re under stress, and kids do too.”

Regression can also be expected when children in foster care phase into a new developmental stage, such as the onset of adolescence, Eberts says. “The trauma that they’ve experienced in life has to be reprocessed at every developmental milestone,” she explains. “When they hit adolescence, they’ll have to reprocess it from an adolescent perspective, then as a young adult. So if an 8-year-old makes progress, they can and will regress when they hit 12. They’re processing things from a different developmental perspective.”

Meet children where they are. Many children in the foster care system will lag behind their biological age developmentally, from emotional maturity to speech skills. Counselors should tailor their therapeutic approaches to a young client’s level of development, not the age on his or her file, Eberts says.

“A child who is 10 may still be a great candidate for play therapy because, developmentally, he is really around 7 years old,” she says. “The intervention has to be aligned with the child’s developmental age.”

Keeping that in mind, the expressive arts and tactile interventions such as sand trays and art, dance and movement therapies — in other words, methods other than talk therapy — can be particularly useful with children in the foster care system, Eberts says.

“Keep in mind that you have to meet the child where they are developmentally. That is the most important thing,” Barksdale says. “Expectations for a child who has experienced trauma need to be realistic.”

The importance of structure and routines. If children are coming from a background ruled by instability, it is helpful for counselors to work with foster families on establishing routines and clear expectations. “Make sure there are as few surprises as can be,” Jones says.

For example, it can provide a sense of security for the family to have a movie night every Saturday or to eat dinner together at the same time each evening. Nighttime can be particularly troubling for foster children, so establishing an evening routine and sticking to it — such as brushing teeth and then reading a book together — can be helpful, Jones adds.

Horton suggests that counselors work with foster families to create and post a list of age-appropriate house rules and a daily routine or calendar. If the foster child is too young to read, these lists can be illustrated with pictures. This becomes even more effective if the counselor has access to both the foster and biological families so that the lists can be posted in both homes, Horton says. When possible, the same can be done with a compilation of photos of the child’s biological and foster families, she says.

Prepare for transitions. Transitions both large and small, whether they encompass switching schools or simply transitioning from playtime to bedtime, can be hard for children in the foster care system. Counselors can suggest that foster parents provide plenty of gentle, advance notices that a transition is coming, such as 30 minutes, 15 minutes and five minutes before a child needs to finish playtime to go grocery shopping with the family, Barksdale says.

Established routines can also help in this area, she adds. “Bedtime should be at the same time every night if at all possible. If done repeatedly, the child knows what’s coming next. It helps with comfort, consistency and felt safeness,” Barksdale says. “The one-on-one attention helps with relationship-building, and once trust is built, it’s easier to redirect the child.”

Goal setting and journaling. In the counselor’s office, engaging in dialogue journaling and goal-setting exercises can be helpful for youths in the foster care system, Jones says.

In a dialogue journal, the client and counselor write messages back and forth (younger clients may draw instead of write). The journal can help spark conversation and get the client thinking in between sessions. “A lot of times they don’t know how to talk about their past,” Jones says. “[Through the journal], they can talk about something that happened in their life. Maybe it’s, ‘I wasn’t able to have dessert because I didn’t finish my broccoli.’ Then you can transition into a conversation about how that is different from their past home.”

Goal setting can also be a useful way to connect the past, present and future with young clients, notes Jones. For example, a counselor might work on building a young client’s social skills by encouraging the client to set a goal of talking to one new person at school in the coming week. The counselor would talk through the steps the child could take to achieve the goal and ask the child how he or she made friends in the past at previous schools. “You’re showing the child that they already have those skills,” Jones says. “They just need to use them in a new place.”

The power of pictures. Horton often creates picture albums for her young clients who are transitioning between foster care and home placements. She contacts adults the child is acquainted with to ask for photographs of biological relatives, foster family members and other important people in the child’s life. She looks at the book with the child at every counseling session because it serves both as a conversation starter and a way to remember loved ones, she says.

“Sometimes we have to help create the story that helps the child make sense of what happened,” Horton says.

Coping tools and self-regulation. Many children in the foster care system can be flooded with anxiety and strong emotions, including anger, Horton says, which can make self-regulation exercises, from mindfulness to breathing exercises, particularly helpful. Horton often brings bubbles to counseling sessions. She shows the children how to make big bubbles — which also teaches them how to take slow, deep breaths, she says. In the case of another young client, self-regulation included getting outside. His foster family had a trampoline, and they would all go outside and jump together. This made a difference because rather than just shooing him out the door, they stayed with him to work through his anger as they jumped, Horton says.

Barksdale uses a tool in session that serves as a jumping-off point to talk about self-regulation with clients. It is a wheel with an arrow that clients can move to different colors to indicate how they are feeling. “If you’re feeling blue and tired, what can you do? Get a snack or drink some water. If you’re in the red and really hyped up, what can you do? Count backward and breathe,” Barksdale says. “If you’re feeling anxious and tense, what does your body feel like? Learn to identify that.”

Be honest and talk it through. Be honest with the child while also giving him or her the space to process what is happening, Jones says. “For a few weeks, it feels [to the child] like you’re on vacation and you’re at someone else’s house. As they start to feel more comfortable, the feelings start to come. With that ease also comes an onslaught of feelings about what they’re giving up and missing,” Jones says. “It’s important to recognize how difficult it is, but at the same time saying, ‘You are not alone.’”

“Tell them, ‘There are a lot of people who love you, and they’re doing the best they can right now,’” she says. “We [Jones and her wife] really believe in talking about what’s happening.” Jones says it is important for counselors and foster parents to “talk about how your family is dynamic, and this is what’s happening right now.”

When it’s time to let go

As a foster mother, Jones is all too familiar with working to form bonds and relationships with children in her care despite knowing that they may soon transition back to their biological families. This break can be quite painful for foster families, she says.

“It’s important for counselors to give families a space to grieve,” Jones says. “There was a period of time when our family had two significant losses back to back. A child we had from birth transitioned to her mother after 16 months. Then, less than three months later, a child transitioned from our home into her father’s home and, less than one week later, died from natural causes. The grief associated with these experiences impacted every member of our family — even our dog was acting depressed. My counselor gave me a space to experience very big and painful emotions, then eventually helped me make meaning from my experiences.

“Reminding foster parents that the amount of pain they are experiencing is likely equal to the amount of love given to a child in need is also a powerful reminder. It hurts because it mattered, and if it mattered to us, it likely made an impact on a youth’s life. And that’s why we work as foster parents — and as counselors.”

 

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Related reading

See Brian J. Stevenson’s article “Developing a Career Counseling Intervention Program for Foster Youth“ in the June issue of the Journal of Employment Counseling: http://bit.ly/2r6gFUj

 

 

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Foster care: By the numbers

  • For 2015, the median age of the youths in foster care was 7.8 years old. The median amount of time in care was 12.6 months and the mean was 20.4 months; 53,549 children were adopted with public child welfare agency involvement.
  • Between 2014 and 2015, 71 percent of states reported an increase in the number of children entering foster care. The five states with the largest increases were Florida, Indiana, Georgia, Arizona and Minnesota.

Number of children in foster care in the U.S. on Sept. 30

2015: 427,910

2014: 414,429

2013: 401,213

2012: 397,301

2011: 397,605

Reasons for removal from a home and placement in foster care (2015)

Neglect: 61 percent

Drug abuse of a parent: 32 percent

Caretaker’s inability to cope: 14 percent

Physical abuse: 13 percent

Child behavior problem: 11 percent

Inadequate housing: 10 percent

Parent incarceration: 8 percent

Alcohol abuse of a parent: 6 percent

Abandonment: 5 percent

Sexual abuse: 4 percent

Drug abuse of the child: 2 percent

Child disability: 2 percent

Reasons for discharge from the foster system (2015)

Reunification with parent or primary caretaker: 51 percent

Adoption: 22 percent

Emancipation (aged out): 9 percent

Guardianship: 9 percent

Living with other relative(s): 6 percent

Transfer to another agency: 2 percent

 

Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children & Families, acf.hhs.gov

 

 

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To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

When brain meets body

By Laurie Meyers February 22, 2017

Chinese medicine has always acknowledged the link between the body and the mind. In Western medicine, from the time of the ancient Greeks through the Elizabethan era, the thinking was that four bodily humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) influenced mood, physical health and even personality. Shakespeare built some of his characters around the characteristics of the humors (such as anger or depression). It sounds faintly ridiculous, but the idea that good health came from a balance of the humors — in essence, that the physical and the mental were closely related — was not so far off the mark. Then along came René Descartes and dualism — the school of thought that says that mind and body are separate and never the twain shall meet, essentially.

In the past few decades, however, Western medicine has once again begun to acknowledge that the body and mind don’t just coexist, they intermingle and affect each other in ways that researchers are only beginning to understand.

Counselors, of course, are well-aware of the mind and body connection, but it is becoming increasingly evident that a person’s thoughts can directly cause changes in physiological processes such as the regulation of cortisol. This cause-and-effect relationship suggests that in some cases, symptoms typically considered psychosomatic in the past might actually be indicators of physical changes that are having or will have an effect on the client’s physical health.

Take, for instance, something that most people have experienced at some point in their lives: a “nervous” stomach. It turns out that having a “gut feeling” and “going with your gut” are not just metaphors. Researchers have begun to refer to the stomach as the “second brain” and the “little brain.”

Although no one is going to be making reasoned decisions or solving algebra equations with the little brain anytime soon, the enteric nervous system (ENS) does possess some significant brainlike qualities. It contains 100 million neurons and numerous types of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. In fact, researchers have found that most of the body’s serotonin (anywhere from 90 to 95 percent) and approximately half of its dopamine are found in the stomach. The main role of the ENS is to control digestion, but it can also send messages to the brain that may affect mood and behavior.

Researchers are still teasing out whether (and how) the gut-brain conversation causes emotion to affect the gastrointestinal system and vice versa, but a major area of focus is the microbiome — the vast community of bacteria that dwell primarily within the gut. So far, research suggests that these bacteria affect many things in the body, including mood. Gut bacteria may directly alter our behavior; they definitely affect levels of serotonin. (For more discussion of the microbiome and its possible influence on mental health, read the Neurocounseling: Bridging Brain and Behavior column on page 16 of the March print issue of Counseling Today.)

The bacteria in the gastrointestinal system may also play a role in depression and anxiety. Digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome and functional issues such as diarrhea, bloating and constipation are associated with stress and depression. Some researchers believe a causal connection may exist that is bidirectional — meaning it is not always the psychological that causes the gastrointestinal problems but perhaps vice versa. Interestingly, research has shown that approximately 75 percent of people who have autism have some kind of gastro abnormality such as digestive issues, food allergies or gluten sensitivity.

Most people have heard the injunction to “think with your heart, not your head.” And in Western culture, the notion of heartbreak is commonly understood not just as an emotional metaphor but as an actual sensation of physical pain. Once again, these aphorisms and metaphors represent an instinctive understanding of another significant connection: that between emotion and the heart.

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is linked to emotion and mental health — depression in particular. Research indicates that 25 to 50 percent of people with CAD have symptoms of depression. Some experts believe not only that depression can cause CAD, but that CAD may cause depression. Increased activity in the amygdala is associated with arterial inflammation, and inflammation is a factor in CAD.

Research indicates that inflammation in the body plays some kind of role in many chronic diseases, including asthma, autoimmune disorders, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Some researchers believe that inflammation may also be a causative factor in mental illness.

Letting go

If physical and mental health are so tightly bound, what role do counselors play in balancing the two? A vital role, believes licensed professional counselor (LPC) Russ Curtis, co-leader of the American Counseling Association’s Interest Network for Integrated Care.

Yes, counselors can help clients manage chronic health conditions and cope with stress and mental illness, Curtis says, but it’s the client-counselor relationship — the therapeutic bond — that he views as the most important element. He believes the simple act of listening, taking clients’ concerns seriously and becoming their ally can help jump-start their healing process. “Once you sit down and build a rapport with clients and treat them with respect and dignity, you are helping them heal,” says Curtis, an associate professor of counseling at Western Carolina University in North Carolina.

Curtis, who has a background in integrated care, doesn’t equate “helping” with “curing.” But he does believe that inflammation in the body strongly affects mental and physical health, and he says that counselors possess the tools to help clients ameliorate the factors that may contribute to inflammation.

For example, gratitude and forgiveness, and particularly letting go of anger, are essential to emotional wellness, and in some studies, Curtis says, they have been shown to have a physical effect. In one study, participants were instructed to jump as high as possible. Those who thought of someone they had consciously forgiven despite being wronged by them in the past were able to jump higher than participants who received no such instruction, he says. Another study found that cultivating forgiveness by performing a lovingkindness meditation produced a positive effect on participants’ parasympathetic systems.

Curtis, who also researches positive psychology, asks clients in his small part-time private practice to keep gratitude journals, which is something that he also does personally. In addition, he uses motivational interviewing techniques to help clients develop forgiveness.

If a client isn’t ready to forgive, the counselor might explore the ways in which anger may be affecting the person’s emotional and physical health and functioning in daily life, Curtis says. If the client is still resistant to the thought of issuing forgiveness, then the counselor can broach the idea of the client at least letting go of his or her anger, he adds.

Anger is particularly toxic to personal well-being, stresses Ed Neukrug, an LPC and licensed psychologist who recently retired from private practice, where he focused in part on men’s health issues. “Anger is a difficult topic for many clients to understand and address appropriately,” he says. “Usually, individuals who have angry outbursts have not learned to monitor their emotions appropriately. They most likely have had models who had similar outbursts. These individuals need to obtain a better balance between their emotional states and their thinking states.”

“Oftentimes, just teaching clients about mindfulness can be helpful because it begins to have them focus on what they are feeling,” continues Neukrug, a member of ACA and a professor of counseling and human services at Old Dominion University in Virginia. “Once they begin to realize that they have angry feelings, they can then talk to the person who they are angry at in appropriate ways, to reduce the anger and resolve the conflict early on. If they wait too long, they are likely to have an outburst.”

Anger, like stress, can cause physical changes in the body, such as a surge in adrenalin, cortisol and other stress hormones; raised blood pressure; and increased heart rate and muscle tension. Over time, as the body is constantly put into this “fight or flight” mode, the immune system may treat chronic stress or anger almost like a disease, triggering inflammation.

To help ameliorate the effects of toxic emotions, Neukrug recommends that counselors teach clients how to sit and engage in quiet contemplation. He notes that many people don’t realize that they are involved in a constant, almost unconscious, running mental commentary throughout the day. By taking time for self-reflection, clients can become better aware of how they are reacting to these thoughts, both emotionally and physically, and can then engage in stress reduction techniques such as progressive relaxation and mindfulness exercises.

Neukrug also recommends what he calls “life-enhancing changes” such as exercising, eating healthfully, journaling, confronting and resolving personal conflicts, and getting enough sleep. He also is a big proponent of nurturing personal relationships, taking regular breaks from work and going away on vacations to lessen the effects of stress.

Healthy habits

David Engstrom, an ACA member and health psychologist who works in integrative health centers, teaches his clients mindfulness exercises and recommends that they engage in daily gratitude journaling. But he also emphasizes a factor that is often overlooked despite its unquestioned importance to physical and mental well-being: sleep.

“It’s the first thing I focus on [with new clients],” he says. “There are few people who can be real short sleepers,” meaning less than six hours per night. “Most of us if we are [regularly getting] under seven hours a night have a higher risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, hypertension, chronic cardiovascular problems, depression and anxiety.”

Engstrom has his clients keep a sleep log detailing information such as the number of hours of sleep they get each night, when they went to sleep, how often they woke up in the night and the overall quality of their sleep. He also has them track their alcohol intake and physical exercise. He notes that exercise can vastly improve sleep quality, whereas drinking any alcohol after about 5 p.m. hinders sleep.

For clients who are having trouble falling asleep, Engstrom recommends mindfulness techniques such as being still and present in the bedroom and practicing deep breathing. He also sometimes gives clients MP3 files and CDs that contain guided mindfulness activities.

Counselors also can also play a role in changing clients’ health behavior for the better through psychoeducation, Curtis says. He recommends the use of simple cards that list information such as the benefits of smoking cessation or strategies for preventing or controlling diabetes. Curtis believes that clients are best served physically and mentally by integrated health care, a model in which a person’s physical and mental health needs can be attended to in one location by multiple professionals from different disciplines, such as LPCs and primary care physicians. He currently serves on two integrated care advisory boards for local mental health centers and also supervises students serving internships in integrated care settings.

When he practiced in integrated care, Curtis says a significant percentage of the clients he saw had not just mental health issues but also serious physical issues such as diabetes or cancer. “I was part of providing real support,” he says. “Instead of just having a 20-minute session with the doctor and being told what to do, clients were able to sit with me and process their fears and what they were feeling. I was also making sure that they understood what to take, where to go for bloodwork and making sure they didn’t feel lost [in the process].”

Neukrug uses a structured interview intake process in which he asks clients about their medical histories, any past or current issues with substance abuse and any experiences of major trauma. He has found that many clients are more likely to reveal issues such as a history of trauma or concerns about their physical health in written form rather than verbally. He notes that men in particular can be hesitant to raise common health-related issues with which they are struggling, such as erectile dysfunction, sexually transmitted diseases and prostatitis.

“Men [are] fragile about their egos,” he says. “If they have a disease that affects how they view their manliness or impairs them, they may just not want to talk about it. But any of these diseases can impact their relationships, their ability to earn an income, which is related to male identity and being the provider, so counselors just need to have that attitude that they are open to hearing about anything.”

Trauma’s toll on the body

Examining the health of adults who have experienced childhood abuse and neglect paints a particularly vivid portrait of the connection between physical and mental health. A large body of research — most of it using information gathered from the joint Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Kaiser Permanente study “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACE) — has demonstrated that early exposure to violence and trauma can lead to significant illness later in life.

The initial study was conducted in 1995-1997 and surveyed 17,000 patients at Kaiser’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. Participants answered detailed questions about childhood history of abuse (emotional, physical or sexual), neglect (emotional or physical) and family dysfunction (for example, a parent being treated violently, the presence of household substance abuse, mental illness in the household, parental separation or divorce, or a member of the household who was engaged in or had engaged in criminal behavior). Respondents who reported one or more experiences in any of the “adverse” categories were found to be more likely to develop chronic conditions and diseases such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, liver disease, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. The risk of developing these health problems also increased in correlation with the number of adverse incidents the study participants reported experiencing.

Although some of the health problems developed by adult survivors of trauma can be traced directly to injury or neglect, in many cases, specific cause and effect cannot be established. Nevertheless, the correlation between trauma and illness is significant, and some research findings — such as an increased incidence of autoimmune diseases among adult survivors of child abuse and neglect — suggest that the connection can be systemic and affect the entire body.

Causation versus correlation aside, clients who have experienced long-term trauma are often living with both mental and physical complaints, and the number of prospective clients who have a background of adverse childhood events may surprise some clinicians, say trauma experts. More than half of the ACE respondents reported experience with one adverse category, and one-fourth of participants had been exposed to two or more categories of adverse experiences.

Given the prevalence of traumatic exposure, ACA member Cynthia Miller, an LPC who has a private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia, believes it is important to ask about early childhood experiences as part of her intake process, and she urges other clinicians to do the same. She has clients fill out a written scale based on the questionnaire used in the ACE study. If clients indicate a history of abuse or neglect, Miller uses it as a way to explore how trauma has affected their lives.

“I think counselors need to know that trauma can affect the body in unexpected ways — ways in which the client may not even be aware,” Miller says. “I ask what impact they think these experiences had on their lives and then segue to asking, ‘What effect do you think this has had on your health?’”

Miller focuses on self-care practices for clients. For instance, clients might be using food to self-soothe, which can lead to obesity, diabetes and a whole host of other problems. Miller helps them to examine how the behavior is related to what they have been through and to identify what they are trying to soothe.

Miller also teaches her clients to tune in to their bodies. That can be extremely difficult because trauma survivors often use a kind of dissociation or “tuning out” as a survival mechanism, she explains. Clients who have been through physical trauma often exist, in essence, from the chin up, totally separating themselves from what is happening with their bodies, Miller says.

“Where in your body do you feel that anger?” Miller asks in trying to help them reestablish that whole-body connection. “Where do you feel the stress?”

According to Miller, yoga and mindfulness, particularly progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing, can be very useful for helping clients learn how to self-soothe and pay attention to how their bodies are responding to what they are doing.

On a more basic level, counselors can also play an essential role in ensuring that their clients get proper health care. “A lot of times I’ve found trauma patients don’t even go to the doctor,” Miller says. “Sometimes they may have issues with getting help, such as thinking there’s nothing they can do [to help the situation], and it all feels too hard. One of the questions I routinely ask is, ‘How long has it been since you had a good physical?’ If they say a year or more, I ask, ‘Would you go have one now? If not, why? What are your concerns? How can I help?’”

Miller says counselors can play an essential role in educating clients about the effects of trauma on the body and how that can cause chronic inflammation. Counselors can encourage clients to seek any needed medical care and also talk to them about what they can do personally to help counteract their bodies’ inflammatory responses, she says.

A partner in health

Another area where counselors can help clients with their physical health is by talking with them about why it is important to take medication, Miller says. She notes that in the general population, only about 50 percent of people who are prescribed medications for chronic conditions take them regularly. Counselors can uncover the legitimate concerns that get in the way of treatment compliance, Miller continues, such as the complexity of the regimen, whether the client has adequate access to obtain needed medication or treatment, and whether the client has easy access to the basics such as food, shelter and water.

It is also important for counselors to explore clients’ in-depth thoughts and feelings related to treatment, Miller says. For example, do they even believe in taking medication, or do they simply dislike taking pills?

Once counselors uncover the reasons that a client might not be adhering to medical regimens or engaging in healthy behavior, they should also consider whether the client is even ready to make a change, says Miller, adding that she finds motivational interviewing helpful in this regard.

Counselors can also help clients break down the change into small steps. For instance, Miller says, “When you talk about exercise, people think you are automatically talking about 60 minutes on the treadmill or kickboxing. [But] what is reasonable? If a person is very depressed, maybe you start [the process] in session. If it’s a decent day outside, can you do the session outside and maybe take a walk?”

Clients also need to be made aware that change is often slow, Miller says. If they did five minutes of exercise this week and didn’t exercise the week before, that five minutes is worth celebrating, she says.

Miller also works with clients on sleep hygiene, including tracking how much caffeine they ingest, how late in the day they stop consuming caffeine and the amount of sugar they eat. “Are they setting a sleep time?” asks Miller. “Are they being exposed to blue light? Is there a TV in the bedroom?”

She also helps clients develop a pre-bedtime routine and, if they have trouble going to sleep, encourages them to get up and do something boring until they feel sleepy again.

“If they are still having disrupted sleep and nightmares [even with sleep hygiene], I refer to a physician,” Miller says. “I’m not against someone taking a sleep medication if all other routes have failed because not getting sleep becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.”

Miller, like the other experts interviewed for this story, is an advocate for integrated care because it provides a more complete picture of — and a stronger connection between — clients’ physical and mental health. “If we have counselors who are embedded in primary care, we get a better picture of the client,” she says. “If we are separate, we’re not necessarily going to hear about how long they’ve been struggling with obesity or keeping their blood sugar down. We might not know that they’ve told the doctor that they’re struggling to take medicine regularly.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association.

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Wellness” by Dodie Limberg and Jonathan Ohrt
  • “Complex Trauma and Associated Diagnoses” by Greg Brack and Catherine J. Brack

Books and DVDs (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Relationships in Counseling and the Counselor’s Life by Jeffrey A. Kottler and Richard S. Balkin
  • A Counselor’s Guide to Working With Men edited by Matt Englar-Carlson, Marcheta P. Evans and Thelma Duffey
  • Stress Management: Understanding and Treatment (DVD) presented by Edna Brinkley

Podcast (counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts)

  • “The Brain, Connectivity and Sequencing” with Jaclyn M. Gisburne and Jana C. Harr

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

The journey to counselor educator: Deciding to get your doctoral degree

By Makeba Boykins February 21, 2017

The moment you decide to pursue a doctoral degree is one of the defining moments of your career. You have decided that you want to go further, push yourself and obtain the skills needed for training new counselors. You begin to research schools and their doctoral programs. A glimmer forms of what you would like to write your dissertation on. You apply to your favorite schools, plus some that you don’t like as much to increase the chances of your dream becoming a reality.

But when the interviews start, reality kicks in. For some people, that reality is the amount of work it takes to become a counselor educator. For others, it’s the reality that their favorite school might be just out of reach for a variety of factors.

And if you are a minority student, a different kind of reality starts to settle in. One that tells you your dream might be far more complicated to reach than it is for other students.

Growing up as a black woman in the United States, I was aware of the implicit bias that can affect who gets opportunities and who doesn’t. My father was born in 1928 in the South, so the history of being black in America is forever cemented in me in ways that are hard to describe.

This knowledge becomes personal when you enter the workforce and experience implicit and explicit bias firsthand. Even while obtaining my master’s degree in community counseling, I could see how this bias played into higher education. Once I completed my master’s and went into the field, I worked in social services, attempting to make a dent in the systems and make life better for those who may not be able to do so on their own. When I decided to get my Ph.D., I felt accomplished. I felt ready to go on an academic journey.

 

Roadblocks

Upon starting the application process, I quickly realized how exclusive the “doctor” club is. Most schools accept six to 10 students for Ph.D. programs, and you are competing with students from around the world. What you want to do research on becomes extremely important because some universities want you to participate in or further research that aligns with the research interests of professors who are already in the program.

What I realized very quickly was that even if a professor has interest in multicultural issues or even race, it is rare to want to tackle implicit bias head-on. Diversity and social justice, even in the counseling profession, can be dirty words.

Some research has shown that students generally give poorer evaluations to professors who teach diversity. If those professors are minorities, their evaluations are often even lower. Depending on the university, those student evaluations can be the difference between getting tenure and not getting tenure, so these things matter.

You can imagine that several programs would proceed with caution if a student of color applied and stated that he or she wanted to do research on bias. There is a fine line between telling students that they must change their research ideas (which often change anyway over the course of study) or setting them up for a hard road that may lead to limited academic success. This was the first lesson I learned in my journey.

The first school to which I was accepted did so on the condition that I change my research topic. I had somehow been naive enough to think that in the world of academia, pushing the boundaries was encouraged. Entire bodies of research exist on implicit bias and how it affects almost every facet of society. Given the popularity of the online Implicit Association Test and the ever-growing body of research on the topic, I assumed that research on bias was no longer that controversial.

But when the program chair discussed concerns about my topic with me, I got a rude wake-up call. It shook me and made me question whether pursuing my Ph.D. was really the right course of action. I pushed on and eventually found a school that I am proud to call my academic home.

Upon starting classes, I realized this road could be a constant battle unless I had strategies for success. I hope that some of the skills I learned and implemented can be beneficial to other students, particularly minority students who are pursuing their doctoral degrees.

 

Strategies for success

Being accepted to a school that was interested in my research topic and supportive of my inclination toward social justice was the first hurdle. So, when applying and interviewing for schools, remember that you are reviewing those schools as much as they are reviewing you. It is important for any student, but particularly a student of color, to find an academic home that is supportive of your goals. Do not settle for the first school that accepts you. Review your options carefully, and make a choice that you will be happy with for the next several years to come.

The second step was becoming knowledgeable about the difficulties that African American students face. Per a 2011 research study by Malik Henfield, Delila Owens and Sheila Witherspoon in Counselor Education and Supervision, many African American doctoral students in counselor education programs feel that they face discrimination and a high level of stress. Many cite feelings of isolation, lack of support from faculty and treatment by other students as reasons for not continuing their programs. The article cited additional research done in 1996 that showed that as many as 49 percent of African American doctoral students felt at least partially, if not totally, negatively about their doctoral experience.

I was shocked to learn about these statistics and this research, but arming yourself with this knowledge will allow you to be prepared for the road ahead. So much of completing any graduate degree involves the subjective experience we have in our programs. Counselors, specifically, can forget to check in with themselves emotionally because we are used to caring for everyone else. So do your research and allow yourself to be sad about the extra set of hurdles ahead, but allow those hurdles to motivate you to achieve your goals.

Once you have been accepted to a doctoral program for counselor education, seek out professors and campus organizations that are supportive of and foster your passions. When I began school, I joined the campus diversity department, I stood strong in my passion for social justice and multicultural competency. Basically, I began the ongoing process of carving out my own space — one that is filled with support and is uniquely my own. Universities, particularly predominantly white institutions, might not have a ready-made space for you. If you begin creating your professional and collegiate identity early, it will allow you to start to set your own metric for success.

Set small, achievable goals that remind you that you are making progress. Setting your own standard for success is crucial, particularly for minority students, because feelings of isolation and a lack of support can make it hard to recognize how far you have come. This is where your family and friends can come in because they don’t have to understand what you are writing about to celebrate that you have finished a huge paper. They can constantly give you encouragement, and although their emotional support may not equal an A in the classroom or create a more inclusive environment in your school, it can mean the difference between feeling completely isolated on your journey and feeling supported.

My next step was having frank conversations with family and friends. I had already done this prior to applying to my doctoral program, but after becoming more knowledgeable about all the hurdles that minority students can face even after acceptance, it was important to talk again. I let my partner, my family and my friends know that I might need additional support because I wouldn’t necessarily be able to get it consistently at school. I feel completely supported by my school and faculty, but I wanted to ensure that I possessed multiple levels of support.

As mentioned previously, counselors can be hard pressed to practice self-care. Do not wallow in feelings of guilt when you need help or support, and don’t feel bad about telling your support network early on that you might need them to help lift you up.

Directly correlated with creating your support network is learning to be patient and gentle with yourself. Obtaining any degree is difficult, and the higher you go, the harder it is. You must deal with life’s challenges, and if you are a minority, you may face extra hurdles.

For most people, it will be a year from the time you start submitting applications to the time you actually enter school. During that year, begin practicing your self-care techniques, and then take them with you into the program. If possible, attend campus and association events to begin connecting yourself to your colleagues. Research divisions of the American Counseling Association that you might be interested in joining; these divisions can provide opportunities to expand and affirm your interests.

Also remember that pursuing your doctorate is as much about your learning as it is your grade. Talk with your adviser and take the course load that makes the most financial and emotional sense for you.

Finally, stand strong and proud in your interests and in who you are as an individual. Getting your doctorate should be about more than calling yourself a doctor. You should pursue a doctorate to do scholarly work that matters to you and to be a part of training future counselors.

What drew me to this path and program was a desire to learn more and further the discussions on implicit bias and mental health. Shying away from that path would have been detrimental to my ability to complete my studies and feel fully engaged in my profession. Although it is possible that I will change my topic down the road, it is important for me to pursue what interested me. My end goal is always “scholar” and “educator” first, not “doctor.” So unless your goals or interests change, don’t back away from your passions.

 

Conclusion

The challenges that students face when applying for and entering a doctoral counseling program can be great. Those stressors can be compounded when issues of diversity and inclusion arise. Arm yourself with all the tools and supports available to you to make your journey as smooth and successful as possible. Always be kind to yourself and, remember, we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

 

 

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Makeba Boykins has been working in the field for more than a decade. She obtained her master’s degree in community counseling from Argosy University Chicago and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in counselor education from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Contact her at mboykins@ego.thechicagoschool.edu.

 

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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.