Tag Archives: Family

Uncovering the root cause of mother-daughter conflict

By Rosjke Hasseldine January 8, 2020

An experienced counselor recently admitted to me that she felt out of her depth when a mother and adult daughter both came to see her for help with their incessant arguing. She said that she struggled to identify the core reasons for their arguments, and she knew that the communication skills and boundaries she tried to instill in them did not address the core reasons for their relationship difficulties.

Sadly, this counselor is not alone. Colleagues frequently tell me that they feel unprepared when it comes to working with mothers and daughters. They blame the absence of specialized training. This lack of focus on the mother-daughter relationship creates unnecessary anxiety among counselors and psychotherapists, and frustration for female clients. For example, only in 2016 was the Adult Daughter-Mother Relationship Questionnaire developed (for more, see Julie Cwikel’s article in The Family Journal). And in my office, all too often I hear mothers and daughters voice their frustrations about the lack of specialized help.

In this article, I share two insights that will help counselors understand the dynamics between a mother and daughter of any age. These insights come from the mother-daughter attachment model I have developed through my 20-plus years of listening to thousands of mothers and daughters of all ages from different countries and cultures. The model makes the complicated dynamics between mothers and daughters easy to understand, explains why mothers and daughters fight, and teaches how mothers and daughters can build strong, emotionally connected relationships.

I chose to specialize in the mother-daughter relationship back in the 1990s because that relationship is central to women understanding themselves. My relationship with my mother had shaped who I was, and when my daughter was born 30 years ago, I knew I had to change the harmful themes that were being passed down the generations. What began as a personal quest became my professional mission.

Mothers and daughters frequently tell me that they feel ashamed about their relationship difficulties. They feel that they “should” be able to get along because popular wisdom tells them that mothers and daughters are supposed to be close. This societal expectation makes mothers and daughters blame themselves for causing their relationship difficulties. The truth is, if my years of experience providing therapy are any indication, many women currently experience mother-daughter relationship conflict.

Based on the inquiries I receive from mothers and adult daughters from different countries, I believe that a larger, societywide dynamic is contributing to their relationship conflict. Often, I hear “hormones” being blamed as the cause for relationship problems, whether it is the teenage daughter’s or pregnant daughter’s hormones, or the menopausal mother’s hormones. Another common reason mothers and daughters give to explain why they are not getting along is their differing or similar personality traits. I have never found hormones or personality traits to be the core reasons for mother-daughter relationship conflict, however. Rather, I have concluded that society sets mothers and daughters up for conflict.

In the first insight, I show that the mother-daughter relationship is not difficult to understand once we realize that mothers and daughters do not relate in a cultural vacuum. In recognizing that mothers and daughters relate within a sociocultural and multigenerational environment, the dynamics between them become easier to grasp. We see how life events, restrictive gender roles, unrealized career goals, and the expectation that women should sacrifice their needs in their caregiving role all shape how mothers and daughters view themselves and each other and how they communicate. To illustrate this dynamic, I share the story of my work with Sandeep, a young college student from England (name and identifying details have been changed).

In the second insight, I explain how patriarchy’s way of silencing and denying what women need is the root cause of most mother-daughter relationship conflict in different cultures around the world. To illustrate, I share my work with Miriam, a doctor from Sweden who comes from a feminist family (name and identifying details have been changed).

Miriam and Sandeep come from different countries and cultural backgrounds, and their families are on opposite ends of the women’s rights continuum, yet their core relationship problem is the same. Both Miriam and Sandeep come from families in which women have not learned how to ask for what they need.

Insight No. 1: Mothers and daughters relate in a sociocultural environment

As is the case with any couple, mothers and daughters rarely fight over what they say they are arguing over. Sandeep and her mother were no exception to this rule. Sandeep was a young college student who lived at home. Her parents immigrated to England from India before Sandeep was born. Sandeep had three brothers, but she was the family’s only daughter.

Sandeep came to see me because she was feeling depressed about how critical her mother was. She was struggling to juggle her college work with the housework her mother and family expected her to do. She said her mother would accuse her of not being a good enough “housekeeper” and not caring enough for her mother when she was ill, which was often.

Sandeep had consulted a counselor before me who had suggested that her mother might be suffering from a personality disorder. I never got to meet Sandeep’s mother and work with her clinically, so I was unable to validate whether this might be the case. Regardless, even if Sandeep’s mother did have this diagnosis, it did not provide Sandeep with the answers
she needed.

Instead, Sandeep needed to understand the multigenerational sociocultural environment in which she and her mother lived. She also needed to understand what was going on in this environment that apparently caused her mother to be so angry and critical, and what caused Sandeep and her mother to believe that it was Sandeep’s responsibility to do all the housekeeping.

When I start working with new clients, I map their mother-daughter history. This is the primary exercise in the mother-daughter attachment model. It is an adaptation of the genogram exercise that family therapists use. The maps focus on the three main women in the multigenerational family, which in Sandeep’s case was Sandeep as the daughter, her mother and her grandmother. I map the experiences the three women have had in their lives, including the gender roles that have defined their lives and limited their choices and power. I also map how the men in the family treat their wives and daughters. Mother-daughter history maps provide an in-depth analysis of the multigenerational sociocultural environment in which the women in the family live and what is happening within that environment to cause mothers and daughters to argue, misunderstand each other, and disconnect emotionally. (Detailed instructions on using this exercise with clients are available in my book The Mother-Daughter Puzzle.)

Sandeep talked about her grandmother’s and mother’s lives and arranged marriages and shared how verbally abusive and controlling her father and grandfather were. She said the males in the family were encouraged to go to college and build their careers, while the females were expected to stay at home to help their mothers. As Sandeep provided these details, her family’s patriarchal structure came into sharp focus. Sandeep represented the first woman in her generational family to finish school and go to college.

Sandeep’s family believed in what I term the “culture of female service,” a global patriarchal belief system that views women as caregivers, not care receivers. Families that subscribe to the culture of female service expect mothers and daughters to be selfless, sacrificial, self-neglecting caregivers. This belief system does not recognize women as people with needs of their own.

Although I never met Sandeep’s mother, it was apparent to me (based on Sandeep’s descriptions) that she had internalized this family belief and did not know any other way of being. This meant that she did not understand Sandeep’s desire to go to college or her fight for her independence. I suspected that Sandeep’s independence felt threatening to her mother. Several reasons explain why Sandeep’s mother was so critical of her daughter and why she behaved in an emotionally manipulative manner — for example, by becoming ill just when Sandeep was busy with an assignment or exam.

First, Sandeep wanted to live a different life than her mother and grandmother had lived, and this likely made Sandeep’s mother feel alone and abandoned. Her only understanding of being female was that of women as caregivers and of “good daughters” stepping into their mothers’ shoes and walking repeats of their mothers’ lives. Sandeep’s mother had done that, her mother had done that, and she expected Sandeep to follow in that role. I suspect Sandeep’s wish for a different life and different relationships felt like a rejection to her mother. It made her feel that her daughter was criticizing the life and values she believed in as a mother.

Second, Sandeep’s mother could have been jealous of her daughter’s freedom and opportunities, even though she probably was unaware that her criticism and anger were rooted in jealousy. Sandeep’s freedom and opportunities might have been an uncomfortable mirror for Sandeep’s mother, reminding her of the freedom she never had and the dreams she had to relinquish.

Third, the mother’s attempts to keep Sandeep from graduating and leaving home could have been linked to her own fight for emotional survival. Sandeep reported to me that she was the only person who gave her mother love and care, so the thought of Sandeep leaving home must have been terrifying to her mother.

For mothers and daughters to build a strong, emotionally connected relationship, it is optimal for both parties to engage in couples therapy. However, if one person is not able, or willing, to participate, healing is still possible. In Sandeep’s case, her mother did not want to participate in therapy. This did not prevent Sandeep from working on understanding and improving her relationship with her mother, however. When one person changes their behavior, the relationship changes to incorporate the new behavior. Of course, Sandeep and I had little control over how her mother would respond to the changes Sandeep needed in their relationship.

My work with Sandeep involved teaching her how to listen to her own voice. Sandeep had become an expert on responding to what her mother needed and being a “dutiful daughter,” but she had little idea about what she wanted for herself, beyond finishing her degree. Sandeep did not know how to ask herself what she thought, felt, or needed emotionally because that conversation was not spoken in her family. My role as a mother-daughter therapist was to help Sandeep uncover the sexism she had inherited from her mother and grandmother that had silenced her voice. I helped her understand the gender inequality her family and culture normalized, and I taught her how to claim her own ideas of who she wanted to be and what she needed in her relationship with her mother — and in all her relationships.

I also helped Sandeep navigate the pushback she got from her mother and father when she stopped complying with their demands to be the family’s unpaid housekeeper. I helped her to understand her mother’s and father’s perspectives so that she had empathy for them and encouraged her to recognize that their anger and criticism weren’t as personal as they felt, originating instead from their cultural beliefs. Alongside Sandeep’s increased understanding of her family’s sociocultural environment, I helped her increase her entitlement to speak her mind, reject unreasonable demands, and carve out her own life path.

Sadly, Sandeep’s parents did not react well to her behaving differently from what they expected of a “dutiful daughter.” After Sandeep left home, her family’s anger and accusations that she had dishonored the family became alarming, leading her to obtain a restraining order against her parents and siblings. Through her therapy, Sandeep learned the degree to which her family members did not tolerate women challenging their long-held beliefs about what women could and could not do and could and could not wear. I had to help Sandeep stay safe and grieve the loss of her family even as she gained her own voice and life.

Insight No. 2: Mothers and daughters fight over their denied needs

My clients have taught me that the denial of what women need, especially when it comes to women’s emotional needs, ripples below most mother-daughter relationship conflict. As I write in The Mother-Daughter Puzzle, when a family does not speak the language that inquires after what women feel and need, mothers and daughters are set up for conflict. It creates an either-or dynamic in which the mother and daughter fight over who gets to be heard and emotionally supported in their relationship because they do not know how to create a normal in which both are heard and supported.

In every mother-daughter history map I draw, I see how the silencing of women’s needs harms women’s emotional well-being, limits their ability to advocate for themselves in their relationships and workplaces, and perpetuates gender inequality. I see how this dynamic makes women invisible, and how being invisible makes women hungry for attention. The inability to openly and honestly ask about what they need creates emotionally manipulative behavior between mothers and daughters and sets daughters up to have to mind read their mothers’ unspoken and unacknowledged needs.

Miriam, a client from Sweden, contacted me for help with her adolescent daughter. Miriam and her mother had benefited from the women’s movement fight for women’s rights. Miriam and her mother were doctors, and Miriam’s husband and father were extremely supportive of their careers. But just like Sandeep and her mother, Miriam and her mother had internalized and normalized the culture of female service, and Miriam’s daughter was angry about her mother’s selflessness.

Miriam’s daughter felt that she had to mind read what her mother really felt and wanted, and she was tired of it. She desired an emotionally honest relationship with her mom. She wanted to feel free to say what she felt and needed and for her mother to speak her mind and stop the guessing games. Miriam’s daughter did not want to feel responsible for meeting her mother’s unvoiced and unacknowledged needs.

The silencing of women’s needs is an intergenerational dynamic that gets passed on from mother to daughter because the mother is not able to teach her daughter how to voice her needs openly and honestly. When the daughter is expected, often unconsciously, to listen for and meet her mother’s unvoiced and unacknowledged needs, the daughter is learning to become an expert on understanding what her mother needs, not on what she needs herself. This means that the daughter will grow up to be as emotionally mute as her mother, thus setting up her future daughter to try to learn to interpret and meet her unvoiced needs.

Women’s generational experience of being emotionally silenced and emotionally neglected is a common theme between mothers and daughters. Happily, I am seeing a huge shift from adult daughters in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are waking up to this patriarchal theme and wanting change. These daughters recognize that they have learned — from their mothers and from society in general — to be far too tolerant of being silent and practicing self-neglect. More daughters are asking their mothers to join them in therapy so that together they can change these inherited behavioral patterns. Mothers and daughters are teaming up and pioneering a new normal in their families — a normal where women are speaking up and demanding to be heard. And they are passing on this new normal to the next generation of sons and daughters.

Mothers and daughters have always led the call for women’s rights. When we understand that mother-daughter attachment disruption or conflict tells the story of how sexist beliefs and gender role stereotypes harm women’s voices and rights, the mother-daughter relationship becomes an unstoppable force for change at the worldwide and family levels.

Sadly, Sandeep’s mother was not able to join Sandeep in her fight to challenge her family’s sexist cultural beliefs. I inferred that too much neglect made Sandeep’s mother emotionally unable to think her way out of her powerlessness. Miriam, having had a far more supportive and empowering upbringing, was able to join her daughter to find a new normal for women within their family. This mother and daughter team coached each other as they decontaminated themselves from their internalized sexism and self-silencing habits.

The mother-daughter relationship has tremendous power to change women’s lives around the world. When mothers and daughters band together, they create an impenetrable wall of resistance against family members who are threatened by women claiming their rights. I have had the honor of working with many pioneering mothers and daughters who dared to dream of a reality in which mothers and daughters are no longer starving for attention and fighting for crumbs of affection. These brave mothers and daughters recognize the harm that patriarchy, sexism, and gender inequality inflict on women, and they have decided that enough is enough. In essence, they are saying, “With us, it must end.”

 

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Rosjke Hasseldine is a mother-daughter relationship therapist, author of The Silent Female Scream and The Mother-Daughter Puzzle, and founder of Mother-Daughter Coaching International LLC (motherdaughtercoach.com), a training organization. She blogs for the American Counseling Association and has presented her mother-daughter attachment model at professional conferences, on Canadian television, and at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Contact her at rosjkehasseldine@gmail.com or through her website at rosjke.com.

 

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Dealing with the realities of dementia

By Bethany Bray December 23, 2019

Licensed professional counselor (LPC) Ruth Drew oversees the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24-hour helpline, which offers support to those facing the challenges of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, including families and caregivers. The fact that the helpline receives more than 300,000 calls each year hints at the heart-wrenching issues that accompany a dementia diagnosis, not just for the individual but for the person’s entire support system.

“We receive a wide range of questions, from someone worried about the warning signs of cognitive decline or dealing with a new diagnosis, to an adult son whose mother didn’t recognize him for the first time, or a wife wondering how to get her husband with Alzheimer’s to take a bath. Whatever the reason for the call, we meet callers where they are and endeavor to provide the information, resources and emotional support they need,” says Drew, director of information and support services at the Chicago-based nonprofit.

Professional counselors are a good fit to help not only individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s, but also those in their care networks, Drew says. Whether counseling individuals, couples or even children, the far-reaching implications of dementia mean that practitioners of any specialization may hear clients talk about the stressors and overwhelming emotions that can accompany the diagnosis.

“People diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases are going through profound life changes — coping with the realities of an incurable disease that is stealing their abilities and their memories. Counseling offers a place to process the losses, develop ways to cope, and find meaning in their current situation,” Drew says. “Similarly, family members face emotional, physical and financial challenges when they care for someone with Alzheimer’s. It helps to have a safe place to process feelings, get support, learn to cope with present realities, and plan for the future.”

A growing need

“Dementia isn’t a normal part of aging. It just happens that most dementia patients are older,” says Jenny Heuer, an LPC and certified dementia practitioner in Georgia who specializes in gerontology. “There is this stigma that just because you’re getting older, you’re going to get dementia.”

The Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org) defines dementia as “an overall term for diseases and conditions characterized by a decline in memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking skills that affect a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.”

Although many people associate dementia with Alzheimer’s, there are numerous forms of dementia, and not all are progressive. Dementia can be reversible or irreversible, depending on the type, explains Heuer, the primary therapist in the geriatric unit at Chatuge Regional Hospital in Hiawassee, Georgia. Alzheimer’s, an irreversible, progressive form of dementia, is most common, followed by vascular dementia, which can occur after a stroke. Forms of dementia can also co-occur with Down syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and other diagnoses. Research has also linked moderate to severe traumatic brain injury to a higher risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease years later.

Heuer, a member of the American Counseling Association, recalls a client she counseled who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s prior to age 62. She had lived with a husband who was violent and physically abusive toward her, and the client’s caregivers wondered if she had suffered a brain injury that contributed to her early onset Alzheimer’s.

Heuer notes that other conditions can lead to an assumption or misdiagnosis of dementia. For example, a urinary tract infection (UTI), if left untreated, can progress far enough to cause confusion in a client. Once the UTI is diagnosed and treated, the confusion can dissipate. In addition, excessive alcohol use, depression, medication side effects, thyroid problems, and vitamin deficiencies can cause memory loss and confusion that could be mistaken for dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

“There’s so many [other] things to rule out,” Heuer says. “Doctors try to rule out every other health issue before they diagnose dementia.”

The complicated nature of dementia only reinforces the need for counselors to do thorough intake evaluations and to get to know clients holistically, Heuer says. Counselors should ask clients about anything that has affected or could be affecting their brain or memory, including medication use, stress levels, past physical trauma or brain injury, depression, sleep patterns, exercise and other factors.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that roughly 50 million people worldwide currently have dementia, and nearly 10 million new cases develop each year. Alzheimer’s disease-related dementia may contribute anywhere from 60% to 70% of that overall number, according to WHO.

Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 14% of people ages 71 and older in the United States have some form of dementia. A recent report from the nonprofit estimated that 5.7 million Americans of all ages were living with Alzheimer’s-related dementia in 2018, the vast majority of whom (5.5 million) were 65 and older. Close to two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women, according to the association.

These numbers are only expected to increase as the U.S. population ages and the baby-boom generation reaches retirement and later life, Heuer notes.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that in the year 2034, the number of Americans 65 and older will, for the first time in history, eclipse the nation’s number of youths under age 18. By 2060, close to one-quarter of Americans will be 65 or older, and the number of people older than 85 will have tripled.

“Aging issues hit home for counselors across the board,” Heuer says, “because we are all aging, and many are caring for aging parents. … I invite other counselors to join me in working with this population. [Alzheimer’s] is the sixth-leading cause of death. That sounds very morbid, but it’s only going to go higher. More and more people will be diagnosed. With the aging baby-boom population, there’s someone around every corner [who is] going to be impacted by this disease.”

Caring for the caregivers

There is an obvious emotional component to caring for a loved one affected by memory loss and the other aspects of dementia, but there is also the burden of assuming management of the person’s practical tasks, such as financial planning and keeping up with medical appointments. The stress of it all can affect the person’s entire network, says Phillip Rumrill, a certified rehabilitation counselor in Ohio whose professional area of expertise is clients with disability, including dementia.

“Dementia affects the whole family system, and possibly for generations. The person [with dementia] needs help, yes, but [so do] their spouse, children and entire family system. That’s critically important [for counselors to be aware of] when you’re dealing with dementia,” says Rumrill, a member of the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association, a division of ACA. “There is a tremendous amount of burnout that comes with being a dementia caregiver.”

Witnessing a loved one’s memory and abilities decline can cause caregivers to feel sad, frustrated, exhausted, overwhelmed, hurt, afraid and even angry, says Matt Gildehaus, an LPC who owns Life Delta Counseling, a private practice in Washington, Missouri.

“The caregivers and loved ones are often the hidden victims of dementia. They can become completely overwhelmed as the role becomes all-encompassing,” says Gildehaus, who counsels adults facing a range of challenges, including aging-related issues and dementia. “Taking care
of someone can easily become an identity that gets affirmed and reinforced until it comes at nearly the complete expense of self-care. When being the caregiver for someone with dementia overtakes their life, the caregiver’s emotional and physical health frequently begin to decline.”

Each of the counselors interviewed for this article asserted that clinicians should, first and foremost, emphasize the importance of self-care with clients who are caregivers to individuals with dementia. Counselor clinicians can ask these clients what they are doing for self-care, help them establish a self-care plan if needed, and connect them with local resources such as support groups and eldercare organizations.

It is also important to encourage clients to ask for help from others when they are becoming overwhelmed, says Rumrill, a professor and coordinator of the rehabilitation counseling program at Kent State University in Ohio, as well as founding director of its Center for Disability Studies. If clients mention having a loved one with dementia, counselors should listen carefully to make sure these clients are taking care of themselves and processing their feelings related to the experience.

Connecting clients to support groups and other resources can be vital because many families feel lost and isolated after their loved one receives a dementia or Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Drew notes. “This isolation can increase throughout the journey as caregiving demands intensify, especially if they don’t know where to turn for help,” she says.

Families may also experience emotions that parallel the grieving process as they witness the progressive loss of the person they knew. Caregivers might even find themselves with hard feelings emerging toward their loved one, particularly as they try to handle the frustrating behavior challenges that Alzheimer’s and dementia can introduce.

“The disease can be very deceiving because one day the person may be very clear, and another day they’ll be confused. Caregivers can feel [the person is] doing things on purpose, just to push their buttons,” Heuer says. “I often ask if the person was aggressive or called [the client] names before they were diagnosed. Most often, the answer is no. Then I explain that it’s the disease, not the individual” prompting the behavior.

Gildehaus, a member of ACA, has seen similar frustrations among clients in his caseload. “I often help caregiver clients by providing a safe place for them to share the things they don’t feel they can share with family and friends,” he says. “For caregivers, there are three tools I focus on using: therapeutic silence, empathic listening, and normalizing what they often describe as ‘terrible thoughts.’ These … can be ideas like, ‘They make me so angry,’ ‘I dread going to the nursing home some days’ or even ‘Sometimes I secretly hope they don’t live for years like this.’”

Rumrill notes that clients caring for a loved one with dementia may need a counselor’s help to process how the disease has disrupted roles within the family. He experienced this personally when caring for his grandmother, who lived with dementia for years before passing away in 2009 of stomach and liver cancers. Rumrill, who held power of attorney for his grandmother’s financial affairs, had to adjust to taking care of someone who had taken care of him throughout his life. It felt like a role conflict to have to begin making decisions on his grandmother’s behalf while still trying to respect her wishes, he recalls.

“It’s changing roles: They used to take care of you, and now you take care of them,” Rumrill says. “There is an odd juxtaposition when a child is telling a parent what to do. It can be hard [for the older adult] to accept when it’s coming from the younger generation. The roles have switched, and no one got the memo.”

Counseling sessions for couples and families can also serve as safe spaces to talk through the stressors and disagreements that come with caregiving, Rumrill and Heuer note. Counselors can serve as neutral moderators to facilitate conversations about tough subjects that clients may be fearful of or avoiding outside of sessions. This can include talking over logistical or financial issues, such as dividing caregiving tasks or assigning power of attorney, and harder conversations such as when and how to move a loved one to a care facility.

Counselors who work with couples should be aware of the intense stress that providing care for someone with dementia can put on relationships, Rumrill adds. Home life can be turned upside down when one member of a couple’s time and attention are devoted to caregiving. This is especially true if the family member with dementia moves into the home. Tasks that used to flow easily, such as unloading the dishwasher or taking the kids to sports practices, can become points of contention. Challenges that the couple successfully navigated before — from budgeting to parenting issues — can become more pronounced and complicated as caregiving puts extra strain on the couple’s time, emotions and finances, Rumrill says.

It’s an unfortunate reality, but counselors working with clients who have dementia or their families also need to be watchful for signs of elder abuse, including financial abuse, Rumrill says. Dementia patients and their caregivers are also at higher risk for issues such as depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and substance use and abuse (which may be used as a coping mechanism).

Listen and validate

Clients who have dementia can get a variety of needs addressed in counseling sessions — needs that will change as the dementia progresses.

In the early stages of dementia, counselors can help clients process their feelings and fears about the diagnosis, as well as work toward accepting and adapting to the changes that are coming. In the middle to latter stages, clients may benefit more from reassurance and validation from a counselor, as well as occasional redirection and calming techniques.

Heuer recalls a client whose husband had recently been placed in a memory care facility because of Alzheimer’s disease. The client — whom Heuer calls “Anne” for the purposes of this example — was dealing with pre-existing depression, which was the initial focus of the counseling sessions. Heuer and Anne also discussed Anne’s relationships with family members and the various changes she was facing, which included moving because of her husband’s placement in the memory care facility.

According to Heuer, Anne harbored a great fear of losing her own memory, and over time, her memory did in fact begin to deteriorate. She would acknowledge the decline in counseling sessions as she and Heuer talked about its impact on Anne’s life. Later, as Anne’s dementia progressed, Heuer shifted her work to focus more on fostering Anne’s feelings of safety and connection. “The interesting part of working with Anne is she never mentioned the word dementia. I heard about her diagnosis from family and caregivers,” Heuer recalls.

“As her memory declined, I would reflect her feelings [in counseling],” Heuer says. “Then there were sessions where Anne would spend the majority of the time talking about how she had been traveling on a train and had just gotten off the train. Frequently, she would share the story as if it was the first time she was telling it to me.” Heuer says one of the best suggestions she has been given for working with clients with dementia is to show them the same level of patience and attention regardless of whether they are telling her a story or sharing a memory with her for the first time or the 10th time.

“Anne also had hallucinations [in the latter stages of dementia],” Heuer says. “She had moments of clarity where she knew they were hallucinations and questioned her own sanity. I had no magical cure or answer. I would try and imagine how I would feel if this were happening to me and [then] tapped into empathy and the core foundation of person-centered therapy.”

Most of all, individuals with dementia need a counselor to simply “be present and listen,” adds John Michalka, an LPC with a solo private practice in Chesterfield, Missouri. He specializes in working with clients who have mood disorders related to chronic illness, including dementia.

“Patients living with dementia often tell me they just need their loved ones to stop nagging them and making them feel like the things they are doing are intentional,” says Michalka, an ACA member who has personal experience caring for a loved one with dementia. “The patient isn’t forgetting on purpose. The patient has enough to deal with without being made to feel like a burden as well. It always amazes me how simple and unselfish the patient’s request is when it comes to what they need: just simple love, understanding and patience.”

The following insights may be helpful for counselors who treat clients with dementia. Some of the guidance may also be relevant to share with clients who are family members of or caregivers to a person with dementia.

>> Correcting versus agreeing: Patients in the memory care unit where Heuer works sometimes come up to her and say, “It’s so good to see you again!” even though they have never met her before. Over time, she has learned to read clients and think on her feet to respond appropriately to remarks that aren’t based in reality.

For caregivers, deciding whether to correct a person with dementia or go along with what the person is saying can become a daily or even moment-to-moment struggle. Heuer says her decision to validate or correct is often based on how likely the person is to become agitated or aggressive. But empathy also comes into play. “I try to put myself in their shoes. How would I feel if I were seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in a while? It really comes down to meeting them in their emotions.”

Some clinicians may call the practice of validating or going along with a client with dementia “therapeutic lying,” Heuer says, but “I call it ‘molding the information’ and doing what it takes for them to feel calm and safe. …We have to adapt to them because they are not able to adapt to us. It is as if they have a different inner world, and we have to meet them in their world.”

Michalka says he also finds validation therapy helpful for easing anxiety in clients. With clients who are dementia caregivers, he often emphasizes that what is going on in the mind of the person with dementia is their reality.

He recalls one client who was beginning to panic because they saw someone in their room. “There was no one in the room, but the patient’s experience or perception of a stranger in their room was real,” Michalka says. “A natural reaction for most caregivers would be to correct the patient. In doing so, we are challenging the patient’s perception of reality. This typically will only escalate the patient’s anxiety and, in doing so, escalate the loved one’s or caregiver’s anxiety.

“Imagine if you saw a stranger in your room, and when you [try] to tell someone, they proceed to tell you, ‘No, there [isn’t].’ Would you not become more and more agitated as you try to convince them [and] they continue to challenge your reality? Instead, we should validate their experience by asking if that stranger is still in the room. Then, one would empathize with the patient by validating how scary that must have been, but now the stranger is no longer there and they are safe. After which, the patient’s attention should be redirected to a more pleasant thought or situation.”

>>  Considering the whole person: Working with clients with dementia “takes you out of your comfort level because you have to become very creative in how you interact with [them]. It’s not the type of counseling that you learn in a textbook,” Heuer says. “Your ability to counsel and work with these individuals goes well beyond the knowledge you gain about counseling in your master’s [program].”

Heuer encourages clinicians to learn more about who clients were before their dementia diagnosis — what they did for a career, what their hobbies were, their likes and dislikes. Counselors can ask clients directly for this personal information or seek details from their family members. Learning these personal details can help to better inform counselors’ interventions and help form stronger connections with clients, Heuer says. “Tapping into what made them happy as a human being [without dementia] may be therapeutic for them,” she adds.

For example, a client who loves baseball may be comforted and more responsive while watching a televised ballgame or flipping through an album of baseball cards with a counselor. A client who was a teacher or a banker might find comfort writing in a ledger. Even clients with late-stage dementia can respond when their favorite music is played, Heuer notes.

She recalls one client who had previously worked in business and would sometimes think that his caregiver was his secretary. When this happened, the caregiver would “take notes” for him by writing on paper. “It doesn’t have to make sense, but to them it may make sense,” says Heuer, whose doctoral dissertation was on the lived experiences of individuals with early stage Alzheimer’s disease.

>>  Redirecting: When working with clients in the middle to latter stages of dementia, techniques that prompt a change of focus are invaluable. Redirection can keep these clients from becoming upset or escalating to aggression, Heuer says. For caregivers, this technique might involve engaging the person in an activity that they used to enjoy or simply asking for help with a task, such as folding laundry or setting the table.

“Redirection really comes into play when an individual is exhibiting behaviors such as agitation, fear, anger or paranoia,” Heuer explains. “Normally, there is something in their environment that is triggering them. An example we often observe and hear about is an individual [who] is wanting to go home. In essence, they want to feel safe and are looking for something familiar. Redirection is a technique that refocuses the individual’s attention in an effort to therapeutically calm them and make them feel safe.”

Heuer mentions a woman who was wandering in the care facility where Heuer works and feeling a strong urge to leave. The woman was getting agitated and escalating to the point that staff members were going to medicate her. Heuer stepped in and asked the woman if she wanted to take a walk. The woman agreed and soon calmed down as she and Heuer walked together and chatted.

With dementia, behaviors often manifest out of the person’s worry about their own safety or the safety of loved ones, Heuer notes.

“We all have that need to have a sense of purpose. Just because someone has dementia, they’re not less human. They have similar needs but have a different way of communicating them. Usually, there is a need behind every single behavior they’re displaying,” Heuer says.

>> Working through grief: Individuals with dementia and their loved ones often experience a range of grief-related emotions, from denial and avoidance to sadness. Counselors may find it helpful to use grief and loss techniques with these clients, Rumrill says.

Watching a loved one with dementia decline and seemingly change into a different person can feel similar to experiencing that person’s death or loss, Rumrill says. In the case of his grandmother, even her vocabulary and the way she spoke changed. She began using profanity and other words that Rumrill wasn’t previously aware she even knew. When she became angry, Rumrill says she would “go off” on people, which she never did prior to her dementia diagnosis.

“There’s a tremendous sense of loss that can go with that. The person you knew and loved isn’t there [any longer],” he says. “I was grieving the loss of who [his grandmother] was and also grieving with her over her loss of independence.”

Feelings of loss can also resurface for clients with dementia who are widows or widowers, even if they have previously processed their partner’s death. Dementia can reaggravate the person’s feelings of grief and sadness or even ignite feelings of anger toward a deceased partner for leaving them to go through their dementia journey alone, Rumrill says.

Family members and caregivers may experience repeated cycles of grief as their loved one’s dementia or Alzheimer’s progresses, Michalka adds. “Each time the loved one living with dementia progresses to the next stage, the client [a caregiver or family member] in some ways repeats the grieving process. They now are experiencing another loss. It is as if they have lost their loved one once again,” Michalka says. “It is extremely difficult for many clients to have mom or dad not know who they are or simply not remember their name. The client loses their loved one many times during the progression of dementia. At a minimum, the client loses the person their loved one once was, and then once again upon the passing of the loved one.”

>> Focusing on strengths: Clients with dementia are likely to be saddened by the anticipated or actual loss of their abilities. A counselor can help these clients flip their perspective to focus on what the person can still do, Heuer says. She often uses the words strengths and challenges, not weaknesses, during conversations about what the client is still able to do and enjoy.

For example, a client with dementia may no longer be able to maintain a garden outdoors, but gardening supplies and planter pots can be brought to the person inside so they can still get their hands in the soil. “Activities can change as the disease progresses,” Heuer notes.

>>  Using “tell me about” prompts: Gildehaus says that narrative therapy can be a helpful technique with clients who have dementia. These clients often respond well to storytelling prompts, even as their memories fade. It can be therapeutic for clients with dementia to share memories and, in turn, to feel heard and understood, he explains.

Similarly, Heuer uses reminiscence therapy with clients with memory loss, asking individuals to talk about their careers, families, and other favorite memories. It is not helpful, however, to frame questions by asking clients whether they remember something, she stresses. Instead, counselors can use gentler “tell me about” prompts to spur clients to open up. For example, instead of asking, “Do you remember your parents?” a counselor would say, “Tell me about your parents,” Heuer explains.

Rumrill notes that group work can be very helpful for caregivers or family members of people with dementia, especially to prevent or ease burnout. Motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral techniques, and rational emotive techniques can also help clients process the changes and stresses that come with having a loved one with dementia. But Rumrill urges counselors to use whatever techniques they find to be most helpful to and best suited for the client.

Dementia is “no more stressful than any other life issue that brings people to counseling; it’s just different,” Rumrill says. “It has unique features that need to be understood to help. Marshal all the coping reserves you can to help the client.”

>>  Offering empathic listening: Gildehaus notes that professional counselors’ core skills of listening, empathic reflection and normalization can go a long way for clients dealing with dementia.

“In my experience, clients struggling with dementia need someone to listen to them for understanding without confronting them, trying to argue with them, or trying to fix them,” Gildehaus says. “Normalizing frustrations and fears related to memory challenges and aging also helps clients feel less defective.”

When working with clients who have dementia, Gildehaus says his primary objective is to offer a nonjudgmental environment in which these individuals can share their frustrations and fears. “My efforts are focused on providing an interaction where they feel heard and understood without feeling questioned or having someone trying to talk them out of their ideas,” he says.

This came into play this past summer as Gildehaus faced a tough conversation with a client who needed to give up her right to drive because of cognitive decline. “This was very hard for her,” he recalls. “She argued that she did not drive far, that she had not had any accidents, and that she didn’t care if she died in an accident. She became very emotional — tearful and angry. I listened empathically, validated her truths, and reflected her logic and feelings. Then, I asked if she wanted her lasting legacy to be causing someone else’s injury or death. She agreed this was not what she wanted. We then explored options and resources that would allow her to maintain her freedom and active schedule without driving. We talked about local taxi services, friends who were going to the same activities [and could give her a ride], and the obvious solution became allowing her home health care provider to drive her most of the time.”

Still human

Individuals with a dementia diagnosis often feel as if they’ve been labeled as damaged goods, “deemed incompetent and unable to do anything for themselves,” Heuer says. The empathy and support that professional counselors are capable of offering these clients can go a long way toward changing that mindset, she asserts.

People with dementia “are still capable, still human, and they have emotions,” Heuer emphasizes. “There is an immediate stigma attached to someone [with a dementia diagnosis] that they aren’t able to do anything for themselves, and that’s often a source of frustration. There is an assumption that they’re helpless. But they will say, ‘I need help.” … They will let you know. What they need from counselors — and everyone else — is the recognition that they are still a person and still human.”

 

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Counselors as caregivers

Despite a career as a helping professional, Phillip Rumrill found himself feeling “inadequate” when it came to caring for his grandmother as her dementia progressed. He admits that he learned how to manage “through trial and error.”

The professional objectivity that allows practitioners to help others process issues in counseling simply isn’t there when it comes to caring for their own loved ones, says Rumrill, a certified rehabilitation counselor and a professor and coordinator of the rehabilitation counseling program at Kent State University.

“All of this stuff that you know about professionally goes out the window when you experience it personally,” Rumrill says. “You may have helped a client who is dealing with this, but it’s not the same when you’re going through it yourself. … You may think that because you have expertise in helping others you might know procedurally what to do, but it’s just different when it’s affecting you on a core level. You can arm yourself with information, but it’s going to be very different to be going through it on your own.”

Although it may not come easily, counselors who have loved ones with dementia should heed the same guidance they would give to clients in the same situation, including keeping up with their self-care and asking for help when needed.

After his grandmother passed away in 2009, Rumrill collaborated with two colleagues, Kimberly Wickert and Danielle Dresden, who also had cared for loved ones with dementia, to write the book The Sandwich Generation’s Guide to Elder Care. Their hope was that their insights might help other practitioners who were facing similar challenges. “You can’t be [your] family’s counselor,” Rumrill says. “Sometimes you have to shut off your professional side and deal with the humanity of your own experience.”

John Michalka, a licensed professional counselor and private practitioner, says he and his wife experienced a range of issues — from stress to anxiety to grief — while caring for his mother-in-law. Michalka’s mother-in-law, who had vascular dementia, moved in with Michalka and his wife in 2013 when she was no longer able to care for herself.

“I took a hiatus from work, and for the last two years of her life, I cared for her until she passed [in January 2015],” he says. “I watched my wife, as a daughter, struggle with pain and grieving during every step down of the disease, from [her mother] forgetting our names to [us] becoming absolute strangers. For me, I was the caregiver and did my best to suppress the emotion. To say the least, caring for anyone living with dementia can be extremely difficult. At least it was for me.”

 

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The Alzheimer’s Association has a wealth of information on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, including nuances of the diagnoses and resources for living with or caring for a person who has been diagnosed. Call the association’s 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900 or visit alz.org (click the “Help & Support” tab for links to online and local support groups).

Also, the U.S. Administration on Aging offers an eldercare services search tool at eldercare.acl.gov. Resources are also available from the Dementia Action Alliance (daanow.org) and the Family Caregiver Alliance (caregiver.org).

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

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Read more

Check out an extended Q+A with licensed professional counselor Ruth Drew, the Alzheimer’s
Association’s director of information and support services, at CT Online: ct.counseling.org/2019/12/qa-helping-clients-affected-by-dementia/

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Additional resources

Take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

ACA Divisions

  • The Association for Adult Development and Aging (aadaweb.org)

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Counseling Older People: Opportunities and Challenges by Charlene M. Kampfe

 

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

Q+A: Helping clients affected by dementia

Compiled by Bethany Bray December 13, 2019

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 14% of people ages 71 and older in the United States have some form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease, the cause of the most common form of dementia, is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.

Each dementia diagnosis will affect not only the individual but also his or her entire care network – emotionally, relationally, financially and in myriad other ways, says Ruth Drew, a licensed professional counselor and director of information and support services at the Alzheimer’s Association.

The most important message a counselor can give these clients – whether that be an individual with dementia or the family or caregivers of someone with dementia – is that they are not alone, says Drew, who oversees the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24-hour helpline.

 

Counseling Today sent Drew some questions via email to get her perspective.

[Note: Some responses have been edited slightly for purposes of length or clarity.]

 

What do you want counselors to know about some of the common fears, challenges and questions that come with dementia and how they can support clients through these challenges in counseling sessions?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disease that worsens over time. Currently, there is no medication that can cure, prevent or slow down the disease — only medications that help with symptoms. Receiving an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is life-changing, and it impacts the entire family. Along with the diagnosis and disease journey comes a wide range of emotions — fear, resentment, despair, anger, denial, relief. As a result, many families often feel lost and isolated after the diagnosis. This isolation can increase throughout the journey as caregiving demands intensify — especially if they don’t know where to turn to for help.

We want everyone to know that no one should face this disease alone, and no one has to. There is so much information and support available round the clock, and it is only a phone call or mouse click away through the Alzheimer’s Association Helpline (800-272-3900) and website at alz.org.

Counselors can help people facing dementia by acknowledging that it is normal to experience a wide range of emotions. Getting information and support is an empowering first step in coping with the challenges ahead.

 

What kind of help does the Alzheimer’s Association Helpline offer?

Our free, 24/7 Helpline receives more than 300,000 calls a year, answered by specialists and master’s-level clinicians who provide disease information, caregiving strategies, local community programs and resources, crisis assistance and emotional support.

Ruth Drew, LPC, director of information and support services at the Alzheimer’s Association.

If a caller is worried about signs of memory loss, we provide information on the warning signs of the disease, how to approach the conversation with the person [showing signs of memory loss] and how to seek a diagnosis. If a person recently received a diagnosis, we can answer their questions and provide a safe place to process their feelings and learn about the peer support that is available. If a caregiver is exhausted, grieving and feeling burned out, we can listen, normalize their experience, and help them find the support and resources they need for themselves and the person they are caring for.

We advocate for a person-centered caregiving approach and help families figure out how to navigate Alzheimer’s based on their unique set of circumstances. That can include connecting people with local Alzheimer’s Association education programs, support groups and early stage engagement programs offered by our chapters across the country.

 

In addition to counseling, what resources do you recommend for people with dementia and their caregivers and families?

Alzheimer’s can go on for many years, so people need different resources and levels of support as the disease progresses. Whether you are the person living with the disease or [whether you are] a family member, the first step is to educate yourself about the disease, care strategies and available resources. The second step is to have open conversations with the people who are important in your life and make plans for the future.

Getting support from the people you care about and making plans for the future are empowering steps that can help families make the most of their time now and avoid a crisis later. The Alzheimer’s Association offers a number of education programs in local communities across the country that can help people understand what to expect so they can be prepared to meet the changes and challenges ahead and live well for as long as possible. We also provide free online education courses, from understanding the disease to planning for the future.

Whenever facing difficult times, having a good support network [they] can turn to for advice and encouragement can help individuals feel socially connected and give them a sense of belonging and purpose. Connecting with others going through the same situation — whether they are living with the disease or a caregiver — can help put their own experiences with the disease in perspective and provide them with the support and encouragement they need. The Alzheimer’s Association also offers local face-to-face support groups and an online support community.

 

What would you like to highlight for counselors to recommend for their clients? Is there anything that comes to mind that they might not be aware of?

One thing we always want people to be aware of is the Alzheimer’s Association free 24/7 Helpline (800-272-3900). It’s available 365 days a year, in over 200 languages, for anyone in need of information, advice and support — whether it is a person living with the disease, their caregivers, professionals, academia or the general public. Trained staff are ready to listen and equipped with information to provide referrals to local community programs and services, disease education, crisis assistance and emotional support.

 

Are there any assumptions or misconceptions that counselors might have about dementia and Alzheimer’s that you’d like to clear up?

Sometimes when people picture a person with Alzheimer’s, they envision a person in the late stage of the disease. Alzheimer’s often progresses very slowly, and people may live four, eight or even 20 years after the onset of symptoms. The range and variety of symptoms is enormous, and many people can stay very engaged with family and activities of living for a long time in a supportive environment.

Often, caregivers tell me that everyone asks about the person with the disease, but no one asks them how they are doing. The data show that caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is much more arduous physically and emotionally than other types of caregiving, so it is crucial to ensure the caregiver is well supported.

Family members often deal with grief and loss throughout the time they care for someone with the disease. They grieve each loss of ability and memory, as well as anticipating the losses to come. Symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety may be connected to this ongoing loss.

 

Our readers are professional counselors of all types and specialties (including graduate students). Are there any main takeaways you’d like to share?

People impacted by dementia need understanding, information and support. While each situation is unique, the more you know about the disease, the better able you will be to connect with each person and provide a therapeutic setting where they can get the help they need.

 

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  • The Alzheimer’s Association has a wealth of information on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, including nuances of the diagnoses and resources for living with or caring for a person who has been diagnosed. Call the association’s 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900 or visit alz.org

 

  • See Counseling Today’s January cover article, “Dealing with the realities of dementia,” for an in-depth look at helping clients with dementia, as well as their families and caregivers.

 

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

 

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

 

Challenging the inevitability of inherited mental illness

By Lindsey Phillips August 29, 2019

With a family history that famously includes depression, addiction, eating disorders and seven suicides — including her grandfather Ernest Hemingway and her sister Margaux — actress and writer Mariel Hemingway doesn’t try to deny that mental health issues run in her family. She repeatedly shares her family history to advocate for mental health and to help others affected by mental illness feel less alone.

And, of course, they aren’t alone. Mental health issues are prevalent in many families, making it natural for some individuals to wonder or worry about the inherited risks of developing mental health problems. Take the common mental health issue of depression, for example. The Stanford University School of Medicine estimates that about 10% of people in the United States will experience major depression at some point during their lifetime. People with a family history of depression have a two to three times greater risk of developing depression than does the average person, however.

A 2014 meta-analysis of 33 studies (all published by December 2012) examined the familial health risk of severe mental illness. The results, published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, found that offspring of parents with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder had a 1 in 3 chance of developing one of those illnesses by adulthood — more than twice the risk for the control offspring of parents without severe mental illness.

Jennifer Behm, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at MindSpring Counseling and Consultation in Virginia, finds that clients who are worried about family mental health history often come to counseling already feeling defeated. These clients tend to think there is little or nothing they can do about it because it “runs in the family,” she says.

Theresa Shuck is an LPC at Baeten Counseling and Consultation Team and part of the genetics team at a community hospital in Wisconsin. She says family mental health history can be a touchy subject for many clients because of the stigma and shame associated with it. In her practice, she has noticed that individuals often do not disclose family history out of their own fear. “Then, when a younger generation person develops the illness and the family history comes out, there’s a lot of blame and anger about why the family didn’t tell them, how they would have wanted to know that, and how they could have done something about it,” she notes.

Sarra Everett, an LPC in private practice in Georgia, says she has clients whose families have kept their history of mental illness a secret to protect the family image. “So much of what feeds mental illness and takes it to an extreme is shame. Feeling like there’s something wrong with you or not knowing what is wrong with you, feeling alone and isolated,” Everett says. Talking openly and honestly about family mental health history with a counselor can serve to destigmatize mental health problems and help people stop feeling ashamed about that history, she emphasizes.

Is mental illness hereditary?

Some diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease are caused by a single defective gene and are thus easily predicted by a genetic test. Mental illness, however, is not so cut and dry. A combination of genetic changes and environmental factors determines if someone will develop a disorder.

In her 2012 VISTAS article “Rogers Revisited: The Genetic Impact of the Counseling Relationship,” Behm notes that research in cellular biology has shown that about 5% of diseases are genetically determined, whereas the remaining 95% are environmentally based.

The history of the so-called “depression gene” perfectly illustrates the complexity of psychiatric genetics. In the 1990s, researchers showed that people with shorter alleles of the 5-HTTLPR (a serotonin transporter gene) had a higher chance of developing depression. However, in 2003, another study found that the effects of this gene were moderated by a gene-by-environment interaction, which means the genotype would result in depression if people were subjected to specific environmental conditions (i.e., stressful life events). More recently, two studies have disproved the statistical evidence for a relation between this genotype and depression and a gene-by-environment interaction with this genotype.

Even so, researchers keeps searching for disorders that are more likely to “run in the family.” A 2013 study by the Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomic Consortium found that five major mental disorders — autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia — appear to share some common genetic risk factors.

In 2018, a Bustle article listed 10 mental health issues “that are more likely to run in families”: schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), ADHD, eating disorders, postpartum depression, addictions and phobias.

Adding to the complexity, Kathryn Douthit, a professor in the counseling and human development program at the University of Rochester, points out that studies on mental disorders are done on categories such as major depression and anxiety that are often based on descriptive terms, not biological markers. The cluster of symptoms produces a “disorder” that may have multiple causes — ones not caused by the same particular genes, she explains.

Thus, thinking about mental health as being purely genetic is problematic, she says. In other words, people don’t simply “inherit” mental illness. A number of biological and environmental factors are at play in gene expression.

Regardless of the genetic link, family history does serve as an indicator of possible risk for certain mental health issues, so counselors need to ask about it. As a genetic counselor, Shuck, a member of the American Counseling Association, admits that she may handle family history intake differently. Genetic counseling, as defined by the National Society of Genetic Counselors, is “the process of helping people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease.” It blends education and counseling, including discussing one’s emotional reactions (e.g., guilt, shame) to the cause of an illness and strategies to improve and protect one’s mental health.

Thus, Shuck’s own interests often lead her to ask follow-up questions about family history rather than sticking to a general question about whether anyone in a client’s family struggles with a certain disorder. If, for example, she learns a client has a family history of depression, she may ask, “Who has depression, or who do you think has depression?” After the client names the family members, Shuck might say, “Tell me about your experiences with those family members. How much has their mental health gotten in the way? How aware were you of their mental health?”

These questions serve as a natural segue to discussing how some disorders have a stronger predisposition in families, so it is good to be aware and mindful of them, she explains. Discussing family history in this way helps to normalize it, she adds.   

Everett, who specializes in psychotherapy for adults who were raised by parents with mental illness, initially avoids asking too many questions. Instead, she lets the conversation unfold, and if a client mentions alcohol use, she’ll ask if any of the client’s family members drink alcohol. Inserting those questions into the discussion often opens up a productive conversation about family mental health history, she says.

Environmental factors

Mental disorders are “really not at all about genetic testing where you’re testing genes or blood samples because there are no specific genetic tests that can predict or rule out whether someone may develop mental illness,” Shuck notes. “That’s not how mental illness works.”

Shuck says that having a family history of mental illness can be thought of along the same lines as having a family history of high blood pressure or diabetes. Yes, having a family history does increase one’s risk for a particular health issue, but it is not destiny, she stresses.

For that reason, when someone with a family history of mental disorders walks into counseling, it is important to educate them that mental health is more than just biology and genetics, Shuck says. In fact, genetics, environment, lifestyle and self-care (or lack thereof) all work together to determine if someone will develop a mental disorder, she explains.

One of Shuck’s favorite visual tools to help illustrate this for clients is the mental illness jar analogy (from Holly Peay and Jehannine Austin’s How to Talk With Families About Genetics and Psychiatric Illness). Shuck tells clients to imagine a glass jar with marbles in it. The marbles represent the genes (genetic factors) they receive from both sides of their family. The marbles also represent one’s susceptibility to mental illness; some people have two marbles in their jar, while others have a few handfuls of marbles.

Next, Shuck explains how one’s lifestyle and environment also fill the jar. To illustrate this point, she has clients imagine adding leaves, grass, pebbles and twigs (representing environmental factors) until the jar is at capacity. “We only develop mental illness if the jar overflows,” she says.

Behm, an ACA member, also uses a simple analogy (from developmental biologist Bruce Lipton) to help explain this complex issue to clients. She tells clients to think of a gene as an overhead light in a room. When they walk into the room, that light (or gene) is present but inactive. They have to change their environment by walking over and flipping on a switch to activate the light.

As Everett points out, “Our experiences, drug use, traumas, these things can turn genes on, especially at a young age.” On the other hand, if someone with a pervasive family history of mental disorders had caregivers who were aware and sought help, the child could grow up to be relatively well-adjusted and healthy in terms of mental health, she says.

In utero epigenetics is another area that illustrates how environment affects our genes and mental health, Douthit notes. The Dutch Hongerwinter (hunger winter) offers an example. In 1944-1945, people living in a Nazi-occupied part of the Netherlands endured starvation and brutal cold because they were cut off from food and fuel supplies. Scientists followed a group who were in utero during this period and found that the harsh environment caused changes in gene expression that resulted in their developing physical and mental health problems across the life span. In particular, they experienced higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, schizotypal disorder and various dementias.

Why is this important to the work of counselors? If, Douthit says, counselors are aware of an environmental risk to young children, such as the altered gene expression coming from the chronic stress and trauma associated with poverty, then they can work with parents and use appropriate therapeutic techniques such as touch therapy interventions in young infants and child-parent psychotherapy to reverse the impact of the harmful
gene expression.

Behm uses the Rogerian approach of unconditional positive regard and “prizing” the client (showing clients they are worth striving for) to create a different environment for clients — one that is ripe for change.

Counseling interventions that change clients’ behaviors and thoughts long term have the potential to also change brain structure and help clients learn new ways of doing and being, Behm continues. “It’s the external factors that are making people anxious or depressed,” she says. “If you get yourself out of that situation, your experience can be different. If you can’t get yourself out of it, the way you perceive it — how you make meaning of it — makes it different in your brain.”

The hope of epigenetics

Historically, genes have been considered sovereign, but genetics don’t tell the entire story, Behm points out. For her, epigenetics is a hopeful way to approach the issue of familial mental illness.

Epigenetics contains the Greek prefix epi, which means “on top of,” “above” or “outside of.” Thus, epigenetics includes the factors outside of the genes. This term can describe a wide range of biological mechanisms that switch genes on and off (evoking the prior analogy of the overhead light). Epigenetics focuses on the expression of one’s genes — what is shaped by environmental influences and life experiences such as chronic
stress or trauma.

Douthit has written and presented on the relationship between counseling and psychiatric genetics, including her 2006 article “The Convergence of Counseling and Psychiatric Genetics: An Essential Role for Counselors” in the Journal of Counseling & Development and a 2015 article on epigenetics for the “Neurocounseling: Bridging Brain and Behavior” column in Counseling Today. In her chapter on the biology of marginality in the 2017 ACA book Neurocounseling: Brain-Based Clinical Approaches, she explains epigenetics as the way that aspects of the environment control how genes are expressed. Epigenetic changes can help people adapt to new and challenging environments, she adds.

This is where counseling comes in. Clients often come to counseling after they have struggled on their own for a while, Behm notes. The repetition of their reactions to their external environment has resulted in a certain neuropathway being created, she explains.

Clients are inundated with messages of diseases being genetic or heritable, but they rarely hear the counternarrative that they can make changes in their lives that will provide relief from their struggle, Behm notes. “Through consistent application of these changes, [clients] can change the structure and function of [their] brain,” she adds. This process is known as neuroplasticity.

Behm explains neuroplasticity to her clients by literally connecting the dots for them. She puts a bunch of dots on a blank piece of paper to represent neurons in the brain. Then, for simplicity, she connects two dots with a line to represent the neuropathway that develops when someone acts or thinks the same way repeatedly. She then asks, “What do you think will happen if I continue to connect these two dots over and over?” Clients acknowledge that this action will wear a hole in the paper. To which she responds, “When I create a hole, then I don’t have to look at the paper to connect the dots. I can do it automatically without looking because I have created a groove. That’s a neuropathway. That’s a habit.”

Even though clients often come in to counseling with unhealthy or undesirable habits (such as responding to an event in an anxious way), Behm provides them with hope. She explains how counseling can help them create new neuropathways, which she illustrates by connecting the original dot on the paper with a new dot.

Of course, the real process is not as simple as connecting one dot to another, but the illustration helps clients grasp that they can choose another path and establish a new way of being and doing, Behm says. The realization of this choice provides clients — including those with family histories of mental illness — a sense of freedom, hope and empowerment, she adds.

At the same time, Behm reminds clients of the power exerted by previously well-worn neuropathways and reassures them that continuing down an old pathway is normal. If that happens, she advises clients to journal about the experience, recording their thoughts and feelings about making the undesirable choice and what they wish they had done or thought differently.

“The very act of writing that out strengthens the [new] neuropathway,” she explains. “Not only did you pause and think about it … you wrote about it. That strengthened it as well.”

In addition, professional clinical counselors can help bring clients’ subconscious thoughts to consciousness. By doing this, clients can process harmful thoughts, make meaning out of the situation, and create a new narrative, Behm explains. The healthy thoughts from the new narrative can positively affect genes, she says.

Protective factors

When patients are confronted with a physical health risk such as diabetes or high blood pressure, they are typically encouraged by health professionals to adjust their behavior in response. Shuck, a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and its psychiatric disorders special interest group, approaches her clients’ increased risk of mental health problems in a similar fashion: by helping them change their behaviors.

Returning to the mental illness jar analogy, Shuck informs clients that they can increase the size of their jars by adding rings to the top so that the “contents” (the genetic and environmental factors) don’t spill over. These “rings” are protective factors that help improve one’s mental health, Shuck explains. “Sleep, exercise, social connection, psychotherapy, physical health maintenance — all of those protective factors that we have control of and we can do something about — [are] what make the jar have more capacity,” she says. “And so, it doesn’t really matter how many marbles we’re born with; it’s also important what else gets put in the jar and how many protective factors we add to it to increase the capacity.”

Techniques that involve a calming sympathetic-parasympathetic shift (as proposed by Herbert Benson, a pioneer of mind-body medicine) may also be effective, Douthit asserts. Activities such as meditation, knitting, therapeutic massage, creative arts, being in nature, and breathwork help cause this shift and calm the nervous system, she explains. Some of these techniques can involve basic behavioral changes that help clients “become aware of when [they’re] becoming agitated and to be able to recognize that and pull back from it and get engaged in things that are going to help [them] feel more baseline calm,”
she explains.

In addition, counseling can help clients relearn a better response or coping strategy for their respective environmental situations, Behm says. For example, a client might have grown up watching a parent respond to external events in an anxious way and subconsciously learned this was an appropriate response. In the safe setting of counseling, this client can learn new, healthy coping methods and, through repetition (which is one way that change happens), create new neuropathways.

At the same time, Shuck and Douthit caution counselors against implying that as long as clients do all the rights things — get appropriate sleep, maintain good hygiene, eat healthy foods, exercise, reduce stress, see a therapist, maintain a medicine regime — that they won’t struggle, won’t develop a mental disorder, or can ignore symptoms of psychosis.

“You can do all of the right things and still develop depression. It doesn’t mean that somebody’s doing something wrong. … It just means there happened to have been more marbles in the jar in the first place,” Shuck says. “It’s [about] giving people the idea that there’s some mastery over some of these factors, that they’re not just sitting helplessly waiting for their destiny to occur.”

Shuck often translates this message to other areas of health care. For example, someone with a family history of diabetes may or may not develop it eventually, but the person can engage in protective factors such as maintaining a healthy body weight and diet, going to the doctor, and getting screened to help minimize the risk. “If we normalize [mental health] and make it very much a part of what we do with our physical health, it’s really not so different,” she says.

Bridging the gap

Shuck started off her career strictly as a genetic counselor. As she made referrals for her genetics clients and those dealing with perinatal loss to see mental health therapists, however, several clients came back to her saying the psychotherapist wasn’t a good fit. Over time, this happened consistently.

This experience opened Shuck’s eyes to the existing gap between the medical and therapeutic professions for people who have chronic medical or genetic conditions. Medical training isn’t typically part of the counseling curriculum, often because there isn’t room or a need for such specialized training, she points out.

Shuck decided to become part of the solution by obtaining another master’s degree, this time in professional counseling. She now works as a genetic counselor and as a psychotherapist at separate agencies. She says some clients are drawn to her because of her science background and her knowledge of the health care setting.

Behm also notes a disconnect between genetics and counseling. “I see these two distinct pillars: One is the pillar of genetic determinism, and the other is the pillar of epigenetics. And with respect to case conceptualization and treatment, there aren’t many places where the two are communicating,” she says.

Douthit, a former biologist and immunologist, acknowledges that some genetic questions such as the life decisions related to psychiatric genetics are outside the scope of practice for professional clinical counselors. However, helping clients to change their unhealthy behaviors and though patterns, deal with family discord or their own reactions (e.g., grief, loss, anxiety) to genetically mediated diseases, and create a sympathetic-parasympathetic shift are all areas within counselors’ realm of expertise, she points out.

An interprofessional approach is also beneficial when addressing familial mental health disorders. If Behm finds herself “stuck” with a client, she will conduct motivational interviewing and then often include a referral to a medical doctor or other medical professional. For example, she points out, depression can be related to a vitamin D deficiency. She has had clients whose vitamin D levels were dangerously low, and after she referred them to a medical doctor to fix the vitamin deficiency, their therapeutic work improved as well.

Another example is the association between addiction and an amino acid deficiency. Behm notes that consulting with a physician who can test and treat this type of deficiency has been shown to reduce clients’ desires to use substances. Even though counselors are not physicians, knowing when to make physicians a part of the treatment team can help improve client outcomes,
she says. 

Another way to bridge the gap between psychotherapy and the science of genetics is to make mental health a natural part of the dialogue about one’s overall health. “Mental illness lives in the organ of the brain, but we somehow don’t equate the brain as an organ that’s of equality with our kidneys, heart or liver,” Shuck says. When there is a dysfunction in the brain, clients deserve the opportunity to make their brains work better because that is important for their overall well-being,
she asserts.

Facing one’s fears

Having a family history of mental illness may result in fear — fear of developing a disorder, fear of passing a disorder on to a child, fear of being a bad parent or spouse because of a disorder.

“Fear is paralyzing,” Shuck notes. “When people are fearful of something … they don’t talk about it and they don’t do anything about it.” The aim in counseling is to help clients move away from feeling afraid — like they’re waiting for the disorder to “happen” — to feeling more in control, she explains.

Some clients have confessed to Everett that they have doubts about whether they want or should have children for several reasons. For instance, they fear passing on a mental health disorder, had a negative childhood themselves because of a parent who suffered from an untreated disorder, or currently struggle with their own mental health. For these clients, Everett explains that having a mental health issue or a family history of mental illness doesn’t mean that they will go on to neglect or abuse their children. “With parents who have the support and are willing to be open and ask for help … [mental illness] can be a part of their life but doesn’t have to completely devastate their children or family,” she says.

Shuck reminds clients who fear that their children could inherit a mental illness that most of the factors that determine whether people develop a mental disorder are nongenetic. In addition, she tells clients their experience with their own mental health is the best tool to help their child if concerns arise because they already know what signs to look for and how to get help.

Even if a child comes from a family with a history of mental illness, the child’s environment will be different from the previous generations, so the manifestations of mental illness could be less or more severe or might not appear at all, Douthit adds.

The potential risk of mental illness may also produce anger in some clients, but as Shuck points out, this can sometimes serve as motivation. One of her clients has a family history that includes substance abuse, addiction, hoarding, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, depression and suicide. The client also experienced mental health problems and had a genetic disorder, but unlike her family, she advocated for herself. When Shuck asked her why she was different from the rest of her family, the client confessed she was angry that she had grown up with family members who wouldn’t admit that they had a mental illness and instead used unhealthy behaviors such as drinking to cope. She knew she wanted a different life for herself and her future children.

Defining their own destiny

Everett doesn’t focus too heavily on client genetics because she can’t do anything about them. Instead, her goal is to encourage clients to believe that they can change and get better themselves. She wants clients to move past their defeated positions and realize that a family history of mental illness doesn’t have to define them.

Likewise, Behm thinks counselors should instill hope and optimism into sessions and carry those things for clients until they are able to carry them for themselves. To do this, counselors should be well-versed in the science of epigenetics and unafraid of clients’ family histories, she says. Practitioners must believe that counseling can truly make a difference and should attempt to grow in their understanding of how the process can alter a client’s genes, she adds.

From the first session, Behm is building hope. She has found that activities that connect the mind and body can calm clients quickly and make them optimistic about future sessions. For example, she may have clients engage in diaphragmatic breathing and ask them what they want to take into their bodies. If their answer is a calming feeling, she tells them to imagine calm traveling into every single cell of their bodies when they breath in. Alternately, clients can imagine inhaling a color that represents calm. Next, Behm asks clients what they want to let go of — stress or anxiety, for example — and has them imagine that leaving the body as they exhale.

Hope and optimism played a large role in how Mariel Hemingway approached her family’s history of mental illness. She recognized that her history made her more vulnerable. Determined not to become another tragic story, Hemingway exerted control over her environment, thoughts and behaviors. Today, she continues to eat well, exercise, meditate and practice stress reduction.

Hemingway’s story illustrates the complexity of familial history and serves as a good model for counselors and clients, Douthit says. “Whether it’s genetic or not, it’s being passed along from generation to generation,” Douthit says. “And that could be through behaviors. It could be through other environmental issues. It could be any number of modifications that occur when genes are expressed.”

Shuck says she often hears other mental health professionals place too great an emphasis on the inheritance of mental illness. A family history of mental illness alone does not determine one’s destiny, she says. Instead, counselors and clients should focus on the things they do have control over, such as environmental factors and lifestyle.

“We have to emphasize wellness [and protective factors] much more than the idea that ‘it’s in my family, so it’s going to happen to me,’” she says. “We have to look at those things we can do as an individual to enhance those aspects of our well-being to make [the capacity of the mental illness] jar bigger.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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.

Stepping up to the challenge

By Lindsey Phillips May 29, 2019

Stepfamilies are complex and feature unique differences, yet on the surface, there may be little to distinguish them from “traditional” families. In fact, as Joshua Gold, a professor in the counseling education program at the University of South Carolina, points out, some counselors don’t necessarily think to ask if they are working with a stepfamily or blended family.

But perhaps they should. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, more than 40% of American adults have at least one step relative — a stepparent, a step- or half-sibling or a stepchild — in their family. Gold points out that of the eight most recent U.S. presidents, four (Obama, Clinton, Reagan and Ford) were part of stepfamilies.

“Often for counselors, it gets overwhelming to think about working with stepfamilies because it does look like so many moving parts,” says Jayna Haney, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in private practice at the Wellness Collective and at Red Dun Ranch in Texas. “But what is also true is that stepfamilies [tend to] have similar problems.”

According to Institute for Stepfamily Education Director Patricia Papernow in her 2017 Family Process article “Clinical Guidelines for Working With Stepfamilies,” stepfamilies face five
major challenges:

1) Insider/outsider positions

2) Children struggling with losses, loyalty binds and change

3) Parenting issues and discipline

4) Building a new family culture while navigating previously established family cultures

5) Dealing with ex-spouses and other parents outside the household

Normalizing stepfamily dynamics

Stepfamilies often assume that something is wrong with them if the family isn’t working well, so counselors should reassure these clients that crisis and change are normal in stepfamily life, says Haney, the founder of the Bridge Across for Single Parents and Stepfamilies. She will often tell clients, “It’s not you. It’s your situation.”

One tool that Haney uses to educate clients about the challenges of stepfamily dynamics is called the stepfamily triangle. She draws a triangle, and at the top she writes in the name of the biological parent. She adds the name of the stepparent in the bottom right corner of the triangle and the name of the biological children in the bottom left corner. Then she explains how the biological parent and biological children have three bonds — emotional, biological and legal — and each bond is as old as the children are. Haney draws three lines to represent these bonds on the side of the triangle that connects the biological parent and biological children. The biological parent and stepparent have an emotional bond and a legal bond (if they are married), so Haney adds the lines connecting them. The stepparent and stepchildren have only an emotional bond (one that is only as old as their relationship) connecting them, which Haney illustrates with one line at the bottom of the triangle.

“So, when stepfamily couples are confused or frustrated because it feels like the family dynamics aren’t squaring up, it’s because they’re not,” says Haney, a member of the American Counseling Association. To illustrate her point, she’ll often put her hands together in the shape of a triangle and tip it over to the left because all of the weight is with the biological parent and child. She has found this visual helps families understand the dynamics and challenges that stepfamilies often face. 

Gold, author of Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm and editor of the newly released book Intervening for Stepfamily Success: One Case, Multiple Perspectives (both published by ACA), also uses education as a means of normalizing stepfamilies’ experiences. Rather than directly asking stepfamilies whether a specific issue affects them, he provides general information about challenges that stepfamilies often face to see if anything resonates with them. He often starts counseling sessions by drawing two large circles — one for the clients’ lived experiences and the other for common stepfamily issues based on his professional knowledge. For example, in his circle, Gold may write that some stepfamilies deal with gendered expectations, such as assuming the stepmother will automatically be nurturing with the children or expecting the stepfather to be the disciplinarian. If the clients say they have experienced that issue, Gold will add it to their circle. 

Both Gold and Pat Skinner, an LPC in private practice in Denver, agree that the schools offer one effective avenue for easily reaching stepfamilies and helping normalize their experiences. Gold recommends that school counselors hold stepfamily groups. These groups can be promoted in the school handbook given to parents at the beginning of the year.

Skinner, an ACA member who specializes in working with stepfamilies, thinks that holding stepfamily groups or classes at schools helps address some of the time and financial obstacles that these families might otherwise face in getting assistance. She also says that groups allow stepfamilies to hear stories similar to their own, helping them realize that they are not alone in their experiences.

Integrating multiple perspectives 

Working with stepfamilies means having multiple voices and perspectives in each counseling session, which can further complicate the process. “The more complex the situation, the more flexible you need to be,” says Gold, a member of ACA and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC), a division of ACA. “If I’m dealing with one client, I’m trying to meet one client’s expectations. If I’m dealing with five, I now have five sets of expectations.”

“It takes more skill and more orientation as a clinician to figure out how to integrate all these different voices,” he continues. “Most conflict is founded in the notion that it’s an either/or situation. Either you’re right or I’m right.”

Gold, a contributing editorial board member of IAMFC’s The Family Journal, advises counselors to help stepfamilies switch to a both/and mindset so that situations won’t become win-or-lose propositions. For example, rather than focusing on how the kids from one family ate yogurt and cereal for breakfast and the other family ate eggs, the new stepfamily could include both breakfast options.

Haney, who specializes in high-conflict situations, parental alienation and stepfamilies, has developed an integrated family protocol in which she spends three to four family sessions discussing how to convert high-conflict tendencies into something productive. High conflict involves rigid thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and blaming others. She advises stepfamilies to do the opposite: engage in flexible thinking, manage their emotions, moderate their behaviors and own their actions.

In the first session, Haney always discusses flexible thinking. She puts eight or nine items with various textures (such as slime, play dough, Kinetic Sand, putty and therapy dough) on trays and passes them around. Each family member plays with the items and discusses how the items feel. Haney then asks what all the materials have in common. Someone typically responds that all the items can be mushed or smashed. Haney points out that no matter what the family members do to the items, the materials remain flexible. To emphasize this point, she asks the stepfamily to consider what would happen if they punched slime versus punching a wooden box. The answer: Only the wooden box would break.

Haney connects this exercise to the importance of being flexible in one’s thinking and explains that all people and situations have some good and some not so good features. With this new perspective, she asks each family member to tell her one thing that they like about their other family members.

Next, they take turns telling Haney one thing that drives them a little crazy about their family. For example, a family member may say that they don’t like it when everyone is yelling or how one of the parents is constantly asking the children how they are doing. Haney purposely uses the phrase “drives you a little crazy” because she finds it helps clients think of small problems, not big ones. She also advises counselors against asking clients what they wish were different because that is often counterproductive, she says.

When a stepfamily walks into Darrick Tovar-Murray’s office, he observes where each family member sits and how they communicate with each other. Take for example a session with Jim (the custodial parent), Jeff (the stepparent) and James (the child). Tovar-Murray will call attention to the way the family is arranged in the room: “James, why did you sit closer to Jim than to Jeff? Help me to understand what you make of the way … the family is sitting in the room right now.”

Tovar-Murray, an associate professor of counseling at DePaul University, also points out subtle verbal and nonverbal communication: “Jim, when you said James is not doing well in school, your voice went up, and at that moment, James turned his back to you. Can you tell me what James may be feeling right now?” Teaching stepfamilies effective communication skills helps them to understand one another’s experiences and emotions, says Tovar-Murray, a member of ACA.

Haney encourages clients to explore the narratives they are telling themselves about certain situations while simultaneously accepting that everyone has their own perspective on those situations. For example, if a stepmother says that her husband is always looking at his phone and waiting for his ex-wife to call, the counselor can say, “I understand that bothers you. What’s the story you are telling yourself?”

The stepmother might say she feels like the ex-wife is still more important to her husband than she is. The husband says he’s simply concerned that he’ll miss a phone call from his children. To which the stepmother responds, “I don’t want you to miss a phone call from your children. I just feel like you’re always looking at your phone when we’re out at dinner.” The couple can then make an agreement for the husband to either put his phone away for an hour or call his children before going out to dinner.

Recently, Haney had a stepmother come in by herself because her 25-year-old stepdaughter was constantly fighting with or upset with her and her husband. Haney worked with the stepmother to help her understand that she could not control the adult child’s behavior — but she could control how she reframed the situation and responded to the stepdaughter. With Haney’s guidance, the stepmother changed her perspective and learned new skills so she would no longer get surprised, upset or disappointed when the stepdaughter turned argumentative.

“The hardest part in relationships is to realize the amount of power you have or don’t have to make change,” Gold says. “You have endless power to make change in self. You have less power to make change in others. And, sometimes, part of being in a relationship means you accept things you don’t really like.”

Establishing stepfamily structure

Haney often begins counseling with the stepcouple first because she believes the partnering piece needs to be in place before other issues can be addressed effectively. “If the stepfamily couple can create the structure within their relationship and they can get on the same page with some of these issues, the kids fall into line,” she says.

Stepcouples often face challenges with establishing and maintaining clear parenting roles. In fact, a primary area of conflict for stepfamilies is the parent–child relationship, Haney notes.

The stepcouple need to agree on what they want to teach their children and what the family rules are in the home, she continues. For instance, if the stepmother thinks the children should stop using their smartphones at night and tries to enforce the rule without the biological father’s support, it will cause problems. In such situations, Haney often finds that the biological parent agrees with the overarching rule; the disagreement is in the details. Perhaps the father thinks that 8 is too early to restrict phone use and that 10 would be a better time.

“The moment that you allow the biology to divide, then the house is really two different houses,” Gold says. “So, there’s got to be a set of rules for the house.”

Haney suggests that stepfamilies establish basic rules about bedtime, homework and family dinners. Every family member should also have his or her own space in the house, she says. For example, one person shouldn’t sleep on the couch while the others have their own bed.

Haney believes that the biological parent needs to parent, and the stepparent needs to let that happen. Gold agrees. The stepcouple should figure out the household rules, and then the biological parent should present those rules to the family, he says. Then, both parents can enforce those rules.

If a couple disagree on this point, Haney draws the stepfamily triangle so they can visualize the dynamics. This can help the stepparent realize that he or she may have been overstepping. Haney then asks, “What does the family need to do to make the triangle stay upright?”

First, the partners must be on the same page and create a supportive relationship in which they respect each other’s experiences and perspectives, Haney says. Sometimes, stepparents will need to take a step back, she adds. Haney tells stepparents, “When you assert yourself as a biological parent when you are not … you’re putting a target on your chest because you will always be the bad guy. You will never win.” The biological parent’s job is to protect the stepparent by doing the parenting, she stresses.

Second, Haney says, stepparents have to strengthen their relationship with the stepchildren, but they must also accept that it will take time. One activity she uses to help with this is the emotional bank account. When stepparents marry or move in with the biological parent, they assume a parenting role, she explains. Because biological parents already have a strong emotional, legal and biological bond with their children, they can discipline, set boundaries for, and offer advice and make comments to their children, Haney says. However, stepparents don’t have this emotional connection yet, so with every negative action (e.g., punishing, yelling, making comments, rolling eyes), they make a withdrawal from the emotional bank account with the child, she continues. “It’s not one deposit and one withdrawal,” she points out. “It’s one deposit, but for every negative nonverbal or negative interaction, it’s five withdrawals.”

Haney often helps stepparents realize that they are depleting this emotional bank account faster than they recognize. In such cases, they need to stop making withdrawals and start making deposits. Recently, one of Haney’s clients, a stepfather, was having a difficult time with his 14-year-old stepdaughter. He expected a lot of her and often critiqued what she did. For example, he would point out that he often needed to remind her to take out the trash and even made comments about the way she tied the garbage bag rather than thanking her for her efforts. Haney encouraged him to start making deposits in his stepdaughter’s emotional bank account by giving her compliments, texting that he was proud of her, or saying that he noticed how hard she had been working. When he followed through, their relationship took a 180-degree turn within a week’s time, Haney says.   

When a biological parent finds a new partner, the children are often expected to show love and respect for that new partner right away, Skinner says. However, it’s important to remind stepfamilies that neither children nor adults love immediately. It takes time.

In addition, the child’s developmental stage can affect the degree to which the stepfamily bonds. If children are approaching or into adolescence when the stepfamily forms, they may never feel connected to the stepfamily unit because they are focused on forming their
own separate identities at that point, Gold notes.

In her stepfamily, Haney and her husband developed a plan to handle the stresses and problems they faced. She encourages couples to follow a similar plan, which includes:

  • Talking to and reassuring each other that things will be OK
  • Creating daily habits that provide a sense of connection and support
  • Going out on dates
  • Limiting how much time they discuss children, stepchildren and exes

Haney also reminds clients to laugh. She and her husband found watching a daily episode of Seinfeld helpful during the difficult early part of their stepfamily’s life.

“A lot of times with stepfamilies, you’re sacrificing the me for the we,” Haney says. “If the couple … is willing to make these changes for each other, then it can be a really powerful experience.” In addition, the behavior of asking for help, finding solutions and making changes serves as a powerful model for the children, she says.

Focus on the solution, not the problem

“I think the big mistake that counselors make is they try to start with the problem,” Haney says about counseling stepfamilies. Often, stepfamily couples come in experiencing so much angst, frustration and confusion, they don’t know where to begin. If the counselor asks the couple to talk about their problems and feelings, the couple and the counselor all become problem saturated and risk becoming overwhelmed, she says. 

To avoid this, Haney starts sessions with a basic genogram, which provides her with all the names and connections between the family members. She uses colored markers and construction paper, drawing a circle for each woman and a square for each man in the family, including the stepfamily couple, the ex-partners and the children. Haney then asks the stepcouple’s ages and living arrangements, when the couple first met and when they started dating, and she adds that information to the genogram. For those who are married, she will also ask if they lived together before they got married, when they got married and how long they have been married. Finally, she asks about the most serious relationship that each of the partners had before they got involved with each other.

Next, she draws smaller circles and squares for the ex-spouses or ex-partners and asks similar questions such as age, length of time together, when they separated and if they have children together. If they do have children together, Haney connects the ex and adds in the children’s names and ages, as well as how the parents split their time with the children and how involved each one is with the children.

Haney always ends this exercise by asking, “Is there anybody else that we’re going to be talking about today or who is creating challenges in your stepfamily life?” By asking this question, she often discovers other people, such as one of the partner’s siblings, a grandparent or even the ex-spouse’s new partner, who are adding to the stepfamily’s problems.

In addition to serving as a reference tool that counselors can use throughout their work with the stepfamily, the genogram provides structure to the session. “Structure is a big part of doing a successful stepfamily session,” Haney says. “[It’s] knowing what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it so that you don’t allow [the session] to become problem saturated.”

Tovar-Murray uses a narrative approach to separate the family from the problem. For example, if a child feels divided between family members, he would have the family name the problem and then ask, “When did the sense of divided loyalty enter your family system? How has it caused you to think you are not a family who can be a cohesive unit? What would your future look like if divided loyalty were no longer present and you were operating as a family unit?” This approach encourages the family to fight together against the problem rather than letting it divide them, he explains.

To strengthen stepfamily cohesion, counselors can also ask family members to describe activities that might make them feel more connected and then encourage them to carve out time over the next week to engage in those activities, Tovar-Murray suggests. “We’re always looking for those unique outcomes, and those are the times in which the stepfamilies are not being saturated and influenced by whatever the problem is,” he says.

Separating the family from the problem is also helpful when there is resistance to the new family structure, such as when one of the partners resists embracing or blending two racial or ethnic identities. For example, in a household with a Latinx stepfather and an African American biological father, the biological father might say, “Maintaining my African American identity is extremely important, and I’m not giving that up. I’m going to see this as an African American family.”

“That resistance piece is just showing [the counselor] how important that identity is,” Tovar-Murray says. With this situation, the counselor could attempt to separate the family system from the resistance piece and reframe it. For example, the counselor could respond, “I can see that you have a strong sense of pride in being African American. Now, I also wonder how you can have that same sense of pride in the relationship that you just formed.”

The counselor can help the family reframe this racial pride and create pride in the new structure the family is developing. Otherwise, the stepfather may feel isolated, which makes cohesion and integration almost impossible, Tovar-Murray says.

Take a step forward

Both Gold and Skinner acknowledge that busy schedules and finances can be big issues for many stepfamilies. As a result, these families often are not looking to engage in long-term counseling.

Gold says that any counseling approach that is more “present-focused” works well with stepfamilies. He often relies on a brief therapy model — six to eight sessions — and finds that most clients will make a commitment to therapy if they know how long it will take. This model also works well with family schedules, he adds.

Counselors “need to remember that a stepfamily couple is going to be less likely to come once a week, every week, for six months,” Haney points out. “So, when [counselors] work with stepfamily couples, [they’re] really doing that solution-focused piece.”

In fact, Haney finds that when stepfamilies come to see her, they have already thought and talked a lot among themselves about the issues they are struggling with, so they want to know what to do. “They know where they are and they know where they want to be, but they do not know how to get there,” she says. Haney doesn’t direct stepfamilies on what to do, but she does help them figure out different paths for getting where they want to be.

After Haney finishes the genogram, she asks the stepcouple directly, “How can I help you today?” Some couples may get to the heart of the matter, whereas others may not have an answer. In those cases, Haney provides the stepfamily with information on the importance of partnering together, the stepfamily triangle and the emotional bank account.

Haney also asks the stepfamily, “What are the two or three things you want to accomplish or work on while you are in counseling?” The family’s answers must be something they have control over, she says. “You don’t have any control over the ex or the stepchild,” she explains. “You do have control over how you respond to the ex. … You do have control over how you respond to the stepchild, how you talk to your partner about the child, and what kind of stepparent or parent you want to be.”

In part because stepfamilies may attend only a few counseling sessions, Haney often spends a longer amount of time in the initial session getting to know the family members, figuring out why they came to counseling and making sure they leave with an action plan. In the initial session, which often lasts up to two hours, she spends approximately 15 minutes on the genogram and 15 minutes educating clients about common stepfamily issues. For the remaining time, she helps families determine two or three things that they want to accomplish.

By the time the family leaves, each family member “need[s] to have something that they’re going to do that’s doable and that they can work on,” Haney says. “Then they leave empowered because they know what to do. [They] leave … educated because you’ve shared with them some insights that help them change their perspective and reframe how it’s working. And … it helps them see their story and their family differently.”

 

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Invisible stepfamilies

The concept of stepfamilies can challenge traditional assumptions of the word family, which often evokes an image of a married father and mother with their biological children. But as Darrick Tovar-Murray, an associate professor of counseling at DePaul University, points out, this image doesn’t account for the diversity found within stepfamilies. In fact, because this assumption doesn’t recognize other types of partnerships or unions, it renders them “invisible,” he says. That’s particularly the case when these families include a noncustodial and custodial parent with at least one child from a previous relationship and encompass multiple racial, ethnic and sexual orientation identities — which he refers to as invisible stepfamilies of color.

“When you look at invisible stepfamilies of color, they tend to come from cohabitating relationships where there isn’t a marriage or legal contract,” Tovar-Murray says. “That legal contract should not be what defines a family.”

As society continues to grow more diverse, counselors will encounter more invisible stepfamilies of color and thus may need to challenge their own views of what family means, Tovar-Murray argues. Counselors also shouldn’t assume that a couple is married, he continues. In addition, asking “How long have you been dating?” implies that the couple’s relationship may not be as close or as integrated as a couple who is married, and that may not match the perspective the clients have of their relationship.

Tovar-Murray also advises counselors not to make assumptions such as thinking that a stepcouple’s decision not to hold hands is related to their lack of affection for each other. Based on their experience of racial/ethnic or sexual orientation microaggressions, many of these couples may engage in this or similar displays of affection only in spaces they consider to be safe. “As counselors, we cannot assume that invisible stepfamilies of color are going to be out in all spaces that they walk in,” he says.

For this reason, Tovar-Murray, an ACA member and co-author of a chapter on blended families of color in the book Intervening for Stepfamily Success, advises counselors to be open and direct about microaggressions. He will often tell clients, “I want to talk about something I think is important. We know that racism exists and sexual orientation microaggressions exists, and I’m wondering if you as a couple or if this family has ever experienced those things.” He also suggests saying, “I know biases exist, and some of the things that may affect a family system like this may even be biases within your own cultural groups. Have you experienced any of those? How have you successfully dealt with those things?”

“The assumption that [counselors] make sometimes is that [they’re] not going to bring [these issues] up because the client didn’t bring it up,” Tovar-Murray says. “But sometimes clients, couples and families may not know that [counseling is] the space [where they] can talk about those things.”

— Lindsey Phillips

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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.