Tag Archives: domestic violence

ACA participates in White Ribbon Day in Congress

By Samantha Cooper December 13, 2023

Attendees of the White Ribbon Day in Congress event on Dec. 1, 2023, take the White Ribbon pledge

Attendees of the White Ribbon Day in Congress event on Dec. 1 take the White Ribbon pledge to never commit, excuse or stay silent about sexual harassment, sexual assault or domestic violence.

ACA partnered with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to support the White Ribbon VA campaign, an initiative that calls for the end of sexual harassment, sexual assault and intimate partner violence across the VA. This collaboration raises awareness of the unique challenges veterans face related to mental health, trauma and intimate partner violence and provides resources and support for counselors working with this population.

ACA CEO Shawn Boynes speaks at the White Ribbon Day in Congress

ACA CEO Shawn Boynes speaks at the White Ribbon Day in Congress.

On Dec. 1, ACA CEO Shawn Boynes spoke at the White Ribbon Day in Congress event held in Washington, D.C. Boynes discussed the important role counselors play in supporting victims of domestic violence, including providing survivors of domestic abuse with a safe, nonjudgmental space to express their feelings, fears and concerns and helping them develop safety plans. He also highlighted how the partnership between ACA and the VA benefits both counselors and veterans because it gives counselors access to necessary resources that will help them provide culturally appropriate care to clients.

Veronika Mudra, CEO of White Ribbon USA, at the White Ribbon VA event

Veronika Mudra, CEO of White Ribbon USA, talks about the importance of the White Ribbon campaign.

Other speakers included VA Secretary Denis R. McDonough; Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania; Anthony Estreet, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers; Veronika Mudra, CEO of White Ribbon USA; Katherine McGuire, chief advocacy officer at the American Psychological Association; and Cristina Maza, foreign policy and defense correspondent at the National Journal.

ACA CEO Shawn Boynes and Anthony Estreet, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers

ACA CEO Shawn Boynes and Anthony Estreet, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers, talk with other attendees.

The White Ribbon VA campaign was inspired by the global White Ribbon organization, which was founded in Canada in 1991 with the goal to end gendered violence toward women and girls. It now operates in 60 countries across the globe.

Shawn Boynes, ACA CEO, and Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia

Shawn Boynes, ACA CEO, shakes hands with Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia.

ACA is currently advocating for several bills that would support survivors of domestic violence and make it easier for veterans to access mental health resources. These bills include the Vet Centers for Mental Health Act of 2023 (H.R. 733), Health Families Act (S. 1664/ H.R. 3409), and Safe Leave for Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking Act (H.R. 2996). Learn more about these bills and other legislation related to mental health at www.counseling.org/government-affairs/actioncenter.

ACA staff at White Ribbon VA campaign in 2023

ACA staff enjoy the event. From left to right: Brian D. Banks, chief government affairs and public policy officer, Guila Todd, government affairs manager; Syndey Sinclair, government affairs coordinator; Stacy Brooks Whatley, chief communications and marketing officer; and Shawn Boynes, CEO.



Addressing intimate partner violence with LGBTQ+ clients

By Lisa R. Rhodes June 1, 2023

Two men sit side by side across from a woman


It has been a long-held belief that intimate partner violence (IPV) happens primarily in heterosexual relationships and that straight, cisgender women are most likely to be the victims of abuse.

“Domestic violence theories have historically been gender based,” says Susan Holt, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and an associate director of the Mental Health Department at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Domestic violence or outreach materials, research and media often talk about IPV from this heteronormative perspective and refer to victims of IPV using the pronoun “she” and perpetrators of IPV as “he,” Holt notes. And domestic violence shelters and support groups are often designed for and cater to straight, cisgender women.

This belief that IPV happens only or mainly to straight, cisgender women prevents many LGBTQ+ people from recognizing that they may be in an abusive relationship and that they have the right to seek protection from their abuser.

“LGBTQ+ intimate partner violence has been relatively invisible to not only members of the LGBTQ+ community but our society in general,” Holt says.

The pervasiveness of abuse

IPV in the LGBTQ+ community is more prevalent than commonly believed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation found that domestic violence occurs in LGBTQ+ relationships at rates similar to or higher than those in the general population.

According to the 2020 report Finding Safety: A Report About LGBTQ+ Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, published by the Los Angeles LGBT Center, 4.1 million LGBTQ+ people in the United States have experienced physical IPV, partner rape or partner stalking in their lifetimes. When LGBTQ+ people do reach out for help in an abusive relationship, they are often mistreated and disrespected. The Finding Safety report notes that 70% of the LGBTQ+ individuals surveyed said that when they sought assistance from service providers, which included mental health counselors and physicians, they experienced “prejudice and/or negative responses to their gender or sexuality” and were often dismissed and shamed. They also reported homophobic, transphobic and sexist treatment, as well as violence, when they attempted to report the abuse to the police.

According to the report Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Abuse Among LGBT People: A Review of Existing Research, published by the Williams Institute in 2015, studies suggest that “transgender people may confront similar levels, if not higher levels, of IPV as compared to sexual minority men and women and cisgender people,” with findings of lifetime IPV among transgender people ranging from 31% to 50%.

“The LGBTQ+ population has not been commonly studied. This is especially true when it comes to domestic violence and intimate partner violence,” says Holt, founder and director of the STOP Violence Program at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. “Rather, information that applies to other populations without the unique, and often complex, aspects of the LGBTQ+ population [is] extrapolated and applied to the community.”

Holt says that both historically and currently, bisexual female survivors of IPV have been overlooked or misclassified as either heterosexual or lesbian based on their partner, and they report higher levels of severe violence, such as choking, than do lesbians or heterosexual women.

“Bisexual females are often believed erroneously to be hypersexual and depicted as sexual objects, or more sexual than others, and hence subject to objectification and violence,” she continues. “They are also more often controlled by their partners because the partner fears that they cannot be trusted [and] are prone to affairs and infidelity.”

Unlike male survivors of IPV, Holt says bisexual and heterosexual women tend to be more willing to disclose the abuse they have experienced and are open to seeking assistance, which may account for their higher numbers in studies.

Patriarchal and systemic oppression

Patriarchal norms and systemic oppression make LGBTQ+ people more susceptible to IPV. Tristyn Ariyan, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Texas who specializes in trauma and relationship issues and violence-informed care for the LGBTQ+ population, says society’s patriarchal view that only men are entitled to exercise power and control “complicates the understanding and recognition of sexual minority or intimate partner violence.”

Ariyan says the patriarchal assumption that men are perpetrators of abuse comes from the idea that sex assignment plays an integral part of social and intimate power dynamics: People assume that men inherently have a right to power and will therefore be socialized to be aggressive and strong, whereas women are raised to be compliant and docile. “This patriarchal perspective skews the view of same-sex and transgender relationships with both societal and internalized beliefs such as men cannot be victims, women are not violent, and LGBTQ+ and intimate partner violence [are] reciprocal, which often prevents reporting and intervention,” she adds.

Society’s patriarchal construct creates myths and expectations about LGBTQ+ relationships so that a partner’s role in the relationship is decided by factors such as their gender expression (based on societal constructs), says Eric Sullivan, an LPC and LMFT who specializes in working with the LGBTQ+ community.

“For example, if you’re in a gay male relationship, there’s this myth that if you’re the ‘top’ [the one who gives penetration] in the relationship, then you’re supposed to be more in control, more dominant, more ‘masculine,’” Sullivan says. Myths such as this perpetuate “constructs of gender norms that aren’t true … even in heterosexual man [and] woman relationships,” he explains.

How a person decides to exert power or control over another person “isn’t connected to a person’s gender or sexuality,” says Ariyan, owner of Luna Therapy Solutions in San Antonio, and “doesn’t line up” with stereotypical notions of masculinity.

Moshe Rozdzial, an LPC and owner of Glow Counseling in Denver, says another harmful consequence of patriarchy is the concept of ownership and that men have the right to “own” or control their partner and children. No one, including LGBTQ+ people, is immune from having been indoctrinated by this social construct, he stresses.

“The dynamics of power and position in LGBTQ+ relationships are not outside of patriarchy,” says Rozdzial, a certified sex therapist and national co-chair of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism. This is why some gay men and lesbian women believe they have the right to control their partner, he says.

“No relationship is purely equal. Someone in the relationship has rank, position or power based on financial standing, education or social status,” he adds. “No relationship is free of power dynamics.”

How these power dynamics play out between two people is what differentiates an abusive relationship from an egalitarian relationship, Rozdzial notes. This reality is not unique to LGBTQ+ relationships; it is a broader understanding of IPV, he says.

Not only is patriarchy an adverse influence in LGBTQ+ relationships, but the systemic oppression against LGBTQ+ people can be detrimental to their sense of self. “We have unique forms of discrimination and prejudice that we experience in the world that are added pressures and stressors in relationships,” says Sullivan, who is part of the LGBTQ+ community and owner of a virtual private practice, Proud Counseling.

LGBQT+ people often internalize a lot of the oppression they experience, which is a form of complex trauma that can show up in relationships and other areas of their lives, Sullivan notes.

Individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ grow up hearing negative social messages that their existence is wrong, sinful or perverted, and these messages are pervasive throughout society’s institutions, such as the media, schools, the workplace, religious institutions and even family systems, says Rozdzial who has been counseling LGBTQ+ people for more than 20 years.

“People hear those messages and come to feel they are damaged or broken or worthy of abuse, punishment or shame, rather than seeing [the messages] as tools of systemic oppression and ‘othering’ that are inherently outside of themselves,” he says.

Sullivan says these negative messages lead some LGBTQ+ people to feel that their personal relationships are judged by others. This often makes them uncomfortable to tell others they are in an LGBTQ+ relationship. It’s already hard to navigate a personal relationship but being a queer couple “makes it that much harder,” Sullivan says. And fear of judgment for being LGBTQ+ can make it more difficult for someone to report IPV, he adds.

Rozdzial uses psychoeducation to educate his clients about the harmful impact of internalizing these oppressive messages. “I want my clients to understand that what they are experiencing [in regard to abuse] is not their fault,” he explains, noting that heterosexuality and society’s assumptions about its inherent superiority means that LGBTQ+ people are often seen as “outsiders.”

He also works to reinforce clients’ strengths and self-determination. Rozdzial says he helps clients develop affirmative statements such as “This is not about me,” “I am not shame worthy” and “This is not my doing,” which help them externalize systemic oppression.

“I want them to realize that they deserve a life free of fear and discrimination, both at home and in society,” he says.

Rozdzial advises clinicians who work with LGBTQ+ survivors of domestic abuse to invest time in unearthing any biases and assumptions they may have about the LGBTQ+ community before developing the therapeutic relationship.

“The therapist is in a power position that can be used against the client if they are not aware of systemic oppression,” he says. “Counselors can harm the client in the clinical setting if they unknowingly align themselves with patriarchal constructs or heterosexist, anti-gay beliefs.”

Holt says it is critically important for counselors to be properly trained to treat LGBTQ+ survivors of IPV. “Because domestic violence and intimate partner violence can cause emotional trauma [and] physical injuries and is potentially lethal, it is imperative that counselors, when faced with a domestic violence case, make sure they have been sufficiently trained to intervene safely and effectively,” she stresses.

Assessing for domestic abuse

Because LGBTQ+ clients may not be aware that they are in an abusive relationship, clinicians must be diligent to correctly assess for IPV. The counselors interviewed for this article recommend that clinicians who are working with couples assess one client at a time and in private. That way, if abuse is present, then the client who is being mistreated might feel more comfortable giving honest answers during the intake.

Ariyan uses the Danger Assessment-Revised questionnaire to screen clients for trauma as part of the intake process. Although the questionnaire was designed to assess abuse in female same-sex relationships, she says that counselors can revise the questions to use gender-neutral language in session with LGBTQ+ clients. The questionnaire includes questions such as:

  • Is she [your partner] constantly jealous and/or possessive of you?
  • Does she [your partner] try to isolate you socially?
  • Does she [your partner] constantly blame you and/or put you down?

To better assess for IPV, Sullivan also suggests counselors ask the following questions during intake:

  • In general, how does your partner treat you?
  • Do you feel safe and comfortable in your living environment?
  • Are there times when you fear your partner?
  • Has your partner ever called you a disparaging name?
  • Has your partner ever threatened you or struck you?
  • Has your partner ever forced you to have sex when you didn’t want to?

Sometimes clients may be hesitant to answer these questions out of concern for how the information will be used. If this happens, Sullivan recommends clinicians normalize the intake process by saying something such as, “It seems like you are hesitant to answer some of these questions. That’s perfectly normal. I’m here to help. You can share only what is comfortable for you. The information that you share can be helpful to you and for me, so that I know what’s going on, and so we can decide what we will work on together in therapy.”

Sullivan, who consults with businesses to help them become LGBTQ+ inclusive, also suggests counselors let clients know during the intake process if they are a member of the LGBTQ+ community or if they identify as an ally of the community. This is important, he says, because clients may be concerned that the clinician has a judgment or bias against LGBTQ+ people or same-sex couples.

Abusive tactics

In addition to the common manifestations of IPV, which include physical, sexual, emotional and economic maltreatment, abusers in LGBTQ+ relationships may use harmful psychological tactics that target their partner’s gender identity or sexuality to degrade and humiliate them.

Because LGBTQ+ people and survivors of IPV internalize being abused, there is often an expectation that being abused “is their lot in life,” Rozdzial says. Therefore, they may not recognize these destructive LGBTQ+ specific tactics, which include the following:

  • Threatening to “out” a partner to their family, friends, employer or other social connections. Ariyan says outing a person in the LGBTQ+ community who is not ready or willing to do so themselves can cause them to lose their job, housing or place of religious worship or create a rift in their family and other support systems that may be difficult to heal.
  • Using derogatory slurs. Sullivan says an abuser may use name calling or mockery that’s related to a partner’s queer identity to shame them.
  • Exploiting a partner’s insecurities around their gender identity or sexuality. Abusers may use a partner’s emotional vulnerabilities against them. For example, Sullivan says that an abuser may tell a transgender woman in transition, “You’ll never be a ‘real woman,’ and you are lucky that I’m with you because nobody else is going to want to date you.”
  • Limiting a partner’s support system by isolating them from family, friends or other social connections. Sullivan says an abuser may try to elevate their position in the partner’s life over all other people. For example, an abuser may tell their partner, “Your friends don’t support you. Your family doesn’t support you, but I accepted you right away.”

The nature of generalized or LGBTQ+ specific abusive tactics in a relationship “may provide insight into [the] overall dynamics of monitoring and controlling behaviors by one partner over another, even as sex, gender identity or gender expression may not be defined through a traditional heteronormative lens,” Rozdzial says.

Healing trauma and affirming the self

The counselors interviewed for this article agree that LGBTQ+ survivors of IPV often struggle with anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation. Therapeutic modalities such as skills training in affective and interpersonal regulation (STAIR), somatic experiencing, mindfulness and LGBTQ+ affirmative identity therapy can help clients process trauma, reframe their thoughts, heal their emotions and repair their sense of self-esteem.

It’s important for clinicians to help clients experiencing IPV feel safe so they can share their experiences without fear of being judged or shamed for who they are. A critical part of therapy with LGBTQ+ people, Rozdzial says, is to “name and acknowledge the level of abuse they are experiencing” and help them to understand that the negative behavior is a result of external systemic factors, rather than as “a personal or individual internalized expression of self.”

Ariyan says she honors the client as “the expert of their own experience” and “allows them to lead the discussion [to] increase their self-agency.”

She says that because survivors have often received mixed messages from their abusers, they learn to assign meaning to nonverbal behaviors to help them receive information beyond what is being spoken or told to them. Because of this, “many survivors are highly adept at reading nonverbal cues, so clinicians must work to be genuine, congruent and explicit,” she notes.

Ariyan uses STAIR to help survivors process trauma. STAIR, which was originally developed to help people who have experienced childhood abuse and have a history of posttraumatic stress disorder, is a skills-based approach that “can be modified for use with clients that have a history of intimate partner violence,” she notes.

“The primary focus of STAIR is reframing cognitions that are impacted by traumatic experiences, allowing individuals to develop and practice adaptive emotion regulation and increase interpersonal functioning,” Ariyan says. “STAIR facilitates meaningful change with clients as they become aware of the impact of interpersonal violence schemas and how it can influence their emotional and social functioning, while also increasing their resiliency through somatic awareness strategies and cognitive restructuring.”

Processing and discussing traumatic events can be stressful, so counselors should ensure that clients have the coping skills needed to address any potential emotional dysregulation that comes up. Ariyan finds somatic experiencing helpful when working with survivors of IPV because it helps clients address physiological dysregulation of traumatic experiences. “By learning to reconnect body sensations with the mind, clients are able to communicate to their nervous system that the perceived threat is over, facilitating a sense of safety and increasing their window of tolerance, or functional range, when activated by stressors,” she explains.

One somatic experiencing self-soothing intervention that Ariyan suggests counselors use is resourcing (i.e., the practice of having the mind/body attuned to sensations of safety). Counselors, for example, could ask the client to imagine a place they find beautiful or comforting and think about the details of the places — the sights, smells and sensations — they are noticing. Counselors can then ask about the emotions (e.g., happy, relaxed) and body sensations (e.g., warmth) they are experiencing and where in their body they feel these sensations.

“If a client begins to experience distress during a session, it can be useful to pause for a moment, bring awareness to a positive and calm resource, then proceed once they have returned to a safe state,” Ariyan says.

Clients can also use this exercise of concentrating on a calming location and the pleasant sensations associated with it outside of session whenever they feel the need to create safety and calm within their environment, she adds.

Sullivan uses mindfulness and grounding exercises such as deep breathing and body scanning to help clients develop the coping skills they need to manage the stress that may result from exploring their traumatic experiences.

He also uses LGBTQ+ affirmative therapy to foster empowerment and acceptance of a client’s queer identity, which amplifies their confidence and sense of self and counters negative messages they may have heard from an abusive partner.

Sullivan notes that it’s important for counselors to provide psychoeducation about heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia and other biases to help clients understand that systemic oppression is a form of complex trauma that needs to be processed and that the abuse they have suffered is not their fault.

Even if LGBTQ+ people have experienced a complex level of trauma, they are not “damaged,” Sullivan stresses. Instead, he says clinicians can help these clients recognize the strengths and resiliency they have developed from their experiences and use these qualities to rebuild their self-esteem and live an empowered life.


Resources for LGBTQ+ domestic violence survivors

Lisa R. Rhodes is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lrhodes@counseling.org.

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.

Identifying psychological abuse

By Avery Neal February 7, 2023

Two people sitting facing away from each other with upset looks on their face


In their 2019 meta-analysis on psychological abuse and mental health (published in Systematic Reviews), Sarah Dokkedahl and colleagues found that psychological violence is estimated to be the most prevalent form of intimate partner violence, yet there is very little research on the individual impact of psychological abuse on mental health.

Historically, psychological abuse has been widely overlooked, despite the staggering statistics. In the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report, Michele Black and colleagues reported that approximately half of Americans had experienced emotional abuse by a partner in their lifetime. In addition, they found that psychological abuse causes long-term damage to a victim’s mental health and that subtle psychological abuse is more harmful than overt psychological abuse or direct aggression. These findings indicate the urgency to educate clinicians on how to accurately identify psychological abuse and power imbalances in a relationship, particularly when the more overt forms of abuse are not present.

Furthermore, victims of psychological abuse often do not know that they are experiencing abuse, even though research has repeatedly shown that there is a strong link between psychological abuse alone and a range of mental health disorders and physical conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, irritable bowel syndrome, gynecological problems, chronic pain, substance use, physical injury and sleep disturbances. In fact, Mary Ann Dutton and colleagues’ article published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2006 and Mindy Mechanic and colleagues’ article published in Violence Against Women in 2008 both found that psychological abuse is a stronger predictor of posttraumatic stress disorder than physical abuse among women. If clinicians are not sufficiently trained in psychological abuse, then this population will lack adequate support, or even worse, abuse victims may be further victimized by the untrained therapist, particularly in couples therapy.

Misconceptions about abuse

Many misconceptions about abuse have created certain social stigmas and prevent those experiencing abuse from accurately identifying what is occurring in their relationship and seeking help. Some of the most common misconceptions include that abuse only occurs among poor individuals and minorities, that abuse is only physical or sexual, that abuse is the fault of both parties, and that victims of abuse have grown up in abusive homes and are just returning to something familiar (which does happen but is also frequently not the case).

A prevalent misconception involves incorrectly profiling victims of abuse. Many have a preconceived notion that victims of abuse present as meek or timid and are therefore easy to identify. But this is not true at all. In fact, many victims of abuse are strong, well-educated, financially successful and independent. Many are top employees or leaders in their field. The outside world would never guess that behind closed doors, the person is being criticized unrelentingly, monitored by their partner, threatened if they try to leave and guilted for having other support systems. Counselors must be aware of their own beliefs around abuse so as not to overlook what may be occurring for their clients.

A common example of this is the tendency to overlook men as victims of psychological abuse when the reality is that nearly half of women and men in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner. This results in many men not recognizing that they are being abused, so a large percentage of this population doesn’t seek help because they feel confused, ashamed or embarrassed or they believe that it is their fault. In addition, there is a cultural expectation that men are supposed to be “strong” and assertive and know how to stand up for themselves. Compounding the issue, boys and men who have been raised to be respectful of women may take this to mean that they shouldn’t set boundaries even if they are being mistreated by their partner. And traits such as being highly empathetic, emotionally sensitive, overly responsible and conscientious may not only put men at greater risk for being mistreated by their partner but also increase the likelihood that they will stay in an unhealthy dynamic.

For victims of psychological abuse, the term “abuse” may be hard to accept if physical violence is not occurring. Once counselors identify that physiological abuse is occurring, they can begin to support their clients to accept this reality. If the client is not ready to accept or use the term abuse, counselors can explain the dynamic using the concept of bullying in their relationship. This can help victims of abuse digest the information until they are ready to fully accept what is happening to them. Victims of abuse often carry a substantial amount of shame around not seeing or ignoring early warning signs, not leaving sooner, or falsely believing that they have done something to cause the abuse to occur. Most victims of abuse have engaged in ways that they would not have otherwise behaved if they had not been coerced, forced or scared. Supporting these clients through abuse education and trauma recovery, helping them develop other support systems and fostering their sense of worth and self-esteem are all vital to intervention.

Signs of psychological abuse

Psychological abuse is insidious, and often there are no overt signs of violence. It is imperative, therefore, that counselors know warning signs that indicate abuse is occurring. Here are some important factors to look for when working with clients who may be in an abusive relationship:

  • A person who seems insincere or overly friendly
  • A person who exhibits grandiose displays of attention during the courting phase of the relationship
  • A person who withholds affection, attention, love, sex, money or children
  • A person who speaks disrespectfully about their partner, to their partner or in front of others
  • A person who puts their partner down through humor or is overly critical
  • A person who isolates their partner by sabotaging their support systems
  • A person who speaks disrespectfully about their former partners
  • A person who has a history of not cooperating with others professionally or personally
  • A person who has more power in the relationship
  • A person who has a pattern of possessive, controlling or jealous behavior
  • A person who has a pattern of not taking responsibility, dishonesty or infidelity
  • A person who intimidates their partner when they’re angry
  • A person who has negative views toward women or double standards
  • A person who consistently takes the opposing stance from their partner
  • A person who lacks empathy for their partner

Keep in mind that it is unlikely that all of these patterns will occur within the relationship. A combination of symptoms is typically present, and inquiring about the couple’s history and the beginning of the relationship can provide valuable insight for clinicians. For example, frequent calling or texting with seemingly “loving” messages may actually be an attempt to keep tabs on a partner. The partner may not make this connection but might report feeling anxious without knowing why. A client may also report engaging in excessive exercise, and with further inquiry, the clinician may learn that the client’s partner is critical of her family and friends and claims that they are not good influences, which causes the partner to worry about her mental health. Thus, the client becomes isolated from their support system and instead turns to excessive exercise as a coping mechanism. On the surface, these criticisms may seem to come from a place of love or concern, but they could be signs of an unhealthy dynamic at play.

Assessing for psychological abuse

In my clinical practice, I have observed some patterns that appear to be prevalent in abusive relationships. Clinicians need to be aware that these patterns exist in both physically abusive relationships and partnerships with psychological abuse alone. At the heart of an abusive relationship lies the abuser’s core desire for power and control. Abusers’ styles may vary somewhat, but the underlying mechanisms they often use to gain power and control include the following.

Lack of empathy. Empathy and conscience are directly correlated. The higher one’s level of empathy, the greater likelihood their conscience can clearly differentiate between right and wrong. An abusive person has diminished empathy for others and a reduced capacity for distinguishing between right and wrong. This directly affects the abuser’s value system, making the abuser less responsive to the needs of their partner and/or children.

Sense of entitlement. Abusers have a high need for control. One presentation of this can be seen in an abuser’s sense of entitlement or belief that they know best and/or that their partner owes them. At the core, an abuser is insecure and compensates for this insecurity by undermining their partner. An abuser sees their partner’s autonomy as a threat. In an effort to reduce this threat, an abuser will try to diminish their partner’s character, accomplishments and other relationships. The presentation of this pattern is often more covert and can even play into an abuser’s charm. The abuser, for example, may use humor to put their partner down, have double standards or play devil’s advocate, all of which enhance the power differentiation.

Defensiveness and manipulation. Clinicians may have a difficult time recognizing an abuser’s manipulative tactics. Abusers often present themselves with charisma. They may impress clinicians with their “psychological awareness.” In couples therapy, they may seem like the “good” one, while their partner seems to be more emotionally reactive, hysterical, or physically or mentally unwell. Counselors are often unaware of abusive relationship patterns and will unconsciously support the seemingly balanced and logical abuser, which gives the abuser more leverage against their partner and furthers the abuse. Clinicians must pay attention to each person’s account of behavior at home and keep the possibility of a power differentiation in mind. Furthermore, counselors should pay attention to their own feelings in response to each client. Often a clinician may feel uneasy or intimidated by a client, but they may not be able to identify why. Examples of this include a client who is overly flattering to the therapist or a client who causes the therapist to question themselves. It may be hard for the clinician to pinpoint what is occurring, which is a telltale indication of a good manipulator.

Lack of responsibility. Abusers typically do not take responsibility for their behaviors or actions. This can be seen in interactions with their partner and often in their professional interactions. They often blame others or external events for their actions, rather than holding themselves personally accountable. This frequently presents as being a victim, so clinicians must pay careful attention to the person’s overall pattern of limited accountability. Typically, an abusive client will quit therapy once they realize that they are unable to manipulate the therapist. When this occurs, therapists must realize that this is not a failure on their part, but rather an indication that the abuser does not want to take responsibility for or change their hurtful behavior. When this happens, therapists can focus their work on supporting the abused partner.

Playing the victim. Playing the role of the victim is likely the abuser’s most powerful manipulation. They can cleverly disguise their aggressive behavior by appearing to be the injured party; for example, the abuser may blame their partner for the exact hurtful behaviors that they are actually doing. The partner then blames themselves and believes the abuser’s story of victimhood. An abuser is highly skilled at making others, including their partner, feel sorry for them; they know exactly which buttons to push to evoke sympathy. This makes the partner blame themselves and often prevents them from identifying the bigger issue because they take more than their fair share of the blame and responsibility. Clinicians can often be led astray and fall for the abuser’s manipulation.

The push/pull pattern. An abuser is not mean and cruel all of the time. If they were, then their partner would be more likely to leave the relationship. An abuser pushes boundaries, escalating mistreatment. And when the abuser gets away with the abuse, the severity of the abuse escalates. This represents a win for an abuser because they gain more power in the relationship and their partner is increasingly rendered powerless, which in turn makes them easier to control. The abuser then displays “loving” gestures to keep their partner off balance and questioning themselves. This is often seen in the “honeymoon phase” of the abuse cycle when the abuser is attempting to atone for misconduct. The abuser might do something for their partner that they know their partner has always wanted. This demonstration fills the partner with positive feelings for the abuser and with the hopeful, but false, belief that the relationship can be the way that it was in the beginning.

Abuse is gradual and cyclical. Abuse is not obvious at first, but it escalates over time. The more committed the relationship becomes, the more the abuser escalates the abuse because they know that their partner is less likely to leave if there is a strong commitment (e.g., shared finances, children). The severity of abuse increases as the victim tolerates the mistreatment and does not leave the relationship. More overtly abusive episodes are followed by a honeymoon phase, where the abuser may act remorseful and appears to have changed. This leads into the buildup phase where an abuser’s partner begins to feel tension and anticipates the next overtly abusive episode. During this phase, the abuser’s partner is likely to either tread lightly to avoid conflict or initiate conflict in hope that the abusive episode will not be as severe if the buildup phase has not lasted as long. Both behaviors are an effort to manage the abuser’s reaction and an attempt to give the victim some sense of control over the severity of the abuse.

If a counselor suspects psychologically abusive behaviors in the relationship after identifying the presence of some of these patterns, it is important to address it. Clinicians need to ascertain the level of the abuse and whether any physical or sexual abuse has ever occurred. It can be quite helpful to work with both parties individually in addition to couples therapy. Working individually with the victim can allow a safe environment for full disclosure, and counselors can support the client through abuse education and help them to recover their confidence and self-esteem. Best practices include trauma work and building on the client’s strengths and available resources. Working individually with the perpetrator allows the clinician to explore past trauma, their need to control and anger management.

It is important to note that there is a spectrum of abuse, ranging from being overly critical and controlling to pointing a gun or battery. Individuals who fall on the lower end of the spectrum are a lot more likely to respond positively to interventions versus those who display more aggressive signs of violence. There is also a correlation between the perpetrator’s level of accountability and empathy for others and the likelihood that therapy will be successful. As previously mentioned, most perpetrators of abuse (both overt and covert) are unwilling to take responsibility for their behavior, meaning that once confronted by the counselor, they typically quit coming to therapy. There is very little that counselors can do to avoid the discontinuation of treatment if the perpetrator of abuse does not want to participate in therapy.

For therapy to be effective, counselors must address the abusive behavior. If the individual is unwilling to confront their behavior, counselors must not take this as a failure on their part but understand that it is a symptom of the abuser’s personality structure. Clinicians must continually evaluate the level of risk to their clients and to themselves when working with individuals who abuse and refer to available resources when necessary. If there are concerns about the physical safety of the victim or the counselor, appropriate steps must be taken to ensure everyone’s safety.

Conclusions and recommendations

My primary recommendation to the counseling field is a call for more research in the area of psychological abuse. Despite the prevalence of psychological abuse worldwide, numerous studies confirm that it still remains a severely neglected area of study. Because research drives clinical practice recommendations, it is imperative that we start here.

Psychological abuse is a complex issue, and identification and intervention are difficult at best. Because covert forms of psychological abuse may be harder to identify, clinicians need to pay particular attention to how both people feel in their relationship. When counselors are aware of the characteristics and patterns of an abusive relationship, they can use intervention strategies to adequately support their clients in clinical practice.


Read more in Avery Neal’s online exclusive “Does your personality make you more vulnerable to abuse?

headshot of Avery Neal


Avery Neal holds a doctorate in psychology and is a licensed professional counselor, a practicing psychotherapist, and an international author and speaker. In 2012, she opened the Women’s Therapy Clinic, which offers psychiatric and counseling support to women. She is also the author of If He’s So Great, Why Do I Feel So Bad?: Recognizing and Overcoming Subtle Abuse, which has been translated and published in 12 languages. Contact her through her website at averyneal.com.

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

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.

Does your personality make you more vulnerable to abuse?

By Avery Neal January 26, 2023

Katherine (pseudonym) sits before me, meticulously dressed and exuding confidence. She makes great eye contact, and within minutes of our meeting, she has informed me of her high-powered position at one of the top law firms in the city. She is assertive in her responses, and I am left without any question that this woman is brilliant.

As our session unfolds, I find out that Katherine has come to see me after having left her husband following years of abuse and deceitful manipulations. As she described the last incident — how he pinned her against the wall, almost choking her, and then threw her across the room — I can hardly believe that this self-assured, outspoken and composed woman in front of me has been the victim of abuse.

After years of listening to clients share their stories about how they have endured aggressive and controlling relationships, it occurred to me that we’ve got to throw out our misconceptions of abuse and start paying attention to the reality of abusive patterns.

Most important, abuse is not just physical violence. Although physical and verbal abuse are usually the easiest to recognize, psychological and emotional abuse are more destructive to a person’s psyche, physical health and mental health. Psychological and emotional abuse mostly go unrecognized because the person is left without visible bruises. There are many abused people who have never been harmed physically, which leaves them to question themselves rather than identifying the abusive dynamic in their relationship.

And it’s not simply the insecure, meek woman who finds herself in the throes of an abusive relationship. It’s the woman who graduates with distinction from her Ivy League school or the selfless housewife who dedicates her life to her children. It’s the male executive who is ashamed to admit that his wife physically attacks him.

There is no way of telling if the person sitting next to you is being severely mistreated and manipulated by their partner. There are, however, some defining characteristics that make a person more vulnerable to being abused. It is important for people to know what personality traits make them more susceptible to being manipulated and abused so that they can begin to protect themselves.

Are you naive or inexperienced in relationships?

People who have not dated much or who have not had many romantic partners are more likely to end up in a controlling relationship simply because they don’t have other relationships with which to compare. They believe that what they are experiencing in their relationship is normal even if it doesn’t feel right.

The widely believed notion that only people who grew up in abusive families seek what is familiar and tend to end up with abusive partners gives many a false sense of security. Those who have not grown up in an abusive home think they will be equipped to know what to look out for in a partner. Although people from abusive homes are more likely to overlook abusive behavior in their partners, this is only part of the story — a very small part that has left many people falling unsuspectingly into the hands of abusive partners.

Because abuse occurs gradually, many people find themselves committed to their partners before they even have an inkling that something is amiss. Therefore, it is critical not only to know the early warning signs of an aggressive or controlling relationship but also to know how to protect yourself if you find that you fit the profile of someone who is at a higher risk for being abused.

Are you overly responsible?

People who take on more than their fair share of responsibility — be it bearing the brunt of financial burden, investing more in the family or carrying the emotional weight in the relationship — tend to be more likely to end up with partners who exploit their sense of responsibility and work ethic. It is not uncommon for one person to find that they’re doing most of the heavy lifting in the relationship while their partner sits back and watches, completely unconcerned.

In addition, those who tend to apologize even when they haven’t done something out of line are, in fact, taking responsibility for whatever mishap has taken place. While it is admirable to have the humility to apologize and “own up” if you’ve done something wrong, it makes it easier for an abuser to take advantage of you if you constantly apologize when you haven’t done anything wrong. So if you tend to be the overly responsible type, both in practice and emotionally, be sure to find a partner who contributes equally to the relationship.

Are you highly empathetic?

Highly empathetic people are more likely to fall for someone who plays the role of the victim, a common personality trait in most abusers. A person with a great deal of empathy accepts when their partner tells them that past childhood trauma is the reason for the abuse and that they simply can’t help it. The highly empathetic person is also more likely to cave after standing up for themselves when an abuser cries, apologizes, begs them not to leave or promises that “it won’t happen again.”

A person’s greatest strength can also be their greatest weakness, and this is certainly the case with empathy. If you’re an empathetic person, be aware that abusers know they can appeal to your empathy and compassion to get what they want. You must learn to protect yourself from being manipulated by someone who does not have your best interest at heart. Focus on relationships with people who do not exploit your empathy or coerce you into tolerating behavior that you should not have to withstand.

Do you avoid conflict at all costs?

Those who suppress their feelings to prevent others from getting mad at them are more likely to end up being abused. People who avoid conflict experience extreme discomfort if they believe that someone is mad at them. Their fear of disapproval or discord leads them to give up their need so as to avoid confrontation at all costs. These people, who typically describe themselves as peacekeepers, are far more likely to end up with an abuser because they are an easy target.

The conflict-avoidant person takes pride and feels settled when harmony is restored, so they work harder and harder to keep the abuser happy. The problem is that no matter how hard they work in their relationship, they alone cannot change the dynamic. Far more likely, they will completely lose their sense of self in the process of trying to change the relationship, eventually succumbing to keep harmony in the relationship.

Although there are tremendous benefits to being a peacekeeper, the problem arises when you completely sacrifice yourself to keep your partner happy. It is important to practice asserting yourself and your needs and to have a partner who allows you to do so without punishment.

Trust your intuition

I encourage people to trust their intuition if something doesn’t feel right in their relationship. Far too many people suffer in silence because they are embarrassed to admit that they have ended up in an unhealthy relationship or that the cost of getting out of the relationship seems too great.

Remember, abuse is gradual, which makes it even more difficult to see objectively. People try to convince themselves that if they could just get the relationship back to what it was, everything would be all right. But it will not be because abuse escalates over time.

In the case of Katherine, her personal life now matches her professional one. It wasn’t an easy journey, but she has learned to recognize the early warning signs of an abuser, to speak up for herself and to not excuse bad behavior. Her life now is filled with people she respects and who respect her in return. And she has the freedom to make her own choices — without fear.


headshot of Avery Neal


Avery Neal holds a doctorate in psychology and is a licensed professional counselor, a practicing psychotherapist, and an international author and speaker. In 2012, she opened the Women’s Therapy Clinic, which offers psychiatric and counseling support to women. She is also the author of If He’s So Great, Why Do I Feel So Bad?: Recognizing and Overcoming Subtle Abuse, which has been translated and published in 12 languages. Contact her through her website at averyneal.com.


Read more about how counselors can recognize and treat psychological abuse in Avery Neal’s article “Identifying psychological abuse” in the February issue of Counseling Today.

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.

Tough love: Supporting parents of children in unhealthy relationships

By Katie Bascuas December 7, 2022

Most parents would do anything to protect their children from pain. So watching a child struggle with an addiction, whether to a substance, behavior or even a relationship, can be an excruciating experience and bring up feelings of guilt, grief, self-doubt, worry and isolation. This situation becomes trickier when the child becomes an adult because parents can no longer intervene or make decisions on behalf of their loved one. 

Most people understand the challenges that surround having a child who struggles with a substance addition, but having an adult child in an unhealthy romantic relationship or a relationship in which there may be emotional abuse, such as inappropriate use of control, disrespect or dishonesty, is often considered less “taboo” or more acceptable than a substance addiction. Most people desire the feeling of being loved and accepted, including in romantic relationships. Therefore, parents can sometimes feel helpless when they think their child may be in a toxic and painful relationship.

“I’ve got half a dozen people I’m working with right now who are dealing with this, and my encouragement to someone who has a loved one in an unhealthy relationship is that it’s going to be difficult to talk them out of it because it’s just not rational,” says Ronald Laney, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at Change Inc. in St. Louis. “The other person is going to feel that that relationship, whatever it is, is filling a void that started long, long ago.

For counselors, supporting these parents can look similar to working with clients who have loved ones struggling with an addiction. There may be questions around how much to get involved, whether to distance themselves from their child or if they’re doing the right thing. 

And depending on the parent-child relationship, helping parents to understand and accept the situation could be challenging. For example, there may be years of unhealthy patterns of co-dependent and enabling behaviors that inadvertently perpetuate and reinforce the child’s addictive patterns, says Laura Whitcomb, an LPC who owns and operates NoCo Counseling in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Parents are willing to do and give everything for their kids,” Whitcomb says. But “they’re often trying to control someone else’s behavior and ensure someone else’s well-being, and that person is not making those same choices.” 

Counselors can play a key role in helping parents better understand what their child may be experiencing as well as normalizing the parents’ feelings and experiences and helping them reach a place of acceptance of the situation so as to ensure their emotional and mental well-being. 

Meeting clients where they are

While it might seem like a no-brainer, Whitcomb says one of the most important things to remember when working with parents seeking support around an adult child’s unhealthy relationship is to meet those clients where they are, but she admits this can be challenging. 

“I care so much that sometimes I get ahead of myself,” Whitcomb says, noting that she has to sometimes stop herself from giving advice or providing feedback that clients may not yet be ready to hear. “I really want [the clients] to be OK. I want them to get some joy back in their lives, and I want them not to be taken advantage of and have all this responsibility that isn’t really theirs. Some of these parents should be looking toward retirement or traveling, and they’re just sacrificing everything.”  

Because counselors are trained to examine the big picture, they may recognize things that may benefit the client before the client does, notes Robin Witt, an LPC and director of relationship dynamics at the Better Institute in Pittsburgh. “My biggest piece of advice is meeting the client where they’re at and working at the pace that they feel comfortable because, especially in these trickier situations, we can see the solutions but they’re not always willing or ready to see it, and if we push it, we can lose the client,” she says. “They could get scared or intimidated, and the biggest thing that we can do for them is to be a validating, supportive resource. We might be the only person that they’re talking to about this, and … what’s most important is keeping that professional relationship safe.” 

Witt focuses on client goals and knows that change can be gradual because clients do not have control over their loved ones. And truly accepting the fact that they may not be able to change the situation to the degree that they would like often takes time. “This is not a four-sessions-and-they’re-done thing,” she explains. “So keeping a slow pace and being mindful that the client is the driver is important.” 

Whitcomb says she has to remind herself as much as her clients that she may be getting ahead of them and that the process of learning how to support and engage with a loved one in an unhealthy relationship — similar to someone with an addiction is often long and complicated. She uses frequent check-ins and asks clients what changes seem manageable to them and what they are thinking and feeling in order to gauge where they are and what they want to accomplish as well as to help them set reasonable expectations. 

Some clients, for example, may take quick or impulsive action to try and fix or ameliorate the situation, such as giving ultimatums to their loved ones, but Whitcomb says those types of actions often just push the child away and have the potential to hurt the relationship. “A lot of people seem to want to do that. They want the problem to be solved. Most of us do,” she says. “So really try and shift their focus back to themselves, less on the unhealthy person and more on them.”

Whitcomb says she draws from her experience growing up with parents who had substance use issues to help clients learn to redirect their focus to themselves. It took her several Al-Anon Family Group meetings before she realized that focusing on herself, not her parents, was one of the first steps toward healing.

“It took me four meetings before I realized, ‘Oh, these people are no longer consumed with what their addict is doing. They are focused on their own lives and rebuilding their own lives,’” she recalls. “It took me a while to get it because people are holding so much intense emotion. We’ve been hurt a lot. That lightbulb doesn’t go on just overnight.” Whitcomb says that she uses this insight to prevent herself from getting ahead of clients as well as to help explain to clients the common tendency to focus on the other person.

The importance of psychoeducation

Another helpful component of supporting parents whose adult children are in unhealthy relationships is psychoeducation, which can include accurately labeling unhealthy or abusive relationships and modeling empathy and understanding.

Witt admits there can sometimes be a fine line between educating clients and validating and supporting them. The clinician, for example, wants to acknowledge the client’s experience and how painful it may be, but they also want to help the client understand the reality of the situation, which may involve exploring uncomfortable truths such as the fact that their child is likely unaware of or unwilling to accept that they are in an unhealthy relationship and subsequently are likely in denial about the effects that the relationship is having on other family members. 

Witt finds that naming and defining abusive relationships can help clients better understand what a loved one might be experiencing. Depending on where the client is at, this can be incredibly validating in the moment, or it might be information that clients come back to in the future. “Giving them the vocabulary can be important because we might only get that client for a short time,” Witt notes. “We’re planting seeds. Someone else is watering them, and we also might be watering seeds that therapists or others have been planting and watering.” Then, if the child becomes more open to discussing their relationship or relationship dynamics down the road, the parent will be more prepared to help their child see and understand some of the unhealthy patterns taking place, she adds.

Clinicians can also teach parents the importance of meeting their child where they are, while also modeling this behavior within the therapeutic relationship, says Laura Copley, an LPC who owns and operates Aurora Counseling & Well-Being in Harrisonburg, Virginia. 

“If I was seeing a mother whose son or daughter was coming home from college and all of a sudden in this toxic or manipulative relationship, I would first need to help teach her how to slow down enough to recognize where her child is at,” she says. To do this, Copley may use open-ended questioning to encourage the mother’s exploration into her child’s mindset. For example, she may ask the client questions such as “What do you think your child is experiencing right now? How do you know your child is experiencing that? What are some of the things they’re showing you that is making you feel like this is how they’re connecting to this relationship? And if that’s the case, what might be something your child needs to hear first from you?”

Copley also advises clients to show an interest in their child’s partner by asking how that person is doing and demonstrating concern for the partner’s well-being. Clients “don’t like this part, but it works,” Copley admits, because it’s a way to show genuine concern and hopefully create a safe space where the child can open up about their own well-being without getting defensive or reactive. “The son or the daughter then starts to trust, starts to feel safe, starts to express what they’re experiencing,” she explains. Then parents can reassure their child that if something bad happens in the relationship, they can stay with them, no questions asked.

Copley says that it can also be helpful to teach parents about the positive and negative personality characteristics that are often present in someone engaging in an unhealthy relationship. For example, a person may identify as being a “savior,” so they are loyal, committed, loving and courageous. On the other hand, saviors are also prone to attracting others who “need” saving, so they may also have a fear of asking for their needs to be met or a fear of being vulnerable or getting hurt, she notes. 

“This is all part of the conversation that we could have with parents to help them understand how to bridge the mindset of where their child might be,” says Copley, who adds that she would also role-play and model various ways to approach the loved one. “How we approach another human being, even somebody like our child, around something like this will deeply influence how they receive the message.”

Setting healthy boundaries

Working with clients to set healthy boundaries is another important aspect, but it can be incredibly challenging. 

To overcome difficulties with boundary setting, Laney encourages clients to think of it as setting a boundary not only for themselves but also for their loved ones. For example, he says that parents could tell their child, “Out of my care for you, I’m going to set this boundary because it’s not doing you any good to allow you to continue to treat me in that manner.” Framing the boundary as a means of protecting the child has helped many of Laney’s clients overcome their hesitancy to set boundaries. 

Another challenge with setting boundaries, especially in the beginning, can be finding the right balance. Clients sometimes move from having no boundaries to the extreme, Laney notes. For example, a parent may go from talking to their child every day to cutting off communication completely, rather than just communicating less. “We have to find that sweet spot,” Laney says.

Therefore, it’s important for counselors to help clients understand the nuance of boundary setting as well as the feelings of guilt and anxiety that can come along with setting limits with loved ones. Witt says that she encourages clients to make values-based decisions around things such as finances, faith, career and physical well-being when setting boundaries to ensure greater success.

“Making values-based decisions leads to those boundaries that actually stick,” Witt explains. For example, a parent may value attending church every Sunday, so if their child asks them to watch their grandkids one Sunday so that they can spend time with their partner, the parent may feel more empowered to say no because it will be a values-based decision. 

“If it’s values based, [the client] is more likely to uphold the boundary versus something they feel they ‘should’ do,” Witt says. “And setting a boundary that’s not going to stick is not going to be helpful to anybody.”

Dealing with guilt, grief and shame

There’s also the possibility that parents will feel a sense of guilt while watching a child in an unhealthy relationship dynamic and wondering how their parenting style or the child’s upbringing might have contributed to the situation. 

“The reality is that … our early attachment styles can absolutely set the stage for what we expect in romantic relationships, how we expect to get treated, how we get our needs met and if that’s replicated,” Copley says. So she likes to keep clients who may be experiencing these feelings of guilt focused on the present and what they can do now as opposed to exploring past events, at least when it comes to their goal of helping their child. 

Copley refers to having clients focus on what they can do in the present as a corrective experience, one in which behaviors and dynamics from the past can be corrected in the present by making another choice and behaving differently. For example, if a parent avoided tough conversations with their child in the past because of their own discomfort around confrontation, they could decide that moving forward they will be more open to having difficult conversations with their child. 

“If there’s shame and guilt for something the [parent’s] recognizing, we can either spiral into that shame and guilt and once again make it about us,” Copley explains, “or we can say it’s a signal that another opportunity is present for you to do something different and get redemption over anything that happened in the past.” 

Copley also teaches clients how to better manage the uncomfortable feelings that their child’s relationship may be bringing up in them by using somatic techniques to decrease the chances of reacting out of fear and trying to control the situation. Often, “the storm of emotions that are more than likely in them is because they’re so afraid of what their child is going through and the pain that they must be going through,” she explains. “And if we project that fear onto someone who thinks they are in love, that’s going to push them away and make them protect the toxic person more.” 

Sometimes parents feel guilty because they were also in an unhealthy relationship when their child was growing up. Witt advises clients who are worried their child may have witnessed unhealthy relationship patterns from them to have an honest and transparent conversation with their child about it. “We can’t go backwards, but we can be mindful of what we can do today to move forward,” she notes. “Whether that’s an apology or having an age-appropriate conversation to explain ‘This is why I handled things the way I did,’ [it] can enhance the relationship that you now have with that adult child.”

To help clients work through some of the shame and guilt that they might feel in these situations, Laney says that he likes to reinforce self-compassion and will often work with clients to explore how they can accept both difficult emotions and realities. For example, he might work with clients on how to hold the sense of sadness that their child might be in an unhealthy situation with possible feelings of guilt as well as possible disappointment around the dynamics of the relationship they have with their children. 

Accepting what you can’t change 

Although it’s not easy to come to terms with potentially challenging realities, such as a child’s unhealthy relationship and its effects on the wider family, embracing a certain amount of acceptance and equanimity can be one of the healthiest solutions for these clients, Laney says. 

“At some point there’s almost a surrender,” Laney says. “We exhaust ourselves trying to change things that we really can’t change. There’s something of a letting go there.”

Whitcomb also emphasizes acceptance, especially self-acceptance, in these types of situations that often involve an element of codependence or a preoccupation over the child and the child’s relationship at the expense of parent and their well-being. “Codependence feeds on avoidance of one’s own needs and difficult emotions because by being consumed by the problems of another, we are better able to ignore and avoid encountering our own,” she explains. “As I encourage parents and family members to shift their focus from the person they are enmeshed (overinvolved) with, I also try to guide clients to identify their own strengths as well as parts of themselves they perceive as flawed.” In recognizing their strengths and taking time for self-care, clients can start to develop not only a healthier sense of confidence and independence but also more self-compassion, she says, which in turn can cultivate more compassion for others.



Contact the counselors interviewed in this article: 



Katie Bascuas is a licensed graduate professional counselor and a writer in Washington, D.C. She has written for news outlets, universities and associations.


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.