Tag Archives: divorce

Stepping up to the challenge

By Lindsey Phillips May 29, 2019

Stepfamilies are complex and feature unique differences, yet on the surface, there may be little to distinguish them from “traditional” families. In fact, as Joshua Gold, a professor in the counseling education program at the University of South Carolina, points out, some counselors don’t necessarily think to ask if they are working with a stepfamily or blended family.

But perhaps they should. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, more than 40% of American adults have at least one step relative — a stepparent, a step- or half-sibling or a stepchild — in their family. Gold points out that of the eight most recent U.S. presidents, four (Obama, Clinton, Reagan and Ford) were part of stepfamilies.

“Often for counselors, it gets overwhelming to think about working with stepfamilies because it does look like so many moving parts,” says Jayna Haney, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in private practice at the Wellness Collective and at Red Dun Ranch in Texas. “But what is also true is that stepfamilies [tend to] have similar problems.”

According to Institute for Stepfamily Education Director Patricia Papernow in her 2017 Family Process article “Clinical Guidelines for Working With Stepfamilies,” stepfamilies face five
major challenges:

1) Insider/outsider positions

2) Children struggling with losses, loyalty binds and change

3) Parenting issues and discipline

4) Building a new family culture while navigating previously established family cultures

5) Dealing with ex-spouses and other parents outside the household

Normalizing stepfamily dynamics

Stepfamilies often assume that something is wrong with them if the family isn’t working well, so counselors should reassure these clients that crisis and change are normal in stepfamily life, says Haney, the founder of the Bridge Across for Single Parents and Stepfamilies. She will often tell clients, “It’s not you. It’s your situation.”

One tool that Haney uses to educate clients about the challenges of stepfamily dynamics is called the stepfamily triangle. She draws a triangle, and at the top she writes in the name of the biological parent. She adds the name of the stepparent in the bottom right corner of the triangle and the name of the biological children in the bottom left corner. Then she explains how the biological parent and biological children have three bonds — emotional, biological and legal — and each bond is as old as the children are. Haney draws three lines to represent these bonds on the side of the triangle that connects the biological parent and biological children. The biological parent and stepparent have an emotional bond and a legal bond (if they are married), so Haney adds the lines connecting them. The stepparent and stepchildren have only an emotional bond (one that is only as old as their relationship) connecting them, which Haney illustrates with one line at the bottom of the triangle.

“So, when stepfamily couples are confused or frustrated because it feels like the family dynamics aren’t squaring up, it’s because they’re not,” says Haney, a member of the American Counseling Association. To illustrate her point, she’ll often put her hands together in the shape of a triangle and tip it over to the left because all of the weight is with the biological parent and child. She has found this visual helps families understand the dynamics and challenges that stepfamilies often face. 

Gold, author of Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm and editor of the newly released book Intervening for Stepfamily Success: One Case, Multiple Perspectives (both published by ACA), also uses education as a means of normalizing stepfamilies’ experiences. Rather than directly asking stepfamilies whether a specific issue affects them, he provides general information about challenges that stepfamilies often face to see if anything resonates with them. He often starts counseling sessions by drawing two large circles — one for the clients’ lived experiences and the other for common stepfamily issues based on his professional knowledge. For example, in his circle, Gold may write that some stepfamilies deal with gendered expectations, such as assuming the stepmother will automatically be nurturing with the children or expecting the stepfather to be the disciplinarian. If the clients say they have experienced that issue, Gold will add it to their circle. 

Both Gold and Pat Skinner, an LPC in private practice in Denver, agree that the schools offer one effective avenue for easily reaching stepfamilies and helping normalize their experiences. Gold recommends that school counselors hold stepfamily groups. These groups can be promoted in the school handbook given to parents at the beginning of the year.

Skinner, an ACA member who specializes in working with stepfamilies, thinks that holding stepfamily groups or classes at schools helps address some of the time and financial obstacles that these families might otherwise face in getting assistance. She also says that groups allow stepfamilies to hear stories similar to their own, helping them realize that they are not alone in their experiences.

Integrating multiple perspectives 

Working with stepfamilies means having multiple voices and perspectives in each counseling session, which can further complicate the process. “The more complex the situation, the more flexible you need to be,” says Gold, a member of ACA and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC), a division of ACA. “If I’m dealing with one client, I’m trying to meet one client’s expectations. If I’m dealing with five, I now have five sets of expectations.”

“It takes more skill and more orientation as a clinician to figure out how to integrate all these different voices,” he continues. “Most conflict is founded in the notion that it’s an either/or situation. Either you’re right or I’m right.”

Gold, a contributing editorial board member of IAMFC’s The Family Journal, advises counselors to help stepfamilies switch to a both/and mindset so that situations won’t become win-or-lose propositions. For example, rather than focusing on how the kids from one family ate yogurt and cereal for breakfast and the other family ate eggs, the new stepfamily could include both breakfast options.

Haney, who specializes in high-conflict situations, parental alienation and stepfamilies, has developed an integrated family protocol in which she spends three to four family sessions discussing how to convert high-conflict tendencies into something productive. High conflict involves rigid thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and blaming others. She advises stepfamilies to do the opposite: engage in flexible thinking, manage their emotions, moderate their behaviors and own their actions.

In the first session, Haney always discusses flexible thinking. She puts eight or nine items with various textures (such as slime, play dough, Kinetic Sand, putty and therapy dough) on trays and passes them around. Each family member plays with the items and discusses how the items feel. Haney then asks what all the materials have in common. Someone typically responds that all the items can be mushed or smashed. Haney points out that no matter what the family members do to the items, the materials remain flexible. To emphasize this point, she asks the stepfamily to consider what would happen if they punched slime versus punching a wooden box. The answer: Only the wooden box would break.

Haney connects this exercise to the importance of being flexible in one’s thinking and explains that all people and situations have some good and some not so good features. With this new perspective, she asks each family member to tell her one thing that they like about their other family members.

Next, they take turns telling Haney one thing that drives them a little crazy about their family. For example, a family member may say that they don’t like it when everyone is yelling or how one of the parents is constantly asking the children how they are doing. Haney purposely uses the phrase “drives you a little crazy” because she finds it helps clients think of small problems, not big ones. She also advises counselors against asking clients what they wish were different because that is often counterproductive, she says.

When a stepfamily walks into Darrick Tovar-Murray’s office, he observes where each family member sits and how they communicate with each other. Take for example a session with Jim (the custodial parent), Jeff (the stepparent) and James (the child). Tovar-Murray will call attention to the way the family is arranged in the room: “James, why did you sit closer to Jim than to Jeff? Help me to understand what you make of the way … the family is sitting in the room right now.”

Tovar-Murray, an associate professor of counseling at DePaul University, also points out subtle verbal and nonverbal communication: “Jim, when you said James is not doing well in school, your voice went up, and at that moment, James turned his back to you. Can you tell me what James may be feeling right now?” Teaching stepfamilies effective communication skills helps them to understand one another’s experiences and emotions, says Tovar-Murray, a member of ACA.

Haney encourages clients to explore the narratives they are telling themselves about certain situations while simultaneously accepting that everyone has their own perspective on those situations. For example, if a stepmother says that her husband is always looking at his phone and waiting for his ex-wife to call, the counselor can say, “I understand that bothers you. What’s the story you are telling yourself?”

The stepmother might say she feels like the ex-wife is still more important to her husband than she is. The husband says he’s simply concerned that he’ll miss a phone call from his children. To which the stepmother responds, “I don’t want you to miss a phone call from your children. I just feel like you’re always looking at your phone when we’re out at dinner.” The couple can then make an agreement for the husband to either put his phone away for an hour or call his children before going out to dinner.

Recently, Haney had a stepmother come in by herself because her 25-year-old stepdaughter was constantly fighting with or upset with her and her husband. Haney worked with the stepmother to help her understand that she could not control the adult child’s behavior — but she could control how she reframed the situation and responded to the stepdaughter. With Haney’s guidance, the stepmother changed her perspective and learned new skills so she would no longer get surprised, upset or disappointed when the stepdaughter turned argumentative.

“The hardest part in relationships is to realize the amount of power you have or don’t have to make change,” Gold says. “You have endless power to make change in self. You have less power to make change in others. And, sometimes, part of being in a relationship means you accept things you don’t really like.”

Establishing stepfamily structure

Haney often begins counseling with the stepcouple first because she believes the partnering piece needs to be in place before other issues can be addressed effectively. “If the stepfamily couple can create the structure within their relationship and they can get on the same page with some of these issues, the kids fall into line,” she says.

Stepcouples often face challenges with establishing and maintaining clear parenting roles. In fact, a primary area of conflict for stepfamilies is the parent–child relationship, Haney notes.

The stepcouple need to agree on what they want to teach their children and what the family rules are in the home, she continues. For instance, if the stepmother thinks the children should stop using their smartphones at night and tries to enforce the rule without the biological father’s support, it will cause problems. In such situations, Haney often finds that the biological parent agrees with the overarching rule; the disagreement is in the details. Perhaps the father thinks that 8 is too early to restrict phone use and that 10 would be a better time.

“The moment that you allow the biology to divide, then the house is really two different houses,” Gold says. “So, there’s got to be a set of rules for the house.”

Haney suggests that stepfamilies establish basic rules about bedtime, homework and family dinners. Every family member should also have his or her own space in the house, she says. For example, one person shouldn’t sleep on the couch while the others have their own bed.

Haney believes that the biological parent needs to parent, and the stepparent needs to let that happen. Gold agrees. The stepcouple should figure out the household rules, and then the biological parent should present those rules to the family, he says. Then, both parents can enforce those rules.

If a couple disagree on this point, Haney draws the stepfamily triangle so they can visualize the dynamics. This can help the stepparent realize that he or she may have been overstepping. Haney then asks, “What does the family need to do to make the triangle stay upright?”

First, the partners must be on the same page and create a supportive relationship in which they respect each other’s experiences and perspectives, Haney says. Sometimes, stepparents will need to take a step back, she adds. Haney tells stepparents, “When you assert yourself as a biological parent when you are not … you’re putting a target on your chest because you will always be the bad guy. You will never win.” The biological parent’s job is to protect the stepparent by doing the parenting, she stresses.

Second, Haney says, stepparents have to strengthen their relationship with the stepchildren, but they must also accept that it will take time. One activity she uses to help with this is the emotional bank account. When stepparents marry or move in with the biological parent, they assume a parenting role, she explains. Because biological parents already have a strong emotional, legal and biological bond with their children, they can discipline, set boundaries for, and offer advice and make comments to their children, Haney says. However, stepparents don’t have this emotional connection yet, so with every negative action (e.g., punishing, yelling, making comments, rolling eyes), they make a withdrawal from the emotional bank account with the child, she continues. “It’s not one deposit and one withdrawal,” she points out. “It’s one deposit, but for every negative nonverbal or negative interaction, it’s five withdrawals.”

Haney often helps stepparents realize that they are depleting this emotional bank account faster than they recognize. In such cases, they need to stop making withdrawals and start making deposits. Recently, one of Haney’s clients, a stepfather, was having a difficult time with his 14-year-old stepdaughter. He expected a lot of her and often critiqued what she did. For example, he would point out that he often needed to remind her to take out the trash and even made comments about the way she tied the garbage bag rather than thanking her for her efforts. Haney encouraged him to start making deposits in his stepdaughter’s emotional bank account by giving her compliments, texting that he was proud of her, or saying that he noticed how hard she had been working. When he followed through, their relationship took a 180-degree turn within a week’s time, Haney says.   

When a biological parent finds a new partner, the children are often expected to show love and respect for that new partner right away, Skinner says. However, it’s important to remind stepfamilies that neither children nor adults love immediately. It takes time.

In addition, the child’s developmental stage can affect the degree to which the stepfamily bonds. If children are approaching or into adolescence when the stepfamily forms, they may never feel connected to the stepfamily unit because they are focused on forming their
own separate identities at that point, Gold notes.

In her stepfamily, Haney and her husband developed a plan to handle the stresses and problems they faced. She encourages couples to follow a similar plan, which includes:

  • Talking to and reassuring each other that things will be OK
  • Creating daily habits that provide a sense of connection and support
  • Going out on dates
  • Limiting how much time they discuss children, stepchildren and exes

Haney also reminds clients to laugh. She and her husband found watching a daily episode of Seinfeld helpful during the difficult early part of their stepfamily’s life.

“A lot of times with stepfamilies, you’re sacrificing the me for the we,” Haney says. “If the couple … is willing to make these changes for each other, then it can be a really powerful experience.” In addition, the behavior of asking for help, finding solutions and making changes serves as a powerful model for the children, she says.

Focus on the solution, not the problem

“I think the big mistake that counselors make is they try to start with the problem,” Haney says about counseling stepfamilies. Often, stepfamily couples come in experiencing so much angst, frustration and confusion, they don’t know where to begin. If the counselor asks the couple to talk about their problems and feelings, the couple and the counselor all become problem saturated and risk becoming overwhelmed, she says. 

To avoid this, Haney starts sessions with a basic genogram, which provides her with all the names and connections between the family members. She uses colored markers and construction paper, drawing a circle for each woman and a square for each man in the family, including the stepfamily couple, the ex-partners and the children. Haney then asks the stepcouple’s ages and living arrangements, when the couple first met and when they started dating, and she adds that information to the genogram. For those who are married, she will also ask if they lived together before they got married, when they got married and how long they have been married. Finally, she asks about the most serious relationship that each of the partners had before they got involved with each other.

Next, she draws smaller circles and squares for the ex-spouses or ex-partners and asks similar questions such as age, length of time together, when they separated and if they have children together. If they do have children together, Haney connects the ex and adds in the children’s names and ages, as well as how the parents split their time with the children and how involved each one is with the children.

Haney always ends this exercise by asking, “Is there anybody else that we’re going to be talking about today or who is creating challenges in your stepfamily life?” By asking this question, she often discovers other people, such as one of the partner’s siblings, a grandparent or even the ex-spouse’s new partner, who are adding to the stepfamily’s problems.

In addition to serving as a reference tool that counselors can use throughout their work with the stepfamily, the genogram provides structure to the session. “Structure is a big part of doing a successful stepfamily session,” Haney says. “[It’s] knowing what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it so that you don’t allow [the session] to become problem saturated.”

Tovar-Murray uses a narrative approach to separate the family from the problem. For example, if a child feels divided between family members, he would have the family name the problem and then ask, “When did the sense of divided loyalty enter your family system? How has it caused you to think you are not a family who can be a cohesive unit? What would your future look like if divided loyalty were no longer present and you were operating as a family unit?” This approach encourages the family to fight together against the problem rather than letting it divide them, he explains.

To strengthen stepfamily cohesion, counselors can also ask family members to describe activities that might make them feel more connected and then encourage them to carve out time over the next week to engage in those activities, Tovar-Murray suggests. “We’re always looking for those unique outcomes, and those are the times in which the stepfamilies are not being saturated and influenced by whatever the problem is,” he says.

Separating the family from the problem is also helpful when there is resistance to the new family structure, such as when one of the partners resists embracing or blending two racial or ethnic identities. For example, in a household with a Latinx stepfather and an African American biological father, the biological father might say, “Maintaining my African American identity is extremely important, and I’m not giving that up. I’m going to see this as an African American family.”

“That resistance piece is just showing [the counselor] how important that identity is,” Tovar-Murray says. With this situation, the counselor could attempt to separate the family system from the resistance piece and reframe it. For example, the counselor could respond, “I can see that you have a strong sense of pride in being African American. Now, I also wonder how you can have that same sense of pride in the relationship that you just formed.”

The counselor can help the family reframe this racial pride and create pride in the new structure the family is developing. Otherwise, the stepfather may feel isolated, which makes cohesion and integration almost impossible, Tovar-Murray says.

Take a step forward

Both Gold and Skinner acknowledge that busy schedules and finances can be big issues for many stepfamilies. As a result, these families often are not looking to engage in long-term counseling.

Gold says that any counseling approach that is more “present-focused” works well with stepfamilies. He often relies on a brief therapy model — six to eight sessions — and finds that most clients will make a commitment to therapy if they know how long it will take. This model also works well with family schedules, he adds.

Counselors “need to remember that a stepfamily couple is going to be less likely to come once a week, every week, for six months,” Haney points out. “So, when [counselors] work with stepfamily couples, [they’re] really doing that solution-focused piece.”

In fact, Haney finds that when stepfamilies come to see her, they have already thought and talked a lot among themselves about the issues they are struggling with, so they want to know what to do. “They know where they are and they know where they want to be, but they do not know how to get there,” she says. Haney doesn’t direct stepfamilies on what to do, but she does help them figure out different paths for getting where they want to be.

After Haney finishes the genogram, she asks the stepcouple directly, “How can I help you today?” Some couples may get to the heart of the matter, whereas others may not have an answer. In those cases, Haney provides the stepfamily with information on the importance of partnering together, the stepfamily triangle and the emotional bank account.

Haney also asks the stepfamily, “What are the two or three things you want to accomplish or work on while you are in counseling?” The family’s answers must be something they have control over, she says. “You don’t have any control over the ex or the stepchild,” she explains. “You do have control over how you respond to the ex. … You do have control over how you respond to the stepchild, how you talk to your partner about the child, and what kind of stepparent or parent you want to be.”

In part because stepfamilies may attend only a few counseling sessions, Haney often spends a longer amount of time in the initial session getting to know the family members, figuring out why they came to counseling and making sure they leave with an action plan. In the initial session, which often lasts up to two hours, she spends approximately 15 minutes on the genogram and 15 minutes educating clients about common stepfamily issues. For the remaining time, she helps families determine two or three things that they want to accomplish.

By the time the family leaves, each family member “need[s] to have something that they’re going to do that’s doable and that they can work on,” Haney says. “Then they leave empowered because they know what to do. [They] leave … educated because you’ve shared with them some insights that help them change their perspective and reframe how it’s working. And … it helps them see their story and their family differently.”

 

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Invisible stepfamilies

The concept of stepfamilies can challenge traditional assumptions of the word family, which often evokes an image of a married father and mother with their biological children. But as Darrick Tovar-Murray, an associate professor of counseling at DePaul University, points out, this image doesn’t account for the diversity found within stepfamilies. In fact, because this assumption doesn’t recognize other types of partnerships or unions, it renders them “invisible,” he says. That’s particularly the case when these families include a noncustodial and custodial parent with at least one child from a previous relationship and encompass multiple racial, ethnic and sexual orientation identities — which he refers to as invisible stepfamilies of color.

“When you look at invisible stepfamilies of color, they tend to come from cohabitating relationships where there isn’t a marriage or legal contract,” Tovar-Murray says. “That legal contract should not be what defines a family.”

As society continues to grow more diverse, counselors will encounter more invisible stepfamilies of color and thus may need to challenge their own views of what family means, Tovar-Murray argues. Counselors also shouldn’t assume that a couple is married, he continues. In addition, asking “How long have you been dating?” implies that the couple’s relationship may not be as close or as integrated as a couple who is married, and that may not match the perspective the clients have of their relationship.

Tovar-Murray also advises counselors not to make assumptions such as thinking that a stepcouple’s decision not to hold hands is related to their lack of affection for each other. Based on their experience of racial/ethnic or sexual orientation microaggressions, many of these couples may engage in this or similar displays of affection only in spaces they consider to be safe. “As counselors, we cannot assume that invisible stepfamilies of color are going to be out in all spaces that they walk in,” he says.

For this reason, Tovar-Murray, an ACA member and co-author of a chapter on blended families of color in the book Intervening for Stepfamily Success, advises counselors to be open and direct about microaggressions. He will often tell clients, “I want to talk about something I think is important. We know that racism exists and sexual orientation microaggressions exists, and I’m wondering if you as a couple or if this family has ever experienced those things.” He also suggests saying, “I know biases exist, and some of the things that may affect a family system like this may even be biases within your own cultural groups. Have you experienced any of those? How have you successfully dealt with those things?”

“The assumption that [counselors] make sometimes is that [they’re] not going to bring [these issues] up because the client didn’t bring it up,” Tovar-Murray says. “But sometimes clients, couples and families may not know that [counseling is] the space [where they] can talk about those things.”

— Lindsey Phillips

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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.

Voice of Experience: Facing the wind

By Gregory K. Moffatt January 22, 2019

Sofia’s clothes were stylish and neatly pressed, and her jet-black hair was immaculate. Cropped short, not a strand was out of place. Subtle makeup highlighted her athletic features and youthful appearance, making her look much younger than she actually was.

Only by looking closely could I see a hint of red in her eyes. She had cried on the way to our appointment. Not surprising. Her life as she had known it was over.

Just two months before, Sofia (not her real name) had been a typical wife of a dozen or so years and the mother of two grade-school children. Aside from her stunning beauty, she could have been any one of a hundred other mothers in a car-rider pickup line or wandering the aisles of the grocery store. The life she shared with her husband consisted of packing school lunches, shuttling children and their playmates to soccer practice, managing their suburban home and running a small real estate business.

But all of that changed in a heartbeat. One careless decision led to a fleeting affair, which Sofia confessed to her husband, and their marriage was over. He couldn’t bring himself to forgive her, so she agreed to move out. Sofia was living in a small garage apartment belonging to a friend and saw her children for only a few hours on Saturdays.

Sofia was consumed with grief and, although you couldn’t tell by looking at her, every day she could scarcely get out of bed. The burden of her sadness was so heavy that, as I got better acquainted with Sofia, I could almost see her regrets weighing on her shoulders.

This isn’t a novel tale. Any of you reading this could undoubtedly identify many faces from your own client files, male or female, that would easily slip into the general details I’ve just laid out. After all, one of the main reasons people come to see us is because they’re facing the pains of life.

But one thing set Sofia apart from all of my other clients over the years. She taught me a lesson that has not only made me a better therapist, but has also helped me to manage my own depression as it has waxed and waned through the decades.

As much pain as she carried, Sofia forced herself daily to get out of bed and face the day, regardless of the tempest that was her life in the moment. Please don’t mistake my details of her appearance as misogynistic. My intent is simply to be descriptive of how much energy she spent preparing for the business of the day.

Anyone who has worked with grieving clients, clients experiencing major depressive disorder or similar diagnoses knows that failure to attend to personal hygiene is common. I have had clients come to sessions without showering, with their hair not having seen a comb or a brush in days, and still wearing a food-stained sweatshirt-and-sweatpants combo that doubled as their pajamas.

Not Sofia. Yet her appearance wasn’t an expression of vanity. It was one of professionalism and determination. She took full responsibility for her role in the dissolution of her marriage, but she refused to wallow in regret. In the most healthy way, she said to me more than once, “It is my fault, I am devastated, and I’m so sorry, but I will rebuild my life.” And she did.

Sofia’s appearance was an apt metaphor for a philosophy that said, “I will not be defeated.” And it worked for her.

In those early days of her new life, Sofia awoke each morning to face a strong headwind, but she plodded forward. Over the course of her recovery, the gale weakened into occasional gusts and, eventually, manageable breezes. All the while, the hole in her heart also began to heal.

As I’ve helped other clients work through life’s difficulties, I’ve recounted Sofia’s story numerous times. Even when she didn’t feel like it — even when it seemed her life was over — she got up, faced the day and conducted the business of life. What a powerful example.

Our final appointment was very brief. The cost of therapy was part of Sofia’s decision to terminate, but not the biggest reason. She explained that her days were getting easier and, just 15 minutes into the session, she thanked me and said, “I think I will be OK.” I couldn’t argue with her. As the door closed behind her, I knew she possessed the skills she needed to continue her recovery.

I was a very new therapist in those days, and I sometimes wonder which of us got the better deal. I doubt Sofia remembers me, but because of the lesson of courage she demonstrated, I’ll never forget her.

 

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.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.

The dismissal of divorce advice

By David L. Prucha August 2, 2018

It’s a distressing reality, but advice for the newly divorced might be as common as advice for the newly married. Advice for the newly divorced often centers around protecting any children who might be involved because although parents get divorced from each other, children become divorced from the only life they have ever known.

Parents are advised to keep the child-parent relationship as normal as possible:

  • “Don’t put your child in the middle.”
  • “Encourage your child to have a relationship with their second parent.”
  • “Don’t speak poorly of your former spouse in front of your child.”

Although this guidance seems relatively straightforward, it is difficult for many parents to follow. Why is this? Is it simply unreasonable to hope for wise parenting when anger is running high and hurt is running deep?

To understand how a counselor might help a parent follow divorce advice, let’s first explore the context in which many parents speak poorly about their former spouse with their child.

 

The background for badmouth

One common scenario that leads parents to dismiss divorce advice is when one parent becomes convinced that he or she is on the losing end of the divorce. They have lost friendships and are spending more time alone. The house feels empty.

With this loneliness settling in, eventually the parent is faced with a tempting situation when the child shares feelings of frustration or sadness about the other parent. In many cases, the parent mistakes the child’s complaint as validation for his or her own grievances. In the marriage, they have been on the receiving end of their former spouse’s dysfunctional behavior, and now the parent suspects those same dysfunctional behavior patterns are harming their child. The parent seizes the opportunity to teach the child about how the second parent operates. They convince themselves that they have to share their own experiences to support the child, but in reality, it has become an opening to express their own feelings of hurt. It is catharsis, but camouflaged as compassion for the child.

A second scenario that leads to dismissing divorce advice occurs when a parent suspects that his or her child is aligning against them with the second parent. They start to hear the words of their former spouse spoken through the mouth of the child. The parent believes they are being disparaged and that this is shaping the child’s view regarding who is at fault for the divorce. The parent has tried to take the high road, but the former spouse has taken the low road, and now their relationship with their child is suffering as a result.

This can lead the parent to feeling wronged again by their former partner, and they decide that they need to clear their name in the eyes of their child. They proceed to share their version of the divorce because they think they need to provide a balanced perspective. Unfortunately, this often sets off an escalating arms race between the two parents to compete for the heart and mind of their child.

With these scenarios in mind, how can a counselor help hurting parents to help their hurting child? What new understanding can parents gain that might reduce the likelihood of them oversharing with the child?

 

The child healer

In the first scenario, the parent speaks poorly about their former spouse because they mistake their child’s grievances for their own. In this case, it can be helpful for parents to learn that sometimes children overstate their concern about their second parent in an attempt to help the grieving parent.

In the child healer dynamic, the child notices that his or her parent is in pain. By exaggerating their complaints about the second parent, the child opens the door to allow the grieving parent to emote. The child creates a conversation to say to the isolated parent, “You’re not alone.” The hurting parent thinks that he or she is healing the wounds of the child by sharing their own experiences about the former spouse, but they have it backward; instead, it is the child who is attempting to heal the wounds of the hurting parent.

By inflating their concerns about their second parent, the child reassures the isolated parent that their bond is special, and this reduces the parent’s fear of losing the child to their former spouse. For the child, this has simply become a strategy to calm the parent’s anxiety and to create stability in the home.

How can counselors help parents interact with their child in moments when the child healer dynamic might be present? When the child is sharing difficult feelings about the other parent, how can parents be helpful without falling into the child’s attempt to help them?

One way to help parents is to teach them how to empathize with the emotions of their child without validating the child’s interpretation of the second parent’s motivations. Although it can be helpful for the parent to tend to the child’s emotional experience, this doesn’t require the parent to explain their own experiences with the former spouse. The parent can learn to validate the difficulty of the child’s feelings without speculating about the intentions of the former spouse. The parent can say, “It’s really hard to feel as angry as you do” without saying, “I experienced that same selfishness, and it made me angry too.”

By attending to the emotions of the child without confirming the child’s interpretation of the second parent’s motivations, the first parent avoids falling into the child healer dynamic. By refraining from sharing his or her own experiences about the former spouse, the parent keeps the focus on the emotions of the child. And in cases in which the child is expressing sincere concerns about the second parent, the first parent is still able to effectively empathize with the child’s feelings.

 

Swinging pendulums

In the second scenario, the parent doesn’t bite their tongue because they think they need to set the record straight. The former spouse is speaking poorly about them, and they think the relationship with their child is suffering as a result. The parent overshares because they want to provide a balanced perspective for the child. Essentially, the parent wants to clear his or her name.

In these circumstances, it can be helpful to remind parents that children of divorce commonly bounce from one parent to the other, and at different times, they will feel closer to one parent than the other. Children of divorce are swinging pendulums: Sometimes they swing toward the first parent, and sometimes they swing toward the second parent. The question then becomes how a parent should respond when the child is swinging away from them so that when the child is ready, he or she feels comfortable to swing back.

It is helpful to remind parents who feel distant from their child that trying to clear their name won’t increase the odds of the child swinging back to them. Parents hope that setting the record straight will return their child back into their arms, but this strategy is rarely effective. Instead, it often backfires because the child thinks that in order to swing back, he or she will have to agree with that parent’s version of the divorce. Or at least the child will have to lie and pretend to agree. This makes swinging back more complicated.

It can also be helpful to remind parents that it is better to think of the relationship with their child as a long-term endeavor and to expect changes in the relationship. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that their future relationship with their child will exactly mimic their current relationship.

When parents don’t feel that the relationship with their child has to be perfect in the present, they realize that nothing needs to be desperately forced. If normal periods of emotional distance are expected and accepted, this can remove pressure from the interactions that parents have with the child, and this mindset can create more room for calm parenting. As a result, a less complicated relationship with the child can emerge, increasing the child’s comfort in swinging back into the relationship.

Going through a divorce can be one of the greatest challenges of a lifetime, and it’s made even harder when a child is involved. It is not realistic to expect that parents will hold their tongue every time they should, but perhaps teaching parents about the dynamics of divorce will create a moment of hesitation where once there was only the urge to overshare. In this window of hesitation, there might be enough room for parental wisdom to grow. Hopefully this new wisdom will contribute to the healing of divorced parents and the healing of their children.

 

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David L. Prucha is an adjunct professor of counseling psychology at Johnson and Wales University in Denver. He is also a licensed professional counselor who maintains an independent practice that specializes in depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and trauma and stressor-related disorders. Contact him at contact@pruchacounseling.com.

 

More from this author, from the Counseling Today archives: The wise support system in domestic violence rescue efforts

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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.

Parenting in the 21st century

By Laurie Meyers February 22, 2018

Remember when receipt of a coffee mug emblazoned with “Best Mom Ever” or a T-shirt proclaiming “Best Dad Ever” was enough to validate someone’s skills and aptitude as a parent? In the 21st century, it seems that the ante has been raised. In the eyes of society, parents barely qualify as competent — much less “perfect” — unless they can check off all of the following qualifications:

  • Not only attend to, but anticipate, their child’s every need
  • Orchestrate their child’s academic success
  • Provide their child with all the best experiences and most useful activities
  • Make home an oasis of peace and harmony for the family (while simultaneously prospering in their own careers)

Attendance to one’s children at all times is mandatory. No exceptions will be made for parents working two jobs just to get by, single parents or parents of children with special needs. No foolproof instruction manual will be provided.

These extreme expectations, paired with the rapidly accelerating pace of modern life, present significant obstacles and pressures for parents who genuinely want to make their children feel cared for without driving themselves crazy. Many counselors are routinely helping clients respond to these and other challenges of modern-day parenting.

Parenting, problems and pride

“Always on” parenting requires a lot of problem-solving, which leaves parents focused on all the things that are going wrong, says American Counseling Association member Laura Meyer, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Bedford, New Hampshire, who specializes in parenting issues and women’s concerns. In particular, working parents often have a difficult time attending every school function that is offered because they typically take place during the workday. This can feel like a failure, particularly for mothers, says Meyer, who is currently researching women’s parenting experiences.

As a kind of antidote, Meyer encourages clients to look for instances when they did something that made them proud of their parenting: “Maybe I wasn’t able to be there for this one particular event, but I made the costume that my kid wore in the play.”

It’s easy for parents to become trapped in the problems that they face, so Meyer encourages a solution-focused approach. For example, she has a client who is struggling with parenting a son who has intermittent explosive disorder. “She was at her wit’s end,” Meyer says. “He was kicking her [and] she was dragging him out of public venues.”

Meyer asked the woman to tell her what went well that week. At first, the client couldn’t think of anything. Then she remembered putting up a Christmas tree with her son. They had enjoyed decorating it together, and the mother took a photo. Meyer asked the client what might happen if every time that she and her son had a good moment together, she took a photo and included it in a chatbook — a social media app that allows users to generate photo books from uploaded pictures. Then they could sit down and look at the photos together each week.

The client burst into tears, saying it would make a huge difference to look at and remember some of the little victories rather than always thinking exclusively about the failures. Meyer suggested that the client could also use the photos to talk with her son about why that particular experience or day had been so good and then ask him how he had been able to remain calm.

Meyer encourages clients to use their counseling sessions as a time to stop and reflect on the quality of their relationship with their child rather than continually reacting to crises. Parents are often susceptible to getting caught up in the everyday duties of being a parent and missing out on the joy, love and upside of parenting, she says.

Helping prevent sexual abuse

Over the course of seven days in January, 156 young women and teenagers gathered in a courtroom in Michigan to recount how Lawrence Nassar, former physician for the USA Gymnastics team and Michigan State University, sexually violated them. Their stories detailed the widespread damage an unchecked predator with access to children and teenagers can wreak. Some of those who came to speak were accompanied by their parents, who were left to ask — in the words of one mother who testified — “How could I have missed the red flags?”

Most parents don’t have much accurate information about sexual predators, says ACA member Jennifer Foster, an assistant professor of counselor education and counseling psychology at Western Michigan University. Her research focuses on child sexual abuse.

In the past, most sexual abuse prevention efforts were aimed at children in the school system, she says. “This helped to create awareness, but the efforts had a major flaw in that they put the burden of stopping abuse on kids,” Foster observes.

As a former licensed mental health counselor and school counselor in Florida, Foster worked with many children who had been abused. “They would say to me, ‘I did say stop. I did say no,’” she recalls. Unfortunately, it is easy for children to be outmaneuvered and overpowered by adults and older children, so prevention efforts should focus on parents and other adults, Foster asserts.

Foster now helps educate parents about sexual predators. “I want parents to know all the scary info,” she says. This includes working to break down conventional myths. When asked to think about the profile of a “typical” predator, most people picture an adult male with a criminal record who is a stranger, or at least not someone the family knows well. Foster tells parents to picture instead the people they might invite to Thanksgiving dinner, because 90 to 96 percent of sexual predators are either family members or someone who is close to the family (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network puts this number at 93 percent). According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, 36 percent are other children.

Parents don’t typically picture a female offender either, and although the reported incidence of sexual abuse by women is low, experts think that the actual rate is higher, Foster says. Unfortunately, parents are much more likely to hand over the care of their children to a woman — in a day care setting, for instance — without really knowing the person’s background, she continues.

Research also indicates a high rate of sibling-on-sibling sexual abuse, often with the use of force, Foster says. Many parents like to assume that this is something that happens only in families with lower socioeconomic status, but the truth is that it can take place in any family. Foster adds that research indicates that if child or juvenile offenders get treatment, they are likely to recover and not go on to commit the same offense again.

Foster teaches parents about some of the behavioral red flags of possible sexual predators, including spending more time with children than with peers, lacking adult friends, having numerous child-friendly hobbies and making inappropriate sexual comments about children. Foster reported a local teacher who regularly made sexually suggestive comments to his female students, such as, “If you were my daughter, I wouldn’t let you out the door in those pants because I know what I would be thinking.”

“That is such a great example of covert abuse, which was allegedly ignored by school staff when girls repeatedly complained about the teacher. That was one of multiple comments he made. They were told, ‘You’re taking it the wrong way. You misheard. You don’t know how to take a compliment.’ Then, when he had an opportunity and a student in isolation, the abuse moved to overt, with him putting his hand up her shirt.”

That student happened to be a member of a youth group Foster helps lead at her church. She believes the girl felt encouraged to disclose to her because of a pen that Foster often uses that says, “Rape. Talk about it.” Another girl in the group asked why Foster had that pen, and that gave Foster an opening to talk about the work she has done with sexual trauma survivors. After the group, the girl who had been violated told Foster about her experience. Foster contacted the school, which she says took no official action, instead simply allowing the teacher to resign.

Parents should also be wary of adults who are always putting their hands on kids or giving kids hugs, Foster says. These behaviors will often take place in front of other people because predators are testing to see if anyone notices and is alarmed by their actions. Predators also try to spend time alone with children and may give them gifts. Foster says that giving gifts can be an entirely benevolent act, but she also warns that it can be a part of the grooming process. Foster’s family has established a rule that her children won’t take gifts from anyone without first asking Foster or their father.

Foster also teaches her children that no secrets should be kept in their family (although she does distinguish between secrets and surprises). Part of the reasoning for this practice is that sexual predators often try to get children to keep small secrets. For example, “Don’t tell your mom I gave you ice cream before dinner. She’ll be mad at me!” Small secrets are a test of sorts, Foster explains. The predator is trying to gauge what a child will and will not tell his or her parents.

Predators are opportunistic — always looking for ways to be “helpful,” Foster says. They often try to come to the rescue, particularly with families in vulnerable situations, such as a family with a chronically ill child, a family that is new to town or a family headed by a single parent, she says. Becoming the family savior is part of the end goal so that they can get time alone with the children, Foster explains.

Although Foster believes that the burden of spotting and stopping child sexual abuse must be placed on adults, she says that it is still important for children to know that it is not OK for someone to touch them inappropriately. Foster likes to teach parents the language that Feather Berkower, a child sexual abuse prevention expert, uses about “body safety.” The concept is simple enough that even little children can learn it.

Body safety means that no one can look at, touch or take pictures of the child’s private parts, and children should not look at or touch another person’s body parts, Foster explains. She believes that children who aren’t taught about body safety are more vulnerable because they don’t have the language to talk about something that has made them feel uncomfortable, including actual abuse. Children should also learn the anatomically correct names for body parts, Foster says.

Foster’s son knows that everyone has to follow body safety rules. If he goes to a friend’s house, Foster also makes sure that the friend’s parents are aware that Foster’s family follows body safety rules. In addition, because of the prevalence of child-on-child sexual abuse, Foster does not allow closed doors when friends come over to play at her family’s house. She also intermittently checks in with her son about his interactions with the adults in his life by asking if he had fun with the person, what they did together and whether the person followed the body safety rules.

Most parents are also in the dark about how to keep their children safe online, Foster says, but they need to be aware that sexual predators often use online means to target children. Perpetrators often develop social media accounts and profiles, posing as someone who is the same age as the child or adolescent they are targeting and then revealing their true age later. After earning the young person’s trust, the predator may attempt to entice the child or adolescent to meet in person and move their encounters offline.

Foster recommends that families confine technology use to open spaces such as the TV room or kitchen. Parents can make use of tracking tools, but they should also have an open dialogue with their children about their online activity, Foster says. She also advises that parents find out what kind of technology rules other parents have before allowing children to go to their friends’ houses.

As a whole, Foster says, a higher level of vigilance against sexual abuse is required. She notes that most parents are good about discussing safety with their children when it comes to looking both ways before crossing the street, using a helmet when riding a bike or always wearing a seatbelt in the car. But more children are sexually abused each year than are hit by cars, and relatively few families take active steps to prevent that from happening.

“When it comes to child sexual abuse, adults need to take on the responsibility to create safe homes and communities,” Foster says. “Counselors [can] give them the tools they need.”

No longer partners but still parents

“Divorce changes kids’ lives [and] usually not in good ways,” says Kristin Little, a licensed mental health counselor whose Seattle-area practice includes a focus on counseling families that are navigating divorce or separation. “However, kids can manage even difficult divorce changes if well-supported and protected from the most harmful effects of conflict [such as] loss of confidence in their parents’ ability to lead, loss of stability in home/school life and loss of relationship with either or both parents.”

Little says the most essential thing that mental health professionals can do when counseling parents who are separated, divorced or in the process of divorcing is to introduce the idea of the separation of “adult mind” and “parent mind.”

“Parents can be experiencing a high level of anger or sadness while their marriage is ending. This is normal and expected and may be important for them to explore individually,” she says. “However, they continue to be parents and need to separate their own adult experience and reactions from their parenting roles. Giving parents the permission to feel, yet reminding them that they have the responsibility to attend to parenting needs, make important decisions, [and] see and respond to their children’s needs and feelings as separate from their own, is vitally important.”

ACA member Kimberly Mason, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Madisonville, Louisiana, who specializes in family and relationship issues, says that many parents have difficulty managing their anger, guilt and shame, and setting aside their conflict while parenting. To better shield their children from strife, she gives the following recommendations to parents:

1) Have ground rules for communication. Parents should not berate each other or argue in front of their children. If necessary, they should go to a private area to work out their conflict.

2) Each parent should seek individual counseling to work through his or her own issues. This can help limit the level of animosity and frequency of arguments that may occur in the home.

3) Model mutual respect for each other in front of the children. Each partner should also talk to family members and friends and ask them to refrain from saying negative things about the other partner in front of the children.

Parents who are facing divorce or separation are often terrified, which can override their ability to collaborate and make decisions, Little says. They may seek safety by sticking to past patterns of interacting and relying on assumptions about roles or capabilities that they held during the marriage or relationship, she explains. They often have difficulty envisioning change.

“This can result in one parent insisting that they are more experienced than the other and thus deserving of more time, which inevitably triggers fear and anger in the other parent and results in what we often see as a tug of war that rarely serves the kids’ or parents’ needs,” Little says.

Counselors can be a neutral “referee” of sorts for parents, steering the conversation away from who is wrong or right and instead toward developing a working co-parenting relationship that focuses on the future, she says.

ACA member Monika Logan, an LPC in Frisco, Texas, has a practice that focuses on divorce and parenting issues. She says that parents need to learn to form a more businesslike relationship by setting aside their emotions toward each other. Parents can begin to do this by “working on their own feelings related to the separation or divorce and developing a support network,” she says.

Little agrees with encouraging that approach. “[It] allows them to get the important job of parenting done,” she says. “It is essentially undoing the patterns, dynamics and practices of the marriage to allow for a renegotiation of how they will interact [and] the tasks they will agree to in the new co-parenting relationship.”

Each partner must agree to the new “business” guidelines or they won’t work, says Mason, who is also a core faculty member at Walden University. They must commit to putting their children’s needs above their own and making joint decisions. Compromise and consistency are also essential. The parents must be willing to back each other up when making decisions so that the children will still view them as a team, she emphasizes.

“Contrary to what some people describe, healthy co-parenting can be anywhere along the spectrum from parallel parenting — having little contact and overlap between homes and parents — to how co-parenting is usually thought of — frequent collaboration and interaction,” Little says.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to co-parenting, she says. A counselor’s job is to help parents craft a plan that works for each partner, minimizes conflict and, most important, meets the needs of their children.

Coming to terms with coming out

As the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning or queer) community has gained greater acceptance during the past 10 to 20 years, it has become more common for young people to come out to their parents, says ACA member Misty Ginicola, an LPC in West Haven, Connecticut, whose practice specialties include LGBTQ issues. She adds that those who come out are also often taking that step at younger ages than in the past — for instance, as middle schoolers rather than as teenagers.

How parents react to that decision is incredibly important to the mental health of the child. Ginicola, the lead editor of the ACA-published book Affirmative Counseling With LGBTQI+ People, has witnessed parent reactions in her practice that ran the gamut from accepting yet concerned to completely opposed and voicing a desire to “fix” their child. She tells parents looking to “cure” a child that counselors cannot, either from an ethical or a practical standpoint, change someone’s sexual/affectional orientation. However, Ginicola does try to address the concerns of all parents who come to her for help, whether they are “affirming” parents (who are supportive of their child’s orientation) or “disaffirming” (those who reject LGBTQ status).

Even parents who are supportive of the LGBTQ community may have problems adjusting to their own child coming out, she says. They may ask if the child is “sure” or, if a child comes out as gay or lesbian and then subsequently shows interest in someone who is other gendered, they may say, “Oh, so you’re really not [gay or lesbian],” Ginicola reports. These kinds of reactions often spring from parents’ fears that their child will be bullied or belittled or face other hurtful consequences, she says.

However, Ginicola explains to parents that when they ask those kinds of questions or make those kinds of statements, what their children actually hear is that something is wrong with them. Children are very vulnerable when coming out. In fact, the risk of suicide is highest during the coming-out process, but research shows that having supportive parents reduces this risk by half. So, it is crucial for parents to strive to always communicate support and to be willing to admit and apologize when they have said the wrong thing, Ginicola emphasizes.

Ginicola also teaches parents that although they cannot keep their children from being bullied, they can help them cope by building and reinforcing their self-esteem, teaching them good social and emotional skills, and ensuring that they have allies such as friends, teachers and school counselors in place.

One of the ways parents can help build their children’s self-esteem is by helping them find places where they will be accepted through whatever interests and activities they enjoy, Ginicola says. She cautions, however, that parents must take it upon themselves to ensure that these places are safe and not an environment in which their child will be rejected or targeted.

Parents should also talk to their child’s school to confirm that it has sound anti-bullying policies in place, Ginicola says. Most important, parents must make sure their children understand that there is nothing wrong with them and that they are not the problem, she emphasizes.

Unfortunately, the reality is that although acceptance for those who identify as LGBTQ has grown tremendously, they are still at increased risk for experiencing violence, meaning that parents need to talk to children who have come out about safety, Ginicola says. Specifically, children should be careful about who their friends are and make sure that they attend parties and other social events with people who are affirming, she says. Parents should also caution children who are not fully out to be very careful about whom they tell, not because there is anything wrong about telling but because sometimes it can be unsafe, Ginicola says.

Open communication is also essential. Children need to know and trust that they can tell their parents anything, Ginicola says. It is particularly critical that children understand the necessity of informing their parents about any instances of bullying, violence or other actions that threaten a child’s safety, she says.

Counselors must also prepare parents for the rejection that they will experience, Ginicola points out. For example, it is possible that family members might say hurtful things about a child who has come out and question how the parents are raising the child, she says. Community members may also weigh in with their own judgments, which Ginicola has experienced personally, including when a neighbor called child protective services because Ginicola lets her nongender-conforming son wear pink shoes to school. Nothing came of the neighbor’s call, but “it’s scary to realize that while I am getting the rejection for him now, someday he will receive that,” she says.

In some cases, parents may lose a whole community in which they previously felt secure and safe, Ginicola says. For example, in the African-American community, the church often serves as the main safe space for its congregants, but many churches are not affirming of LGBTQ individuals. By choosing to support their children who identify as LGBTQ, the parents may lose an essential source of support.

In cases such as these, Ginicola helps her clients process their grief and encourages them to seek alternative sources of support, such as other parents who have gone through similar experiences. She is also able to recommend online and local groups to which parents can turn. Ginicola also provides validation for the parents, emphasizing that it is the culture that is the problem, not the parents themselves. Another part of the service that counselors can provide these clients is to make sure they are practicing good self-care, she adds.

Ginicola also sees parents who are totally unsupportive of their child’s LGBTQ status. She acknowledges walking a fine line with these clients. Although she doesn’t want to support their beliefs, she tries to identify a way to reach them so that they don’t instead go find a therapist who is willing to attempt to “change” their child.

“[It requires] the same principles that underlie work with any parent that is potentially destructive to a child,” Ginicola says. “[It’s] a delicate balance of keeping them feeling validated without promoting harming their child.”

She starts by probing for what is at the root of the parents’ nonaffirming stance. “Let’s say it’s religious beliefs. You [as the counselor] can’t start quoting Bible verses,” Ginicola says. “That’s not our place, and they’re not going to listen to us anyway because we’re not within their religious group.”

Ginicola validates parents by saying she can see that it might be difficult to feel caught between two conflicting forces — the instinct to love and support their child versus their belief in a religious tradition that rejects their child. Rather than attempting to challenge their religious beliefs, she looks for inconsistencies and discrepancies that she can point out.

“I might say, ‘I’m hearing you say that in your faith you are supposed to love and support your child but also hearing that this [coming out] is something you can’t support. How do you feel about that conflict?’”

Ginicola tries to get these clients to a point at which they are willing to join local or online support groups and talk to other parents who have gone through the same experience. She reasons that these parents will be the best source of support and advice on coping with the conflict of belonging to a faith tradition that does not affirm LGBTQ identity and culture, yet wanting to support a child who is LGBTQ.

Sometimes parents are unwilling to let go of whatever beliefs are informing their anti-LGBTQ stance. In these situations, Ginicola lets them know that they are choosing a dangerous path. When families utterly reject children who come out as LGBTQ, the risk of suicide is exponentially increased.

“At some point,” Ginicola observes, “they have to ask themselves, do they want a gay son or a dead son?”

 

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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)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm by Joshua M. Gold
  • Casebook for Counseling Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons and Their Families edited by Sari H. Dworkin and Mark Pope
  • Youth at Risk, sixth edition, edited by David Capuzzi and Douglas R. Gross

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

  • “Divorce and Children” by Elizabeth A. Mellin and Lindsey M. Nichols
  • “Parenting Education” by Carl J. Sheperis and Belinda Lopez

ACA divisions

  • Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling (acachild.org)
  • International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (iamfconline.org)

 

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

Letters to the editorct@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.

Bringing the family counseling perspective into schools

By S. Kent Butler, Tony D. Crespi and Mackenzie McNamara May 8, 2017

Children in schools today come from increasingly diverse and complex families. As illustration, more than 1 million families are impacted annually by divorce. In fact, approximately 13.7 million single parents are raising 21.8 million children, and 1 in 3 Americans are stepparents, stepchildren, stepsiblings or part of a stepfamily. Furthermore, according to a 2009 article published in the journal Family Relations, it is estimated that only 31 percent of fathers who no longer live with their children maintain weekly contact with those children. It is easy to conclude that the issue of divorce alone has a profound impact on many millions of children in the U.S.

Now imagine that a young student and her mother walk into the professional school counselor’s office on a Monday morning. Mom explains that she and her husband are pursuing a divorce — he recently told her that he’s been having an affair and has decided to move in with his girlfriend. The daughter acknowledges feelings of depression and admits to having angry outbursts at home. Mom says she is concerned because her daughter’s grades have been dropping.

Considering the large number of children and adolescents coping with parental divorce, it’s not surprising that this fragmented family came to the school counselor’s office. In fact, it’s a good thing. Both daughter and mother need someone to talk to, and schools are a natural access point for services. However, many professional school counselors are not trained in family dynamics and are not familiar with key tenets that impact family counseling, so they may not know how to proceed.

A sample case

Susie is 15. A high school freshman, she knows only that her father left the house two months ago to move in with his girlfriend. Susie’s parents had been together for 16 years, getting married shortly after college.

Susie’s father hasn’t called since leaving. Susie is unaware that her father told her mother that although he loves Susie and her younger sister, who is in seventh grade, he hasn’t missed seeing them in the least. Mom decided not to share this comment with the children, but she does confide this secret to you, the professional school counselor.

Sitting in your office, Susie suddenly looks up and exclaims that she is scared she will have to move and change schools. She also says that she’s having a really tough time paying attention in class and explains that her grades are slipping. “I hate my dad for doing this!” she yells.

Suddenly, Susie starts shaking and breaks down in tears. After a few minutes, Susie tells you that she is spending a lot of time with her boyfriend, partly to stay out of her house. She acknowledges feeling depressed. After pausing for a moment, she looks at her mom and states, “I really hate Dad. His girlfriend is so young. She’s in her 20s. She’s not much older than me!”

Academically, Susie has been an A and B student, but her grades have fallen since her father left. Her mother acknowledges that things are tough at home and reveals that she didn’t learn about her husband’s affair until the day he moved out. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” she tells you. “I know we’re getting a divorce, but beyond that I just don’t know.”

Your school doesn’t have a social worker. However, you have a colleague who has been studying family counseling, so you knock on her door to ask for a consultation. After sitting down, you share a few thoughts.

You note that, fundamentally, Susie needs someone to talk to about these issues. Acknowledging that you are speculating, you openly wonder what type of impact the obviously poor communication in Susie’s family is having on her. After all, her father has not called in two months, her mother was completely unaware of the affair and her mother is keeping the father’s confession of not missing his kids a secret. These facets alone highlight poor family communication. In addition, Susie is scared that she might have to move and change schools. Clearly the issues are widespread.

Risk points

Here are some risk points to consider as you work with Susie:

  • Parenting after a divorce differs significantly from parenting prior to
    a divorce.
  • Single-parent families in the United States are increasing.
  • Children of divorce have more mental health problems in comparison with their peers.
  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among U.S. youth.
  • Brain regions responsible for decision-making are not fully developed in youth.
  • Changes in family structure can have an affect on school grades.
  • Anxiety, depression and behavior problems are elevated after divorce.
  • Children of divorce often feel a sense of instability.

An understanding of these risk points is essential for moving forward with children and families because the risk points can provide direction for the work that needs to be done. For example, knowing that mental health symptoms are elevated following divorce and impulsive decision-making is greater among youth, you should assess Susie’s level of safety. In this case, Susie also makes many “red flag” statements.

These are things that counselors know how to address but might not always consider without an awareness of the data. In addition, parents can become defensive, or they might blame themselves for their children’s difficulties. For this reason, it is imperative to educate parents on these risk points. It is also important to realize that family issues may require clinical supervision.

Supervision around work with families 

Susie is not alone. As your colleague notes, Susie is one of many children and adolescents who are coping with family stressors. With the prevalence of so many family issues, a growing number of states have enabled licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) to work in the schools. Connecticut, New Mexico, Maine, Texas and Illinois have passed specific laws to allow LMFTs to work in schools, whereas Massachusetts allows LMFTs to work under a general mental health designation.

Schools clearly represent an important access point for mental health professionals. But with only six states utilizing LMFTs in schools, it is extremely important for professional school counselors and their supervisors to know how to manage these situations with families.

As you ponder your next meeting with Susie, you need information. Direct supervisors are often part of the structure of many agencies, but professional school counselors might need to seek support from a colleague with training in family counseling. Such supervision might come from a guidance director, a school psychologist, a consulting psychologist, a marriage and family counselor, or a local family agency.

Two popular family therapy models that might help Susie are presented below.

Symbolic-experiential family therapy 

This model, derived from the work of Carl Whitaker, addresses both individual and relational patterns. It is focused on both personal growth and family relations.

Fundamentally, the therapist helps dislodge rigid patterns and stimulates flexibility using a family’s natural pull toward growth. Focusing on the present, the therapist helps people recognize their real feelings, express those feelings and move forward, individually and as a family. Key points follow.

  • The “battle for structure” involves clients (a family) “sizing up” a therapist. There is no “identified patient”; rather, the family is the therapy unit. In this model, the therapist must win the battle and control therapy. For instance, if the therapist invites the entire family and one member does not show up to the session, the therapist may refuse to meet until everyone attends. In the case with Susie, you might note that you, Susie, her mother and Susie’s sister must all attend.
  • The family must win the “battle for initiative”; this involves their decision to take charge of their lives and decisions. Is Susie committed to resolving her feelings? Will she commit to six counseling sessions? Is she willing to confront her father about calling his children? Is she motivated to initiate change?

Therapy progresses through stages:

1) Engagement: This is the “meet and greet” phase. You have already started this stage with Susie and her mom.

2) Middle phase: Families are encouraged to change through confrontations, encouragement and interventions. Can Susie’s family meet to start this process?

3) Late phase: Increased flexibility is a focus for the family. Can Susie’s family talk through how the divorce will change their life?

4) Separation: As the therapist separates, the family takes responsibility.

Symbolic-experiential family therapy often advocates the use of co-therapy, making it a great model to use with a more “senior” therapist. In this fashion, supervision can be active and ongoing as you acquire firsthand skills in family counseling.

Structural family therapy

The structural approach, typically associated with Salvador Minuchin, views problems as being rooted in family interactions. Fundamentally, if we can help change the family’s organization (structure), its members typically find that they feel better and their symptoms are often relieved. Key points follow.

  • Enmeshment or disengagement: Family members may range from those who are overly connected to those who are disengaged. Enmeshment tends to prevent growing maturity, whereas disengagement may lead a child to feel abandoned. Most families are not one or the other but have subsystems that reflect their tendencies. For example, a disengaged father who is overly involved at work may neglect the family. In response, the mother may compensate by becoming overly involved. Is Dad really connected? What is the structure
  • Boundaries: Are parental boundaries rigid or flexible? Are grandparents a resource? Can a child visit Dad at work, or does the family maintain a rigid rule against it? Can Susie ask Dad questions? What are the boundaries? What is spoken? What is unspoken?
  • Alignments: Who joins together? Are children aligned against the parents? Did a parent resent and refuse to attend a child’s sporting activities? Did a parent require everyone to attend? What are the alignments?
  • Triangulation: The permutations of triangulation in families can be abundant. A child and parent may triangulate against another parent. A parent having an affair can create a triangle with the other spouse. Will Susie triangulate with Mom against Dad? What triangles exit?

The structural model also features several stages:

1) Joining and accommodating

2) Assessing family interactions

3) Monitoring dysfunction

4) Restructuring patterns

Summary and considerations

When a student walks into a professional school counselor’s office, we are presented with a rare opportunity. When a student and parent walk in together, we are handed an even rarer opportunity.

Family counseling offers unique and engaging ways of reframing problems. Rather than blaming an individual for a particular problem, family counselors look at the family system. Perhaps a child’s acting-out behaviors allow parents to avoid looking at their relational problems. Perhaps a child’s failing grades reflect more on family anxiety and stress than on individual issues. Fundamentally, family counseling takes a larger, more systemic perspective of presenting issues.

Professional school counselors possess wonderful skill sets. They understand rapport building. They understand relational dynamics. They understand problem assessment and the utility of interventions. The connection between families and school adjustment is undeniable. At the same time, school counselors will likely find continuing education and supervision indispensable in helping families.

In our experience, students and families can often benefit from a family counseling perspective. With so many students in the schools coping with changing family structures, it is vital that we expand our skill sets. Fortunately, there are multiple platforms through which we can provide help. Some of these options include:

  • Individual counseling from a family perspective
  • Co-therapy with single families
  • School-based divorce groups with multiple children
  • Single-parent support groups

This article is intended to stimulate thinking and provide a preliminary glimpse into two prominent family counseling theories. Our advice? Be available. Be sensitive. Consider finding a supervisor who is capable of expanding your knowledge and skills in this invaluable area. Truly, children, families and the community stand only to benefit.

 

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S. Kent Butler is an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. He is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor and national certified school counselor. He is particularly interested in mentoring, supervision and multicultural issues in counseling. Contact him at skbutler@ucf.edu.

Tony D. Crespi is a professor at the University of Hartford. He is a certified school counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, and licensed psychologist. He is particularly interested in family counseling and legal issues that affect supervision.

Mackenzie McNamara is a doctoral student in the counseling psychology program at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She most recently worked for New London Public Schools in Connecticut.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having your article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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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.