Tag Archives: domestic violence

How to help domestic violence clients during shelter-in-place situations

By Federico Carmona April 13, 2020

It’s heartbreaking to read the variety of articles circulating about vulnerable people trapped at home with their abusers because of shelter-in-place mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, experience reminds us of a concerning reality that is typical of these uncertain times: Adverse labor market conditions are positively related to domestic violence. Research conducted after the Great Depression of the 1930s, the farm crisis of the 1980s, and the Great Recession of 2008 found that economic crises have significant negative effects on the quality of intimate relationships and parenting in working families. Marital conflict, abuse (particularly violent controlling behavior), and a decline in parenting quality are among the harmful effects in families of a macroeconomic downturn.

In my role as a trauma therapist, I have seen dozens of domestic violence clients during clinical intakes and in counseling. I have also read a multitude of articles on the subject about studies and reports from different parts of the world. Shelter-in-place mandates aren’t a good thing for women and children who are the targets of abuse. The anticipatory anxiety and uncertainty of these times can cause negative emotions to churn, leading to behaviors that increase the already-concerning number of domestic violence and child abuse cases. There is no “how-to” manual to deal with the current situation, of course, but the safety of this vulnerable population demands us to do our best.

How can the counseling community help domestic violence clients who are trapped at home with their abusers? I offer a few suggestions:

Reach out between appointments/sessions. One of the critical signs of abuse is the isolation of victims of domestic violence from their networks of love and support. An occasional check-in from us can empower these clients to tell us more about their situations and perhaps even dissuade their abusers from further violence as we keep checking in.

Listen, just listen. People experiencing domestic violence need an empathic ear — someone who will allow them to vent their repressed emotions and feelings without judgment. We are not to offer advice, only listen and empathize. It’s just time to build trust.

Validate clients’ feelings, emotions and beliefs even when they don’t make sense. The best way to build trust with clients experiencing domestic violence is by being present with them. We’re present with them through our vicarious empathy, active listening and compassionate validation. Our empathy is vicarious because it takes an emotional toll to connect with someone’s anguish and suffering. Active listening requires us to be disciplined enough to fully concentrate on what the client is saying rather than on the answer that we might have in mind to their situation. Clients experiencing domestic violence require validation — compassionate validation — because many times, their decisions (or lack of them), circumstances and beliefs don’t make sense to us.

Introduce them to mindfulness exercises. Clients experiencing domestic violence live in a world of fear and anxiety because of the cycle of abuse. At first, they’re worried because of their confusion and inability to make sense of and control the incipient abuse. In time, as the abuse increases, worry turns into anxiety and fear.

Mindfulness can help these clients become aware of their emotions, thoughts and bodies to take control of them and find much-needed relaxation. Meditation exercises shouldn’t necessarily be long. There are plenty of sites online with short, simple exercises, from breathing to stretching, that can help clients gain the bodily and emotional awareness they need to function.

Remind clients of their strengths and qualities. One of the benefits of practicing active listening is the ability to notice in clients’ stories what they have forgotten about themselves: their own power, qualities and strengths. By doing this, we help clients not only to survive their circumstances but also to move toward a better future as survivors of domestic violence who deserve lives of meaning and purpose.

Help clients to start a project. Because of shelter-in-place mandates, more perpetrators of abuse are at home all of the time. This increases the emotional state of “walking on eggshells” for domestic violence clients. We can help distract these clients from that state by brainstorming with them or suggesting a project to them. It could be an individual project based on their abilities, strengths and qualities that we noticed in their stories, or it could be a project that involves their children.

Assist clients in making a safety plan. Making a safety plan is incredibly useful. It doesn’t need to be complicated or lengthy. The simplest way of doing this is by helping these clients become aware of their circumstances (call the problem what it is — domestic violence). The rest of the plan might involve:

  • Trying to avoid conflicts and arguments during the mandated confinement
  • Involving their children in most of their home activities
  • Reaching out to relatives and trusted friends (when possible)
  • Being prepared to leave at any moment (i.e., having money, documents, car keys, children’s backpacks filled with some clothes and snacks ready to go)
  • Calling 911 when they feel that they or their children are in danger (even in a shelter-in-place situation, law enforcement will issue an emergency protective order to separate victims from their abusers)

Involve others. We can help our clients experiencing domestic violence to think about the resources they possess to deal with their situation. One of these resources could be men who are part of the couple’s life in some way (e.g., clergy, friends, relatives, co-workers, classmates, teachers, bosses).

When families and friends get involved, perpetrators of abuse can sometimes be dissuaded from causing harm to their partners and children. The presence of fathers, brothers, neighbors and friends prompts accountability. Some of these individuals might be willing to offer their support and speak up against the ongoing abuse. Victims of domestic violence can only break their silence and become survivors if they feel supported. We need to be cautious, however, and see each client in their particular context, giving consideration to whether this type of intervention could put them in more danger than they already are.

Help clients build a network of support. Isolation is one of the most critical signs of abuse. It creates a hated dependency on the abuser. Imposed isolation robs victims of domestic violence of their personhood. It suppresses their voice and identity piece by piece as family members and friends are pushed away. Connections are the simplest way to beat domestic violence. It is critical that victims of domestic violence get reconnected with relationships they trust. It is also crucial to get these clients connected with other survivors of domestic violence (via online groups) so they can claim their victory and begin the journey of healing from the trauma caused by the abuse.

Inspire clients to pursue self-sufficiency. Studies show that when women’s wages are relative to those of men in dual-income couples, there is a significant reduction in domestic violence. To be self-sufficient is to have bargaining power. It’s to have the ability to exert influence in the relationship. There are public resources designated to help survivors of domestic violence pursue further training and education with the purpose of becoming self-sufficient. Check with social services agencies about these resources.

These recommendations aren’t intended to override the urgency of calling 911 when someone is facing a clear and present danger at home. Let law enforcement personnel figure out how they will bring individuals and families to safety during shelter-in-place situations. Emergency protective orders are being issued even with the courts closed.

 

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Federico Carmona is a trauma therapist for victims of domestic and sexual violence at Peace Over Violence in Los Angeles. He is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. The experience of domestic abuse in his ministry and his own family motivated him to seek specialization in clinical counseling, specifically in trauma, to assist survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and violence to reclaim their identity, peace, and lives with dignity and purpose. Contact him at federico@peaceoverviolence.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.

Addressing intimate partner violence with clients

By Bethany Bray June 24, 2019

Licensed mental health counselor Ryan G. Carlson had just earned his master’s degree when he began working on a grant-funded project to provide relationship education to couples in the Orlando, Florida, area. Overseeing the intake process as local couples came into the university-based research center to participate, he quickly learned two things: Domestic violence “is very prevalent — much more prevalent than I realized — and it’s complicated,” says Carlson, an associate professor of counselor education at the University of South Carolina. “Every case was a little bit different than the next.”

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines across the country receive more than 20,000 phone calls.

Approximately 1 in 4 adult women and 1 in 7 adult men report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, 16% of women and 7% of men have experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner.

Carlson’s experience led him to study domestic violence while earning his doctorate, and it remains a career focus for him as he conducts research, does interdisciplinary work and conducts trainings for mental health professionals. “We assume when there’s violence in a couple’s relationship, they will tell us [in counseling]. What I’ve learned is if we don’t ask the right questions, they won’t tell us, and you shouldn’t ask those questions if you’re not ready for their disclosure,” he says. “It’s really complicated and emotionally charged. … A victim’s safety should be at the center of every decision we make as counselors.”

Handle with care

Counselors who notice patterns of maladaptive behavior, self-esteem issues or what appears to be poor decision-making by clients may automatically want to roll up their sleeves and dive into goal-setting and other go-to techniques to foster change and growth. However, engaging in change-focused work when a client is experiencing IPV may be harmful, warns Taylor Cameron, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and director of transitional housing at Denton County Friends of the Family, a nonprofit agency in Texas that provides support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also offers an intervention program for offenders.

The tried-and-true counseling method of talking through clients’ life scenarios, behaviors and choices while asking questions such as “What could you have done differently?” or “What would you want to change if this happens again?” can be hurtful because a counselor may inadvertently be placing the responsibility for the abuse on the victim instead of on the abuser, Cameron says. She cautions that counselors must choose their language carefully to avoid making the client feel that they are somehow to blame for the abuse they have endured.

“Victims of domestic violence do many things to survive or to try to protect themselves within the relationship,” says Cameron, an American Counseling Association member. “However, the partner carrying out the abuse is solely responsible for the violence.” Ultimately, the client can’t control — and should never be made to feel that they shoulder the blame for — what their partner does, she emphasizes.

Carlson, who is also a member of ACA, agrees. He notes that it isn’t helpful for professional clinical counselors to identify client behaviors that could be changed or avoided when clients may have adopted those patterns as a means of self-protection.

“It’s important to be careful about how we phrase things with [these] clients,” says Carlson, director of the Consortium for Family Strengthening Research and coordinator of the Center for Community Counseling at the University of South Carolina. “Avoid anything that has to do with ‘what could you have done differently?’ questions, anything that would allude to how [the client] contributed to their current situation. … It’s a delicate balance, but it’s really important to avoid language that [even inadvertently suggests] a victim is somehow at fault for being in that relationship.”

“It doesn’t matter what they change about themselves because that is not going to change the other person,” says Margaret Bassett, an LPC and deputy director at the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin. Counselor practitioners must consider the entire context of a client’s behavior to fully understand why they’re making those decisions, she says. Decisions that victims of abuse make — often for reasons of safety — can appear maladaptive from outside the context of the abusive relationship.

Bassett recalls a client who talked about agreeing to meet her estranged husband at a public library. Without understanding the full context of the situation — that if she didn’t meet with him, he had a history of escalating — a counselor might assume that the client was complicit in maintaining the abusive relationship rather than appreciate her layered safety planning, Bassett says.

“It was a brilliant move. It was safe to meet there because he couldn’t escalate without drawing attention,” Bassett explains. “Not meeting him just was not possible. This was meeting on her terms versus his terms. … This ties into [a counselor] listening and really hearing what the person is saying and not judging it out of context. Really being able to say, ‘That is a brilliant idea that you had.’ It’s not a good or a bad choice. Instead say, ‘When I hear that, I hear the safety it creates.’”

Victims of abuse often adopt patterns and behaviors that are the best choices they can make in a bad situation, Bassett notes. Professional clinical counselors should listen carefully to understand the full context of clients’ lives and then validate the choices they are making to safely navigate abusive and potentially violent situations. “Respect that they’re making a decision and really understand their safety concerns so your intervention is helpful and doable,” Bassett says.

Power and control

IPV happens between partners of all cultures and backgrounds — couples who are married and unmarried, heterosexual and homosexual, wealthy and poor, religious and nonreligious, white, Asian, Hispanic, African American and every other race. In addition, IPV often intersects with sexual assault; homelessness or disruptions in housing, schoolwork or employment; financial trouble; parenting issues; and myriad other challenges that spill over into the mental health issues that commonly bring clients to counseling.

Although the terms domestic violence and intimate partner violence both include the word “violence,” the abuse doesn’t always have a physical component, or the violent behavior is combined with emotional, nonphysical manipulation. What defines a behavior or relationship as abusive is a common thread of power and control. In its simplest definition, domestic violence is an intentional pattern of behaviors used by the abuser to gain and maintain power and control over another person, Cameron explains.

“It’s important to recognize that abuse is not an anger management issue,” she says. “People who are truly experiencing an anger management issue will go off on their boss, their cousin, the random guy at 7-Eleven. Abuse is carefully targeted at one person.”

Controlling behaviors are one of the biggest red flags counselors should be listening for to determine if a client might be involved in an abusive relationship, either as a perpetrator or a victim. Examples include checking or monitoring a partner’s cell phone, email or social media, or insisting that a partner text when they arrive at and leave from work every day. Other cues for which Cameron stays alert include:

  • Clients who clam up in session or appear to be afraid of their partner
  • Clients who are isolated from friends and family
  • Clients who feel they can’t go to work, school or social engagements because it upsets their partner
  • If one partner is the sole decision-maker or in complete control of the couple’s finances
  • If one of the partners continually feels guilty for their behavior
  • A partner who exhibits extreme jealousy
  • Clients who mention “walking on eggshells” around their partners
  • Clients who are having thoughts of suicide or threatening to harm themselves or their abuser
  • A partner who pressures the other partner to use drugs or alcohol or to not use contraception (or who lies about their own use of contraceptives)
  • A partner who pressures the other partner to have sex or to perform sexual acts that the person is uncomfortable with
  • Clients who talk about a partner belittling or embarrassing them in front of other people

Control tactics often go hand in hand with perpetrators minimizing or placing blame for their behavior, Cameron adds. Perpetrators of abuse may tell a victim that they wouldn’t have to act this way if the person came home from work on time, paid the bills on time, didn’t talk back, etc. Or, Cameron says, they may tell a partner, “It could have been a lot worse. I only shoved you. I didn’t punch you.”

In counseling, perpetrators may make statements such as, “I didn’t hurt her. I just punched the wall.” The behavior implies, however, that the perpetrator could have hurt the person, Cameron points out.

“Someone who is abusive will try and deflect attention away from the abuse,” Bassett says. “They will try and name what is happening. Maybe they push or strangle or pull their partner’s hair. But they will say, ‘I am not abusive because I never hit you. Have I ever hit you?’ or [point out that] there was no bruise. There’s a lot of crazy-making behavior that goes on. They’ll deny it ever happened or focus on something else. Abuse is a pattern of behavior, and the abuser will rationalize those patterns as something else. Pay attention to that as a therapist and help them to name the behavior [for what it is].”

If a client mentions that they fight a lot with their partner or that the partner has a temper or a “short fuse,” counselors can prompt the client to explain the fights, Cameron says. For example, “Tell me what these fights look like. Are there times [when] it feels unsafe?” Victims may use phrases such as “sometimes he is rough with me” or he “put hands on me,” not fully recognizing the behavior as abuse, she notes.

Carlson also recommends that counselors use carefully worded questions to follow up on statements made by clients to further explore the nature of their relationship experience. For example, ask clients how they handle conflict with an intimate partner and then use leading questions to learn more: When there is a disagreement, is it safe to talk about the disagreement? Is there any type of pushing, shoving, hitting, use of objects, physical violence, threatening language or name calling? Is jealousy a motivating factor? Does one partner place blame on the other, making statements such as, “You made me do this”? Is the partner violent or hostile outside of the relationship?

“Ask questions that determine if there is regret or remorse [after conflict] or if they recognize that there are other ways of handling conflict,” Carlson says.

In sessions with individual clients, Carlson recommends that counselors preface some of their most direct questions — such as “Are you afraid of your partner?” — with dialogue that prepares the client. “Say, ‘I have some questions for you about how you handle conflict in your relationship. They’re going to be very direct, and I wanted to give you a heads up, but it will help me better understand what you’re going through.’ Really tap into your basic counseling skills, the relationship-building skills that we learn early on, and emphasize those when such important questions are being asked,” Carlson says.

At the same time, Bassett adds, clinical counselors shouldn’t be afraid to ask hard questions of a client when appropriate. “Ask not just, ‘Has your partner physically assaulted you?’ but ‘Are you afraid of your partner?’ and be willing to explore that. Explore the emotional piece of abuse.”

Counselors can also supplement their own questions by using a formal questionnaire — Carlson recommends Brian Jory’s Intimate Justice Scale — or including questions on intake forms. Keep in mind, however, that clients may answer “no” to questions that later turn out to be a “yes” when explored in therapy.

Perpetrators of domestic violence often use manipulation to gain and maintain control over a person and keep them in the relationship, Cameron says. When alone with a partner, perpetrators sometimes threaten suicide if the partner ever were to leave them, or they make statements inferring that the partner would be worse off on their own: “If you leave, you won’t get any money”; “You will lose the kids”; “No one will ever love you. I’m the only one who will put up with you.”

“One of the biggest power tools is fear — abusers wield fear,” Cameron says. “They use fear to control their partner. In addition, abusers will often apologize for the abuse and say, ‘It will not happen again,’ without being accountable. Then they continue using control tactics.”

This can be complicated further if the couple’s friends and family take sides or if the victim comes from a culture or faith community that emphasizes submission to a partner, views marriage as an unbreakable bond, or values reconciliation over safety, Cameron adds.

Manipulation by a perpetrator can also extend to sexual assault, which often overlaps with domestic violence, Bassett says. “It’s also common for an abusive person to force or pressure sex [with an intimate partner]. They will define the experience as nonabusive and lay the groundwork for the survivor to agree to sex so that they aren’t forced,” she says. “The abuser is [then] able to say that they agreed to sex, making them complicit in what is actually a sexual assault. The abuser defines the experience, and the survivor needs the space and safety to name their experience [in counseling].”

Hard questions, empathetic listening

Most of all, clients who are currently in or have been in an abusive relationship in the past need a safe space to feel heard and validated and to be connected to resources to address their safety, Cameron says. It’s no surprise that building a therapeutic bond is especially important with these clients.

“Communicate that you believe them,” Cameron urges. “The most restorative thing [for the client to hear is] ‘it’s not your fault, and it’s not OK that they are doing this to you.’”

“It’s incredibly important to be nonjudgmental,” agrees Carlson. “There are so many practitioners who have a personal connection to this topic, it can be an emotive experience. The time of disclosure is a very important moment for the victim and can be filled with a lot of embarrassment and shame. When they are deciding how much to disclose, it’s often based on how they feel it will be received. … It’s important to manage your emotions in that moment because it’s such an important moment.”

“You may leave the room and feel, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an emergency. I have to get this person out.’” Carlson continues. “But remember that this is their daily reality. They’ve been living with this [abuse] for a while. It feels like an emergency to you, but to act on that may put the victim in danger. It’s important that the victim drives the steps of what happens next.”

Bassett agrees: “Be very aware that your goal [as a counselor] is not that they should leave the relationship. That needs to be a goal they make themselves. They have to own it, because any decision they make will potentially have ramifications for them.”

Cameron notes that taking decisions out of the hands of clients is one of the worst mistakes counselors can make when working with victims of IPV. “They’ve already had someone control their life, and we don’t want to step into that role,” she says. “The victim has the best knowledge about what they need.”

It’s vital for practitioners to explore a client’s experience with genuine care, says Paulina Flasch, an ACA member and an assistant professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University. “Really show concern and empathy and don’t sound like you’re interrogating them,” says Flasch, who runs a family violence research team at Texas State and worked at a domestic violence agency before and during her master’s program. “Focus on the counselor-client relationship, and ask [hard questions] because you really care. Share that what you’re hearing sounds abusive and that it must have been really hard [to go through]. … If you’re hearing that a past relationship was abusive, it’s important to call it that and identify its aftereffects. It can help validate their current experience and help them understand why they’re struggling. Help them look at patterns and how things tie together. … It’s a very powerful moment when the client connects the dots.”

“This is a person whose boundaries have been violated and who has not had safety and security — and we [counselors] have to be careful with that,” Flasch continues. “We have to let them know there will be a different response and they won’t be demeaned. If they went through that, they’re strong. Recognize that.”

All of the counselors interviewed for this article recommend using psychoeducation techniques and the Power and Control Wheel system (available at theduluthmodel.org) to talk through what a healthy relationship looks like (and does not look like) with clients who have experienced IPV. Bassett also stresses that work with IPV clients must be trauma-informed.

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT), expressive therapies, bibliotherapy or cinematherapy, grounding techniques and decision-making exercises can also help IPV clients, Flasch notes, as can attending support groups for IPV survivors in addition to counseling.

Victims of domestic violence often grapple with intense feelings of guilt or shame, sometimes made worse by harmful stereotypes and society’s general misunderstanding of the complexity of abuse. Victims can hear messages such as “Why didn’t you just leave him?” or “Why didn’t you get out sooner?” in both direct and indirect ways in popular culture, from family and friends, or in offhand remarks by acquaintances.

The reality is that it’s not that simple, Flasch notes. Victims of domestic violence are in the most danger when they are ending a relationship with their abuser (see sidebar, below). In addition, domestic violence often creeps into a relationship slowly over time in ways that are unrecognizable to the victim.

The relationship “hasn’t always been dangerous,” says Flasch, who has a private practice in Austin, Texas, and specializes in working with couples and individuals who have experienced trauma. “There have been a lot of pieces that have kept them in the relationship. If they had known this was going to happen, they would have never been in the relationship. Intimate partner violence is the breaking down of a human. They completely lose their sense of self and begin to believe everything the abuser has said about them. It happens smally and slowly.”

Pointing out this trajectory to the client emphasizes that it wasn’t their fault and helps them learn what to look for in future relationships, Flasch adds. “Normalize it with the client. This [IPV] is very common and very similar in the ways it comes to happen,” she says. “It’s a systematic breakdown of a person that happens in very small steps that no one would recognize unless you know what you’re looking for. Helping them understand what and how it happened can help take away some of that fault and blame. Then work on empowerment. Victims have had to ask their abuser for everything. It’s our job to get their voice back.”

Planting seeds

In addition to providing a safe space to be heard and empowered, counseling can be a place for victims of IPV to learn what a healthy relationship looks like. This is especially true for clients whose histories include past trauma (in addition to IPV) or who haven’t been exposed to healthy relationships in their life, Flasch notes.

“The counselor may be that first one, that first good relationship and having a feeling of being in a room with someone who cares,” she says. “Model that through your interaction with clients. Psychoeducation is a big part of working with [IPV] victims and survivors.”

Flasch suggests using the Power and Control Wheel while discussing what it feels like to be in a healthy relationship: What aspects are present? What does respect look like? How do arguments start and end? What does equality look like?

Making a list of the elements in a healthy relationship can also help, Flasch says. “It’s not tangible [to clients] sometimes. There’s so much self-blame and lack of trust of themselves and their own instincts. They often don’t trust themselves to make decisions or recognize if something [in a relationship] is dangerous.”

It can also be helpful for counselors to talk through boundary issues with IPV survivors, including what is and isn’t their responsibility in a relationship, Bassett adds.

“With someone who is abusive, that person will not accept responsibility [for abusive behavior]. The person who is being abused typically will accept full responsibility,” she says. “They may claim, ‘Oh, he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He’s so sweet, but when he drinks, or goes off his medication [he turns dangerous].’ That’s just not true: The good parts and the loving parts are part of the [control] strategy. Be very clear about that. … Help them not to buy into it, overtly or covertly.”

Couples counseling and safety

A relationship in which IPV is present has, at its core, an imbalance of power and control. This imbalance makes couples counseling an unsafe environment for the person experiencing the abuse, Carlson stresses. If a counselor is working with a couple exhibiting signs of IPV, he or she should take steps to terminate couples counseling as soon as possible while ensuring the victim’s safety, Carlson says.

“If power and control exist in the couple’s dynamic, it’s generally not safe to be in a setting [i.e., couples counseling] where they’re both on equal ground being asked to practice healthy behaviors and make changes,” he explains. “That can’t happen when there’s inequality.”

Cameron agrees. “Each session is posing a safety risk for the victim. In couples counseling, we’re asking both parties to be accountable for solving problems in the relationship, and part of the control tactics [of IPV] is making the victim feel that it’s their fault.” Perpetrators of abuse may retaliate against their partners after counseling sessions in reaction to what was said or disclosed, she says.

On the flip side, abuse victims may say only what they need to say to keep from “making waves” with their abusers during counseling sessions. In addition, “an abuser may be very charming and manipulate the counselor,” Cameron says. Counselors who don’t recognize the manipulation or other possible indicators of IPV can end up unintentionally colluding with the abuser, she points out.

Both Cameron and Carlson recommend that counselors — whether they work with couples or individuals — seek training on IPV to stay informed on best practices and forge connections with local domestic violence agencies. It is important to establish these working relationships ahead of time so that counselors can readily consult with specialists when they identify signs of IPV with a client (or a couple) on their caseload, Carlson says. “Consultation [with an IPV specialist] helps to create a methodical, well-thought-out plan for that point forward,” says Carlson, noting that any consultation must be done within ethical guidelines and without sharing any identifying details about the individuals involved.

Once a counselor has identified that IPV is present in a relationship, the steps to terminate couples counseling must be handled delicately. Counselors should never let the abuser know that they suspect abuse is taking place, Cameron emphasizes. At the same time, a fine balance must be maintained to ensure that a victim doesn’t lose contact with the counselor and is connected to resources before couples counseling is terminated.

“Never confront abuse head-on with both parties in the room. That will put the survivor at risk,” Cameron says. “Get creative for ways to get the survivor alone. … Come up with a reason to separate them and then check in with the survivor. Ask them if they feel safe at home. Just straight up asking if they are being abused — they are not going to recognize it that way. Often, the abuser has worked really hard to convince the victim that there is no abuse.”

Cameron has known counselors who separate the couple by asking one of the partners to fill out paperwork in the waiting room. Practitioners can also try to speak over the phone outside of session to clients who are suspected targets of abuse, as long as they ensure the client is alone for the call, Cameron adds.

Carlson notes that it’s not uncommon in couples counseling for a practitioner to meet with one of the clients individually to work on an issue. Counselors can fall back on that as an excuse to separate a couple when it is suspected that IPV is present, he says.

“When [you] first meet with a couple, separate them to fill out an intake questionnaire and speak with them individually. That way, you set a precedent of talking separately,” Carlson says. “Then, you can say later, ‘We are going to meet individually to follow up on some of the things we talked about’ [at intake]. There is precedence, and it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.”

Flasch agrees and suggests that couples counselors do full individual sessions with both partners after the first two or three sessions, regardless of whether IPV is suspected. In these sessions, counselors should always assess for IPV. She suggests asking questions such as “How do you and your partner show respect for each other?” and “Tell me about your arguments: How do they start and end, and who initiates?”

A counselor’s next step should be to connect the victim with local support services. This must also be handled carefully, Cameron says. For instance, a client could put a domestic violence hotline number in their phone under another name, or the counselor could give the information verbally to the client to remember and look up later. Cameron also recommends that counselors leave pamphlets and other information about domestic violence resources in the lobbies and restrooms of their offices for all clients to see and have access to.

If appropriate, Cameron recommends that counselors also connect perpetrators with a local batterer or offender program.

“It’s important to work in collaboration with your local [domestic violence] agency,” Cameron says. “For us to address abuse in our communities, there needs to be community accountability for abusers, and that can’t just come from domestic violence agencies. It needs to come from all aspects of the community. You’re not going to end domestic violence just by dealing with the aftermath.”

Once clients are given information about IPV resources, it’s up to them to seek help when they are ready and feel safe doing so, Carlson adds. It’s not a counselor’s role to ensure the client has followed up with those resources.

“Sometimes nothing happens,” Carlson acknowledges. “You present resources and opportunities and they know they have options, and that’s the biggest step they want to take at this point in time.”

Relationships post-IPV

Dating and forming new relationships can play a part in the healing process for survivors and help them learn more about themselves, their boundaries and their limits, says Flasch, who co-authored the article “Considering and Navigating New Relationships During Recovery From Intimate Partner Violence” in the April issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development. Counselors should be aware that the risk exists for survivors of IPV to find themselves in another abusive relationship. However, forging new healthy relationships — with a counselor as a support and ally — can be a helpful step in the right direction, she notes.

“Survivors have to work through these issues for a lifetime, so waiting for the ‘right time’ to date post-healing may never come,” Flasch says. “A counselor can be a great support for a survivor. We know that most people continue to date. To say that you should be healed completely before you go out, it’s not realistic. And healthy relationships can be incredibly healing. Having a person who is safe and loving and accepting is a huge benefit. We [counselors] shouldn’t necessarily discourage dating but help them navigate the process. Educate them about red flags and warning signs, and celebrate the successes of milestones reached through dating. Also [process] triggers and things that get in the way.”

“Having experiences with other people and then processing it in counseling can be very powerful and helpful to healing,” she continues. “We can be great allies and celebrate with clients when they try something new.”

For the journal article, Flash and her co-authors studied the experiences of IPV survivors who went on to try new relationships, ranging from casual dating to marriage. Through these relationships, participants reported learning to trust themselves and their instincts and “reclaim parts of themselves lost during the IPV relationships,” Flash wrote with her co-authors, David Boote and Edward H. Robinson.

Dating post-IPV “can be a process for survivors to try and find corrective experiences and explore trust, make decisions that are theirs and be their own person, [and] learn about control and boundaries,” Flasch says. “But this is also a very scary process and one that has a lot of layers to it, so it can bring challenges. It can be hard to learn to trust when it’s been taken away from you in the past.”

 

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IPV: Need-to-know points for counselors

One of the most misunderstood aspects of intimate partner violence (IPV) is how complicated and dangerous leaving an abusive partner can be, says Taylor Cameron, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and director of transitional housing at a Texas nonprofit that provides support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The power imbalance of abusive relationships often means that one partner has severely restricted the other’s access to finances, friends and family members, and community resources. Separating from an abuser often means starting life over, which is why there is an intersection of IPV and homelessness, she says. These factors are only exacerbated when children are involved or when the victim experiences other forms of systemic oppression such as racism, homophobia or classism.

“They are often trapped between violence and homelessness,” Cameron says. “The abuser has often messed up their credit and finances or totally controlled them, so they’re starting from scratch. The most dangerous time for a victim is during separation and when they are separated [because] the abuser is losing the power they have worked to gain and maintain.”

According to Cameron, IPV victims are at the highest risk of lethality under the following circumstances:

  • When the couple has separated or is in the process of separating
  • If sexual abuse or sexual coercion is present in the relationship
  • If an abuser makes threats of homicide or suicide
  • When a restraining order is filed
  • If the victim is pregnant
  • If strangulation is occurring
  • If violent behavior is occurring outside of the home (which indicates the abuser has escalated to the point where he or she does not care if other people see the behavior, Cameron says)
  • If there is involvement with child protective services
  • If the abuser has access to weapons
  • If the abuser exhibits stalking behaviors
  • If law enforcement is involved

Counselors should also keep in mind that even when victims leave an abusive relationship, they may still come in contact with their abusers — and be put at risk for retraumatization — through legal proceedings, child custody hearings or stalking behavior, adds Paulina Flasch, an assistant professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University.

“Just because someone is no longer in an IPV relationship doesn’t mean they’re no longer in it. Remember that and equip them with tools [to cope],” Flasch says.

 

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Important resources

 

Margaret Bassett recommends the following books for practitioners:

  • Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men by Lundy Bancroft
  • Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know by Sherry Hamby
  • Coercive Control: How Men Entrap women in Personal Life (Interpersonal Violence) by Evan Stark
  • Safety Planning with Battered Women: Complex lives/Difficult Choices by Jill Davies, Eleanor J. Lyon and Diane Monti-Catania
  • The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans
  • Domestic Violence Advocacy: Complex lives/Difficult Choices by Jill Davies and Eleanor J. Lyon

 

Related reading, from Counseling Today:

 

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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

The wise support system in domestic violence rescue efforts

By David L. Prucha April 9, 2018

A lot has been written about domestic violence, the cycles that keep people in violent relationships and how to get out of them. The commentary focuses on the role of substance abuse, the role of personality disorders and a cycle of conflict that ends with the exchange of a “never again” promise. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Although I believe these are relevant factors in violent relationships, a dynamic often emerges between the victim and her concerned loved ones, and this dynamic might play a role in keeping the violent relationship intact. It is of course sensible to think about the relationship between the abuser and the victim, but what else can we learn by looking at the relationship between the victim and her potential safety net?

If you are a family member looking from the outside in on a violent relationship, things look pretty black and white. The abuser is a bad guy. In fact, it’s probably better to use the word “evil.” He is taking advantage of someone smaller than him, he’s probably done this in previous relationships, and his promise to change can’t be trusted. He is one-dimensional: bad. The hottest place in hell is reserved for men of his ilk.

For those on the outside looking in, this is terrifying. Their loved one is in danger, she is captive, and if that wasn’t bad enough, she seems ambivalent about her chains. This leads family and friends to express their hatred for the abuser, but in their desperation, they might also express their frustration with the victim: “You’re smarter than this. I can’t believe you got yourself into this.” For those in the victim’s support system, a life might be hanging in the balance, so this seems no time to mince words.

If you are on the inside of the relationship looking outward, however, the picture can appear very different. Although the victim can certainly recognize her partner’s shortcomings, she cannot quite see what her support system sees. She doesn’t see a one-dimensional evil man.

Instead, she sees someone who is conflicted, someone who hates himself, someone who can’t get a grip on his emotions. Because she knows the “inner him,” she struggles to reconcile the blunt feedback from her family with the person she loves. The two pictures just don’t add up.

Could her partner really be as manipulative and cold as they say? Surely not. His regret and anguish are sincere. She has witnessed him cry out of self-hatred, and evil men don’t do that. He is broken but not bad. He wants to change, and she can’t imagine leaving because she doesn’t want to be like everyone else who has left him in the past.

 

A disciplined rescue

Before people are open to receiving help, they have to trust that the complexity of their problem is well-understood. When families characterize their loved one’s abuser as pure evil, a demonic caricature with cloven hoof, it delegitimizes their feedback, because for the victim, this evil cartoon character is nowhere to be found. In fact, the blunt feedback often has the opposite effect — it reinforces for the victim that the goodness of her partner isn’t being taken into account. This hardens her conviction that she is alone in understanding the situation, and this has the unintended consequence of further isolating her.

Given that explanation, what can be done? One way to intervene is to help the victim understand that there is a difference between evil people and destructive people, but both types of people can do the same amount of damage. In making this distinction, it validates that her partner is not a one-dimensional monster without dismissing the fact that a destructive reality still exists that needs to be addressed. This approach doesn’t isolate the victim from her support system. It also helps her understand why her situation feels so gut-wrenching: She has to leave someone who is partly good.

But partly good is not good enough. When we offer the truth that people are never entirely good or entirely evil, we offer an alternative worldview that enables victims to refine their partner-selection process in the future.

No longer should they reassure themselves if a destructive person shows goodness, because displays of goodness are no longer sufficient criteria for choosing a partner. Instead, the criteria become more nuanced. Despite the display of goodness, is this person also destructive? Victims learn that the presence of goodness and vulnerability are not the only variables to consider.

A second way to help is to teach victims that empathy is a morally neutral disposition: It can lead to both health and destruction. After all, the best predators use empathy to scan for the psychological vulnerabilities of other people. This maximizes predators’ ability to exploit.

In the cases of victims of domestic violence, their empathy is doing them harm. They are spending too much time thinking about how leaving the relationship would impact their partner and not enough time thinking about how they are themselves being harmed. Their high capacity for empathy has led them to walk around in the mind of their abuser for far too long, thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings. The victim is not in her situation because she is foolish but because she has not learned how to manage her empathic impulses. Learning how to power down her empathy is vital, and she can do this by learning how to reprioritize her own needs.

Reprioritizing her needs can lead to feelings of guilt, and this comes from a sense that she is being selfish. The victim is in the habit of giving 100 apples to her partner without taking one for herself, so now taking 50 apples feels incredibly wrong. However, with the right help, she can learn that meeting her own needs is not selfish but is instead necessary to be truly generous.

In fact, when we compulsively engage with something that damages our well-being, it is not generosity — it is addiction. The person with alcoholism no longer enjoys the drink, and the person addicted to empathy no longer enjoys giving. Instead, they both feel bound to their habits. It’s not that virtue motivates the victim to give away the 100 apples; it’s that she doesn’t know how to give less than 100 apples away.

When victims learn that empathy has become a force for harm in their lives and that true generosity can’t flow forth from inner compulsion, the sense of virtue that they previously associated with staying in the relationship is tarnished. It isn’t that the abuser is without a gradient of goodness; it’s that he is still profoundly dangerous. It’s not that she is motivated by virtue; it’s that her empathy has kept her from seeing that her needs for safety and love should be more important to her than his need to avoid anxiety or sadness.

The hope is that thinking about how support systems can unintentionally create defensiveness and isolation in victims of domestic violence will lead to better rescue strategies. Although it feels repugnant for support systems to acknowledge the goodness in the victimizer, in some cases this might allow the victim to see more clearly the destructiveness of her partner. If members of the support system are able to stop themselves from accusing the perpetrator of simply being evil, this might lead the victim to feel powerfully understood. Perhaps the intimacy of feeling understood will increase the victim’s trust in the bridge away from her relationship and into the arms of those who love her.

 

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David L. Prucha is an adjunct professor of psychology at Johnson and Wales University in Denver, Colorado. 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. Email him at contact@pruchacounseling.com.

 

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

The relationship as client

By Laurie Meyers September 22, 2016

Among the most common difficulties that bring couples to counseling are infidelity, financial problems, sex and intimacy issues, parenting challenges and ongoing tensions with the in-laws. Each of these problems has its own unique characteristics, but according to couples counselors, they tend to share a similar root cause — namely, lack of communication. The challenge for couples counselors (and their clients) is to identify how communication went awry — or if it ever truly existed in the first place — and then work to reestablish it.

Couples counseling is fundamentally different from individual counseling, says Paul Peluso, past president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of the American Counseling Association.

“Too often, counselors think that couples counseling is ‘individual counseling times two,’ and they conduct individual counseling with each person, while the other partner observes,” Peluso says. “That really isn’t couples counseling. Instead, with couples counseling, you have not just branding-images_inkhearttwo perspectives in the room that you have to balance, but you have the … relationship that you are working with. In fact, it is the couple’s relationship that technically is your client, not the individuals in the couple.”

Having a relationship as the client instead of an individual makes it much more challenging to build a therapeutic alliance, says Barbara Mahaffey, a licensed professional clinical counselor and ACA member who practices in Chillicothe, Ohio. The relationship is not just an entity, but rather two separate people who have different thresholds for opening up and trusting, she explains. Couples also come in with different goals and expectations. Mahaffey, who specializes in counseling couples and families, says her task as a counselor is not just to address these goals and expectations, but to help the couple discover how they can reconcile their personal expectations and establish new goals that will allow them to move forward as partners.

“Couples will come in and want to fight over who is right and who is wrong in the relationship,” Peluso says. “It is the couples therapist who has to sell the idea that no one is wholly ‘right’ or wholly ‘wrong.’ Paradoxically, neither is to blame and both are to blame — in the technical sense — for the state of the relationship at the same time. Both have played a role in setting up the conditions for the relationship. So the focus is on how each person’s behavior and reactions to [the] other affect the couple’s relationship. If each person wants to be in the relationship, then they have to take responsibility for how their behavior impacts the health of the relationship. And this is very different than individual counseling.”

Confronting infidelity

Unfortunately, the catalyst that most often pushes couples into a counselor’s office is also one of the most difficult issues to move past.

“The single most common issue that brings couples into therapy is infidelity,” says Peluso, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) who has written several books about both infidelity and couples counseling. “Over the last 20 years, researchers have demonstrated that this is the most common presenting concern, and if it is not revealed initially, it is often disclosed in the course of couples therapy. Infidelity can take many forms, from sexual to nonphysical intimacy, and it now includes relationships online.”

“In terms of who cheats, researchers have found that women are just as likely as men to participate in infidelity,” Peluso continues. “As a result, practitioners have to know how to deal with the complex and often devastating issues that accompany infidelity. Unfortunately, when couples counselors are asked about it, they overwhelmingly say that it is the topic they feel least prepared to treat.”

Amber Lange, a licensed professional counselor who owns and practices at Bedford Health, a group practice in Lambertville, Michigan, can attest to the high demand for infidelity counseling. Her practice has become known for specializing in issues surrounding infidelity and betrayal. Initially, the sheer need for counselors knowledgeable about and willing to tackle this particular relationship threat astounded her. “I’ll never be out of a job [as an infidelity specialist],” she says ruefully.

Among couples for whom the act of infidelity is fresh, the nonoffending partner is typically experiencing acute stress and may even have symptoms that resemble posttraumatic stress disorder, Lange says. The offending partner, on the other hand, is typically feeling beaten down because he or she has repeatedly been asked blunt questions that shine a direct light on his or her indiscretions: What did you do? Where? How much money did you spend?

In cases in which the infidelity is years in the past, the core counseling issue more often involves a lingering lack of trust, Lange says. “The nonoffending partner [may have] forgiven the offending partner, but they have never rebuilt trust,” she explains. “So the nonoffending partner is hypervigilant about trust and the [possibility of the] offending partner reoffending.”

If the act of infidelity is recent, Lange helps the couple work through their “why, who, where, how” stage. “I talk about the idea of how you can’t ‘unknow’ something once you know it,” says Lange, a professor of counseling at Capella University. “There’s a lot of knowledge that you can gain that may further traumatize you, such as the sexual positions that your partner was in with someone else.”

Clients may also wonder if their partner did things with another person that the nonoffending partner refused to do. If this information is disclosed, Lange explains, it can lead the nonoffending partner to do things he or she is uncomfortable with in an attempt to please the offending partner.

Instead of attempting to get answers to questions that can further damage the relationship, Lange encourages the nonoffending partner to ask structured questions such as: When did you start having sex? When did you stop? Did you have unprotected sex? These types of questions provide information that the nonoffending partner needs to know, Lange says.

The next phase of Lange’s therapeutic approach involves narrative therapy. As part of this stage, Lange might ask couples who delayed getting therapy after the infidelity to briefly touch on information about the affair as a way to see if there are lingering questions. This process also helps Lange to assess the strength of the couple’s bond.

The story of ‘us’

Regardless of whether the couple is confronting a recent infidelity or the infidelity happened years in the past, constructing the story of their relationship represents the core of the healing process, according to Lange. Couples build the narrative to gain a clearer understanding of how and when the cracks in their relationship developed, she explains. They talk about the beginning of their relationship and explore how they interacted. Were they friends and true partners? What happened that started pulling them apart?

“Life” — deaths, births, work, money and so on — is usually the answer to that second question, Lange says. In addition, people typically change over time, which further alters the nature of the relationship, she notes. All of these factors in combination can make a relationship vulnerable to disruption. Add in misperceptions and unmet expectations, and once tiny relationship fissures can turn into large cracks that cause couples to drift apart.

Among the most common life events that can start to pull some relationships apart is the birth of a child, Lange says. “Before the birth, couples were able to spend all their time and energy and money on each other. After the birth of a child, ideally, you love that child and invest all of that [time, energy and money] in parenting and child rearing — which is not bad, but [couples] come into my office, and they haven’t been on a date in three years.”

In addition to not making time for the romantic relationship, the couple may be trapped in patterns that are actively pulling them apart, Lange says. “You’ve been great parents, but the mother is staying home or working and raising kids at the same time, the father is working and overworking to pay for the mortgage and save for retirement — those kinds of things can hurt a relationship,” she says.

When a couple stops talking to each other, it creates a gap, and it is tempting to fill that gap with other people or activities, Lange notes. Partners may begin to betray each other in different ways, whether it is spending time on social media instead of with each other, watching pornography or working long hours, she says. “In the process, we’ve let the relationship go awry,” Lange observes.

But this risk of unraveling is not exclusive to couples with children. Those who get married or enter into domestic partnerships too quickly upon meeting or when they are very young are also particularly vulnerable, Lange says. For example, those who form romantic relationships in their teens or early 20s are in the midst of experiencing significant personal development. This may not happen at the same rate for both partners, eventually leaving them feeling as if they don’t know each other, Lange explains. Likewise, people who get married or form a domestic partnership in the matter of a few weeks have not typically had enough time to establish a strong base of friendship. Over time, it’s not uncommon for them to realize that they don’t even like each other, Lange says.

Lange asks clients not to make a decision about whether to stay together until after they have gone through the process of identifying what went wrong. Then, if they choose to stay together, Lange helps them start to discuss how to protect the relationship going forward. This typically includes setting aside time to talk with each other more frequently, being intentional about making time for dates and even going on vacations without the kids. But it also involves each partner identifying the behaviors in which he or she engages that play a role in pulling the relationship apart.

For example, Lange recounts something that a client recently shared. “One of the things that I have recognized about myself over the past six months is that I tend to withdraw,” the client told her. “When my partner and I got into an argument, I went away, slept in the kids’ room and wouldn’t talk. I would work 85 hours a week. Even when I wasn’t in the office, I was checking my email.”

In essence, Lange says, the client just wasn’t “there” in the relationship. Other people do the same thing by burying themselves in hobbies such as sports or scrapbooking. As a result, they end up spending more time with friends or with hobbies than they do with their partner and family, Lange says.

The process of building the couple’s story in counseling and finding the cracks and vulnerabilities is a long one. For the first four to six weeks, when a couple is still going through the initial trauma phase of the infidelity, Lange has them come to counseling every week. Once a couple moves on to the storytelling stage, she has them come to counseling only about once per month, in part because she feels that much of the processing and healing needs to take place between sessions as the couple slowly rebuilds the relationship.

“They have to have time to figure out things … how to be in relationship, how to recreate their friendship and how to build [new] good memories,” Lange says. During the process of rebuilding the relationship, trust is also being reestablished and forgiveness is being granted. Then the couple can move forward, she explains.

Ideally, the couple will also identify potential problem areas and reach compromises on how to address those issues. For example: “You say I can’t work 90 hours a week, but we need money, so how are we going to figure that out? … This is [our] story. Here’s the way we go forward. Here’s what we need to do.”

Symptom vs. problem

Brian Canfield, a past president of ACA, also says that infidelity is the event that most commonly brings couples into his office. But he believes infidelity is always indicative of other underlying problems in the marriage or relationship.

“I view an affair not as the problem but as a symptom,” he says. “An affair is like malarial fever. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s not the fever itself that’s going to kill you — it’s the disease.”

Canfield believes that if a counselor addresses the underlying issue first, it will help to stabilize the couple, which will then allow them to deal with the ramifications of the infidelity. “You [the counselor] have to assess if there is a commitment and desire to save the relationship,” says Canfield, an LMFT whose practice has offices in Louisiana, Arkansas and Florida. “Trust and betrayal, that’s not where you put the spotlight. The trust will return once you stabilize the relationship.”

Canfield starts by asking the couple what they want out of the counseling process and their relationship as a whole. “What would you like to see happen? If it is possible to salvage the marriage, would you be willing?” Canfield asks. “A lot of people want to know why [the affair happened], but here is where we are. Where do you want to be? If you were going to redesign marriage, how would it look?”

Canfield says financial difficulties are the most common underlying issue that couples bring into his office. In his experience, there is so much shame surrounding finances that most couples would rather talk about the details of their sex lives than money. He frequently encounters situations with couples in which one partner has been maintaining a hidden bank account or run up the balance on their credit cards without the other partner knowing. He tells couples that part of the counseling process involves full disclosure.

“A lot of couples are in tremendous denial,” Canfield says. “They don’t know how much debt they are in, what their bills are or have a good picture of how much income they are bringing in.”

Sometimes people feel entitled or convince themselves that it’s OK to buy what they want regardless of how it affects their spouse or partner. They tell themselves that they work hard and that they deserve it. Canfield sees part of his role as helping to bring clarity to these situations to encourage better choices.

“The other spouse may say that if this doesn’t change, I will exit the marriage for my own survival. Which circumstances are more important? Keeping the marriage or continuing to spend?” he asks.

Canfield doesn’t try to play the part of financial adviser to couples (although he does recommend that couples seek professional financial advice elsewhere if needed). Instead, he helps couples recognize their need to possess a clear picture of their financial situation and to develop a reasonable budget.

“It’s a matter of priorities and trade-offs,” he says. “The key as a couples counselor is to have the couple work together as a team. Most couples, when they work as a team, can find common ground.”

Canfield emphasizes that as a couples counselor, it’s not up to him to dictate how much a couple will spend on their priorities. Instead, his focus is simply on making sure that they have agreed on a plan going forward.

Once the underlying issues have been addressed, Canfield helps the couple deal with what he calls the “moral disparity” in a relationship in which infidelity has occurred. The nonoffending partner may feel like he or she has the higher moral ground, but to move forward, the couple must try to reach a “mutual amnesty,” Canfield says.

This involves a delicate balance. Canfield tries to make the couple aware that the infidelity occurred because of the underlying problems — to which they both contributed — that were straining the relationship. However, he always makes it clear that it is not the fault of the nonoffending partner that the other partner cheated. Yes, they both contributed to the relationship’s problems, but the offending partner chose to act out by having an affair.

Matters of miscommunication

Mahaffey, an associate professor of human services technology at Ohio University–Chillicothe, finds that relationship difficulties usually involve a significant degree of miscommunication, which is exacerbated by a number of factors. She helps couples understand how communication can get mixed up by explaining the pieces of a “miscommunication model” that she has devised.

Mahaffey starts by asking both partners to list all of the traits they possess that are different from their partner’s traits. She then takes these lists and draws two people facing each other. This represents two people talking, whereas the lists represent their different — and sometimes conflicting — points of view. Mahaffey often also draws a “family rule book” between the two figures. This represents how a person’s family of origin can affect the way he or she interprets interactions with a partner. Mahaffey often asks couples about their family backgrounds and experiences to illustrate the influence of the family of origin.

Mahaffey will then ask both partners to think about all the times they asked for something and didn’t receive what they wanted from their partner. As they voice these details, it’s not unusual for one partner to exclaim, “You never said that!” Typically, the case is not that either partner is lying, Mahaffey says. Rather, it’s that one of the partners has not been phrasing the requests in a way that effectively communicates what he or she needs, Mahaffey explains. She also informs the couple that humans think at about 500 words per minute but cannot speak more than 125 words per minute, meaning there is ample opportunity for the intended message to get lost.

Other complicating factors in communication include different coping styles (such as one member of the couple shutting down verbally or retreating physically or emotionally during times of stress), the fact that women often process information differently than men and the daily anxieties of life, Mahaffey says. For example, it’s hard for a couple to communicate effectively when one or both partners are stressed about finances, work or the car breaking down.

The last part of Mahaffey’s model entails explaining how words themselves — or how people define them — can get in the way. For example, Mahaffey might ask a couple, “What’s the definition of love? Is it that supper is on the table when I come home? Or liking to snuggle? Or texting 60 times a day?”

At this point, Mahaffey has the couple use “I” statements and talk about what needs they feel are being unmet. One partner might say, “I like to have help with housework.” The other partner might note that the request usually comes during a football game or while engaged in something else that he or she enjoys doing. At this point, Mahaffey might ask if the partner would be willing to provide help either before or after the game. This exercise highlights just one example of an area of possible compromise. The larger point is that the couple needs to sit down and talk about what they need from each other and how those needs can be met, Mahaffey says.

Intimate partner violence 

All counselors, but couples counselors in particular, should be looking for signs of intimate partner violence (IPV) among their clients, asserts Ryan Carlson, an ACA member and couples counselor who has done research on screening methods for IPV.

Because IPV is such a prevalent societal problem, all counselors — knowingly or unknowingly — will encounter clients who have experienced or are currently experiencing violence at the hands of their partners, Carlson says. According to data gathered in 2011 and published in 2014 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 4 women and more than 1 in 10 men in the United States have in their lifetime experienced sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner.

Providing counseling in the presence of such interpersonal violence can be dangerous, not just to the victim but also to the counselor, says Carlson, a licensed mental health counselor practicing in Columbia, South Carolina. That is a primary reason it is important for counselors to be alert to the signs of IPV and to have a protocol to follow should a client be a victim.

Perhaps the most beneficial thing counselors can do is to get connected to the people Carlson calls the “real experts” on this issue — those who work at local domestic violence shelters. “Most of what I have learned [about IPV] has come from domestic violence advocates,” he acknowledges.

Not only can these advocates help counselors assess whether it is safe to work with a couple in which IPV is a reality, but they also stand ready to assist clients who are looking for help, says Carlson, an assistant professor of counselor education at the University of South Carolina.

Carlson says he uses the term IPV because it is more inclusive than domestic violence. There is an IPV continuum, and domestic violence is on the extreme end of the spectrum, representing the most severe cases that involve, as Carlson puts it, “power and control,” as opposed to nonlethal violence or verbal abuse. From Carlson’s perspective, it is not safe to try to conduct counseling in those cases involving power and control.

Carlson advises counselors to use a formal screening tool for IPV at intake but says there are other red flags to look for, including a client’s unwillingness to take responsibility for actions. “Control over finances or transportation is [also a] red flag,” he continues. “Is one partner restricting access to cell phones, finances, the car, who the other partner can interact with? … Look for body language. Does one partner consistently look to the other when they answer questions? Is it permission seeking? Is there inconsistency in their answers? For example, as part of a meeting to determine whether or not a couple would want to participate in a research study I was doing, I asked about income. The husband gave me an answer, but when I met with the wife separately, she said the husband wasn’t really working and that she wasn’t allowed to talk about that.”

This one disparity turned out to be an indication of severe domestic violence. Carlson followed his protocol and was able to get help for the victim.

What does a protocol look like? Carlson says he has a formal memorandum of understanding with the local domestic violence shelter saying he can call at certain hours when he has a need for consultation. The memorandum also states that he will not provide identifying information about the client, only basic relevant information. This includes the presenting problem and any context he feels is important. The consultant can then advise him on whether the couple’s case might be a power-and-control situation. In those instances, Carlson must find a way to offer help to the victim without tipping off the partner who is engaging in the abuse.

With all of the couples Carlson counsels, his regular practice is to meet briefly with each individual separately at the beginning of each session. This is primarily so that he can get each partner’s point of view independently on the difficulties the couple is experiencing, but it also provides him with a chance to provide contact information for the domestic violence shelter if circumstances warrant. Carlson and the partner who is the target of the abuse may even call the shelter together.

In some cases, however, the victim of the abuse is not ready to leave the relationship. Carlson say many counselors may have a hard time relating to that. “We think we need to get the person out of the relationship immediately, but [we] need to do it safely,” he cautions

The victim has typically been living under abusive circumstances for years and may not yet have reached a crisis point, Carlson explains. Again, he uses consultation with his domestic violence resources to help him navigate this terrain. Regardless of whether the victim is ready to leave, Carlson says the average counselor should not try to continue providing services in these power-and-control cases. Telling the couple that he feels this particular modality will not work for them has proved to be a successful way of terminating treatment without escalating the problem of abuse, he says.

Lynn Linde, senior director of the ACA Center for Counseling Practice, Policy and Research, adds the caveat that counselors should make sure their states do not require them to report suspected cases of IPV under mandated reporting laws.

There are IPV cases for which Carlson thinks couples counselors are qualified to help. These involve lower lethality or “situational couple violence” (as opposed to one partner begin generally aggressive outside of the relationship as well). In such instances, a couple’s arguments may get out of hand and they may engage in behaviors such as pushing or throwing things at each other. “This can be dangerous, but it’s not as dangerous as choking or using a weapon,” Carlson says. However, he says, it is important for the couple to acknowledge that this behavior is unhealthy and to show a willingness to learn more appropriate ways to interact. It’s also essential that neither partner is afraid of the other, Carlson stresses.

In contrast, partners who engage in power-and-control tactics usually show little or no remorse and may exhibit antisocial-type behavior, Carlson explains. In fact, he says, studies have shown that when engaging in the abuse, these types of offenders typically experience a drop in heart rate rather than an escalating heart rate that is typically associated with anxiety over one’s situation or actions. Carlson also notes that whereas research indicates that men are almost always the perpetrators of power-and-control types of IPV, situational IPV is gender neutral.

None of this information constitutes a foolproof method for deciding whether it is safe for a counselor to work with a couple with a history of IPV. That’s why Carlson continues to do research on screening methods that are better at identifying the presence of violence among couples and where on the spectrum of severity that violence falls.

“Getting it wrong can be very dangerous,” Carlson concludes.

Counseling LGBTQ couples

Although the issues that bring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) couples into counseling are generally the same as those that affect heterosexual couples, the legalization of same-sex marriage has raised some issues unique to LGBTQ relationships, say counselors who work with this population.

“There is a tremendous validation both from the legal system and from society upon their relationships,” says John T. Super, an LMFT who is also a clinical assistant professor of counselor education at the University of Florida. “This validation can provide an emotional confidence or boost surrounding a same-sex relationship that lessens the perceived stigmatization that has occurred. Additionally, since the Supreme Court decision [legalizing same-sex marriage], we have seen a large number of those in long-term relationships choosing to marry and report feeling equality to traditional marriages.”

Although the Supreme Court’s decision is a huge advancement for the LGBTQ community and has given many couples the opportunity for which they have long waited, actually getting married has not been absent of negative consequences for some couples, says Super, a member of ACA. “Clients have explained [that] when they announced their marriage … it was in many ways similar to the coming-out process in that those who are choosing to marry and are in same-sex relationships may face resistance from friends and family as they legalize the relationship,” he explains. “I have heard clients say that their friends and family accepted their relationship, but when they choose to marry, the thought of the same-sex couple entering into a legal marriage is a line the friends or family are not comfortable crossing.”

Counselors have an important role in helping same-sex couples navigate the resistance they may face when they decide to get married, agrees Joy Whitman, a past president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of ACA. Amidst the joy of getting married, there may be feelings of hurt and loss from being rejected all over again by certain individuals or segments of society, she says. Counselors can help couples grieve and process this loss.

According to Whitman, who previously worked as a couples counselor, marriage can also exacerbate a common problem in same-sex relationships: unequal comfort levels with being “out.” Marriage can make the partner who is less “out” feel especially vulnerable, she explains.

Counselors should also be aware that for the first time, LGBTQ couples are facing divorce, Whitman says. Not only is this a new experience, but the need in many cases to stand up in court and disclose intimate relationship details can be particularly disconcerting for clients in same-sex relationships, she says.

Super and Whitman also note that counselors need to be aware of the generation gap among different LGBTQ couples. “Couples who are in their 20s experienced a very different level of social acceptance than couples in their 50s or older,” Super points out. “This generational difference can be important to understand when determining the levels of internalized oppression the individual or couple has experienced.”

Despite these issues and other issues that are specific to the LGBTQ community, Super and Whitman emphasize that couples counseling is couples counseling. Peluso, an associate professor of counselor education at Florida Atlantic University, agrees.

“In many respects, the practice of couples counseling shouldn’t change that much,” he says. “Focusing on the relationship means taking the relationship as it is created by the partners involved. The only judgment that the couples counselor is making is, ‘Is this healthy for you right now?’ and then seeing how the couple can change that. That is fairly universal.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics addressed in this article, see the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association.

 

Books (counseling.org/bookstore)

Podcasts (counseling.org/continuing-education/podcasts)

  • “Love and Sex and Relationships” with Erica Goodstone

Webinars (counseling.org/continuing-education/webinars)

  • “Crazy Love: Dealing With Your Partner’s Problem Personality” with W. Brad Johnson
  • “The Secrets to Surviving Infidelity” with Scott Halzman

VISTAS Online articles (counseling.org/continuing-education/vistas)

  • “Five Counseling Techniques for Increasing Attachment, Intimacy and Sexual Functioning in Couples” by Elisabeth D. Bennett, Jaleh Davari, Jeanette Perales, Annette Perales, Brock Sumner, Gurpreet Gill & Tin Weng Mak
  • “Helping Couples Reconnect: Developing Relational Competencies and Expanding Worldviews Using the Enneagram Personality Typology” by Thelma Duffey & Shane Haberstroh
  • “Loving Kindness Meditation and Couples Therapy: Healing After an Infidelity” by Laura Cunningham & Yuleisy Cardoso
  • “Supporting Same-Sex Couples in the Decision to Start a Family” by Debbie C. Sturm, Erika Metzler Sawin & Anne L. Metz
  • “Working With Intercultural Couples and Families: Exploring Cultural Dissonance to Identify Transformative Opportunities” by Cheryl L. Crippen
  • “Working With Sexual Addictions in Couples Therapy” by Sara L. Wood

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

  • “Counseling Couples With a Trauma History” by Catherine J. Brack & Greg Brack

ACA Divisions

  • The International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors helps develop healthy family systems through prevention, education and therapy (see iamfconline.org).
  • The Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling seeks to promote greater awareness and understanding of LGBT issues and improve standards and delivery of counseling services provided to LGBT clients and communities (see algbtic.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.

 

The toll of childhood trauma

By Laurie Meyers June 23, 2014

Little-girl_brandingMention the word trauma to Americans in the 21st century, and their thoughts are likely to turn to images of terrorism, war, natural disasters and a seemingly continual stream of school shootings. The horrific scenes at Newtown and Columbine still dominate public consciousness, particularly when our society discusses child trauma. While those events make headlines, however, counseling professionals say the most pervasive traumatic threat to children is found not in big events or stranger danger, but in chronic and systemic violence that happens in or close to the home.

This kind of ongoing trauma, much of which takes place out of public view, leaves deep scars that can cause a lifetime of emotional, mental, physical and social dysfunction if left untreated. Research shows that chronic, complex trauma can even rewire a child’s brain, leading to cognitive and developmental issues.

The good news is that counselors in all areas of practice — in schools, agencies, shelters, clinics, private practice and elsewhere — can and are working with children and, when possible, their parents to stop the cycle of violence, or at least to mitigate its effects.

Behind closed doors

The number of children exposed to violence in the United States is staggering. According to the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and carried out by the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center, more than 60 percent of children surveyed had been exposed to direct or indirect violence during the 12 months prior to the survey. Nearly half — 46.3 percent — had been assaulted at least once in the past year, meaning they had experienced one or more of the following: any physical assault, assault with a weapon, assault with injury, attempted assault, attempted or completed kidnapping, assault by a brother or sister, assault by another child or adolescent, nonsexual genital assault, dating violence, bias attacks or threats. One in 10 had experienced some form of maltreatment, which includes nonsexual physical abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, child neglect and custodial interference. Other CDC research indicates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are victims of sexual abuse. However, many experts emphasize that due to the stigma involved, sexual abuse is underreported.

Significant exposure to violence and trauma can also lead to illness later in life. From 1995-1997, the CDC, in collaboration with Kaiser Permanente, collected detailed medical information from 17,000 patients at Kaiser’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. These patients also answered detailed questions about childhood experiences of abuse, neglect and family dysfunction. The initial study, Adverse Childhood Experiences, as well as more than 50 studies since using the same population, found that adult survivors of childhood abuse are more likely to develop chronic conditions and diseases such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and liver disease. They are also more likely to engage in risky health behaviors such as smoking and drug and alcohol abuse. In addition, adult survivors of child abuse may have autobiographical memory problems; exhibit increased problems with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses; and struggle with suicidal tendencies.

NatSCEV data, collected between January and May 2008, indicate that one in 10 children surveyed experienced five or more incidents of direct violence. It is this kind of ongoing abuse that can cause polyvictimization, or what many researchers call complex trauma — repeated exposure to traumatic events over time and often at the hands of caregivers or other loved ones.

“This cumulative trauma has much more serious effects than a single event,” says David Lawson, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed marriage and family therapist in Nacogdoches, Texas, who has worked with victims and perpetrators of sexual and domestic abuse since the 1980s. Because the abuse is ongoing, it disrupts a child’s sense of security, safety and self and alters the way he or she sees others, explains Lawson, an American Counseling Association member who is also a researcher and professor in the school psychology and counseling program at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches.

“In childhood, attachments are still forming, and abuse can shatter this developing ability,” says Jennifer Baggerly, an ACA member, LPC and play therapist who studies child trauma intervention. “It can also distort their forming personality and the way they interact with people as a whole.” This distortion can cause the child to believe that the world is an unsafe place and that people aren’t trustworthy, adds Baggerly, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Services at the University of North Texas at Dallas.

That pattern of uncertainty and instability can cause cognitive distortion, dissociation and problems with emotional self-regulation and relationship formation, and even alter a child’s brain structure, notes Lawson, the author of Family Violence: Explanations and Evidence-Based Clinical Practice, published by ACA in 2013.

“Children get stuck in flight or fight,” adds Baggerly. “Everything is a threat, so instead of strengthening the prefrontal cortex, the brain operates more from the limbic system, which causes them to be more hypervigilant.”

Because they are almost constantly on alert, these children and adolescents most of the time use what Lawson calls their “survival brain” instead of their “learning brain.” Childhood and adolescence are periods in which the brain is developing rapidly and crucial cognitive skills are being learned. If children and adolescents spend too much time in survival mode, they are not accessing areas in the brain that are responsible for learning developmentally appropriate cognitive skills and laying down the neural pathways that are critical to future learning.

“As the child gets older, this chronic hypervigilance — and the overload of cortisol that comes with it — completely remaps the brain and just stifles development,” says Gail Roaten, president-elect of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of ACA. “You see them lose ground cognitively, especially in their ability to learn.”

Support and stability

Traumatized children’s problems with cognition, learning, self-regulation and development can last a lifetime, making it more likely that they will continue the cycle of abuse in their relationships, abuse drugs and alcohol, have trouble finding and keeping jobs or end up in the criminal justice system. Adults who were traumatized as children also are much more likely to face a host of physical and mental health problems.

The situation is far from hopeless, however. Counseling interventions for trauma can make a dramatic difference, and the earlier a child starts receiving therapy, the better. A variety of techniques have proved to be effective, but interventions are most successful when a supportive environment is created, Lawson emphasizes. Whenever possible, a parent or parents should be participants in a child’s therapy (as long as they are not the perpetrators of the abuse), and if not the biological parents, then foster parents or grandparents.

“I try to bring in whoever can help build a support system for the child,” Lawson says, “because an hour a week [of counseling] is woefully inadequate, and I need to have them able to take what they learn in therapy into the home.”

In many cases, parents or caregivers need help learning how to support the abused child emotionally, he says. When parents come to sessions with their children, the counselor can help the parents learn not just the best way to support the child in therapy, but also how to strengthen their parenting skills.

“We really emphasize connection,” Lawson says. “Once they [abused children] have attachment, they may be ready to tell parents about their abuse and may just blurt it out at home. I try to prepare parents to listen to the child. If the parents are not comfortable addressing this [topic], I have them at least write down what the child says and then use that as a therapeutic prompt.”

In sessions, Lawson guides parents, teaching them how to interact and better bond with children who have been traumatized. Some parents and caregivers have never really learned how to play with their children, he says.

At the same time, he notes that learning positive interaction skills is not just about the fun stuff. Parents and caregivers also need to know how to effectively discipline the child. “Many times when parents find out that their child has been abused, they are hesitant to discipline or correct behavior because they feel sorry for them,” he says. “Or they come down too hard.”

Lawson encourages parents to use time-outs, to not respond when a child is acting out with attention-getting behavior and to not use corporal punishment.

In the absence of parents or other supportive adults, the counselor may become the stabilizing adult in a traumatized child’s life. Although the counselor is not with the child as often as a parent or caregiver would be, just having someone who is concerned and will listen to whatever the child wants to say can be enough for an abused child to start to heal, Lawson says, even if he or she never chooses to talk about the abuse. He notes that even in the absence of other supportive figures, the therapeutic bond between counselor and child can help in decreasing hyperarousal.

Counselors need to know that although it may seem best to address the child’s trauma right away, establishing and cementing the therapeutic relationship must come first, Lawson says. The child needs to feel safe and supported — even if it is only in the counselor’s office — before he or she can begin to process the trauma.

“You’re trying to get them in a safe place if possible, or at least a predictable place,” Lawson says. “Then we can start teaching them how to cope [with the trauma] without lashing out or
avoiding it.”

Abused children do not know how to cope with what they are experiencing, Lawson says. It is common for children who are traumatized to lash out in anger when stressed and to feel that the best way to establish some sort of stability in their lives is to try to control everything. They may be moody, irritable or withdrawn. Abused children may also bully and hit other children or turn their anger on themselves and engage in self-abusive behaviors such as cutting.

Once a child feels supported, the counselor can also begin to teach the child how to self-soothe. Lawson guides traumatized children in using calming techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing or grounding themselves by focusing on something external such as the ticking of the clock or the texture of their clothes. “The point is to experience emotions in a safe place and cut out bad coping behaviors,” he says.

Safety first

Jennifer Foster, an assistant professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology at Western Michigan University, studies child sexual abuse. Much of her research has involved listening to the narratives of abuse victims and how they perceive what has happened to them. Although these children display myriad reactions and emotions, Foster says two themes are always prominent: fear and safety.

“Child victims of sexual abuse often view the world as unsafe and are likely to enter counseling with unresolved fears,” Foster says. “They need help from their counselor to learn how to cope with their fears.”

“Although adults often see disclosure as a positive thing that will put an end to the abuse, for many children it is embarrassing and frightening, especially for those who feel at fault for their abuse and believe they will be blamed or, worse, not believed,” says Foster, who studied the experiences of sexually abused children for her dissertation.

Several counseling interventions are designed to help sexually abused children regain a sense of safety. One is called the “safe place technique,” in which a counselor guides the child in visualizing and vividly describing an imaginary safe place.

“The counselor may say, ‘Close your eyes and picture a special place where you feel completely safe,’” Foster explains. “This can be followed by specific questions to capture additional details such as: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What are you doing in your safe place? The details are recorded by the counselor and used to create a script.”

Once the safe place has been established, the child can return to it mentally anytime he or she feels stressed or scared, Foster says.

Another intervention called the “comfort kit,” developed by Liana Lowenstein, helps children who engage in nonsuicidal self-injury to learn self-soothing strategies, says Foster. “Counselors help children brainstorm and create a list of items that bring them comfort and make them feel better,” she explains. “Although the process is guided by the counselor, children are the ones who choose what will go inside their box or bag.”

Foster says children commonly include items such as a blanket, music, a favorite stuffed animal, written or recorded guided imagery, a stress ball, a list of relaxation activities, bubbles (for deep breathing exercises), a favorite book, a picture of a caring person or special place, a journal and pen, art supplies and a list of self-affirmations.

Foster is also a proponent of bibliotherapy. “Children’s books about sexual abuse can introduce child victims to others who have had similar experiences, which may lead to decreased feelings of isolation and normalize their trauma-related symptoms,” she says.

Books can also provide comfort, offer coping suggestions and teach kids important lessons such as that the abuse is not their fault, Foster adds.

Because fear is a predominant issue for child victims of sexual abuse, Foster also recommends stories that specifically address feeling afraid. Her suggestions include Once Upon a Time: Therapeutic Stories That Teach and Heal by Nancy Davis and A Terrible Thing Happened: A Story for Children Who Have Witnessed Violence or Trauma by Margaret Holmes. To help older adolescents explore their memories and feelings connected to sexual abuse, Foster recommends The Secret: Art & Healing from Sexual Abuse by Francie Lyshak-Stelzer. Foster notes that the author’s artwork is particularly effective at capturing fear and the myriad other feelings generated by abuse.

Finding relief through play

Play therapy is one of the most commonly used interventions with children, particularly those who have suffered complex trauma, meaning they have experienced long-term (and often multiple types of) abuse, says Roaten, an LPC who works with traumatized children in clinics and schools, and an associate professor at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.

Most therapeutic playrooms feature a fairly specific set of toys that might include an art center, play dough, a Bobo doll (an inflatable plastic doll modeled after the inflatable clown used in Alfred Bandura’s seminal study on children and aggression), a dollhouse with miniature people, animal figures, toy weapons, costumes and a sandbox. These toys and activities help children to act out their experiences in a safe and less negative manner, Roaten says. For instance, she recounts treating one child who “would just attack and slash the doll where the penis was. She was a victim of sexual abuse.”

In some cases, Roaten says, children just “play through,” processing their trauma entirely through play without needing to talk to the play therapist.

In many instances, Baggerly says, traumatized children act out things they aren’t able to verbalize. She once treated a 6-year-old who didn’t speak for about 10 sessions because the girl had a severe case of internalized anxiety and depression. But as the girl played, she would express her rage by taking a gun and shooting the Bobo doll in the head, stomach and groin area. Baggerly took this cue as a chance to ask the child about the anger and hurt she was feeling.

Catherine Tucker, a licensed mental health counselor who works with traumatized children in her role as a counselor supervisor and consultant, uses a child and family therapy called Theraplay, which was developed by the Theraplay Institute in the 1960s. “Theraplay works on a four-dimensional model: structure, nurture, engagement and challenge,” says Tucker, an associate professor in the college of education at Indiana State University.

Theraplay builds and enhances attachment, self-esteem, trust in others and engagement through participation in simple games. The idea is that the four dimensions — structure, nurture, engagement and challenge — are needed by children for healthy emotional and psychological development. The “play” in Theraplay is built around activities that teach participants what the elements of those dimensions are. Ideally, children engage in Theraplay with their parents or caregivers. Participating together teaches skills to parents or caregivers who don’t know how to provide the four dimensions, while enhancing the bond with the child. In the absence of parents or caregivers — whether because they are abusive or because they cannot or do not want to participate — the counselor plays directly with the child so the child can still learn how to interact in an emotionally healthy way.

The games and activities are simple — suitable for children as young as 1, yet still engaging for older children — and include things such as blowing bubbles, playing with stuffed animals, cotton ball hockey, cotton ball wars and newspaper basketball. The activities teach parenting skills and also help traumatized children with affect regulation, impulse control, feeling safe and not feeling like they have to be in control of the world, Tucker says. She notes that, oftentimes, kids who have suffered trauma feel like they have to be in charge either because a parent is abusive or simply doesn’t know how to provide a sense of security or stability, or because the child’s sense of control is being undermined by the abuse he or she experienced at the hands of another adult or peer.

Finding help at school

Counselors who are treating traumatized children should tap all available resources to help these clients, Lawson says, working not only with caregivers or other relatives but also with the child’s school. School counselors may be a source of additional one-on-one counseling for the child, or they could get the child involved in group activities with other children who are trauma victims or with children who share common interests such as music, sports or art, Lawson says. These peer networks provide abused children additional sources of support and can also teach them how to interact with people — something that many abused and isolated children have never learned to do.

Perpetrators of abuse seek to control and isolate their victims. An abusive parent has the power to cut off or severely limit a child’s healthy interactions with people outside of the circle of abuse. “[These] kids often didn’t learn social skills because they are kept away from other people,” Lawson says.

Abuse is often part of a viciously long-lived cycle, handed down from generation to generation, Lawson adds. Parents who were abused as children often grow up to abuse their own children. Even if parents with an abusive background are not abusive themselves, they may still carry on other dysfunctional behaviors, he says.

“You may have three or four generations of people [who] have a very skewed view of how to interact with people,” he says. “So they never learn how to interact with others. You have to help [these children] connect with other sources.”

School counselors also can play important roles as advocates and educators. Many people — including teachers and administrators — do not understand that many children who act out are doing so because they have been or are being abused, Tucker asserts.

“School counselors can really make a difference by making sure that kids get evaluated instead of just automatically disciplined,” Tucker says.

“So many boys end up in the criminal justice system because they were physically acting out in response to trauma,” she adds.

School counselors can also help abused and traumatized children learn how to help themselves, says Elsa Leggett, an ACA member, associate professor of counseling at the University of Houston-Victoria and president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling.

“Talk to kids about safety plans,” Leggett urges. “Ask them, ‘When abusive things are going on at home, where do you go? How do you know when things are getting dangerous?’”

The most important thing that all practicing counselors can do to address childhood trauma is to ask questions, Lawson says. Children — and sometimes adults who were traumatized as children — don’t always recognize what they’ve experienced as abuse, so rather than asking “have you been abused?” Lawson instructs his students to pose questions such as “has anyone ever hit you?” and “has anyone ever touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable?”

ACA member Cynthia Miller is an assistant professor of counseling at South University in Richmond, Virginia, and an LPC who has worked with incarcerated women. She has seen the kind of positive change that can occur when people get the help they need, but she has also witnessed the pattern of incarceration, addiction and institutionalization that can become entrenched in generation after generation.

“If you want to decrease the amount of money we spend on treating people with substance abuse or incarceration,” Miller says, “address child abuse.”

Caring for children during a disaster

Although ongoing trauma causes the biggest and longest-lasting kind of damage, one-time events can also create problems that linger. It is particularly important for children to receive timely counseling intervention, experts say.

“Typically, most children will have short-term responses to a disaster that include five basic realms,” Baggerly says. These realms are:

  • Physical: Symptoms include headache or stomachache
  • Thought process: Children exhibit confusion and inattention
  • Emotional: Children are scared and sad
  • Behavioral: Children might become very withdrawn or clingy, or may start sucking their thumb or wetting the bed again
  • Spiritual/worldview: Children may question their beliefs about God and the world

(For more information about typical trauma responses and recommended interventions, see “Children’s trauma responses and intervention guidelines” below.)

“Typically these [responses] don’t last long,” Baggerly says, “but that depends on the kind of support kids get in the immediate aftermath.”

Ultimately, the purpose of any counseling intervention after a traumatic event is to reduce or eliminate a child’s anxiety and stress, Baggerly asserts. She attempts to do that by “resetting” the child and connecting him or her to coping strategies.

“They need caring family and community support,” Baggerly says, “but if it is a huge disaster, then parents and teachers are equally traumatized, so they are not able to give support to kids. That’s when you need to bring people from outside.”

Some children are at greater risk than others, Baggerly says. “Kids who don’t have supportive family [and] who already have anxiety or have some type of developmental disability often will have ongoing symptoms that go longer than 30 days,” she explains. “Counselors need to triage to find out who is at most risk.”

During her roughly dozen years of experience working with chronic trauma and disasters, Baggerly has developed an integrated approach that she calls disaster response play therapy. The approach uses a trauma-informed philosophy in which counselors train parents and teachers in typical and atypical reactions to disasters so they can screen children and determine which ones need more help, she explains. “We also normalize typical symptoms, provide psychoeducation that informs kids about the impact of disasters, teach them coping strategies and provide them with child-centered play therapy.”

Baggerly usually begins by gathering a group of children and talking with them about rebuilding the community. She also encourages children to use expressive arts or drama to communicate their feelings.

“The other part of what we do is facilitate connection and conversation between kids and parents,” Baggerly says. “We may start out with Theraplay and do structured activities, such as holding hands or singing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.’ The point is to have them [parents and children] looking at each other so that the mirror neurons can be engaged.”

Baggerly also educates parents on activities they can do at home with their children. She refers them to an online workbook, “After the Storm,” which has scales of 1 to 10 or a thermometer that kids can fill in to indicate how much stress they are feeling.

Roaten often does volunteer trauma work and provided on-site support in the wake of the April 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that killed 15 people, injured more than 150 and caused extensive damage to buildings and property.

“One girl, a seventh-grader, had been standing outside in a neighborhood with a view of the plant and observed the explosion itself,” Roaten says. “So she had that image in her head and it would not go away. I taught her some deep breathing and progressive relaxation and did some guided imagery about her favorite place to be.

“When that picture came up in her mind, she could breathe, relax and go to her good place. By the fourth day I was there, she was no longer seeing the image.”

Roaten uses expressive therapy for children who aren’t very verbal or who don’t have the vocabulary to talk about their feelings. She brings a sand tray with miniatures of fences, people and buildings. She then allows children (and even adults) to set up scenarios or vignettes that help them express and act out what they are feeling.

“I might say something like, ‘Create your world before [Hurricane] Katrina; then create your world after Katrina,” Roaten explains.

Roaten also uses trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy to help children and adolescents learn coping skills.

“You teach them about trauma and its impact on them,” she explains. “Then you teach them relaxation and breathing skills. Once you get them to be able to self-soothe, relax and be calm, you can help them deal with pictures or scenarios that come up. You help them change the story — what they are telling themselves and what that means — which helps them work through the trauma a little bit at a time.”

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Children’s trauma responses and intervention guidelines

 

Preschool through 2nd grade

Typical trauma responses:

  • Believes death is reversible
  • Magical thinking
  • Intense but brief grief responses
  • Worries others will die
  • Separation anxiety
  • Avoidance
  • Regressive symptoms
  • Fear of the dark
  • Reenactment through traumatic play

Intervention guidelines:

  • Give simple, concrete explanations as needed
  • Provide physical closeness
  • Allow expression through play
  • Read storybooks such as A Terrible Thing Happened, Brave Bart, Don’t Pop Your Cork on Monday

 

3rd through 6th grade

Typical trauma responses:

  • Asks a lot of questions
  • Begins to understand that death is permanent
  • Worries about own death
  • Increased fighting and aggression
  • Hyperactivity and inattentiveness
  • Withdrawal from friends
  • Reenactment though traumatic play

Intervention guidelines:

  • Give clear, accurate explanations
  • Allow expression through art, play or journaling
  • Read storybooks

 

Middle school

Typical trauma responses:

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Wide range of emotions
  • More verbal but still needs physical outlet
  • Arguments and fighting
  • Moodiness

Intervention guidelines:

  • Be accepting of moodiness
  • Be supportive and discuss when they are ready
  • Groups with structured activities or games

 

High school

Typical trauma responses:

  • Understands death is irreversible but believe it won’t happen to them
  • Depression
  • Risk-taking behaviors
  • Lack of concentration
  • Decline in responsible behavior
  • Apathy
  • Rebellion at home or school

Intervention guidelines:

  • Listen
  • Encourage expression of feelings
  • Groups with guiding questions and projects

 

Source: “Systematic Trauma Interventions for Children: A 10-Step Protocol,” by Jennifer Baggerly in Terrorism, Trauma and Tragedies: A Counselor’s Guide to Preparing and Responding, third edition, American Counseling Association Foundation, 201

 

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ACA Traumatology Interest Network

Counselors and counselors-in-training who have an interest in providing counseling services to trauma- or disaster-affected individuals and communities should consider joining the ACA Traumatology Interest Network. Network participants share insights, experiences, new plans and advances in trauma counseling services. For more information on joining the interest network, go to counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks.

 

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To contact individuals interviewed for this article, email:

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org