Tag Archives: & Family

Bringing the family counseling perspective into schools

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

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

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

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

A sample case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk points

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

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

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

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

Supervision around work with families 

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

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

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

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

Symbolic-experiential family therapy 

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

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

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

Therapy progresses through stages:

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

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

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

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

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

Structural family therapy

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

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

The structural model also features several stages:

1) Joining and accommodating

2) Assessing family interactions

3) Monitoring dysfunction

4) Restructuring patterns

Summary and considerations

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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

 

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

Helping children and families address and prevent sibling abuse

By Diane M. Stutey February 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consequences and complications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assess for sibling abuse

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

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

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

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

Conceptualize with clients

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

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

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

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

Plan for safety

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

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

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

Choose interventions

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

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

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

Evaluate if the plan is working

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

Fostering a brighter future

By Bethany Bray February 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ground rules for practitioners

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

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

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

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

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

Counselors as translators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding effectively

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I: Respond immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for helping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it’s time to let go

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

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

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

 

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Related reading

See Brian J. Stevenson’s article “Developing a Career Counseling Intervention Program for Foster Youth“ in the upcoming issue (June 2017) of the Journal of Employment Counseling.

Please note: Current National Employment Counseling Association (NECA) members have full online access to the journal through the Wiley Online Library by logging in using their NECA username and password. Non-NECA members will be able to review current contents and abstracts, and may pay a nominal fee for full article access.

 

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Foster care: By the numbers

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

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

2015: 427,910

2014: 414,429

2013: 401,213

2012: 397,301

2011: 397,605

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

Neglect: 61 percent

Drug abuse of a parent: 32 percent

Caretaker’s inability to cope: 14 percent

Physical abuse: 13 percent

Child behavior problem: 11 percent

Inadequate housing: 10 percent

Parent incarceration: 8 percent

Alcohol abuse of a parent: 6 percent

Abandonment: 5 percent

Sexual abuse: 4 percent

Drug abuse of the child: 2 percent

Child disability: 2 percent

Reasons for discharge from the foster system (2015)

Reunification with parent or primary caretaker: 51 percent

Adoption: 22 percent

Emancipation (aged out): 9 percent

Guardianship: 9 percent

Living with other relative(s): 6 percent

Transfer to another agency: 2 percent

 

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

 

 

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To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:

 

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

Adopting across racial lines

By Laurie Meyers December 5, 2016

For decades, white Americans have adopted children of color here in the United States and from other countries such as South Korea, Guatemala, China and Ethiopia. In many cases, these children are raised in white families with no awareness of the culture they came from. This was particularly true in the past, says licensed professional counselor Susan Branco Alvarado, who specializes in counseling clients who were adopted, adoptive families and birth families.

“It used to be that back in the day, they [transracial adopted children] would just assimilate, but we’ve come to a point where we know that backfires,” says Alvarado, an American Counseling Association member who is a clinical assistant professor and division director of the Loyola zdw5vvbt7ey-kazuendClinical Centers at Loyola University Maryland.

Even so, many families today are still unprepared for the challenges that transracial adoption can pose, Alvarado says. For that reason, counselors can serve as a vital source of information and support, she adds.

“In part due to poor pre-adoption preparation, there is an overall lack of awareness of the importance of racial and ethnic identity development in the transracial adoptive family life cycle,” Alvarado explains. “Professional counselors can assist by emphasizing the real burden this places on the child — not to guilt or shame parents, but rather to encourage their empathy and understanding of what their child may experience.”

If white parents fail to acknowledge their adopted child’s race, they are leaving the child unprepared for a world in which he or she will be perceived as a person of color, Alvarado says. Children in transracial adoptions may face teasing or bullying not only because they might be different from their peers, but also because they do not look like their parents look, she adds. And even if these children have schoolmates of color, they still may find themselves feeling like outsiders because their primary exposure has been to white culture, Alvarado explains.

Experts encourage white parents with children of color to do their best to expose children to their birth culture or race instead of focusing so much on assimilating them to the parents’ culture. “More parents are [now] doing things like culture camps, birth country visits, taking Chinese lessons or going to an African American person to cut the child’s hair,” Alvarado says.

Alvarado acknowledges the value of these efforts, but she adds that research shows it is even more beneficial when the whole family is immersed in the adopted child’s birth culture. For example, instead of living in a predominantly white neighborhood, it is helpful for these families to move to a more diverse location to live among people of color.

Counselors obviously shouldn’t tell a family where to live, Alvarado says, but they can provide the family with support and information. For instance, Alvarado recommends that counselors help parents look for community organizations that support people who are part of the child’s birth culture or racial group. For help with this and other aspects of transracial adoption, she recommends Pact (pactadopt.org), a nonprofit adoption organization whose mission is to serve adopted children of color. Pact not only places children of color but also provides support and resources for adoptees of color and their families. Parents can also find local transracial adoption organizations or connect with support groups online.

Counselors should also understand that even though white parents have adopted children of color, they still may hold racial biases of which they are unaware, Alvarado says. “Ask parents to look at their own biases,” she urges. “Ask them, ‘What were you told growing up? How are you demonstrating implicit bias and not being aware of it?’”

If children sense a bias in their parents, Alvarado says, it may make them reluctant to approach their parents with questions about their backgrounds or let them know when they are experiencing problems at school due to being “different.”

Even parents who have exposed a child to his or her birth culture and are living in a diverse neighborhood should be aware that the child will be curious about his or her history. This can cause feelings of exclusion or loss because the adoptive parents can never be part of that culture group. They can learn about it, but they will never “belong” to it, cautions Alvarado.

“Counselors can take a preventative role with families with younger children in preparation for adolescence by normalizing and validating the developmental aspect of searching and seeking out one’s history,” she says. “One way to highlight the significance of learning about one’s ancestral identity is to spotlight the boom in the DNA testing and genealogy markets in our country and around the world. Counselors can offer adoptive families research that provides the rationale for supporting adopted persons’ need to explore their histories. Finally, counselors can offer a respectful and accepting presence to validate potential feelings of loss, rejection, fear and worry that adoptive parents may experience in response to their child’s search journey.”

Counselors who work with transracial — or any — adoptive family should also examine their own biases, Alvarado emphasizes.

“It is important to note that counselors need to first examine their own bias and presumptions about adoptive persons before engaging in this work with families and individuals,” she says. “While much progress has been made in destigmatizing adoption in this country, many persons hold long-standing beliefs and misunderstandings regarding search and reunion.”

 

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Contact Susan Branco Alvarado at sfbranco@loyola.edu

 

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Related reading: See Counseling Today’s December cover story, “Investigating identity” wp.me/p2BxKN-4wI

Also from Counseling Today: “Counseling transracial adult adopted persons” wp.me/p2BxKN-3CE

 

 

Additional resources:

The Donaldson Adoption Institute – Adoption Leadership

The Adoption History Project

Rudd Adoption Research Program | UMass Amherst

 

 

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Laurie Meyers is senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at LMeyers@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.

 

 

Investigating identity

By Laurie Meyers November 21, 2016

“W hat are you?”

That is a question commonly asked of individuals who are multiracial. As a society, we have gotten used to checking off a metaphorical — and often literal — “box” when it comes to questions of race. We seem to expect everyone to “just pick one.”

But the population of the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, not just in terms of our nation’s racial makeup, but also in the growing number of people who identify themselves as belonging to two, three or more racial groups.

The U.S. Census Bureau first started letting respondents choose more than one racial category to describe themselves in its 2000 survey. Since then, the multiracial population (defined as individuals who have at least two different races in their backgrounds) has grown rapidly. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of white and black Americans who identified as biracial more than doubled, and the population of Americans who identified as being of both Asian and Caucasian descent grew by 87 percent. In addition, according to information compiled from the family2010 census and the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, the percentage of infants born to parents of two or more different races increased from 1 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2013. And, of course, in 2008, in a historic event that in part reflects the nation’s growing multiracial population, Americans elected a biracial president, Barack Obama, the son of a black Kenyan farther and a white mother.

The Census Bureau estimates that 2.1 percent of the U.S. population is multiracial. However, in 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey and issued a report, “Multiracial in America,” estimating that 6.9 percent of the U.S. population is multiracial. The Pew study arrived at this figure by taking into account not only how individuals describe their own racial backgrounds, but also the backgrounds of their parents and grandparents, which the U.S census does not do.

The Pew survey also found that many people with mixed racial backgrounds do not identify themselves as “multiracial.” In fact, 61 percent of such respondents identify themselves as belonging to only one race. However, the survey also discovered that individuals’ racial self-identification can change over the years. Some choose to identify with a different part of their racial background later in life or decide to begin identifying as multiracial rather than monoracial (and vice versa).

Counselors who study multiracial issues and in some cases are multiracial themselves say that this finding of shifting racial identity is indicative of one of the core issues of being from multiple races — identity and belonging.

On the outside looking in

“When I was young, I didn’t know I was different,” says licensed professional clinical counselor Leah Brew, who is half white and half Japanese. “Then we moved, and I was made fun of [at her new school] because they said I was Chinese.”

Brew didn’t know what being Chinese meant, but based on the teasing she was subjected to, she assumed it was something horrible. “So I asked my mom if I was Chinese, and she said, ‘No, you’re Japanese,’” Brew recounts. She was relieved but soon found that when she corrected her tormentors, it made no difference. Although Brew was also white, it was her Japanese appearance that mattered to her classmates.

As she grew older, Brew, a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton, became interested in exploring the Japanese side of her heritage and even traveled to Japan. Although she loved experiencing the culture and the people, she didn’t feel quite at home there either. For one thing, she says, she inherited her white father’s height and towered over everyone on the street. “I thought, ‘No, that’s not it’” — where she “belonged,” Brew says.

“When I moved to California, I thought this was it” because the state has many residents from various racial backgrounds, Brew says. “But the other biracial people I encountered were very dissimilar to me and got their identities from other things, like religion.”

Today, Brew, a member of the American Counseling Association, sees a significant number of multiracial and multicultural clients in her practice. She also helped write the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, a set of professional counseling practices developed by ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network to competently and effectively attend to the diverse needs of the multiple heritage population. When it comes to her own identity and culture, Brew says she at times sees herself as mostly white and at other times mostly Japanese. She acknowledges that she is always moving back and forth between the two.

C. Peeper MacDonald, a practitioner and counselor educator whose research focuses on multiracial issues, is both white and Native American. Most people assume she’s white, however, which makes MacDonald feel that they are missing or ignoring a large part of who she is.

“I often use the opportunity [the assumption of her monoracial whiteness] to correct people and educate them about my identity,” MacDonald says. “I do, however, often get the sense that people feel that I am reaching. For example, I often hear, ‘Oh, well, everyone in the United States has Native American in them.’”

MacDonald, who teaches undergraduate psychology classes part time at Georgia Gwinnett College and is also counseling and supervising part time at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design, often feels compelled to “prove” her ethnicity, she says. For instance, she will share her Cherokee name with people, which seems to satisfy them.

It was actually MacDonald’s interest in her family’s Native American heritage that led to her maternal grandfather reclaiming his history. For most of his life, MacDonald explains, her grandfather experienced severe racism because he was a Native American, so he often identified himself as Hispanic instead. MacDonald’s mother was raised by her white mother and a white stepfather and, as a result, has never really considered herself Native American, even though MacDonald says her mother does not look white. It wasn’t until MacDonald started asking as a child about the Native American side of the family that her grandfather, then in his 70s, started to embrace his heritage again.

ACA member Derrick Paladino, who is part Puerto Rican and part Italian American, grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Connecticut. When kids at school would question him about “what” he was, Paladino would simply say Italian because that seemed easier and perhaps safer.

Paladino, who also helped to develop the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, says he didn’t have a lot of contact with the Puerto Rican side of his extended family when he grew up, so he didn’t have much opportunity to explore the Latino part of his identity. When he ultimately decided to go to college at the University of Florida, Paladino says he was thrilled at the prospect of meeting other Latino students.

“I got my Latino Students Association card, and I was so excited,” Paladino recalls. “But I discovered that because I was not fluent or hadn’t had [what was considered] the full Latino experience, I didn’t fit in well.”

Paladino, a professor and coordinator in the graduate studies in counseling program at Rollins College in Florida, may no longer stand out like he did in the white Connecticut enclave in which he grew up, but like most people of color, he is still subject to many assumptions and microaggressions. For instance, Paladino, who co-wrote and co-edited the book Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families (published by ACA), has been asked by a cashier at a department store whether he was his son’s nanny. Recently, as he stood in line at an amusement park, he was asked to settle a bet between two people he didn’t know. The wager? Whether Paladino was Puerto Rican.

These counselors’ stories provide a glimpse of the myriad forces — societal, familial and personal — that shape and challenge the lives of multiracial individuals. Counselors can play an integral role in helping their clients navigate these forces.

Identity intervention

That sense of not quite belonging — or even being told that they don’t belong — often starts early for multiracial individuals.

As Brew notes, as early as elementary school, multiracial children can begin experiencing microaggressions such as that question: “What are you?” Or, as in Brew’s case, these children might become the targets of racist taunts based on their actual or perceived ethnic backgrounds. For that reason, it is important for the parents of multiracial children to talk to them about race and racism from an early age, she says.

“Parents, in general, are reluctant to do that, but when parents do engage in it, the children are more prepared to handle comments,” Brew says. “There was an interesting study out of [the University of Texas at Austin] where they asked participants to talk with their kids about racism. When it came down to the wire, most parents dropped out of the study. It was simply too hard.”

Because the topic is so difficult and sensitive, counselors can be a tremendous asset to these parents by helping them to have conversations about racism with their children and with each other, Brew says. “This conversation needs to be explicit and purposeful,” she says. “The parents may need to work on thinking in inclusive ways rather than judgmental ways — the way we teach our students to respect differences. It’s the seed that helps teach children about their own culture as well.”

“I think it’s important for parents to start with very small children talking about skin color and how it’s different, but to give no meaning to color,” Brew continues. “We all see differences, and that’s fine. It’s when meaning is applied that differences become a problem. For biracial children, talking about how mommy and daddy — or mommy and mommy, or daddy and daddy — are different is also important to note, although, again, not giving meaning to those differences.”

“If the child is likely to experience racism or any other type of prejudice based upon differences, then [it’s] letting kids know that some people don’t understand differences and believe that people are bad based on how they look or how they dress, etc.,” she says. “Then when it actually happens, kids can feel safe to talk with parents, who should validate the child’s experience and help them make sense of it.”

It isn’t unusual for multiracial children to grow up, like Paladino did, in predominantly white neighborhoods. Even if these children don’t encounter bullying or overt racism, being one of the few (or perhaps only) children of color in an overwhelmingly white environment can exacerbate their feelings of not belonging. Counselors can help these children cope, Paladino says.

“I would want to continually validate what they are feeling and experiencing, which may be ‘otherness’ or not fitting in,” he explains. “At a young age, it may be difficult for [children] to fully grasp why they are experiencing these feelings, so I really want to be there for them in this part of the journey and allow them to ventilate feelings, thoughts and experiences.”

“For the parents, if they are a part of counseling or a parent consult, I would talk to them about what their child is feeling,” Paladino continues. “[I would] help them to experience empathy toward their child, talk to them about how to create a safe space for their child to talk and ventilate about how they are feeling and what they are experiencing, and help them look up children’s books as a way to talk about feeling different.”

School counselors — indeed all school faculty members — also play a critical role in helping multiracial children cope with racism and the struggle to feel included, says Taryne Michelle Mingo, an ACA member and former school counselor whose research focuses on marginalized populations. “I would [as a school counselor] develop a trusting relationship with the children and let them know that I can be a support system,” she says. For instance, she explains, if a child is being taunted or verbally abused, it is important for the child to view the school counselor as a safe person whom he or she can trust and feel comfortable going to for help.

One of the primary tasks for school counselors, Mingo says, is to get to know their students and make sure that everyone feels included. During her time as a school counselor, Mingo, who is African American, worked at a majority white school where only a small number of students were African American. Children of color aren’t typically used to seeing themselves reflected or represented in school materials, Mingo says, so she was careful about making sure there were dolls and books in her office that included children of multiple races. “Make sure that [these children] know they are visible,” she urges. “[That as counselors you are saying], ‘We know you are here.’”

When children who were feeling excluded showed up in her office, Mingo, who is now an assistant professor in the Counseling, Leadership and Special Education Department at Missouri State University, would engage them by asking them what they thought about themselves aside from what anyone else thought about them. She would have them describe themselves and ask them to draw a self-portrait. She would then go on to ask them what they liked to do and who their friends were.

If during the course of the conversation Mingo discovered that the child was feeling harassed or hearing negative comments, she would inquire where the child was and what was happening when he or she heard such comments. Mingo then asked what the child said or would have liked to say in response to those comments. Finally, she and the child would practice responding.

Mingo would also bring in the child’s teachers to make them aware of what was happening. When possible, she also liked to bring in the child’s parents or parent so that she and the parents could work together to more effectively support the child as a team.

Family tensions

In some cases, a child’s feelings of exclusion might be emanating from within the family itself. Not necessarily within the immediate family, but more often from the extended family, which might not have approved of the multiracial relationship in the first place, Paladino says. He notes that it was only in 1967 that it became legal to marry outside of one’s own race throughout the United States. That’s when the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in the Loving v. Virginia case that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

Brew has worked with multiracial couples and families facing the disapproval of extended family. “In terms of working with extended family racism, I first provide empathy to both partners,” she says. “Then I provide psychoeducation about the damage to self-esteem on children who listen to that type of talk. The biggest challenge is that so many minority families are hierarchical, so the adult child may not feel comfortable initiating these kinds of conversations. When it’s a Caucasian family member, then the relationship can often be less hierarchical, so the biggest challenge is just getting that partner to buy in and set limits with family members.”

“I haven’t had experiences with needing to cut off family members,” Brew continues. “[I] try to avoid that unless abuse is part of the picture. So, I help the clients manage their feelings about their own family members’ disapproval and try to offer support so that they eventually have the courage to confront their families. If they choose to confront, of course we practice that many times and prepare them for the worst possible outcome so they feel more confident.”

But even when there is no racial tension in the family, a multiracial person’s parents and other monoracial family members can never truly understand what it is like to be multiracial or multiethnic, Paladino says. “Validation is huge for this population,” he says. “They need support to figure out what they are, to allow them to be angry at family, angry at friends.”

MacDonald agrees. “My father, who is white, never understood why it was important for me to identify as biracial,” she says. “He views me as white and thinks I should identify as white. In a way, my white dad has always been a symbol for me of white culture because he also holds beliefs that don’t acknowledge institutionalized oppression and a belief that because we live in America, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed — beliefs in which I do not share. Even as adults to this day, we do not speak of race, politics or privilege.”

Identity and acceptance

Ultimately, it is up to the multiracial individual to determine how he or she wants to self-identify. “A lot of clinical work is to help my clients articulate and identify what is from what culture so that they can make choices,” Brew says. “What feels right in different situations? Who am I, and what’s the right way to be?”

Counselors can play an important role by helping multiracial clients sift through all of their experiences and beliefs in the search for identity, says Mark Kenney, who helped write the multiracial counseling competencies and co-founded ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network. He advises counselors to start by validating a client’s personal experiences and creating a safe environment for self-disclosure.

In some cases, counselors may need to help clients find resources, such as social groups or books, to explore their heritage because these clients didn’t have full access to part of their heritage growing up, Kenney says. He uses Barack Obama, who was raised by his white mother and grandparents, as an example. “His white family can’t tell him about being African American, and his father is Kenyan, so he can’t impart the African American experience,” Kenney notes.

Although identity is a pressing issue for many multiracial individuals, so is the question of feeling accepted or belonging. Kenney returns to the example of President Obama. Because of his phenotype, or physical appearance, most people automatically view Obama as African

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in September 2014. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/via Flickr)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in September 2014. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/via Flickr)

American, and physical appearance is often an important factor that influences how multiracial individuals ultimately choose to identify themselves, Kenney explains. Given his lineage, Obama could have decided to identify himself as white, Kenney says, but because of the way he looks, society at large wouldn’t see or “accept” him that way, especially in our current racial climate. At the same time, Kenney continues, because Obama’s father was black but not African American (and because his mother was white), other people may not embrace Obama fully as being African American.

MacDonald says she sometimes struggles with feeling that she is a legitimate member of the multiracial community. “I am often viewed as white and, as a result, receive white privilege,” she explains. “So in many ways, I am an outsider to the multiracial community because I still receive privilege versus minority status.”

Again, counselors can help multiracial individuals reconcile these factors, but the process may not be smooth or easy. “Helping the person sort through their particular journey and come to their own decision about how they want to identify may put them in conflict with their family and their community,” Kenney notes.

With multiracial clients, Kenney likes to use solution-focused and narrative therapy. With narrative therapy in particular, clients can write a new story of their identity, he says. Kenney also stresses the importance of counselors familiarizing themselves with multiracial identity models so they are aware of all the factors involved in a person choosing an identity.

Because individuals who are multiracial might not be or feel fully accepted by any of their racial groups, counselors should help them seek out individuals who possess similar backgrounds, Kenney says. If organizations for multiracial individuals aren’t readily available in their communities, counselors might consider forming groups — perhaps using the group therapy model, but for social rather than therapeutic purposes, Kenney says.

Kenney and Paladino also recommend bibliotherapy as an effective intervention with multiracial clients who are struggling with their identity or sense of belonging. Paladino says he personally found Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural, edited by Claudine Chiawei O’Hearn, very helpful in his journey.

No assumptions

All of the counselors interviewed for this article caution against assuming that individuals who are multiracial have come to counseling because of their multiracial status. At the same time, Brew and MacDonald say it is important not to automatically assume that no connection exists between the person’s presenting problem and his or her multiracial status. After all, being multiracial does exert influence on clients’ lives, just as do other factors bound up in identity, such as being female, having a disability or identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Catherine Chang, an ACA member whose research specializes in multicultural issues, believes that society needs to change how it identifies people. Counselors can help, she says, starting with their intake forms and how they designate racial background.

“We force people to check a box,” Chang says. “I’m 100 percent Asian and married to a Caucasian man. My children have to check two separate boxes — white, Asian. They can’t check multiracial or biracial.”

Chang urges counselors to offer an option for multiracial individuals on intake forms and to also leave space for clients to fill in what they feel their background is. Paladino agrees, noting that check boxes don’t encompass multiple heritages such as being black and also being Jewish.

Finally, Chang says that it is important for counselors to examine their own heritage and how that background affects who they are and how they interact with individuals from other groups and races.

 

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Related reading: See Counseling Today‘s online article about transracial adoption, “Adopting across racial lines” wp.me/p2BxKN-4xn

 

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Additional resources

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

Competencies (counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies)

ACA Interest Networks and Divisions

Books (counseling.org/bookstore)

  • Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families, written and edited by Richard C. Henriksen Jr. and Derrick A. Paladino
  • Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latina/os by Patricia Arredondo, Maritza Gallardo-Cooper, Edward A. Delgado-Romero and Angela L. Zapata
  • Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory and Application, fourth edition, by Manivong J. Ratts and Paul B. Pedersen
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, fourth edition, edited by Courtland C. Lee
  • Understanding People in Context: The Ecological Perspective in Counseling, edited by Ellen P. Cook
  • Experiential Activities for Teaching Multicultural Competence in Counseling, edited by Mark Pope, Joseph S. Pangelinan and Angela D. Coker

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

  • “Queer People of Color” with Adrienne N. Erby and Christian D. Chan
  • “Microcounseling, Multiculturalism, Social Justice and the Brain” with Allen Ivey and Mary Bradford Ivey
  • “Multiculturalism and Diversity: What is the Difference? Is Not Counseling … Counseling? Why Does it Matter?” with Courtland C. Lee

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

  • “Why does culture matter? Isn’t counseling just counseling regardless?” with Courtland C. Lee

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

  • “The Invisible Client: Ramifications of Neglecting the Impact of Race and Culture in Professional Counseling” by Issac Burt, Valerie E.D. Russell and Michael Brooks
  • “Appreciating the Complexities of Race and Culture” by Ria Echteld Baker
  • “Counselors’ Multicultural Competencies: Race, Training, Ethnic Identity and Color-Blind Racial Attitudes” by Ruth Chao
  • “Enhancing Multicultural Empathy in the Classroom and Beyond: A Proposed Model for Training Beginner Counselors” by Jorge Garcia, Gerta Bardhoshi, Matthew Siblo, Sam Steen and Eileen Haase
  • “Ethnic Minority Clients’ Perceptions of Racism-Related Stress in Presenting Problems”
    by Ruth Chao
  • “Interracial Adoption and the Development of Cultural Identity” by Kimberly Kathryn Thompson

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

  • “Racial Microaggressions” by Cirleen DeBlaere, Terrence A. Jordan II and David G. Zelaya

 

 

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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.