Tag Archives: Family

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.

Working with foster and adoptive families through the lens of attachment

By Somer George October 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Where healing happens

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

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

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

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

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

The counselor’s role

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A different path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Related reading, from Counseling Today:

Fostering a brighter future

Through the child welfare kaleidoscope

 

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

 

The dismissal of divorce advice

By David L. Prucha August 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

 

The background for badmouth

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

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

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

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

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

 

The child healer

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Swinging pendulums

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

The social justice of adoption

By Laurel Shaler June 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Remembering Minuchin and the democratization of therapy

By Charles F. Shepard February 25, 2018

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

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

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

Salvador Minuchin (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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