Tag Archives: family counseling

Supporting clients through the anxiety and exhaustion of food allergies

By Bethany Bray November 27, 2018

The diagnosis of a food allergy is life-changing, not just for the individual but for those who love and live with that person. In addition to avoiding exposure to certain foods, the condition requires that these families and individuals explain, over and over again, the seriousness of the allergy at schools, restaurants, social gatherings, workplaces, daycare facilities and countless other places.

It can all be exhausting, says Tamara Hubbard, a licensed clinical professional counselor whose son was diagnosed with a peanut allergy six years ago. Families receiving a new allergy diagnosis face steep learning curves that can cause them to worry and to overthink every detail of what their child or other loved one eats or might be exposed to.

“It’s almost like Russian roulette. You don’t know when an [allergic] reaction will happen, even when you take precautions,” Hubbard explains. “There’s a constant level of fear and anxiety at all times in the background that parents and caregivers need help managing.”

Food allergies affect an estimated 4 to 6 percent of children in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 1997 and 2007, food allergies increased 18 percent among American children and adolescents younger than 18.

A food allergy reaction sends someone in the United States to the emergency room every three minutes, reports the nonprofit organization Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

Counselors can help clients work through the anxiety and other mental health issues that food allergies sometimes exacerbate, but they can also be a source of support simply by serving as a listening ear. Clients may come to a counselor’s office worn out from the self-advocacy and constant vigilance that a food allergy requires, explains Hubbard, who has a private practice in the suburbs of Chicago that specializes in supporting clients (and their families) with food allergies.

With food allergies, there is sometimes “a constant feeling of having to fight in every conversation to get your point across,” she says. “Just being an empathic, listening ear [as a counselor] and wanting to learn, that makes a huge difference in their anxiety level and ability to release tension.”

At the same time, counselors should research and learn about food allergies to become a competent support to clients, Hubbard emphasizes. For example, they should know that an intolerance or sensitivity to a food is very different from a diagnosed allergy.

With a food allergy, the immune system views the allergen — for example, wheat, shellfish or peanuts — as an invader and overreacts whenever it enters the body. Someone who ingests a food that he or she has an intolerance or sensitivity to will experience discomfort but not the potentially life-threatening reaction that comes with an allergy, Hubbard explains.

Counselors who understand the biological and mental health implications of food allergies can help these clients to live fuller lives, Hubbard says. Although the most important thing counselors can do is learn about and understand food allergies, exercising compassion is also essential, she says.

“Sometimes, even medical professionals aren’t good at that part. They send [people] off with an EpiPen and say, ‘Come back in six months.’ In a perfect world, they would send them off with a list of resources for mental health and wellness,” says Hubbard, an American Counseling Association member. “Counselors can play a very important part to fill in that gap, even if it’s just an empathic ear. That is incredibly therapeutic in itself.”

 

Tempering the uncertainty

The anxiety that families and individuals with food allergies often experience is more complex than simply worrying about possible exposure to an allergen, Hubbard says. Anxiety can spike over everything from sending a child to school and worrying that the staff won’t follow allergy-safe protocols to second-guessing whether a food product might contain nuts, even when the label says it doesn’t.

In the United States, companies are required to note on food labeling whether a product contains one or more of the eight most common allergens. These potential allergens are:

  • Milk/dairy
  • Eggs
  • Fin fish (e.g., salmon, flounder, cod)
  • Shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp)
  • Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

However, U.S. companies are not required to disclose whether a product is made in a facility or on equipment that is or was exposed to those eight allergens, Hubbard notes.

With that in mind, navigating grocery stores, restaurants and social gatherings involving food can be anxiety-provoking for those with food allergies — and especially for newly diagnosed families, Hubbard says. Some parents react by restricting their child’s activity to reduce the risk of exposure.

Allergy diagnoses are sometimes given after a person has experienced one initial anaphylactic reaction. This can create uncertainty concerning how much of the allergen is too much. For example, is it OK to be near someone else who is eating the food to which the person is allergic?

“There is fear of the unknown: ‘How much of the allergen will it take for my child to react?’ There are different layers to the anxiety, and it’s important [for counselors] to understand each layer,” Hubbard says. “Also, the anxiety affects each member of the family; they will all feel it. There’s a lot to unpack when you are assessing a client who is dealing with food allergies.”

Counselors who understand the complexity of the issue can help clients find balance and equip them with tools to manage the anxiety, Hubbard notes.

“Ultimately, the goal is to help the client — whether it’s the allergic person themselves or a caregiver — assess the risk for every situation they’re going to be in. Is their anxiety based on fact or emotion? We can tell ourselves that everything is unsafe, or we can navigate [the risk] and take precautions,” she says.

 

Finding balance

There is a balance between living in fear and frustration because of food allergies and still enjoying a good quality of life, Hubbard stresses. “Understand that in many cases, when someone is newly diagnosed, especially if it’s a young child, the person or family may be very overwhelmed initially,” she says, “as there can be a steep learning curve when your lifestyle needs to suddenly change due to a food allergy diagnosis. Some people navigate this well, while others need support and guidance. I typically encourage people to remember that it will take time to get used to the diagnosis and gain all of the necessary knowledge to live a well-balanced life between food allergy fears and empowerment. I also encourage those who are newly diagnosed to learn the basics at first and, over time, as they feel ready, branch out to other related food allergy topics, such as potential treatments, research and advocacy.”

Here are some tips for counselors to keep in mind related to food allergies:

> Prepare for an emotional roller-coaster: Food allergies can be life-threatening, so it’s understandable when individuals (or their families) experience strong emotions such as fear, sadness, anger or guilt connected to the diagnosis. Of course, these emotions can eventually lead to becoming overwhelmed or burning out, Hubbard says.

“If a child has a [allergic] reaction, the parents can feel strong emotions of ‘what did I do wrong?’ At the same time, they could have done everything 100 percent right,” Hubbard says. “The reality is that it’s a big deal, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a … crisis every day.”

Equipping clients with coping mechanisms will not only help them manage their own anxiety and strong emotions but will also keep them from transferring those feelings to the child or family member with the allergy, Hubbard says.

Counselors can also help clients work through their feelings of loss concerning what their life (or their child’s life) might have been like without the limitations of a food allergy. For example, they may yearn to eat at a restaurant without having to ask about the establishment’s allergy protocols or to eat lunch with friends in the school cafeteria instead of sitting at a separate table or worrying about what foods they could be exposed to.

“These children [with food allergies] have to grow up a little quicker in some respects. They have to learn to speak up for themselves and make decisions,” Hubbard says. “It’s about managing the feelings and finding ways to help them empower themselves and advocate to come through with some balance.”

> Move toward acceptance: One of the most important things counselors can do is help clients reach acceptance of the food allergy diagnosis, Hubbard says. This can have similarities to grief work, including helping clients come to terms with the fact that they can’t change the situation, she explains. Narrative therapy can assist clients in reframing their feelings and taking control of their story.

Role-play can be beneficial for clients of all ages because it helps them learn to navigate their feelings and the language they will need to use to advocate for themselves. (For example, how will they explain that they can’t eat the cake at an upcoming birthday party?) Hubbard says she also finds play therapy, mindfulness and cognitive behavior therapy helpful for clients with food allergies.

Above all, she says, counselors should make sure their approaches are tailored to and appropriate for the individual client. “For kids, it’s not appropriate to talk about the risk of death [involved with food allergies], but coping with their feelings and worry is appropriate,” she notes.

Counselors can also model acceptance for clients in session, Hubbard adds. It can be a relief to find that “they don’t have to walk into a session defending themselves,” she says. “They can learn that not every conversation has to be fight-or-flight. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, for sure, just as with any chronic illness. Help clients pace themselves.”

> Find the right words: An individual with food allergies (or the parents of a child with food allergies) will need to explain the allergy to everyone from school staff to well-meaning relatives who are hosting a holiday dinner. Be aware that there can be cultural and generational differences in levels of understanding and flexibility surrounding food allergies, Hubbard advises.

“This can be hard for people who aren’t comfortable speaking up. If they’re not a natural advocate, it will now fall to them to educate [others] and advocate,” she says. “A counselor can help them manage the feelings around that, [including] frustration, burnout and exhaustion.”

> Guide children (and parents) as they grow up: Parents may find themselves growing anxious as their child with food allergies ages, develops more independence and spends more time away from home. Counselors can offer support as these families navigate the child’s developmental milestones. This might include encouraging the family to gradually give the child more freedom and responsibility to make safe choices independently.

For example, teenagers who are beginning to date may have to inform their love interests that they shouldn’t kiss for a while after the person has eaten something containing an allergen. “For every phase of life, there will be an additional need to explain and educate [about the allergy], and that can be exhausting,” Hubbard says.

> Be aware that “relapses” are possible: Clients who have made progress on accepting a food allergy and managing the emotions that come with it can “go back to ground zero” anytime they experience an allergic reaction or exposure scare, Hubbard says. Counselors shouldn’t be disappointed if these clients sometimes backslide on the progress they have previously made in therapy.

> Work with the allergist: Professional counselors shouldn’t hesitate to contact a client’s allergist (if the client grants permission). Counselor practitioners can learn a lot about the specifics of a client’s needs from the allergist, Hubbard says. For example, some food allergies are milder, whereas others can cause a reaction even from airborne exposure (for example, peanut dust). “Each client will have a specific set of data [regarding his or allergy],” Hubbard explains. “It’s important to stay connected with their allergist and check in to help you better understand.”

> Be cognizant that allergy-related bullying does happen: Being aware of allergy-related bullying is especially important for counselors who work in school settings or with children and adolescents in their practice, Hubbard notes. Up to one-third of children with food allergies have faced bullying, according to FARE.

This can include overt bullying, such as taunting or threatening a classmate with an allergen. But allergy-related bullying can also come in less obvious forms, such as when an adult (teacher, sports coach, etc.) points out the individual with an allergy and labels them as the “reason” the class or team can’t have certain foods. This type of scenario can make individuals feel bad about their allergies and the inconveniences they may present, Hubbard says.

 

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The Food Allergy Counseling Professionals Networking Group

Started by Tamara Hubbard, this group is open to counselors who work with clients who are managing food allergies. Connect with them on Facebook: facebook.com/groups/FoodAllergyCounselingProfessionals/ to share resources and network with other professionals who specialize in this area.

 

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Contact Tamara Hubbard and find resources at her website: foodallergycounselor.com

Hubbard also writes a blog on allergy-related issues, including a series titled “Four things counselors should know about food allergies.”

 

 

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Related reading

Hubbard suggests the following resources for counselors or clients looking to learn more about food allergies and their connection to mental health:

 

 

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

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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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.

 

Helping families cope with cancer

By Laurie Meyers November 26, 2018

Cancer. The word alone can evoke terror amid visions of painful treatments and possible early death. Even though many advances have been made in cancer treatment, and despite the fact that heart disease is the actual No. 1 cause of death for adults in the United States, cancer is the diagnosis that many people fear the most.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is often a devastating blow, not just to cancer patients themselves but to their families. At a visceral level, it is easy to imagine how frightening a cancer diagnosis must be for the patient, but many people — including the families themselves — often underestimate the emotional toll the disease can take on loved ones.

Dark times

Cancer casts such a dark shadow that licensed clinical marriage and family therapist Maya Pandit often encourages clients to refer to it as the “C-word” in an attempt to rob the term of its power. Cancer “is such a ‘big bad’ — not just because it can cause death but because the treatment is difficult and painful,” she says.

For family members, this means grappling with the fear of losing their loved one while hoping for a “cure” that often requires debilitating treatment. Pandit, who is trained as a medical family therapist, a specialized form of family therapy for individuals, couples and families who are coping with physical illnesses, notes that watching a loved one suffer can be more difficult than enduring the suffering oneself.

Managing physical illnesses such as cancer can be isolating and bewildering for patients and their families alike. That feeling of isolation, coupled with the stress of diagnosis and treatment, often strains family relationships — not just between the patient and other family members, but among family members themselves, Pandit explains. Her goal is to help families and couples cope with the reality of the diagnosis while providing support for the patient and one another.

When families are confronted with a cancer diagnosis, their coping strategies often follow a kind of all-or-nothing approach, Pandit says. For some people, the reality of their loved one’s illness is so painful that they refuse to talk about or even acknowledge it. Instead, these family members go on as if the cancer doesn’t exist and everything is fine. In contrast other people attempt to manage their anxiety by becoming hypervigilant and centering all aspects of daily life on cancer, Pandit says. Operating under either of these extremes only makes responding to the crisis more difficult, she adds.

As Pandit explains, getting each family member’s “illness story” is an essential step because it allows counselors to uncover the emotions and difficulties that have arisen from the diagnosis. Then counselors can begin helping the family find a more balanced way to cope. The illness story encompasses each family member’s experience of the crisis, which Pandit solicits by asking questions about when the symptoms started, when and how their loved one was diagnosed and how it felt for the family member to hear the diagnosis. These basic questions encourage a conversation that can help to verbally unlock clients, allowing Pandit to begin unwinding the emotional knots that keep family members from facing the cancer.

With clients who are hypervigilant, Pandit’s goal is to “open the door” to the thought that the cancer already plays a big role in their lives, and if they allow it to always be the primary focus, it will consume all family interactions.

“I often do an exercise in which I ask family members to fill out a pie chart of their lives and how much cancer has taken over,” she says. “We talk about the ways cancer has impacted their daily lives and the creative ways to take back what they can.” Activities such as watching TV shows and movies together or reading the same book and then discussing it serve not only as a distraction but also give family members something to talk about that isn’t related to cancer.

On the other hand, Pandit says that asking open-ended questions or talking about some of the common challenges that families coping with cancer face often helps resistant clients become more willing to speak about what they are experiencing. “If I make sure to be patient and as matter-of-fact as possible, even the most closed people open up at least a little,” she says. “I find that people want to talk but sometimes need time, space, a person who won’t shrink at the topic and, occasionally, some privacy.”

Pandit adds that the most frequent feedback she receives from family members is that once they have opened up and talked about their struggles, they feel lighter. “Talking about how people feel more often than not makes them feel as if they are not alone — that they can handle things one day at a time,” she says.

Family dynamics

Counselors should also keep in mind that each family member has his or her own individual and unique relationship to the person with cancer, says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Kerin Groves, who has worked with older adults in retirement communities, assisted-living residences, nursing homes and home care settings. “Relational dynamics are part of the family system, which often includes old baggage and unfinished business such as wounds or secrets from the past,” she says. “It is imperative that therapists ask each [person] about that individual relationship.”

Among the questions that Groves, an American Counseling Association member whose specialties include grief and loss, suggests that counselors should ask: “Who is this person to you? What does this diagnosis mean in the context of your relationship? What is the nature of your relationship to the patient, both past and present?”

“In that relationship, what are the sparkling gems and what are the sharp rocks? For example,” Groves says, “I have worked with family members of cancer patients who had deeply conflicted negative feelings about the patient, but they were aware that it was not socially proper to say so. They could either stuff their true feelings and experience inner shame and guilt, or they could speak out and experience open shame and guilt — quite a lose-lose scenario. In these situations, a therapist can best serve the family by providing a safe space for whatever needs to be vented, with no judgment.”

“Setting aside any conflicts in family relationships can be as simple as asking for it,” she says. “A counselor should not be afraid to pose the question: What relationships are you worried about right now that are distracting you? What do you need from [a particular family member] in order to set this aside for now? And what does [that family member] need from you? What needs to be said between you and [the family member] in order to move forward with more peace?”

“A counselor can be a rational outside resource in scary times,” Groves continues. “Family members make many critical decisions, and they need a safe place in which to explore options out loud and be heard, encouraged, supported, validated and attended to.”

A source of nonjudgmental support is particularly important because family members often fail to recognize or validate their need for emotional support, Pandit says. “It’s like, ‘You [the patient] are the one with cancer. What right do I have to be upset?’”

Pandit discourages family members from engaging in what she calls the “pain game” — a kind of comparison to determine who is in the most pain. She tells families that pain is pain and that it needs to be addressed, regardless of who is harboring it or the circumstances of those around them.

Mary Jones, an LPC who counseled patients and families during her 20 years in an oncology facility, agrees. She says that most of the adult family members with whom she worked, both in family counseling sessions and in a support group for caregivers, experienced debilitating emotional and physical side effects. These clients regularly reported being unable to focus, having trouble making even small decisions and becoming easily overwhelmed. With their worlds being transformed, sometimes overnight, by a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, some clients felt so disoriented that they wondered if they were going crazy, Jones says.

These family members were often irritable, especially if they were not sleeping well. They felt a pervasive sadness but were often afraid to cry lest they further upset other family members and friends. Physical symptoms such as backaches and stomach issues were also common. Not surprisingly, Jones says, the turmoil often affected these family members’ work lives and personal relationships. 

As Groves points out, counselors may not be working with cancer patients or families in a typical 50-minute therapy session. “Counselors working in cancer treatment centers, infusion clinics, oncologist’s offices and other medical settings may do mini-interventions of 15 minutes between physician visits, or two-hour support group meetings, or brief encounters in hallways or treatment rooms. In these settings, a counselor’s role should simply be [to act as] a calm presence. They are to listen, support, be a container for powerful emotions — including angry rage or hysterical crying — and provide warmth and acceptance.”

A life-threatening illness typically necessitates a major shift in roles and responsibilities within families. One of the things counselors can do is help clients prepare for and cope with these changes in family structure, says licensed marriage and family therapist Ryan Wishart, who also specializes in medical family therapy. For example, a mother with breast cancer who will no longer be capable of doing the bulk of the child-rearing would need the father or other family members to step in and shoulder more responsibility in that area. If the person with cancer is the family’s primary breadwinner but is too sick to work, it may require other family members finding additional means of financial support. Housework may need to be distributed differently, and older children may have to become more independent.

Wishart helps families assess and redistribute their duties by creating a deck of cards that have major roles, responsibilities and chores written on them. “We discuss who ‘owned’ which cards prediagnosis and ways that they can be redealt,” he says.

Groves raises a similar point. “There can be very practical concerns that lie under the surface and get ignored in the medical crisis,” she says. “For example, if one family member insists that the patient be able to go home but dumps the caregiving duties on to someone else, emotions can erupt. A counselor can help by walking the family through the practical options that are both available and realistic.”

Giving care

Caregiving is often one of the most difficult, emotional and divisive issues faced by families with a loved one who has cancer. Family members must work through questions such as what kind of care to pursue, whether a loved one can be cared for at home and who will provide the care.

“Many people get quickly overwhelmed with the details of the cancer journey,” Groves says. “There are just too many decisions and no crystal ball to see the outcomes of each choice. Treatment plans that are too aggressive are uncomfortable for many people, but cultural norms may prevent family members from disagreeing or questioning a medical professional. Palliative care can seem inhumane to some, sending the message that they have given up or don’t want to be bothered with the patient anymore. In addition, I have seen well-meaning doctors who refuse to give up and wait until just before the patient dies to call in hospice — much too late for the family and the patient to benefit from the supportive services they could have received in making the journey through death.”

Families may also disagree about what treatment should be pursued, forgetting that the choice ultimately resides with the patient unless he or she is no longer competent to make the decision. But even after the family has decided the where, when and how of care, providing it can be a time-consuming endeavor that is both emotionally and physically taxing. In addition, caregiving often requires difficult role adjustments or role reversals. For instance, parents battling cancer may become like children to their own children. Relationships may take on decidedly unromantic aspects when one spouse or partner needs to play a more parentlike role for the other spouse or partner.

It can be especially challenging and humbling for parents to give up so much personal control to their children, even if those children are now adults themselves, says Cheryl Fisher, an LPC whose areas of specialization include counseling families and individuals with cancer diagnoses. However, counselors can help these parents see this shift in a different light. Fisher, an ACA member, says she often reminds parents of all the years they spent getting up in the middle of the night or staying up late to give care to family members. Now it is their time to receive and accept care from others, she tells them.

With adult children, Fisher says, the adjustment usually involves probing to see what aspects of caregiving they feel confident about and which ones give rise to discomfort. Personal hygiene is a particularly sensitive area, she points out, because sons are typically uncomfortable with the thought of bathing their mothers and daughters are typically uncomfortable with bathing their fathers. Fisher validates this discomfort, letting her clients know that it is perfectly acceptable to look for home health care support for that particular task. She then talks about other areas of caregiving with which the adult children might be comfortable, such as housekeeping, cooking, doing yardwork or providing transportation.

Fisher also helps adult children who are geographically distant from their parent come up with ways that they can participate with caregiving. For instance, they may be able to contribute financially or pragmatically, such as by locating home health care support or paying for respite care. Perhaps they have enough vacation time to fly in every few months to visit and give assistance to the parent. Distance caregiving can also consist of smaller personal acts such as sending cards and care packages or FaceTiming with a parent while the sibling or other family member who provides most of the in-person care gets a much-needed break to take a nap or make phone calls.

Pandit says that couples going through a cancer diagnosis often don’t know how to talk to each other about the ways that caregiving changes the dynamics of their relationship. She helps these couples explore means of ensuring that caregiving doesn’t take over the whole of their relationship — for example, by dedicating time to just being partners again through activities such as a regularly scheduled date night. She also encourages couples to make sure they continue to talk about things other than the cancer.

Cancer foments a significant amount of fear and guilt, and caregivers often feel that if they make a “wrong” decision or take time for themselves, their loved one will get worse or even die, Jones says. This makes it even more difficult to convince caregivers to engage in self-care. Jones explains to caregivers that to properly take care of their loved ones, they must also take care of themselves. With male caregivers, she found it particularly helpful to tell them to picture themselves as a car. As a car, the caregiver must go to many destinations. Cars, of course, require gasoline to run. So, Jones would ask, what happens when the car makes a lot of trips without stopping to fill up the gas tank?

Similarly, Jones would direct women to picture themselves as a pitcher full of resources and imagine that everyone surrounding them was holding a cup. With so many cups to pour, unless the caregiver refilled her own pitcher, her loved one’s cup would eventually go dry.

Jones also recommends that clients who provide care to a family member with cancer literally schedule self-care for themselves. Making an appointment for self-care — just like making an appointment for the next cancer treatment — helps reframe it so that the caregiver starts viewing self-care as a means of survival, not a selfish desire, Jones says.

True self-care goes beyond taking breaks, getting enough sleep and eating healthy regular meals, and the source is different for everyone. Jones urges clients to identify the things that make them feel nourished. “What recharges your batteries? What fills your cup back up?” she asks. Jones says she finds even a little time interacting with nature rejuvenating, but for others, it may be practicing yoga, meditating, spending time with animals or reading a good book.

Something else that Jones urges counselors to do is to ask caregivers to identify things they can “outsource” that would make life easier. This might involve thinking of friends willing to volunteer a few hours of house cleaning each week, asking a neighbor to walk the dog or seeing if a church care group would be willing to make and deliver 10 days’ worth of casseroles.

Because caregivers are continually fighting burnout, guilt and isolation, Jones thinks that group therapy is a particularly effective method of support. Among others who understand their struggles, caregivers and other family members can more freely give voice to emotions that they don’t necessarily feel comfortable expressing anywhere else. They can admit to being tired, angry, resentful or hopeless without fear that they will be judged poorly. Groups are also a good place for brainstorming and solving problems, Jones says. Individuals can share their challenges, and other group members can talk about what has worked best for them.

Coping with the unknown

The treatment process for cancer is usually hard on everyone. Pandit says the constant ebb and flow of watching a loved one struggle and not knowing for certain that it is going to be worth it in the end is often agonizing.

Groves agrees. “An unknown prognosis is very hard for families [and patients] to tolerate,” she says. “The fear of the unknown is powerful. Facing a known outcome is certainly frightening, but at least there is little or no ambiguity. With a terminal prognosis, there are fewer choices to agonize over. There may be more powerlessness but fewer regrets.”

A terminal diagnosis can sometimes be a “strange kind of blessing,” Pandit says. Knowing the end is coming often encourages loved ones to say things they might never express otherwise, both to the person who is dying and to those who will be left behind.

“Whether the diagnosis is terminal or chronic, a good counselor will bring up universal existential concerns … [such as] fear of incapacitation, of death, suffering, aloneness, meaninglessness, and normalize them,” Groves says. “This allows family members to recognize that their fears are common to the human experience and that it is safe to talk about them. The counselor may not have a solution but does offer accompaniment on the journey.”

That perpetual state of suspended animation that accompanies an unknown diagnosis is painful, but for some family members, it is still preferable to admitting that it is time to let go. Cancer patients are often the first to recognize this truth, and as long as they still have all of their faculties, it is ultimately their choice whether or when to discontinue treatment, Fisher notes. However, family members sometimes remain in denial and may refuse to acknowledge the patient’s impending death, even pushing for continued treatment.

Jones recalls a female patient whose husband had accepted that the time had come to cease treatment but whose adult children kept insisting that the family could “find another way.” The constant badgering was completely exhausting to the patient. She finally turned to Jones and said, “I need you to look my kids in the eyes and say, ‘Your mom has three to six months to live.’” Jones followed the woman’s wishes and then urged the children to ask themselves how they wanted to spend the last months of their mother’s life.

Fisher had a 36-year-old female client with a terminal diagnosis who had moved into inpatient treatment. The woman’s mother kept bustling into the room with vases of sunflowers and other things. Her stated intent was to make the room pretty until her daughter could come back home. The daughter, in obvious distress, yelled, “Mom! I’m not coming home!”

Fisher asked for some time alone with the client and helped her come up with the words that she needed to say to her mother, which were, “I’m going to die, and I need you to be here with me.”

“Counselors often worry too much about techniques and forget to just listen,” Groves says. “Our presence is our best intervention.”

 

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Supporting the client who has cancer

“Fear is the constant companion of the cancer patient,” says Kerin Groves, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and American Counseling Association member. “Fear that the diagnosis is wrong, fear of telling young children too much or not enough, fear that the surgeon didn’t get it all, fear that the chemo or radiation missed a few rogue cells, fear [during] remission [of] the cancer coming back, fear of getting a new type of cancer, fear of long-term effects of chemo or radiation, fear that tiny bump or growth is cancerous, fear of going out in the sun after skin cancer, fear of every stomachache or headache, fear of loss of sexual function or cognitive function, fear of social stigma with body disfigurement and so forth.”

“These chronic fears are exhausting and can exacerbate into an anxiety or mood disorder,” Groves continues. “Acknowledging fears is the best way to take the power out of them, so invite a patient to tell you all the fearful thoughts that run through their head. They can write them down or say them aloud, with no rules and no judgment. ‘Let’s release them all,’ I tell patients, ‘like taking out the trash. We don’t need them stinking up the house.’”

One of Cheryl Fisher’s current clients had cancer for many years before achieving remission and outliving the original prognosis. However, the client recently reported that she can feel her fear returning. She told Fisher that she doesn’t want to let the fear in because she is concerned about what it might do to her mentally and to the cancer itself. Fisher, an LPC and ACA member, told the client that when people fight back against what they’re feeling, it causes stress hormones to rise. So, ultimately, she says, it is better to face the fear head-on.

“When I’m sad or angry or afraid, I like to pull it outside of my body and look at it,” Fisher told her client. “Fear, you’re here. What is prompting this? What is it trying to tell me?”

The client told Fisher she was afraid that she was already living on borrowed time. As a consequence of this belief, the client was in essence just waiting for the cancer to come back, Fisher explains.

To counter the client’s sense of helplessness and being “stuck,” Fisher acknowledged that neither of them could prevent the cancer from returning, but she asked the client to consider what she did have control of. Did the client have things she had been putting off that she would like to do? Did she have things she was holding on to that needed to be said?

Another of Fisher’s clients was a newly diagnosed cancer patient who seemed to want Fisher to “somehow absolve her from her journey with the diagnosis.”

“I don’t have a magic wand,” Fisher told her. “There’s nothing I can say that will lift you from this journey that you have to go through, but I can promise that I can be there with you side by side during the journey. I can’t solve this for you, I can’t make it go away, but I promise you I will be there with you.”

Fisher notes that being an unflagging source of support is perhaps the most essential role that counselors can play with clients who are seriously or terminally ill. Sometimes, a cancer patient’s family or friends cannot or will not endure their inherent fear and stress to be by their loved one’s side, but counselors can step in and fill that gap, she emphasizes.

“Existential concerns are within all of us, with or without cancer, but cancer and other critical illnesses have a way of bringing them to the forefront,” Groves says. “The work of [Viktor] Frankl and his logotherapy concepts are very valuable for counselors to read and learn. While in a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl came to understand that each of us has a choice in how to respond to our circumstances, no matter how horrific. When all a human’s [other] choices are taken away, we still have the choice of facing our suffering with dignity. This can be empowering for a cancer patient, when presented by a sensitive counselor who honors the values and humanity of the patient.”

— Laurie Meyers

 

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Additional resources

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

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

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

  • Counseling Strategies for Loss and Grief by Keren M. Humphrey
  • Mediating Conflict in Intimate Relationships, DVD, presented by Gerald Monk and John Winslade

ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources)

  • Resources for Professional Counselors

Podcasts (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/store/5#cat14)

  • “When Grief Becomes Complicated” with Antonietta Corvace (ACA252)
  • “Integrated Care: Applying Theory to Practice” with Eric Christian and Russ Curtis (ACA149)

Webinars (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/store/5#cat46)

  • “ABCs of Trauma” with A. Stephen Lenz (CPA24329)
  • “Children and Trauma” with Kimberly N. Frazier (CPA24331)
  • “Counseling Students Who Have Experienced Trauma: Practical Recommendations at the Elementary, Secondary and College Levels” with Richard Joseph Behun, Julie A. Cerrito and Eric W. Owens (CPA24339)

 

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

Working with foster and adoptive families through the lens of attachment

By Somer George October 4, 2018

“He just got kicked out of his second preschool program! We’re nearing the end of our options here. What do we do?” I could hear the desperation in the mother’s voice as she described the past few months with the 5-year-old she and her family were fostering and would soon be adopting.

“He threw a chair at the teacher and punched a little girl, and nothing we do seems to make it better,” the father explained, describing the detailed behavior plan on which they had collaborated with a well-meaning social worker.

“And it’s not just at school,” the mother continued. “Even when he’s home with us, he often gets out of control. He even peed on his dad’s lap” — her voice lowered to a whisper — “on purpose!”

I nodded my head, empathetic to the immense strain this family had been under for the past several months. The mother and father were friendly and confident, well-educated and sincere. They had wanted to do something good for the world by fostering and adopting children in need. They had so much to offer. And yet here they were, barely surviving each day and feeling the shreds of normalcy slip through their fingers as this little boy pushed every emotional button they had, leaving them exhausted and discouraged.

My years of experience working with the Secure Child In-Home Program and the Virginia Child and Family Attachment Center helped me to frame their experience in terms of attachment. The situation they were in was not unique among parents who had adopted a child or made the decision to provide foster care, the initial good intention and early excitement slowly turning to exhaustion and sometimes regret. Often, these children who need it the most push away every offer of help and comfort that is provided to them.

Where healing happens

So, what do we do when parents who have adopted a child or are providing foster care come to us, asking for advice or counseling for their troubled child? Certainly, there is benefit in providing these children with play therapy, giving them a chance to form a new relationship and to express themselves through their own language of play.

And yet, that strategy speaks to only one side of the coin. Attachment theory tells us that children heal best in the context of secure caregiving relationships. And parents are the ones who provide the day in, day out caregiving, wielding the most influence on the development of new patterns in the child’s relationships and behaviors.

According to attachment theory, a child is biologically wired to turn toward a caregiver in times of distress. When the child’s emotional needs are met, the child develops patterns of soothing and regulation that are essential for healthy development. When these emotional needs are denied or rebuffed, however, or if the child experiences the caregiver as frightening, the child learns dramatically different adaptive strategies. The child may become withdrawn and inhibited or bossy and aggressive. These patterns aren’t quick to change when a new caregiver comes along. Add to this the trauma of abuse and the loss of a biological parent, and you have a situation full of misunderstanding and relational strain.

New caregivers often come into their role with little awareness of the child’s experiences and the patterns necessary for surviving a young life filled with turmoil, anguish and uncertainties. When these coping strategies show up in the new relationship, parents are (understandably) distressed and often seek help to “fix” the child’s confusing and challenging behavior.

What these parents may not realize is that their own ability to read through the confusing signals and meet the child’s emotional need is the place where most of the healing will happen. If the parents can provide both a secure base from which the child can explore the world and a safe haven for the child to return to, the deeply rooted patterns of behavior and interaction will begin to shift. This is not a quick and easy process. It is messy to be sure, often following a pattern of one step forward, two steps back. However, if parents are given the support they need, it is certainly an attainable and worthy goal.

The counselor’s role

So, what is the counselor’s role in helping form new patterns of interaction, leading to more emotional stability and better child behavior? How can we help move these relationships toward greater security, helping each family to become a haven of safety for children who have experienced significant neglect, rejection, fear and loss?

I’d like to offer some suggestions for counselors who desire to help these parents form stronger relationships with their children and experience a reduction in the difficult behaviors that create such chaos.

  • Provide empathy and understanding to parents. Often, by the time parents seek out a counselor, they have already been through a great deal of distress, frustration and turmoil. Yes, they are coming to receive help, but first they need to feel heard and understood without being judged. Parenting is extraordinarily difficult, and parenting a child with extensive emotional needs is even harder. Take the time to empathetically hear these parents’ concerns and welcome their expressions of distress.
  • Educate parents about normal development and the impact of trauma/loss. Sometimes foster and adoptive parents have already successfully raised biological children, so these difficult behaviors on the part of the child they are adopting or fostering don’t make sense to them. What they did with their other kids doesn’t seem to work with this child. Spend time teaching these parents about how their child’s brain may have developed in a dramatically different way due to the impact of neglect, trauma and loss. Talk about the fact that forming new secure relationships takes time and how important their role is in this process.
  • Help parents to practice observation skills. We human beings so naturally take in information and draw conclusions without even realizing we are doing it. Unfortunately, we aren’t always right. Parents who are living in highly stressful situations may have trouble stepping back and paying attention to what is happening in the moment. Help them to slow down and notice their child’s body language, facial expressions and tone of voice before making assumptions about what the behavior means or how to stop it. With foster and adoptive children, parents often say they don’t know what is going on inside the child; this is often the most important place to help them learn. It is essential that they obtain a developmentally accurate view of the child’s inner experience, feelings and thoughts in the context of the child’s earlier experience and relationship patterns.
  • Invite parents to pay attention to their own experience. How does mom feel when the child is screaming that he hates her? What is dad’s experience when his request to come for supper is repeatedly ignored? As parents become better at observing their child, it is important that they also attend to themselves. What are they feeling in these moments, and what is their body language and tone of voice communicating to the child? Help them to consider their own needs and to find ways to regulate their own strong emotions that are activated when the child is pushing them away.
  • Encourage parents to think about what the child is feeling in these difficult moments. So often, the focus of parents is on how to manage the child’s behavior. Traditional strategies that use rewards and punishment are rarely successful with children who have experienced neglect, trauma and loss. Although the child’s behavior doesn’t make sense at first glance, there is often much to be learned if we slow down and pay close attention.

Have the parents set aside quick assumptions and, instead, help them to observe carefully, giving consideration to what the child might be feeling. The child might look and sound angry at first glance, but might he or she instead be feeling scared or sad? The child already has emotional and behavioral sequences established that, once activated, run automatically. These unintentional and automatic patterns need to be shaped into healthier ones.

  • Ask parents to think about what the child needs from them. Does the child need to feel heard and validated? Does the child need comfort, protection and co-regulation of automatic well-learned patterns? Does the child need the parent to stay close by and help him calm down because he feels out of control? If the child is anxious, might she need the parent to provide soothing rather than correction?
  • Encourage parents to try new strategies aimed at fostering connection. Instead of putting the child in timeout, try bringing him in close for a cuddle and some conversation. Instead of sending the child to her bedroom to calm down, try going with her and staying close by. Remind parents that new approaches may not work right away, but with persistence and practice, they can begin to make a significant difference.
  • Facilitate parents’ exploration of their own attachment histories and how this influences interaction with the child. We know from research that a foster child’s initial relationship patterns are often a mismatch for a parent’s natural caregiving patterns. We also recognize that parental patterns of attachment have a strong influence on the child’s patterns. Increased reflection on these experiences can help us become better caregivers.

Invite parents to think about how their own experiences with caregivers have influenced the way that they react and respond to their child. What expectations do they hold? What automatic reactions are happening outside of their awareness? What automatic reactions happen outside of the child’s awareness?

  • Celebrate small (and large) victories. The little moments are the big moments. Provide plenty of affirmation and support for parents as they try new approaches and persevere in the day-to-day tasks of parenting. Acknowledging their efforts and celebrating successes, however small, can go a long way toward giving them the courage to continue through the hard times.

Working with these families can be immensely rewarding. They are often highly motivated and desperate for support. As counselors, we need to be aware of our impulse to provide a “quick fix” to try and make things better. We can make concrete suggestions, but we also need to recognize that the process of building stronger relationships and changing behavior takes time.

The type of relationship that we build with the child’s parents can itself be a catalyst for change. We can provide a place where the parents feel safe expressing their distress and their shortcomings, knowing that we will support them in their efforts to help guide their child on the path to healing.

A different path

As I continued working with the family mentioned at the beginning of this article, I could see the changes taking place. They began having more positive interactions with their child and seeing new qualities in him that they hadn’t noticed before; they were thinking about him in a different way. Their own self-reflection helped them to catch themselves before they reacted and think more about what he needed from each of them.

“I noticed that the collar of his shirt was often wet from him chewing on it. I stopped reprimanding him for this and realized that it meant he was feeling really anxious,” the mother told me one day.

“Yeah, and this was a sign that we needed to pick him up and give him some reassurance,” the father quickly added. “It really seems to calm him down.”

The mother continued: “I think that before when he was anxious, his behavior would spiral out of control. And the behavior chart was part of what contributed to his anxiety, which just made things worse instead of better. I don’t think we need it anymore.” As she spoke, she glanced at dad and noted his nodding head.

“They still use one at school,” she said, “but we’ve been talking to his new teacher about how to connect with him and what helps relieve his anxiety. Also, I stuck a picture in his book bag of the three of us together so he can get it out and look at it when he is at school. I think it helps him feel more secure. It’s a way for him to carry us with him.”

As I listened to them share these stories, I couldn’t help but smile. They still had a long road ahead of them, but they were headed down a very different path than the one they were on originally. We celebrated each of these moments together and reflected further on their experiences with their child.

I continued to come alongside them to support them in this journey for a little while longer, serving as a secure base and safe haven for them. Soon, however, they decided that they no longer needed counseling. Through a lens of attachment, they saw that their relationship with their son was much stronger, and although his behavior was still challenging at times, they possessed the confidence that they could handle it, moving forward together as a family. Once again, the experience of a healthy attachment proved itself to be a powerful force, propelling another family toward greater health and healing.

 

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Somer George is an adjunct professor at James Madison University and is currently completing her doctorate in counseling and supervision. She also works for the Virginia Child and Family Attachment Center and the Secure Child In-Home Program, where she helps to provide comprehensive attachment assessments, intensive in-home therapy and research-based parent courses. Contact her at somer@george.net.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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

 

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Related reading, from Counseling Today:

Fostering a brighter future

Through the child welfare kaleidoscope

 

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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 lingering influence of attachment

By Laurie Meyers June 25, 2018

A few years ago, American Counseling Association member Lisa Bennett took a trip to Southeast Asia. While there, she thought it would be fun to visit an elephant sanctuary where sick and injured animals had been sent to heal. What she saw fascinated her. The elephants engaged in attachment behavior.

Among herds, young elephants are raised not just by their mothers but by an older female who has already had babies and “retired,” moving on to another tribe. These older females return to their original herd, however, to serve as nannies to the young elephants. Bennett noticed that the nanny elephants seemed to be teaching the mother elephants how to connect with their calves.

“Nannies will literally push the mother toward the calf when the calf is in need and will model to the mother the actions to take to secure the calf’s safety and security,” Bennett says. The calves still viewed the mothers as their primary attachment figures but also displayed an attachment to the nanny elephants.

Of course, as a professor and director of clinical mental health counseling at Gonzaga University in Washington state, Bennett knows that attachment theory has even bigger ramifications for counselors and the clients they serve. All humans are born with the need for engagement with and responsiveness from other humans, says Bennett, who studies and gives presentations on attachment theory. People need to be touched, to be stimulated, to feel safe and to believe that someone — usually their primary caregiver or caregivers — will provide things for them. In other words, people need to be “attached.” If children don’t feel as if they have reliable attachment figures — a source for stability and safety — they are more likely to experience anxiety and have difficulties trusting others and forming relationships, Bennett says.

Bennett recently took a group of students from various programs, including clinical mental health, marriage and family therapy, and school counseling, to a wildlife park containing elephants. She wanted them to observe attachment in action in the animal kingdom and apply what they saw to human behavior.

Interestingly, Bennett’s group also observed that elephants can transfer their attachments to humans. In the park, there was no way for retired females to return to their old herds. As a result, there were no elephant nanny figures. However, whenever the human trainer appeared, the calves responded to him as if he were a nanny. Bennett believes that because human attachment is analogous to that of other animals, the elephants’ consistent attachment to a nanny figure showed that secondary attachment figures play an essential role in well-being.

Attachment theory is derived from the combined work of John Bowlby, a British child psychologist and psychiatrist, and Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian psychologist. The theory posits that infants have an instinctual survival-based need to form an emotional bond with a primary caregiver. This attachment provides a sense of safety and security. If children receive consistent attention and support from a caregiver, they are more likely to develop a “secure” attachment style. Children who do not receive consistent attention and support develop insecure — avoidant or anxious — attachment styles. Attachment style affects a person’s sense of self and shapes his or her ability to regulate emotions and form relationships.

Bennett notes that neurological research shows that humans are wired to make attachments, but these connections need to be reinforced, optimally between birth and age 2. However, children can become attached at an older age if they receive the right care and connection, she says. In addition, if a primary caregiver does not cultivate attachment in a child, another caregiver can provide that crucial link by responding to the child’s emotional and physical needs with “connection and delight,” Bennett says.

As children develop, they form a working model of the world and themselves, Bennett says. Children who have secure attachments tend to believe that they are lovable and likable and that other people are safe and kind and will meet their needs, she explains. Children whose needs are not being met generally develop one of two beliefs about themselves and the world. Those who have formed an avoidant style of attachment often believe that they are OK but that the world and the people in it are bad. Children who have developed an anxious style of attachment usually think that other people are generally benign but that they themselves are bad or unlovable, Bennett explains.

ACA member Joel Lane previously worked with children, adolescents and young adults and now supervises counseling trainees who work with this same population. He says that attachment issues often play a significant role in clients’ presenting concerns, either as the primary difficulty or as a complicating factor. With children and adolescents, much of Lane’s work consisted of helping these clients and their parents or caregivers understand one another’s needs better.

Attachment styles — and the interpersonal behaviors they engender — can form a lifelong emotional template. People with secure attachments know they can depend on those to whom they are attached to be available for support and vice versa, says Christina Schnyders, an assistant professor of counseling and human development at Malone University in Ohio and a frequent researcher and presenter on attachment issues. In contrast, anxious attachment creates fear that an attachment figure will not be dependable, she explains. In response to this fear, people with the anxious attachment style can become co-dependent and may also become frustrated or angry because their relational needs are not being met. People with avoidant attachment create distance from others to prevent having to depend on anyone or having anyone depend on them.

Each of these attachment behaviors affects how people function in crucial life areas such as family, peer and romantic relationships, Schnyders says. Attachment style can even influence a person’s career choice and interactions in the workplace.

Leaving the nest

Lane, an assistant professor in the counselor educator department and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at Portland State University, studies attachment, particularly as it relates to the population known as “emerging adults” (those in their late teens to late 20s). Emerging adulthood is a time of tremendous interpersonal transition that usually involves an individual leaving the parental household, forming new friendship groups and getting more attachment needs met by peers — and particularly by romantic partners — rather than by family members or caregivers, he says.

Transferring attachment needs from parents or caregivers to peers is a process that typically begins in a person’s teens, says Schnyders, an ACA member and part-time college counselor at Malone. Parental attachment doesn’t become any less vital at this time; it’s just that peers are placed higher on the attachment hierarchy, she explains. In fact, having a secure attachment to parents or caregivers is critical to adolescents’ ability to make connections with their peers, says Schnyders, a licensed professional clinical counselor formerly in private practice.

“Attachment beliefs inform our sense of self and others, particularly during times of distress,” Lane says. For example, in stressful situations, people with attachment insecurity may believe they are incapable of dealing with the problem, he says. Stress may push those with anxious attachment to rely solely on other people rather than deploying their own problem-solving skills, whereas people with avoidant attachment may believe they cannot count on others to provide emotional support, causing them to withdraw from the support system and creating greater isolation, Lane explains.

In contrast, emerging adults who have formed secure attachments to peers and parents are more resilient and better able to handle changes, both good and bad, Schnyders says.

“Put simply,” Lane says, “attachment plays a major role in understanding our emotional needs and getting those needs met. And in emerging adulthood, it can be especially important since our emotional needs evolve, as do the groups of people whom we hope or expect to meet those needs.”

The question becomes, how can counselors help “fix” an attachment style that may be having a negative impact on multiple aspects of a client’s life?

Lane doesn’t believe it’s a matter of changing clients’ attachment styles. Rather, he says, counselors can help clients better understand and anticipate their attachment needs, which can lead to increased attachment security over time.

“I believe that the counseling relationship provides clients with corrective attachment experiences,” he says. “When we feel heard, seen and understood, insecure attachment beliefs are challenged, and secure attachment beliefs are reinforced. Over time, this can have a powerful impact on how we view ourselves and how we view others. We can also help our clients learn to better understand their attachment needs and communicate those needs to others.”

Schnyders uses psychoeducation to teach clients the differences between secure and insecure attachment. She then uses cognitive behavior therapy to help clients understand how their insecure attachment has created core, irrational beliefs. Schnyders and the client then work together to reframe and restructure these beliefs. This allows clients to acknowledge and address the insecurities and fears that drive their behavior, better enabling them to modify their personal interactions.

Schnyders says that narrative therapy can also be useful, particularly with emerging adults. She guides clients as they create a narrative riddled with problems connected to their attachment style. Once that narrative is constructed, Schnyders and the client work to create an alternative storyline that focuses on elements of secure attachment and talk about how to work toward that story.

Attachment and romantic relationships

“Attachment drives the way we experience ourselves and our significant others,” Bennett says. “It provides a lens for how we see and interpret them.”

There is no consensus on whether attachment styles influence the selection of people’s romantic partners, says Bennett, who works with couples in her private practice. At the same time, she can’t help but noticing the number of anxious and avoidant pairings in her office.

“Put simply, one keeps pushing or nagging at the other to be present, and the other is a great escape artist,” Bennett says. “Both [are] driven by their styles and both [are] really chasing the other off, even though that is not what either one wants.” The doubts and fears that drive such behavior are barriers to real intimacy, she adds.

To help couples identify and break the patterns that are sowing discord, Bennett teaches them about attachment theory and how their individual styles can affect the relationship. She then helps couples develop secure attachment behavior by teaching them how to be more available, accessible and responsive to each other.

Bennett says she often finds that couples don’t know what a nonsexual warm connection looks like, so she teaches them how to greet, touch and talk in nonsexualized ways that express love and care. Vulnerability is also a big issue. Couples need to be willing to be vulnerable with their partners and, conversely, to react gently, she says.

Bennett also frequently works with couples on how to change their “demands” to “requests” and how to respond to each other’s requests with warmth. In addition, relationship partners often need to learn how to apologize to each other, how to talk about their fears and anxieties with each other, how to listen to each other and how to turn to each other for support, Bennett says. Finally, she advises couples to get in the habit of immediately repairing any relationship “ruptures” rather than allowing them to fester and build.

People with attachment issues often have difficulty expressing themselves, which can lead to frustration and misunderstanding. Partly for that reason, Schnyders does a good deal of assertiveness training with couples to improve their communication. Learning to be assertive allows clients to communicate their needs without discounting the feelings of their partners.

When teaching assertive communication, Schnyders instructs clients to use “I” statements such as I want this. I believe this. I need this. In the process, she strives to change the way clients see themselves.

Schnyders tells the story of a 60-something female client with a pattern of insecure attachment. Schnyders had been focusing on self-esteem with the client, encouraging her to believe that she was a person of value and worth. The client was also having problems communicating with her husband, who had a habit of speaking at her rather than to her and treating her dismissively.

One day, the client came in and told Schnyders about a breakthrough. A recent encounter with her husband had devolved, as it usually did, to him speaking disrespectfully to her. All of the sudden, the woman found herself exclaiming to her husband, “You can’t speak to me like that. I am a person with value and worth!”

Her declaration stopped the husband in his tracks and, soon thereafter, their relationship dynamic began to change. With the client standing up for herself and beginning to believe that she was worthy of respect, Schnyders asked her to consider what she needed from her husband. The woman said she wanted to be able to hear and understand his needs without diminishing her own. Schnyders and the client then talked about how she and her husband could work together rather than following their previous pattern, which involved the woman placating him rather than standing up for herself.

Sometimes, just slowing down an interaction can improve communication. In couples and family therapy, rather than letting clients have rapid back-and-forth exchanges, Schnyders will slow the conversation and have participants tell their partners or family members what they need from them. Schnyders will then ask the partners or family members to repeat what they have heard because sometimes conflict arises from an inability to listen to what someone else is saying.

Attaching to a career

Like all areas of life that involve interacting with others, work can sometimes be tricky for those with insecure attachments. As Schnyders explains, if a person doesn’t trust their co-workers and can’t communicate and interact with them effectively, that person’s performance is going to be hampered, perhaps even putting them at risk of losing their job.

But attachment style can also play a role in the job search itself, says Stephen Wright, a professor of applied psychology and counselor education at the University of Northern Colorado. Wright, an ACA member, studies how attachment style affects career choice and decision-making in college students.

When it comes to considering careers, people who are securely attached have an advantage because they are less likely to perceive career barriers, according to Wright. In other words, they have more confidence in their innate strengths and their ability to cope with challenges. Those with secure attachment also are more likely to have a stable support system of people who bolster their confidence and may even have contacts that will assist in the career search, Schnyders says.

In contrast, those with insecure attachment are more likely to perceive many reasons that they will not succeed in a particular career field or in the career search itself, Wright says. These individuals are also less likely to have a support system in place.

That’s one area where professional counselors can come in. Counselors not only serve as a secure base for clients but can also boost their feelings of self-efficacy in various areas, which can diminish the effects of insecure attachment, Wright says.

By providing a strong sense of support, counselors may help insecurely attached clients perceive fewer barriers. Setting and completing specific goals — even small ones, such as researching a new profession — can help strengthen these clients’ sense of accomplishment and confidence, Wright says. If clients have shown interest in a particular career area, helping them learn more about it and explore the various jobs available in the profession can increase their sense of self-efficacy in that area, he says. If clients lack the required skills for a specific job, counselors can assist them in developing a plan to acquire those skills rather than let them perceive their current situation as an insurmountable barrier, Wright says. He also suggests that counselors use career models to assist these clients with decision-making and identifying their job-related strengths and weaknesses.

Recovering from child sexual abuse

Research indicates that people with secure attachment style find it easier to recover from child sexual abuse, says Kristina Nelson, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi who studies and works with survivors of child sexual abuse. Having secure attachment provides these individuals with a safe base from which to explore and process their experiences, leaving them better able to regulate their emotions, she says. The feeling of security from healthy attachment serves as a form of support in and of itself, adds Nelson, who was previously a private practitioner in Florida.

Survivors with insecure attachment styles have typically received inconsistent or limited support throughout their lives, and this leaves them feeling unsure of whom to trust, Nelson says. In addition, they often don’t know how to regulate their emotions or how to begin the process of recovery.

Counselors can offer the support that those with insecure attachment styles have lacked throughout their lives, Nelson says. “Counselors can actually serve as a secure base for a client. [They can] be that consistent presence by providing that constant positive regard, allowing them to explore and make sense of their experiences.”

Counselors can also help these clients learn how to regulate their emotions. Nelson often recommends deep breathing techniques to her clients and adds that some people find meditation helpful. She cautions, however, that because meditation involves closing one’s eyes in a dark room, it may be a trigger for sexual abuse survivors, so counselors should proceed carefully.

Psychoeducation about attachment styles can also help clients gain awareness about why they react the way they do and how they developed their coping mechanisms, Nelson says.

Permanently attached?

So, is everyone stuck with their childhood attachment styles for life? Not necessarily, say Bennett and Lane. Although attachment style is usually pretty stable, there are cases in which it can change.

“The idea here is that we have core perspectives that tend to drive core styles,” Bennett says. “I’d venture that friendships and workplace relationships can have an impact, but our primary home styles are more likely to set the tone.”

“If impacted by social and work settings, we can repair by going home, by changing up friendships, by moving jobs,” she continues. “If stuck in an unhealthy work environment or social setting without recourse or the capacity to go home and mend, it makes sense that we’d alter to a less secure base, sadly.”

This is also true in relationships, Bennett says. For example, if a spouse repeatedly behaves in ways that erode the person’s trust in the spouse or in themselves, then that person’s attachment style can warp into a less secure one, she says.

Lane says there is some evidence that insecure attachments can become more secure throughout adulthood. He believes this may happen as people shift their attachment needs to people of their own choosing rather than the families they were born into or the caretakers they were placed with.

“I think that important interpersonal experiences influence and are influenced by one another,” he says. “When we regularly experience our needs being met as infants, we are more likely to be able to form healthy interpersonal relationships throughout life. However, adverse life and interpersonal experiences can still disrupt our attachment system, especially after multiple significant adverse experiences. The reverse also seems to be true — insecure attachments in childhood decrease the likelihood of healthy attachment relationships later in life. However, when those healthy relationships occur, they can influence our attachment orientations toward being more secure.”

 

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Related reading

To learn more about issues related to attachment, read the following articles previously published in Counseling Today and available on the CT Online website at ct.counseling.org:

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

Remembering Minuchin and the democratization of therapy

By Charles F. Shepard February 25, 2018

Just after lunch on a Friday afternoon in late March 2017, Salvador Minuchin gently raised his hand to address the hundreds assembled to learn from him at the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C. If any of the attendees were drowsy from their meal or the demands of the week, they did not stay that way for long. Once the crowd quieted, the then-95-year-old giant of family therapy, his body and voice diminished by age, announced that this would be his last public appearance.

This was the first memory to hit me, nearly eight months later, when I saw Minuchin on the cover of The Washington Post on the first Sunday in November. Sadness and gratitude quickly followed when I learned that he had died, at age 96, on Oct. 30.

Minuchin’s face, voice and genius are familiar to many of us who have been trained to apply family systems theory to the practice of professional counseling. Many of us were introduced to what has become known as structural family therapy during our graduate training programs. Countless instructors have shown archived videos of Minuchin seeing, naming and changing the maladaptive patterns of families seeking his expertise at the renowned Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic (CGC).

Salvador Minuchin (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Certainly, this is the contribution to the field for which Minuchin is best known, and it is my preferred mode of practice and teaching. However, it was Minuchin’s democratization of psychotherapy that I have found most inspiring.

Having earned his M.D. from the University of Cordoba in his native Argentina in 1947, Minuchin immigrated to the United States to be trained in child psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Minuchin was also Jewish, and his post-doctoral training was sandwiched around a stint serving in the Israeli army to support the fledgling state. By the mid-1950s, Minuchin had begun to work as a child psychiatrist at the Wiltwyck School for Boys along the Hudson River between New York City and Albany. The school was a treatment center for underprivileged boys, many of whom had been involved with the juvenile court system, between the ages of 8 and 12. It was at Wiltwyck that Minuchin first conceived of inviting a child’s family into the consulting room as a valuable contribution to the treatment process.

At the time, this move was revolutionary. Psychotherapeutic services were available almost exclusively to elite members of society and usually focused on individuals. Minuchin himself noted in “My Many Voices” — his contribution to the 1987 anthology The Evolution of Psychotherapy — that “parents were considered, frankly, destructive to the children. If they were seen at all, they were seen individually in the ‘main office.’”

Minuchin changed this system at Wiltwyck so that not only were children seen with their parents in the same room, but Minuchin and his colleagues observed each other providing and developing a style of family therapy through one-way mirrors. This innovation led Minuchin to develop a theory of family structure, his psychoanalytic training shining as he interpreted relational moves between family members and family subsets. Once he had developed his theory, he began to collaborate with other like-minded practitioners, namely Jay Haley, who joined Minuchin in Philadelphia at the CGC in the mid-1960s.

It was here that structural family therapy proliferated. Having accepted a position as director of the CGC in 1965, Minuchin published his first book, Families of the Slums, in 1967. A dozen books, some written with various co-authors, followed, including classics such as Families and Family Therapy (1974), Family Therapy Techniques (1981), and Working With Families of the Poor (second edition, 2007). At the CGC, Minuchin and his staff emphasized working with underprivileged families of the city — to the point that they were teaching laypeople to provide structural family therapy-influenced care to their neighbors in the nearby ghettos and barrios.

Clinicians from all over the world flocked to Philadelphia to learn from Minuchin and Haley. Among these trainees were Steve Greenstein and Dave Waters. By the late 1990s, Greenstein had moved on from the CGC and landed in Charlottesville, Virginia. In this small town, home to the University of Virginia (UVA) and set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Greenstein furthered Minuchin’s democratic vision by taking structural family therapy outside the clinic walls and into the homes of families in crisis.

Greenstein founded the League of Therapists, a private agency that primarily provided intensive in-home counseling, a Medicaid-funded service aimed at helping prevent out-of-home placement for at-risk children. Clinicians were trained to help families from a variety of different circumstances. They helped reunite children in foster care with their birth families, prevent acute hospitalization and residential treatment, and prevent juvenile detention by working with the entire family system to see, name and change maladaptive relational patterns. Waters, who was a professor in the UVA medical school when Greenstein started his project, joined as a fellow supervisor.

Clinicians, who often were residents in counseling, marriage and family therapy or clinical psychology, videotaped their sessions and reviewed their work with Greenstein and Waters on a weekly basis. At its height, the League of Therapists had 12 offices across Virginia and as many as 300 providers. Thousands of families were served until the group closed its doors in 2011. Greenstein died three years later.

Nevertheless, the work continues. Several of the counselors who worked for Greenstein continue to provide home-based family therapy in Virginia. Waters continues to supervise and teach them through video review on a regular basis.

It bears mentioning that Minuchin was not without his critics. His obituary in The Washington Post noted that Minuchin came to the forefront of public discourse as the feminist movement was gaining strength. Activists from that end of civic discourse often found him “too willing to accept and reinforce traditional gender roles and stereotypical family units.” Furthermore, many of his colleagues found his methods, which at times could range from biting humor to blatant mockery, too confrontational.

This side of Minuchin is familiar to anyone who has viewed any of his archived video footage. It came through in the video he reviewed with the March symposium attendees. During the session, he referred to the father of the client family as a “brute” and made it bluntly explicit that he, Minuchin, was the expert in the room.

The tape was from the 1980s, when Minuchin was in his 60s and approaching the end of his career. On that Friday afternoon at the symposium, he was asked to comment on his perception of himself as he watched more than three decades later. He replied that he was embarrassed. “If I had it to do over again,” he said, “I would do it differently. I would do it more gently.” And so, the next generation may be inspired to take the core principles and techniques Minuchin developed but apply them with rounder edges.

The continued development and dissemination of structural family therapy has been centralized at the Minuchin Center for the Family, located just outside Philadelphia in Woodbury, New Jersey. However, clinicians who have been influenced personally and professionally by Minuchin are all over the world. A few of us were in the room with Minuchin this past March, and the moment was not lost on us. Minuchin was not only a great developer of the theory and practice of family therapy, but also one of the great advocates for giving the underserved access to a systemic approach to counseling. May we all carry his legacy forward in our respective communities.

 

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Charles F. Shepard is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor in private practice and a student in the doctoral counseling and supervision program at James Madison University. He learned structural family therapy in the style of Salvador Minuchin from Steve Greenstein, David Waters and Gretchen Wilhelm. Contact Shepard at cshepard.lpc@gmail.com.

 

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