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Working with foster and adoptive families through the lens of attachment

By Somer George October 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Where healing happens

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

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

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

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

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

The counselor’s role

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A different path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Related reading, from Counseling Today:

Fostering a brighter future

Through the child welfare kaleidoscope

 

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

 

The dismissal of divorce advice

By David L. Prucha August 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

 

The background for badmouth

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

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

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

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

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

 

The child healer

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Swinging pendulums

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

The social justice of adoption

By Laurel Shaler June 18, 2018

The adoption journey is not an easy one. After three years and nine months of active pursuit, my husband and I finalized our adoption on Nov. 29, 2017. Through this process, I learned a great deal that has helped me grow as a counselor educator and supervisor. For example, I learned the benefits of being a part of a support group after involvement in several different adoption support groups. Although I have always valued such groups, and facilitated many, the personal experience of being a participant deepened my appreciation of their benefits.

I was also greatly reminded of the beauty and benefit of empathy. When those who supported us during our adoption process were able to put themselves in our place to the point of weeping with us (rather than for us), it was deeply meaningful. We talk and teach empathy as counseling professionals, but when we experience the other side of it, it allows us to more richly understand this critical component of counseling.

But what I learned more than anything is the many aspects of social justice involved in adoption. Merriam-Webster defines this term as meaning “a state or doctrine of egalitarianism.” We wouldn’t accept Wikipedia as a scholarly resource on a research paper, but the way the website expands on the definition of social justice resonates with me: “a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society.”

So, what does social justice have to do with adoption? Let’s take a brief look at the social justice for the birth parent(s), the adoptive parent(s) and the adopted child(ren).

1) Justice for the birth parent(s). There are at least two categories of birth or biological parents in the adoption process — those who choose to place a child for adoption and those who have their children removed from their care. In both instances, these children should be treated fairly.

For those who have children taken from their home, there is due process that government agencies must abide by. These parents have rights that should be respected.

Likewise, those who are choosing to place a child for adoption have rights. They should be fully informed about the adoption process and should be offered counseling to address the possible short- and long-term impacts. As a matter of social justice, they should be treated as equals — they are still parents who made a plan for their children out of love. This is also the motivation for the adoptive parent(s).

2) Justice for the adoptive parent(s). During the adoption process, adoptive parents should be treated with compassion and empathy. After the adoption is finalized, the adoptive parents should be treated like the parents they are. The word “adoptive” can and should be dropped. The adoption was an action that is now completed.

That certainly doesn’t mean that we should hide or be ashamed of the fact that the child was adopted. Rather, it is something to be celebrated. However, those who are raising children they have adopted should be treated as equal to parents who are raising biological children. Remember, social justice has to do with a fair relationship between individuals and society. This should also be explored for the children who have been adopted.

3) Justice for the adopted child(ren). Children who have been adopted are not adopted by their own choice. Rather, they are adopted because of someone else’s choices. Sometimes those decisions are good (such as the birth mother who recognizes that she is not capable of adequately raising a child, even with significant assistance, and makes an adoption plan). Sometimes those decisions are poor (such as the birth parent who abuses or neglects a child and is not able to meet the requirements to improve his or her parenting skills or meet the needs of the child.)

Regardless, the child who is adopted should be treated like every other child — just as precious and just as wanted. These children should also be provided the opportunity to receive as much information about their backgrounds as is age appropriate, depending on their ability to process and cope with the information.

Additionally, they should be offered counseling if the need should arise. We should not talk about children who have been adopted, but rather to them. Their right to privacy should be respected not only by the helping professionals in their lives, but by everyone who knows about their story. This is a fair relationship between these individuals and society.

 

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, approximately 120,000 children are adopted each year in the United States. Therefore, counselors are sure to encounter individuals who have placed their children for adoption, who have been adopted or who have adopted children in the past. It is important for counselors to understand each of these three components — these human beings — as we work with them. We can learn a lot about social justice by looking at their experiences.

 

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A national certified counselor and licensed social worker, Laurel Shaler is an associate professor at Liberty University, where she serves as the director of the Master of Arts in professional counseling program. Additionally, she writes and speaks on the intersection of faith, culture and emotional well-being. She is the author of Reclaiming Sanity: Hope and Healing for Trauma, Stress and Overwhelming Life Events. Her next book, Relational Reset: Breaking the Habits that Hold You Back, will be released in 2019. Contact her at drlaurelshaler.com.

 

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

Remembering Minuchin and the democratization of therapy

By Charles F. Shepard February 25, 2018

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

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

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

Salvador Minuchin (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Parenting in the 21st century

By Laurie Meyers February 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

Parenting, problems and pride

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping prevent sexual abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No longer partners but still parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming to terms with coming out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Additional resources

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

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

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

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

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

ACA divisions

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

 

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

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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