Tag Archives: men’s issues

Supporting disclosure for adult male survivors of child sexual abuse

By James M. Smith and Adrian Warren June 9, 2021

John (not his real name) was a white man in his mid-20s. He was on the obese side, sported a scruffy beard and identified as a gay man. John had come to a counselor after a referral for what John had previously described only as sexual experiences in his early childhood. Three sessions into the counseling relationship, John was building a timeline of significant events in his life. While discussing his sexual experiences and sexual and gender identity development, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“My brother and his friends used to have sex with me,” John said suddenly, glancing up just long enough to assess his counselor’s reaction before returning his gaze to his folded hands.

“How old were you the first time you had a sexual encounter with your brother or one of his friends?” the counselor asked.

“I think I was 7, maybe 8 years old,” John said, chancing another brief look into the counselor’s eyes before staring back down at his hands. “Does that gross you out?”

“No,” the counselor said. “Honestly, right now I feel a little relieved that you told me. I’ve suspected that you experienced some type of sexual abuse as a child, after what I was told when you were referred to me. I’ve been expecting you to mention it, but I didn’t want to push you into telling me before you were ready.”

“I wouldn’t call what happened sexual abuse,” John shot back. “I mean, I don’t know what it was. They never forced me to do it with them. They just would have sex with each other when I was around, and they wanted me to do it too.” He looked back up to assess the counselor again. “I am gay. I’ve known that for a long time. I just … I don’t know how to feel about it.”

“How would you like me to refer to these sexual experiences that you had with your brother and his friends?” the counselor asked.

“I don’t know,” John said. “It was just sex.”

“OK,” the counselor said. “I will call them early sex experiences until you think I should call them something else.”

“I don’t even want that to be the reason we’re talking,” John said. “I think the fact that my parents didn’t take care of me, ignored me, favored my brother for my whole life, messed me up way more than having sex at age 8 did.”

“I hear you when you say you don’t want these early sex experiences to be the focus of our visit,” the counselor responded. “Would it be OK if we stayed there for just a minute more? I just want to get some more information about these experiences.”

“What do you want to know?” John asked.

“I appreciate you letting me ask,” the counselor affirmed. “How old were you when your brother and his friends stopped including you in these sexual experiences?”

“I think I was 11 or 12,” John answered.

“So, your brother is five years older than you?” The counselor remembered this from an earlier conversation.

“Yeah,” John said.

“You said you don’t know how to feel about it,” the counselor prompted. “How do you feel about it?”

“Mostly just gross,” he responded.

“That’s why you asked if I was grossed out by it,” the counselor reflected.

“Yeah. Can we talk about something else?” John asked.

“I can tell that you’re really uncomfortable talking about this,” the counselor acknowledged, “and you said you didn’t want that to be the focus, so we can move on and focus on what you want to talk about. I want to be able to return to these experiences you had at some point though if that’s OK.”

“It’ll be OK sometime. I’m just not ready today. I’m kind of sorry I brought it up,” John said.

“I think it took a lot of courage for you to bring it up, not knowing how I’d react,” the counselor affirmed.

“My parents hate that I’m gay, so I’ve never been able to talk about sex or relationships with them,” he stated.

“So, your parents know you’re gay, but you’ve never told your parents about these early sex experiences that you had with your brother and his friends?”

“No,” John said, “I’ve never told anybody. I know if I did, my brother and his friends would just deny that it ever happened. Especially his one friend. He’s kind of a big deal, married, couple of kids. If he admitted it, it would probably ruin his life. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Can we talk about something else now?”

“You’re in charge,” the counselor said, “so we can move on if you want. How about if we go back to the timeline? What other significant events should we look at?”

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Why don’t adult male survivors tell?

This exchange between John and the counselor is highly typical of an encounter with an adult man who experienced childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Adult male survivors of CSA will often wait 20, 30, 40 years or more before disclosing their experiences to anyone. John had waited nearly 20 years. In 2013, Scott Easton found that about two-thirds of adult male survivors who disclose in adulthood first tell a spouse or intimate partner. Others who disclose will tell an advocate, religious leader or mental health professional. John had spoken to an advocate, who was a survivor himself, only about “early childhood sexual experiences” after hearing this advocate speak in a public awareness forum. The advocate to whom John spoke then referred him to a counselor.

Adult male survivors of CSA face significant barriers to disclosure. These barriers include gender norms, social stigma and questions surrounding their own sexual identity. John was comfortable disclosing that he is a gay man. While John understood and accepted his sexual orientation, he still believed that the counselor might be “grossed out” upon hearing about his “early sex experiences.”

John’s conceptualization of his early childhood sexual experiences also is a typical barrier. Many adult male survivors may not conceptualize (or want to conceptualize) their childhood sexual experiences as CSA. John recoiled at the idea, instead preferring to call it “early sex experiences.” This conceptualization of what can objectively be defined as CSA as something other than CSA happens for many reasons, including:

  • The perpetrator was female
  • Confusion about who instigated the sexual contact
  • The pleasure response that sexual arousal includes even if the arousal occurs during an act of abuse

At the time of John’s sexual encounters, the sexual activity of his brother and friends appeared to John to be normal behavior. It was something they just did. John also recoiled at the idea that he had been victimized in some way. This is a common masculine stereotype that can serve as a barrier to disclosure.

Not conceptualizing CSA as CSA can also serve as a barrier to disclosure when it comes to counseling assessment instruments. Many assessment instruments use the language of sexual abuse, assault or victimization. If an adult male survivor does not conceptualize his experience as CSA and a mental health professional asks in an assessment whether the client has ever experienced sexual abuse, assault or victimization, the client’s answer would be “no.” John denied experiencing CSA when asked directly about “experiences of abuse” in the standard initial assessment that the counselor completed.

Adult male survivors of CSA face a host of other barriers to disclosure, some of which even well-intentioned mental health professionals may unknowingly perpetuate. For example, researcher Rhys Price-Robertson identified the victim-to-offender narrative. Mental health providers and sexual abuse prevention professionals have emphasized, rightly or wrongly, that many perpetrators of CSA were themselves victims of CSA. This victim-to-offender narrative can lead to a widespread perception that survivors of CSA will become perpetrators. 

Greg Holtmeyer, a CSA survivor, advocate and public speaker, calls this “vampire syndrome” because in the lore, if one is bitten by a vampire, one becomes a vampire. By asserting the victim-to-offender narrative, mental health and sexual abuse prevention professionals may inadvertently perpetuate a barrier to disclosure by adult male survivors. If survivors believe this narrative, they may be less likely to disclose their own experience of abuse out of fear that they will be suspect themselves.

Another narrative that professionals and prevention specialists should be careful about using is the one that focuses on the male perpetrator/female survivor duality. This narrative is grounded in the fact that more female survivors of sexual abuse than male survivors report the abuse, but it ignores the reality that male victimization is nearly as high as female victimization. In the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from 2011 (a survey that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commissioned), researchers found that while 12.3% of female sexual abuse victims had experienced a completed rape before age 10, 27.8% of male sexual abuse victims had experienced a completed rape before the same age. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reported in 2016 that while 1 in 4 girls experience some form of sexual abuse prior to graduating college, 1 in 6 boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the same age.

What this tells us is that while more girls and women are victimized across the life span, male victims often experience sexual abuse at a younger age than do female victims. While women and young girls report instances of sexual violence at a significantly higher rate than do men and young boys, the lifetime prevalence of CSA is only slightly higher among women than men. 

The public narrative focused on male perpetrator/female survivor duality is meant to motivate the public toward prevention and inspire survivors to come forward for treatment. This same narrative, however, may leave adult male survivors feeling isolated and alone. Adult male survivors rarely see their stories represented in treatment, advocacy or prevention efforts. This could inadvertently lead to the silencing of adult male survivors by enhancing their sense of isolation. As mental health and sexual abuse prevention professionals, we must ensure that our narrative is inclusive of all gender types.

Prompting disclosure and providing support

In our research into the lived experiences of adult male survivors’ disclosure of CSA, we found specific interventions that can help mental health professionals evoke disclosure and support adult male survivors after the disclosure occurs. Such interventions include:

  • Using a timeline of significant life events to identify any early childhood sexual experiences
  • Understanding that disclosure is a relational experience for the survivor, who is reading cues from the mental health professional on whether to continue the disclosure
  • Using a balanced and honest affective response to the
    disclosure (this is more encouraging than no response or an overly emotive response)
  • Empowering survivors by allowing the choice of how much and how long they want to talk about their experiences (this encourages a sense of safety)
  • Providing informed consent that is clear, thus supporting survivors’ choices to disclose by including them in decision-making tied to mandatory reporting

John was in his third session before he disclosed that his brother and his brother’s friends had engaged in sexual encounters with him when he was 7 or 8 years old. He had been building a timeline of significant events in his life. This process of building a life timeline is an effective assessment tool. Such a timeline should be comprehensive, including information about the individual’s education, work history, hospitalizations, suicide attempts, mental health, sexual history, family history and any other life event the person sees as significant. 

This type of assessment allows clients to name their own experiences in their own language and guides mental health professionals in avoiding stigmatized language that clients may refute. A tool such as this frees clinicians from asking clients to respond to yes-no questions about experiences of abuse or assault. The counselor in our vignette had asked John to return to the timeline to discuss his sexual history, and it was at this prompting that John began his disclosure process.

Another important element in supporting disclosure is understanding that survivors often experience disclosure as a relational experience. Mental health professionals have historically conceptualized disclosure as a linear experience, with the survivor disclosing and the professional receiving the disclosure. Adult male survivors, however, experience disclosure as a relational reality. Many victims of CSA are conditioned in the abuse to take responsibility for the emotions of others. People who engage in predatory, abusive behavior will convince their victim that the abuser’s anger, disappointment and happiness are dependent on the victim. As a result of this conditioning, victims become adept at reading others for emotional cues and change their behaviors based on what they see. This leads to two important factors when an adult male survivor, and really any victim of abuse, discloses.

First, adult male survivors of CSA are acutely aware of the reactions of those to whom they disclose. John assessed his counselor’s reaction after disclosing his early sex experiences. In our research, we learned that a stone-faced lack of reaction to this disclosure can be as devastating to the survivor as an over-the-top emotional explosion. Adult survivors may interpret a lack of reaction as cold or uncaring and see the mental health professional as distant and disconnected. A mental health professional’s balanced affective response that is in empathic sync with the survivor’s own emotions will foster further disclosure.

The second thing mental health professionals should remember when considering that disclosure is a relational reality is that they must own their emotional reaction. When a survivor sees a mental health professional react to the disclosure, the survivor can take on responsibility for this reaction. This is what those who perpetrated the abuse conditioned the survivor to do. Mental health professionals can support a survivor’s disclosure by identifying their own emotional reaction and being clear that it is their responsibility as mental health professionals to manage their emotions. The role modeling of emotional management techniques is a powerful tool in helping survivors manage their own feelings.

The adult male survivors we interviewed in our research described how, after their disclosure, the one to whom they disclosed took control of the information and engaged them in activities that they did not want to do. One participant described how a therapist had left him feeling invalidated after he had disclosed his experience of CSA. He stated that the therapist had ignored his disclosure and instead talked him into entering a 30-day alcohol treatment center because the therapist had decided that was a more important issue. 

Another participant described how the counselor to whom he disclosed became curious about the client’s abuser. The counselor and the survivor then spent time in their counseling session looking up where the abuser was living to satisfy the counselor’s curiosity. This was done under the pretext of discerning whether the survivor should confront the abuser, which the survivor had no interest in doing. 

Yet another participant in our research described how his mother, after he had disclosed his experience of CSA to his parents, called a “family meeting,” without any deference to him, to confront the abuser. The participant said he had no idea his mother had planned the meeting until he walked in and saw the family gathered in the home.

The participants in our research described experiences of disempowerment after their disclosure — experiences in which they felt their desires, preferences and concerns became secondary to those belonging to the one to whom they had disclosed, including counselors. In describing their experiences of disempowerment, each of the participants stated that they had ceased discussing the abuse with the person who reacted in this manner.

Support of the survivor’s control or power over the situation gets particularly tricky when one considers laws surrounding mandatory reporting. This is why informed consent that is clear and reviewed regularly cannot be emphasized enough. If the counselor is required to report certain acts of CSA, survivors of abuse must know this before they disclose. They should also be involved in the reporting in as much as they are able and willing. They may not have a choice, depending on state and federal laws, regarding whether CSA is disclosed, but they can have a choice about how the disclosure is handled and what their next steps can be.

When adult male survivors disclose, they are seeking an affirming, supportive relationship. They are seeking someone who can be with them in the pain they are experiencing without taking over, taking control, minimizing or catastrophizing the experience. They want someone to understand their experience the way they understand it and who will partner with them in walking the journey of recovery. Mental health professionals risk silencing or even retraumatizing survivors of CSA by taking control of the situation and thus disempowering survivors.

The experience of CSA is one of disempowerment. The perpetrator is exercising power against the intended victim and taking away the victim’s personal power. In that session when John disclosed, the counselor pushed a little with John but always asked permission first. When John said, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” the counselor stopped immediately, recognizing John’s power over his experience, including when and with whom he shared it. 

As David Treleaven says in his work Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, allowing trauma survivors to disclose in such a way that stays within their window of tolerance is more healing than attempting to force them to disclose more than they are able. Allowing adult male survivors of CSA to choose when, how long, how much and to whom they disclose is a small way of giving some of their power back to them. Empowering these survivors fosters further disclosure.

Bringing in the edges

John continued in counseling for nearly a year. At times, he wanted clinical focus to be on his relationship with his parents, his conflicts with intimate partners, or how he managed work. When he was ready, he would delve into the repercussions of the “early sex experiences” he had disclosed. Eventually, he even brought up the reality of incest in these experiences and how that added another layer to his feelings of being “gross.” John completed college not long after beginning counseling. He has “moved on,” as much as he is able.

Male survivors of CSA face unique barriers to disclosure. To support this group, counselors need to be aware of these barriers and adapt their interventions to this population. Remaining vigilant to the relational nature of disclosure, being sensitive in the language used to describe these experiences and owning one’s emotional reaction to the disclosure support further disclosure and healing. Male survivors disclose to seek affirmation and healing. When counselors provide a supportive and empathic environment, healing happens.

 

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The authors would like to acknowledge Greg Holtmeyer (gregholtmeyer.com), CSA survivor, advocate and international public speaker, who inspired the research to support adult male survivors of CSA.

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James M. Smith is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), national certified counselor, approved clinical supervisor and board certified telemental health provider. He is the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment in the School of Education at Lincoln University in Missouri, where he also serves as an adjunct instructor in the counselor education program. He also serves clients in private practice, where he specializes in working with people who have experienced childhood trauma. Contact him at jamie@koinoniacs.com.

Adrian Warren is a contributing faculty member at Walden University and an LPC-supervisor in Texas. He has been in the mental health field for 17 years and a counselor educator for 12. In addition to teaching, he maintains a small private practice and is the 2021-2022 president of Texas Counseling Association.

 

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

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

Investigating the impact of barbershops on African American males’ mental health

By Marcie Watkins, Jetaun Bailey and Bryan Gere May 13, 2021

Ralph Ellison, a famous African American novelist, literary critic and scholar, completed a series of essays in Shadow and Act that depicted the many social differences shaping Black and white America. He held the African American barbershop in high regard, proclaiming its significance as an institution as higher than secondary education for the African American male because it was a place of self-expression.

In Shadow and Act, Ellison writes, “There is no place like a Negro barbershop for hearing what Negroes really think. There is more unselfconscious affirmation to be found here on a Saturday than you can find in a Negro college in a month, or so it seems to me.”

This quote from Ellison reveals the historical impact that African American barbershops have had on the African American community in addressing a broad range of issues. It also reveals a foundational support for the therapeutic practices that take place in these barbershops.

During the time Ellison was writing the essays that would make up Shadow and Act, the nation was navigating uncharted waters, with many individuals, especially African Americans, demanding equal rights. Although there were many pressing issues, inequalities in relation to employment and education were considered foremost. African American males were greatly affected by discriminatory practices.

Today, unfortunately, some of these same inequalities still exist, despite major progress being achieved. A considerable body of research shows that the emotional impact of inequality can cause issues such as mild, moderate or severe depression, anxiety and other health-related issues, including high blood pressure, in connection with life stressors such as employment and finances. Although barbers are not typically formally trained to address psychological issues, African American barbershops do provide an avenue for individuals to express and address problems affecting their lives.

Researchers have identified several factors as being responsible for the emergence of the barbershop as the epicenter for African American mental health discourse. These factors include historical and cultural mistrust of health care professionals among the African American community and the low number of mental health professionals of color. Specifically, help-seeking behavior among African Americans has been conditioned by a distrust of formal health institutions and a leaning toward faith-based interventions.

The 2013 article “African American men and women’s attitude toward mental illness, perceptions of stigma, and preferred coping behaviors” by Earlise Ward et al. attributed mental health stigma to increased rates of suicide in African American males, as well as problems with education, marital life, employment and overall quality of life. According to Felecia Wilkins’ 2019 article “Communicating mental illness in the Black American community,” fewer African American males tend to seek out mental health services to address their problems. It is possible, however, that African American men receive mental health services via alternative nonformal and nonmedical institutions such as the African American barbershop.

The nonjudgmental, discursive, yet intimate environment within barbershops engenders individuals to seek them out not only to socialize, but also to obtain and share information, including their personal concerns or challenges, from and with others. African American men with diverse challenges who need input and support to address their needs or to improve their personal well-being may thus consider the barbershop a viable platform for receiving solution-focused counsel and information.

African American barbers: Confidants and counselors

Many African American barbers have unique relationships with their clients, serving as confidants and informal counselors. The significance of this relationship has been captured over the years in several literary works and movies. For instance, in the 1988 movie Coming to America, we see comedic yet intense scenes between the African American barber and his customers regarding relationship advice. In the 2002 movie Barbershop, Eddie (played by Cedric the Entertainer) expounds on the historical roles the African American barber has occupied, including counselor, fashion expert and style coach.

Many might question why barbers are accorded such prominence within the African American community, and especially by African American men. As Erica Taylor explains in “Little Known Black History Fact: History of the Black Barbershop” on blackamericaweb.com, being a barber was the first notable position for newly freed African American males. Taylor further notes that sustainable financial security and professional integrity came along with the profession. Thus, it is likely that many African American men viewed the role of barbers as notable, even if wealthy white customers regarded the job as unskilled.

Historically, the African American community has looked at business ownership, and particularly barbershop ownership, as a symbol of prosperity. In a 1989 article titled “Black-owned businesses in the South, 1790-1880,” Loren Schweninger highlighted the barbering career of John Carruthers Stanly. Stanly, an emancipated slave, became one of North Carolina’s wealthiest businessmen. While in slavery, he owned a barbershop, and by the time he was freed by his owners, he had gained a favorable reputation due to his business skills. A related story found in the Colorado Virtual Library highlights the achievement of another businessman, Barney Ford, who started out as a barbershop owner and eventually became a hotelier and real estate magnate. Collectively, these cases and several others highlight the regard with which the African American community holds barbershops and their operators. African American barbers are viewed as respectable individuals who can be entrusted with the innermost feelings and emotions of members of the community, especially African American men.

In a 2010 Counseling Today article titled “Men welcome here,” Lynne Shallcross wrote that the barber’s chair is more welcoming and less fearful for most men than the therapist’s couch. Perhaps African American men have understood and internalized this notion and feel compelled to highlight the platform of African American barbers and their barbershops as environments that are nonintrusive and welcoming.

A 2019 article, “Lined up: Evolution of the Black barber shop,” captures the perspectives of African American barbers on the pivotal role played by barbers in both the economic and cultural development of African American communities from Buffalo, New York, to Riverside, California. These perspectives capture the display of emotional vulnerability by clients to their barbers. One of the barbers acknowledged the therapeutic practices that go on in the barbershop and his role as an informal therapist. This means that becoming a good barber inevitably requires one to be a good counselor or confidant because many individuals who present for haircuts also use the opportunity to discuss their personal problems, including challenges with mental health.

African American men and mental health issues

In the 2011 article “Use of professional and informal support by Black men with mental disorders,” Amanda Toler Woodward and colleagues reported that African American men are less likely to seek mental health services. At the same time, African American men have more life stressors that cause psychological distress than do other racial groups, according to an article written by K.O. Conner and colleagues in Aging and Mental Health. Specifically, African American men are more likely to be unemployed for longer periods and more likely to be exposed to violence, harassment and discrimination within their communities. Worse still, according to Conner and colleagues, African American men are more likely to be stigmatized due to mental health issues.

James Price and Jagdish Khubchandani, in an article titled “The changing characteristics of African-American adolescent suicides, 2001-2017,” reported an alarming rise in suicide among young African American men. According to the authors, the rate of African American male suicide increased 60% from 2001 to 2017, with young African American males more likely to die by suicide by using firearm (52%) or hanging/suffocating themselves (34%). Conner and colleagues stated that African American men continue to battle insurmountable odds related to unemployment, police brutality and other stressors that lead to increased emotional and psychological distress.

Research shows that within the African American community, mental health issues are rarely discussed, and especially related to how they impact individuals, groups, families and the community. Typically, African American men are socialized to handle difficulties or problems by themselves or with close friends and family members, not with the help of outsiders such as professional mental health service providers.

Programs such as the Confess Project understand the community’s influence in addressing issues related to mental health and overall well-being. Thus, the Confess Project created a solution to bridge the gap concerning the provision of mental health services by exploring the possibility of educating African American barbers. This relates back to Ellison’s position that the knowledge-based institution of the African American barbershop may stand above other institutions in addressing the mental health issues of African American males.

SFBT and the African American barber

The Confess Project Barber Coalition program seemingly utilizes a form of solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), recognizing the barbers’ coaching abilities and assisting them to encourage African American males to speak about emotional health. Coaching, as defined by the website SkillsYouNeed, involves improving one’s agility, both mental and physical, by remaining in the present instead of the past or future. As noted by F.P. Bannink in a 2007 article, SFBT focuses on the fact that people’s ideas of the nature of their problems, competences and possible solutions are construed in daily life in communication with others. Daily life communication is a form of staying in the present, which is often observed in barbershops.

In a 2014 article, James Lightfoot noted that much of the strength of SFBT involves freeing the process from focusing too deeply on the problem and allowing more attention to be given to the solution and the future instead of the past. Unlike traditional therapy, which might keep clients stuck in their past by rehearsing traumatic experiences, SFBT assists clients in positively looking toward the future to change their behavior.

Developed by Steven de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg as a short-term intervention, SFBT focuses on problem identification and motivation, the miracle problem, possibility, hope, scaling/goal formation, exceptions, coping, confidence/strength and feedback. The core functioning therefore shifts the focus from mental illness to mental health and changes the role of the counselor from an active role to that of a facilitator or coach, according to Bannink. The seeming intention of the Confess Project is to promote mental health instead of mental illness in the African American community by way of African American barbershops.

Ellison’s quote ended with an understanding that African American barbershops provide an opportunity for self-expression. This has some connection to the “miracle question” proposed in SFBT, which allows clients to describe what they want out of therapy as a method of self-expression. Ellison and de Shazer thus subtly concede that the interactions in the barbershop and those that occur in SFBT are both modes of treatment that encourage and nurture forms of self-expression and emotional connection.

As a counselor and mental health advocate, I (Marcie Watkins) understand the mental health value of the barbershop in the African American community. My husband, Brandon, was a barber during the early stages of our marriage. I believe that he later selected a career in the counseling/human services field based on his experiences as a barber. My husband would often share that the barbershop was a place of community and weekly refuge for African American men. A sense of pride was established as a man with minimal budgetary resources could come to the barbershop for a haircut, therapy, relaxation and socialization — all in one package deal.

My husband stated that “to choose a barber to cut your hair and pay him your hard-earned money was a true sign of trust. If a man can trust you to cut his hair, he will trust you with every secret and problem, just as you would a therapist.” As such, the qualities of a therapist and a barber in the African American community are synonymous. Barbers hear about major life events because getting a haircut precedes weddings, funerals and any other special activity for which one needs “a fresh cut.” As such, my husband also stated, “When a man trusts you to make him look his best, he will trust you to tell you anything. That trust would also be transferred to his son and grandsons for many generations.”

As a mental health advocate, I forged partnerships with Jetaun Bailey and Bryan Gere, both of whom were professions at a historical Black university near my hometown, in educating African Americans on the importance of seeking and receiving mental health. During a conversation about mental health, Ellison’s quote was introduced, which led to a lengthy discussion among us. During our discussion, we shared experiences of observing dynamic exchanges in African American barbershops in which the owners/barbers seemingly served as facilitators/coaches and several patrons took on the role of group members. We also noted that the exchanges at times became heated. However, we noticed that the barber exuded characteristics similar to those of a group facilitator or coach — like those of an SFBT counselor — in controlling the conversations and making sure that everyone had a voice.

We also collectively agreed that a spirt of “call and response” had been infused in the exchanges between the patrons and the owners/barbers. Call and response is rooted in African American culture. This form of expression is interwoven in African American music, religious gatherings and public conversations. For example, a patron might use a solution-focused technique by asking a miracle question. The question might be “Man, what would you do if you had a million dollars?” A response might be “Get out of debt.” Thereafter, a call might be made by a patron or patrons: “Can I get an Amen?” As such, that patron is calling everyone to respond in unified agreement over the answer of “getting out of debt.”

The expression-type groups of author, educator and counselor Samuel Gladding, a past president of the American Counseling Association, can be closely aligned with call and response. Gladding recommends expression-type groups — such as those involving creative arts, music and literature —as ideal in reaching the African American population. These groups might mirror the outlets of how call and response is delivered. Gladding notes that commonly shared positive values among African Americans include creative expression.

It appears through our observation that with this call and response, the barbershop patrons remain in the present while being coached or guided by the barber, which is the core of the counseling relationship in SFBT. This discussion led to development of a presentation during Black History Month in spring 2019 at a historically Black university in Alabama. The presentation was titled “Investigating the Impact of Barbershops on African American Males’ Mental Health: Are Barbers Untrained Solution-Focused Counselors?”

Group Presentation

Approximately 75 participants, mostly students and some faculty and staff, attended our presentation that sparked much dialogue and generated some potential recommendations in getting African American men to seek formal counseling from more traditional avenues. Students were encouraged to interject throughout the presentation (like the call-and-response traditional method in the African American community) rather than waiting until the end. Therefore, if a student felt the need the comment, they were encouraged to raise their hands and wait for the presenter to acknowledge them to speak.

Based on feedback received from the participants, we cannot conclusively state that African American barbers possess innate characteristics that mirror those of SFBT counselors. Considering the responses received, it seems that African American barbers feature characteristics similar to those of client-centered counselors, because they are actively involved in the sharing process of the discussion, such as sharing their own personal struggles. Participants believed that this client-centered approach on the part of African American barbers was developed through years of listening and engaging with different people.

On the other hand, the participants felt that barbershop patrons generally possess the characteristics of solution-focused clients because they come to the barbershop knowing what they would like to express and discuss. This suggests that patrons are taking on the role of “expert” because they are able to open dialogue without any hesitation and anticipate a positive outcome. This might hint that SFBT could serve as an effective “gateway” therapy method for African American men. This approach could likely give them a sense of authority over their problems, thus leading them to explore more therapeutic approaches if their problems require deeper self-assessment.

Several of the students and a few of the staff members had once worked as trained and untrained barbers to support themselves while pursuing their education. They collectively agreed that the barbershop serves as a “one-stop” location for various businesses within the African American communities. In these barbershops, patrons can find flyers, brochures and pamphlets on everything from soul food restaurants to personal trainers. As such, one student stated, “So why not mental health?” He went on to suggest that grants could potentially be written by local and state agencies to conduct mental health presentations in barbershops periodically. He pointed out that impromptu presentations are routinely conducted in barbershops, such as someone promoting a hair show or concert.

Recommendations and conclusion

It is implied that African American men use supportive services in the community more than professional help for coping with life stressors. This method of support is not necessarily recognized through mainstream research, but it is acknowledged through other avenues, such as Ralph Ellison’s quote, as a place of self-expression. Although it does not replace professional counseling, the barbershop could be a window of opportunity for increasing mental health treatment for deeper psychological issues. As the literature reports, programs such as the Confess Project are successful in providing education to barbers to recognize mental health issues. Other mental health agencies could follow suit in reaching this population or simply networking with this organization. Mental health agencies that link with African American barbers will further promote and reshape their scope within the African American community because it will allow them to evolve from givers of advice to advocates in the mental health community.

It is assumed that some community support is instrumental in aiding mental health, and perhaps the African American barbershop should be further recognized as one of those support systems. By educating African American men through their most prized institution, the barbershop, perhaps mental health providers will be able to reach an upcoming generation that is suffering in silence.

A worthwhile goal would be to decrease/eliminate mental health stigma in the African American community by evolving the barber’s role as an advocate for change, because the legacy of the African American barbershop is deeply rooted. It was one of the few initial professions that gave African slaves and freed men financial stability, pride, voice and respectability, and it gave others a chance for self-expression. Moving forward, the institution can be used as a catalyst for change. This change can come in the form of stressing mental health instead of identifying mental illnesses.

Although SFBT could not be directly linked to the characteristics of an African American barber or its patrons as experts, the theory does promote mental health instead of mental illness. Mental health embodies our emotional, psychological and social connections, thus giving everyone a voice of self-expression instead of hiding behind the curtains of shame or stigma associated with mental illnesses.

 

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Marcie Watkins is an associate licensed professional counselor, a doctoral student and co-owner of Solutions4Success. Contact Marcie at Solutions4success@att.net.

Jetaun Bailey is a licensed professional counselor, certified school counselor and evaluator. Contact Jetaun at BaileyJetaun@hotmail.com.

Bryan Gere is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and a certified rehabilitation counselor. Contact Bryan at Bryangere23@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.

I don’t care what my body looks like on the beach, bro!

By Andrew M. Watley July 25, 2019

Many guys and girls alike trained hard during the frigid winter months under a common belief: Summer bodies are made in the winter. Traditionally, getting “beach body ready” was associated with women. But that idea is so 20th century. Now, through the influence of social media and many other factors, guys are just as likely as women to stress about their appearance during these warm summer months.

Let’s take Instagram, for example. I don’t know about everybody else, but my page is filled with diet tips, workout routines, and guys who have the body type that I desire. The posts from these extremely “ripped” gentlemen are a double-edged sword.

One side is inspirational. These people put in a lot of time, dedication and patience to mold their bodies, like art, into the creation they see fit when they look in the mirror. Guys like me who strive to be in better shape look up to these men, hoping that the same level of fitness is obtainable for us.

The other side of the sword can bring about despair because of society’s decision that these model bodies — a body type that is not like mine — is what is considered favorable. Take a walk in history through People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” covers. Most, if not all, of the men who have won these “competitions” have had favorable bodies. What an honor it must be to be considered the sexiest man to walk the Earth at a given time.

The idea that men don’t worry about their bodies is simply not true. Like the male peacock, we like to “strut our stuff” to gain the attention of those we might find attractive or for the man we see staring back at us in the mirror. He seems to be the hardest critic to impress.

Of course, negative consequences can be associated with the sometimes obsessive desire to be “Instagram worthy.” The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) specifies muscle dysmorphic disorder (MDD) as a subdisorder of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Muscle dysmorphia is defined as a preoccupation with the idea that one’s body build is too small or not muscular enough.

MDD occurs almost exclusively in men. This diagnosis can lead individuals down a path of obsessive behavior such as extreme exercise programs and long hours of weightlifting to gain muscle mass. These men may work out to the point of injury and often ignore said injury to continue their muscle growth. These individuals typically engage in unhealthy diet habits such as mass consumption of protein-rich foods to increase weight. In extreme cases, men may resort to the use of steroids or other addictive performance-enhancing drugs.

I conducted a doctoral research project in 2017 that studied men who considered themselves members of the fitness culture. The study conducted interviews of seven men and observed their gym habits. I paid close attention to how these habits and thoughts about their routines and physiques affected their mental health. According to these men, a muscular or fit physique brings not only desired attention but also validation of a man’s masculinity.

Society has equated a muscular or physically fit man with being more masculine than those men who are smaller in stature and weight. Obtaining this physique has become a social norm for the masculine guy. Maintaining a muscular physique is yet another gender norm that men are expected to adhere to in North American culture.

One gender norm that is changing is the notion that men do not talk about their feelings. It is not as far-fetched today to have men lying on the counseling couch as it was previously. It is possible that some of the men who end up in your office may experience symptoms related to a negative body image.

Unfortunately, counselors do not have a magic wand to use to “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” our clients into the most muscular men at the ball. Nor do we have a single can of spinach that we can give our clients to instantly make them ripped like Popeye. But what we do have is research stating that when treating clients with dysmorphic disorders, cognitive behavioral techniques work best.

One of the first steps in cognitive behavior therapy is gaining an understanding of the problem. BDD/MDD may be the result of an underlying issue or concern. As with most eating disorders, muscle dysmorphia is likely caused by biological, psychological and social factors.

For some, it could be a traumatic event that was caused by unhealthy choices. One of the gentlemen I interviewed during my doctoral research recalled a moment when he had to run after a bus and, because he was overweight at the time, he couldn’t catch up to it in time. He equated his health and the laughter of the bystanders with his image. This moment pushed him into a lifestyle that would eventually lead to body dysmorphic disorder.

Another interviewee who identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community discussed his desire to be viewed as attractive. He explained that some members of the community could be superficial, and in order to fit in with certain crowds, he needed to look a certain way. These represent just brief examples of how discovering the root of a client’s BDD or MDD may open the door to a helpful discussion about the person’s obsession with obtaining the “perfect” body.

As counselors, we need to help these clients first identify their automatic thoughts. As a theories class refresher, an automatic thought is one that is triggered by a particular stimulus that leads to an emotional response. Individuals maintain certain beliefs about themselves, others and the world. It is safe to assume that our male clients with BDD/MDD have similar negative views of themselves as it pertains to what is beautiful and accepted and what is not. These automatic thoughts can lead to cognitive distortions or faulty ways of thinking. As long as a client’s negative view of himself does not match his positive automatic thoughts about the world, he will feel as if he can’t comfortably be happy with himself as he currently is.

As trained professional counselors, we are no strangers to working with clients with anxiety. Anxiety is a big part of dysmorphia. Clients may experience anxiety when thinking about how others may perceive them. That faulty perception can then be reflected on themselves.

Helping clients to overcome anxiety is key. Anxiety is a fear of the “what ifs” in our lives, and 99% of the time, these events never take place. A person who struggles with BDD/MDD may be preoccupied with the thoughts of “What if I gain/lose weight?” “What if I don’t look like him/her?” Or, more common these days, “What if I don’t get enough likes?”

By helping clients confront the negative thoughts that plague their minds, we can potentially eliminate the harmful and, most times, irrational thoughts that haunt them.

Perhaps the most beneficial thing we can do as counselors is help our clients learn the importance of both acceptance and change. The DSM says that most men who struggle with MDD usually appear to be in pretty good shape already. Although it may be challenging, we must try to help these clients see their muscles as “half full” rather than “half empty.” Introducing them to the habit of positive self-talk may help them remember that it is OK to have a cheat meal or to miss a day at the gym.

If our clients are unhappy with the way they look, it can be beneficial to help them find healthy ways to change. Pointing them in the direction of a nutritionist or a personal trainer may be a healthy alternative for those who take extreme measures to alter their bodies.

Be proud to strut whatever you have at the beach this season, fellas. Remember that maintaining a muscular body takes time, effort and patience. If you aren’t where you want to be this year, set the goal to be there by next beach season. Be proud of the way that you look, and be sure to wear your shades and sunblock so that the rays of the haters can’t touch you.

 

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Andrew M. Watley is a licensed professional counselor and an adjunct professor in New Orleans. His practice specializes in children, adolescents, men’s issues, and struggles that may arise for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Learn more about him and his practice at drandrewwatley.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.

Left to their own devices

By Lindsey Phillips August 29, 2018

Want to hear a joke about a piece of paper? Never mind, it’s tearable. They may make you chuckle (or, alternatively, roll your eyes and groan), but there’s little denying that “dad jokes” such as this one help to perpetuate the stereotype of fathers as inept, ridiculous and out of touch.

Of course, fathers have heard it all: Is dad babysitting? Does he know which end the diaper goes on? Oh, he’s like the mom. He’s Mr. Mom!

That caricature might have been humorous in 1983, when Mr. Mom hit movie theaters, with Michael Keaton portraying a laid-off engineer who suddenly finds himself contending, cluelessly, with the demands of being a stay-at-home dad. But three decades later, the idea of men being present and involved fathers is no longer novel — or something to be ridiculed.

“Men hate being called Mr. Mom,” asserts Matt Englar-Carlson, a professor of counseling and director of the Center for Boys and Men at California State University, Fullerton. “[That role] is being put upon them by someone else, and they’re saying, ‘That is not my experience. I’m not a bumbling idiot.’”

According to the 2015 Pew Research Center report “Parenting in America,” mothers (58 percent) and fathers (57 percent) are equally likely to consider parenting to be important to their overall identity. Of course, the concept of fathering is constantly changing, especially considering the rise of women as financial providers, co-parenting, the diversity of fathers (e.g., gay fathers, older fathers) and changes in technology that allow more people to work from home rather than commuting to an office every day. Although people often focus on the negative effects of these changes, Englar-Carlson, an American Counseling Association member and co-editor of the 2014 ACA book A Counselor’s Guide to Working With Men, points out that they have also generated some favorable circumstances. “The changing of women’s roles [in the workplace] and the rise of co-parenting has created opportunities for men,” who now have the chance to be more present fathers, he explains.

And present fathers positively affect children in three key ways, notes Mark Kiselica, the acting provost and vice president for academic affairs and a professor of psychology at Cabrini University. First, by engaging in active play, such as throwing a ball, fathers promote their children’s physical development. Second, as role models, moral guides and disciplinarians, fathers help children become dependable, autonomous and friendly. Finally, fathers help their children’s cognitive stimulation, especially because current generations of fathers are more likely to be intimately involved in their children’s academic work and in promoting their achievement.

Despite the changing expectations and roles for fathers, men often struggle to update their own expectations around parenting, Englar-Carlson points out. Often, men are facing these challenges alone because resources on good fathering are scarce.

For that reason, counselors should be careful not to overlook the mental health of men who are struggling with one aspect or another of fatherhood. Instead, counselors can serve as a key asset in helping men learn to embrace and reframe their roles as fathers and helping them realize that they are not alone, says Englar-Carlson, one of the core authors of the forthcoming psychological practice guidelines for working with boys and men from the American Psychological Association.

Making fatherhood part of the conversation

Men often avoid seeking help, and even when they do go to counseling, they may mask the real reason they are there, says Eric Davis, an assistant professor in the Department of Leadership, Counseling, Adult, Career and Higher Education at the University of South Florida.

Kiselica, a licensed professional counselor and former president of American Psychological Association Division 51: Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinities, agrees. Gendered thinking that men should be self-reliant, tough and not vulnerable may cause men not to pursue help, he adds.

Nathaniel Wagner, an assistant professor of counseling at Indiana State University, finds that men often seek counseling because of someone or something else such as their partner, their spouse or their employer. Counselors must help these clients understand that they have something to work on and get them motivated to want to make a change and improve their lives, he adds.

But how can counselors engage fathers who may be reluctant to seek help? First, counselors must clear their heads of the notion that all men don’t desire help, Englar-Carlson advises. Instead, counselors need to be proactive. When the client is a parent or an expectant father, counselors should start a conversation about fatherhood, mentioning resources and potential groups to see if the client is interested, Englar-Carlson says.

Counselors should also be aware of signs that fathers are struggling. Davis recommends listening for fathers or expectant fathers who mention feeling alone, isolated or disconnected. Counselors may also notice substance abuse issues or aggression, he adds.

Men often feel a strong cultural or societal expectation to provide for their families. As a result, counseling programs focused on helping fathers with jobs and their sense of duty as a provider may serve as a gateway to addressing other issues in their lives such as relationship problems or substance abuse, Kiselica says.

Assessment questions are a great way to discover what masculinity means to individual fathers, Englar-Carlson says, but he advises against asking blanket questions such as “What does it mean to be a man?” Instead, counselors might ask father-specific questions such as:

  • What does being a father and fathering mean to you?
  • How did you learn to be a father?
  • Who is the father you would like to be?
  • What do you do well as a father?
  • What special characteristics do you have that you can bring to your role as a father?

Men often think about these questions, but they don’t talk about them, Englar-Carlson observes. Asking such questions “puts fathering into the conversation. … It puts being a father as an identity in the room that we can explore,” he says.

Counselors should also be prepared to delve deeper if fathers provide stock answers. Englar-Carlson often finds that when he asks men about their parenting experiences, they respond with, “It’s great.” So, he pushes back and asks, “Is it all great?”

“Parents … [and] men are encouraged to be careful of what [they] say. Parenthood is presented as this amazing thing that’s so wonderful, but it isn’t always wonderful,” Englar-Carlson says. “And I think men have a difficult time talking about that because they don’t want to appear selfish [or] they don’t want to appear unsupportive.” By pushing back, counselors can encourage fathers to move beyond the general comments that they think they should give, providing them with a space to talk about their full range of parenting experiences, he says.

Wagner, a licensed mental health counselor in Indiana and Florida, says that he finds genograms and sociograms useful in uncovering fathers’ stories and overall family dynamics.

Using father-friendly language

When engaging fathers in these conversations, counselors need to be thoughtful and conscious of the language they are using.

Kiselica, an ACA member and editor of the Routledge book series on Counseling and Psychotherapy With Boys and Men, recommends appealing to men’s desire to work hard by using subtle phrases such as “let’s get to work on this” or even “let’s roll up our sleeves” (at which point he will literally roll up his sleeves).

He also suggests appealing to fathers’ sense of duty and responsibility by saying, “It takes a lot of guts to get help” or “You’re being brave in seeking counseling.” These statements symbolically send a message and ease fathers into a positive direction, he says.

Counselors can also use metaphors or examples from the client’s life as a way to connect with the client and find a common language, Wagner says. For example, if a client works in construction or talks about sports a lot, Wagner will use similar language in session. He also recommends using humor to engage fathers because men often find value in humor.

Because men are often goal-oriented when approaching problems, using a problem-solving mentality and step-oriented approach is helpful with some fathers, Davis says. Counselors can connect the client’s current situation to a personal example in which the client relied on his strengths to solve a problem, he suggests. For example, counselors might ask clients how building a swing set is similar to building a father’s support group, or they could ask how the client handled managing people at work and how those skills could apply to his current situation as a father.

Wagner agrees that being direct and open about the counseling process — which involves explaining what you’re doing as a counselor and why you’re doing it — is beneficial. If counselors discuss emotions, they need to explain to fathers why they are doing that and how it connects to a larger goal, he says. “Fathers and [men] typically focus more on fixing things, and they want to know that what we’re doing has a purpose and that we’re trying to find ways to fix and help them through this process. Having a goal and a plan and sharing that [information] can often be very helpful,” Wagner explains.

At the same time, emotional language can be difficult for some fathers. “When [counselors] do start talking to men about emotions, a self-disclosure can be really helpful,” Wagner suggests. For example, if the client had a negative experience with his father, then the counselor could say, “When I was a child, my dad was stoic and distant, so it was hard to know if I was loved by him.”

Using emotion words in a way that connects with clients may help them express their own emotions, Wagner explains. “You’re not asking them to talk about their emotions. You’re sharing it and showing that it’s OK to talk about [these emotions], and … that can be really helpful.”

Reconceptualizing fatherhood and masculinity

Englar-Carlson acknowledges that parents are typically defined in binary terms — mother or father. This causes people not only to compare the roles but also to overlook the unique and diverse experiences of fathers. “As counselors, we just have to constantly stretch how we think about this notion of parent and father,” he argues.

Reconceptualizing fatherhood raises some important questions: How can counselors help clients reframe their view of fatherhood in a positive light? What does healthy or positive masculinity look like? Englar-Carlson doesn’t think that people in the helping professions often sit around and contemplate questions such as these, but he believes that they should.

Wagner says counselors need to reflect on their own beliefs and biases about fatherhood to work effectively with clients. Counseling is more often geared toward women, so counselors have to reconceptualize how they think about fathers’ experiences and their roles, Wagner advises.

“If we go into a session and we try to focus immediately on emotions and feelings and these things that men often find very scary, then we’re likely to get very early termination and fathers and men shutting down and leaving,” Wagner explains. “So, it’s us really being very patient, being very slow [and] building that relationship where fathers and men experience safety.”

Counselors can also use strength-based approaches, which will help counselors to develop empathy, establish rapport and use fathers’ strengths more effectively. There are great strengths that men bring to the way they approach things, and if we search and build upon those strengths, we’re likely to be successful,” explains Kiselica, who served as a consulting scholar for the federal fatherhood initiatives of the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

“I focus on the aspects of positive masculinity that I see in the man, which helps me build rapport with [him],” Kiselica says. For example, he will notice and affirm positive aspects of traits such as perseverance, hard word and caring for one’s family. By taking this approach, counselors will often gain fathers’ trust with other issues such as violence and aggression, he adds.

Kiselica also stresses the importance of using culturally salient language and promoting the more desirable form of masculinity. For example, counselors working with Latino fathers might emphasize the cultural term caballerismo (a positive image of a nurturing and caring man) rather than the term machismo (a strong sense of masculine pride) to help clients focus on the positive strengths of being a man who cares and respects his family.

Englar-Carlson agrees with using a strength-based approach. “A lot of the research that exists on the psychology of men is really looking at the places where men go wrong, or what I might call the dark side of masculinity,” he explains. Masculinity has been defined “in terms of conflicts or contradictions or things that men are not supposed to do — don’t feel, don’t ask for help, don’t do this — and we have a harder time looking at what men are supposed to do.”

Fathers come in to counseling already fully aware of what is not going right, Englar-Carlson argues. In fact, because men frequently internalize their experiences, their core emotion is often shame, he says. Because of this, male clients will typically feel shame for not being good enough or even for being in counseling. As a result, Englar-Carlson advises counselors not to start sessions by asking fathers about all the things that have gone wrong in their lives. He says this will result only in sad or resistant clients.

“Men are more interested in initially talking about where they would like to be. This is a term often known as possible masculinity,” Englar-Carlson explains. Counselors working with these clients might consider asking questions such as “Who is the father you’d like to be, and what does that look like?” Then, counselors can help fathers figure out how to achieve that goal.

Working with stay-at-home dads

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of fathers who stayed at home with their children nearly doubled from 1.1 million in 1989 to 2 million in 2012. In addition, 21 percent reported caring for their home or family as the reason for staying home, a fourfold increase from 1989 when only 5 percent cited this as the reason.

Although the number of stay-at-home dads has risen, the negative stereotypes and bias surrounding the choice have not gone away. In a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 51 percent of respondents thought children were better off with mothers who stayed at home and didn’t hold a job, whereas only 8 percent felt the same way about fathers.

Davis, who has presented on stay-at-home dads at the ACA Conference, finds the pervasive bias against these fathers to be problematic. He conducted a research study with 14 stay-at-home dads, and almost everyone mentioned having a negative experience, such as being the recipient of a nasty look or comment in public. One participant in the study mentioned that his father-in-law had expressed disappointment in his decision to stay at home because he was letting his wife provide for the family.

In addition, people often assume that stay-at-home dads are unemployable or lazy or that they have a disability, Davis continues. Such negative experiences can lead these men toward isolation, depression or even substance abuse, he warns.

Despite these challenges, many stay-at-home dads are happy being the primary caregiver. In Davis’ study, participants described the positive aspects of being at home, such as building a stronger relationship with their children and watching their children’s cognitive, physical and emotional growth. 

Having a father at home is also beneficial and positive for the children, Davis asserts. “It’s almost unanimous that dads [and children] are having wonderful experiences. … We’re seeing stronger academics for these kids with [stay-at-home dads]. We’re seeing stronger social development. We’re seeing stronger personal development. We’re seeing stronger family bonds,” he says.

Davis argues that it is not poor quality of life, but rather negative stereotypes, the lack of communication between fathers and other outlets, and the relative lack of support that these fathers receive that cause problems for stay-at-home dads. 

Davis suggests that counselors connect these clients with resources such as the National At-Home Dad Network to help them build support and community. In particular, he thinks school counselors are well-positioned to help identify and provide community resources for stay-at-home dads.

Counselors should also ask why men became stay-at-home dads. Making the decision consciously is more empowering than making the choice out of necessity because of unemployment, the cost of day care or other similar reasons that are more shame based, Englar-Carlson points out. The good news, he argues, is that there is no reason why men can’t move toward a more empowering mindset and embrace their position as stay-at-home dads.

Counselors can use a strength-based perspective to help clients find the positives of being a stay-at-home dad and restructure their thinking about it, Davis says. If a stay-at-home dad experiences a snarky comment at the park or a sense of isolation because other parents at school won’t talk to him, counselors need to ask what his desired outcome would be, Davis suggests. How does the client want to address or change this negative experience? Does he want to ignore it and walk away or challenge people’s biases? To help clients discover this answer, counselors can engage in conflict-resolution or role-playing exercises with these fathers, which will assist them in adjusting their perceptions and reactions to these situations, he says.

When fathers are resistant to staying at home and are doing it only out of necessity, counselors may see these clients struggling with anger, aggression and animosity toward their children and partners, Davis says. In such cases, counselors should be on the lookout for any potential issues of abuse. Counselors can also help these fathers identify and process their emotions of guilt, remorse or anger and adjust their perspective to see staying at home with their children not as a negative experience but as a growth-fostering opportunity, he says.

“Counselors can also look at [working with these clients] through a lens of grief counseling,” Davis suggests, “because you’re talking about a loss for some of these dads. This is a loss of a breadwinning role. This is a loss of a socially accepted role. … How do [counselors] help them process that loss and move on?”

Grieving miscarriage

People sometimes think that men don’t grieve over miscarriage because they are physically removed from the experience of pregnancy. This bias may result in men not receiving the help or support they need to process a miscarriage.

“Men experience emotions at the same level as women, in general, but often have difficulty expressing it,” points out Wagner, an ACA member who presented on men grieving miscarriage at both the 2017 and 2018 ACA conferences. With miscarriage, men may hold in their grief or try to find other outlets, he continues. For example, they may stay busy with work to hide or avoid their feelings, or they may lash out at others.

After counselors learn that a male client has experienced a miscarriage, they can normalize the client’s feelings by introducing the topic, Wagner suggests. Counselors can mention how many men who have experienced miscarriage question their masculinity because it is connected to the idea of being a father and then ask if this feeling resonates with the client, he says.

Once again, counselors can use clients’ strengths, such as a desire to be strong for their partners, as a means of getting them to express emotion. In a 2010 article for Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Kiselica and Martha Rinehart, a staff therapist for Council for Relationships in Oxford Valley, Pennsylvania, described the successful use of positive psychology with a Latino client who experienced a miscarriage during the 16th week of his girlfriend’s pregnancy while he was incarcerated in a state prison. Because the client held traditional beliefs about masculinity and was in an environment that further reinforced those beliefs, he hid all emotions expect for anger and grieved alone in his cell at night. As with other men grieving a miscarriage, his focus was not on himself but on staying strong and supporting his partner. Initially, Kiselica praised the client for sparing his girlfriend from worrying about his pain, but, eventually, Kiselica used this strength of wanting to support his girlfriend to convince the client to share his own grief and experience with her. This also allowed him to process and manage his feelings about the miscarriage.

Englar-Carlson, who has personally experienced the grief of miscarriage, realized that if he didn’t start talking about it, no one would ever know, so he reached out to his male friends who were supportive. From counseling strategies with women grieving miscarriage, counselors know the importance of talking about it, he says. “If not, it becomes an unacknowledged loss. And for men, it’s a similar kind of thing. There can be this unacknowledged loss that happens. Men are taught to pack that in, just stuff it inside, and just move on.”

With miscarriage, men “are grieving loss potential rather than a person,” Wagner observes. “It’s what this person could have been.” He recommends helping male clients find ways to connect and express what they wanted — this potential self — to what they do and how they express their grief. For example, if a man dreamed of throwing a ball around with his child, then the counselor might encourage him to coach a T-ball team, Wagner says.

Clients may also benefit from memorializing the child in some way, Wagner adds. He recounts a father who bought a cuff link and tie clip to use on the day of the birth. Instead, the father chose to wear them on the day the miscarriage happened. Afterward, he wore them on a monthly basis in remembrance.

Building supportive relationships

Regardless of whether men are stay-at-home dads, grieving a miscarriage or simply dealing with the everyday challenges of parenting, they often want to know that they are not alone. So, building relationships and finding support are key.

Kiselica argues that counseling services need to have an approach that is consistent with the way men form friendships. “One of the big mistakes counselors [make] is that they expect a guy … [to] come into [their] office at a set time, sit down face-to-face and spill [his] guts,” he says.

Men often form friendships by doing things together, such as playing sports, working on projects or playing video games, Kiselica says. Through the process of being active, they talk and discover what is happening in each other’s lives, he explains.

For that reason, Kiselica advises counselors to consider engaging in activities with clients who are fathers. This could involve shooting basketball, going for a walk, grabbing a bite to eat or helping a client work on his car. For example, counselors working with young fathers might start off with a quick meeting, do some type of recreational activity with the client, get something to eat and then sit down to talk more formally. Through this process, counselors stand a better chance of creating a relaxed, nurturing atmosphere that encourages fathers to open up and talk, Kiselica says.

“It is remarkable how … [struggling fathers are] bolstered by the support of other good men,” Kiselica says. Counselors can help connect these clients with other fathers, or at times they can even fulfill this supportive role themselves. Kiselica had a client who had a negative relationship with his own father, and when Kiselica made affirming messages about the client being a good father, he saw the man’s eyes turn red. The client was trying to keep from crying because he had never had another man compliment him in that way before.

It’s not surprising then that group work is one of the most effective treatment options for men, Englar-Carlson says. In groups, fathers are able to share their experiences and learn from the experiences of other fathers, he explains.

Davis has found that fathers often request some type of group work, whether it is a support group or participation in group activities. In groups, fathers can commonly share problems, gain insights, identify personal strengths and arrive at the realization that they aren’t alone, he says. School counselors could also consider providing after-school groups or other groups that allow fathers to connect with each other, he suggests. 

Although many fathers find group work useful, others are hesitant to get involved because it feels like a place where they might be required to share their feelings, Wagner warns. For these men, group activities (such as a fishing trip) with others who have had similar experiences are often helpful because there is no built-in talking component, he notes.

Englar-Carlson also thinks that finding ways to build relationships with other men is critical. “Part of the antidote [to the ‘dark side’ of masculinity] is relational connection in some capacity, so it’s about helping men … develop a relationship with each other,” he says.

Fathering matters

For Englar-Carlson, the take-home message is simple: Fathering matters. People are not taught a lot about what it means to be a father, yet being a father is a wonderful experience that dramatically changes a man’s life, he notes.

The National At-Home Dad Network advocates to ensure that the message that fathers matter is heard. In 2013, the organization declared, “Mr. Mom is Dead,” and campaigned to banish the term. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Mom made Lake Superior State University’s list of banished words for 2014. So, change is coming slowly.

“If fathers are viewed on the periphery around the birth experience … their own wonderment and experience also remain on the periphery, and yet it’s often a time … in which they’re undergoing rapid psychological changes in terms of how they view themselves, how they view their role, [and] how they view the person they want to be [and] the father they want to become. Yet, sadly for so many men, this happens in isolation,” Englar-Carlson says. “As society changes and expectations change, then counseling and support services should also change to match those needs.”

 

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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 consulting@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.

Viewing fathers as attachment figures

By Ashley Cosentino September 5, 2017

The role of fatherhood has changed over the years. Hundreds of years ago, the father was the most important parent for raising the children, then he became the breadwinner, and today an expansive volume of research details a general lack of involvement by fathers in their children’s lives. Plenty of fathers want to be a part of their children’s lives and do whatever they can to stay involved. However, many fathers encounter barriers created by myths that limit, or in some cases prevent, their ability to engage with their children.

Many people may believe some common myths about fathers. These myths include:

  • Fathers are not interested in being involved.
  • Fathers do not have the capability to be involved.
  • Fathers are harmful if they are involved.
  • There is little to no effect if a father is not involved (or, relatedly, the hassle of dealing with the father is worse than any negative effects that his lack of involvement might have on children).

In reality, both fathers and mothers are important, and not just as a means of feeding, bathing and sheltering their children. Their importance extends beyond meeting the family’s physical and safety needs.

All of us likely know someone who has either grown up with a single parent or been a single parent, or perhaps we fall into one of those categories ourselves. A faulty assumption that people often make is that married fathers are always present, whereas divorced fathers (or unmarried fathers) are always absent. This assumption is based on the faulty idea that a father is only involved if he is present in the home and that when a man doesn’t live with his child, the father then becomes disinterested.

Research has shown that children who grow up without consistent father involvement commit more crimes, become teenage parents more frequently and are unemployed more often than are children who grow up living with both of their biological parents full time. This is regardless of the parents’ race, educational backgrounds, whether they were married at the time of their children’s births or if a parent remarries. According to the research, children growing up without father involvement were also found to perform more poorly in school, use drugs more frequently and have other social problems even when controlling for generally lower income.

The prevalence of single fatherhood has doubled in the United States throughout the past decade, and the number of nonresident households is growing. A residential household is the parental home where the child spends the majority of his or her time, whereas a nonresident household is the home where the child stays when spending time with the other parent. Escalations in divorce and nonmarital reproduction during the past 30 years have preceded escalations in the percentage of children living separately from their biological fathers. Between the 1970s and 2000, the percentage of children living with a single parent grew from 12 percent to 20 percent. In 2002, 69 percent of children younger than 18 lived with both biological parents, whereas 23 percent lived with their mother and 5 percent lived with their father. Fifty to 60 percent of children born in the 1980s and 1990s lived with only one parent for at least a year before reaching age 18.

These statistics help to illustrate the lack of attachment that many children have with their fathers. An attachment is characterized by intense feelings of intimacy, emotional security and physical safety in association with an attachment figure. Attachments are significant throughout one’s life, and they can vary over time. When established in early childhood, attachments can continue, but new ones can also be formed during later childhood or in adulthood, and current attachments can be reinterpreted with new perspective and conditions. The goal of attachment is to have a secure relationship with several caregivers to improve normal social and emotional development.

John Bowlby established attachment theory in the 1950s and 1960s as an addition to psychoanalytic theory. Attachment theory is a secure base from which to explore close relationships that can accommodate an extensive variability of methods and findings. Attachment theory proposes that affectional bonds are essential to the survival of humans. It has a protective function (e.g., a mother keeping her child safe in times of danger) and an instructive function (e.g., a mother providing a secure base so her child can explore the surroundings). Attachment occurs if there is closeness and active shared interaction between the child and the attachment figure. Attachment theory is the prevailing theory for understanding early social development in children.

Attachment styles

Mary Ainsworth and her associates experimentally defined three subgroupings of attachment associations: secure, anxious-avoidant and anxious-resistant (or ambivalent).

Secure attachments: A secure attachment is categorized by passionate feelings of intimacy, emotional security and physical safety in the company of an attachment figure. Features that accompany a secure attachment include remarkably good communication abilities, the use of productive coping tactics and the capability to assimilate inconsistent emotions, normalize negative emotions and resolve conflicts cooperatively and constructively. Secure children show little anxiety when separated from a caregiver and develop a sense of self-worth and belongingness. Secure attachment relationships provide a safe base from which to explore the world and an affirmative model of self in relation to others.

Insecure attachments: Insecure attachment relationships occur as the result of trauma or neglect. They create noteworthy shortfalls in the child’s development of self and his or her capacity to relate to others. These effects can have enduring negative psychological concerns such as not being able to compromise or form meaningful relationships. Forty to 45 percent of children in the United States and Great Britain are classified as insecurely attached based on research done in both countries.

Children with anxious-avoidant attachments are characterized by their insignificant need to receive physical contact from their parent(s) when united after a separation. Anxious-avoidant children use defense mechanisms such as having a low need to accept physical contact from caretakers. As adults, people who are anxious-avoidant withdraw in relationships and are emotionally distant.

Children with anxious-resistant (ambivalent) attachments demonstrate a lack of inclination to explore, a lack of precociousness and a lack of self-protection, while also showing intensification in irresponsibility and accident proneness. These children are characterized by intense misery at their caretaker’s parting and an inability to be pacified upon return of the caretaker. Children with an anxious-resistant attachment style appear to show infrequent amounts of inner conflict concerning the apparent physical and emotional accessibility of their parent. Research on the concerns of this attachment style signifies that anxious-ambivalent children experience developmental interruptions that are not typically experienced by securely attached children.

A fourth type of attachment, disorganized, could also be added. Disorganized attachment is a combination of anxious-avoidant and anxious-resistant. Regardless of the attachment style, children create an attachment blueprint for future interactions that will guide them throughout their lives.

Fathers as attachment figures

Bowlby’s original construction of attachment theory proposed the role of the father as ambiguous, but he later recognized that fathers are imperative as attachment figures. Bowlby’s philosophy about the role of fathers as attachment figures developed over time with the publication of applicable research findings.

The infant-father attachment turned out to be prevalent while Bowlby was working on his second, more clearly defined version of attachment theory, published in 1969. He found that the father’s reactions to the child form the pattern of the child-father attachment relationship. Bowlby’s son, Richard Bowlby, who has also lectured and written on attachment theory, has said that he suspects his father’s initial concentrated focus on mothers and their attachment role may have ended up prejudicing subsequent research and distorting cultural values.

Bowlby added fathers as significant attachment figures because two distinct attachment roles seemed to exist for two separate but equally important functions for a child’s development. One attachment role is to deliver love and security, and the other role is to participate in exciting and challenging practices. In other words, the bond of attachment is more than keeping children safe from danger, which is often seen as the mother’s role. Attachment is also a bond that promotes exploration and gives confidence to venture forth, which is often the father’s role.

For children to grow into proficient adults, it is recommended that they first need to develop psychological security, which consists of both secure attachment and secure exploration. Researchers have defined this as confident, attentive, eager and resourceful exploration of materials or tasks, especially in the face of disappointment. Secure exploration implies a social orientation, particularly when help is needed.

Understanding the difference between secure attachment and secure exploration helps us see how fathers have a distinct impact on the raising of children. A father’s behavior should create a feeling of safety for the child as the child explores new understandings. These instances will allow the father and child to become familiar.

Humans have an instinctive need for enjoyment, discovery and a sense of achievement. Bowlby considered play to be an important aspect of the father-child relationship. The role of father-child play is alleged to be critical for child development and adds to the expansion of attachment relationships. A father’s role becomes noticeable in child development later; consequently, the impact of father involvement may be progressively more important and observable as the child grows older. A father’s awareness of his child’s exploratory behaviors will contribute to the child’s sense of safety during difficult tasks and increases the chances for the child to focus, follow his or her curiosity and master new talents in an emotionally unhindered way.

Parents’ roles: Separate but important

Both parents are considered attachment figures in attachment theory, and the child-father attachment is autonomous from the child-mother attachment. Whereas mothers are commonly involved in caregiving and providing emotional refuge, fathers are particularly involved in play and exploratory undertakings. Healthy development depends on a child’s positive attachment to both parents because the parents provide separate but equally important secure bases for the child’s attachment needs.

In families in which two parents are raising children, one parent serves as the main attachment figure for providing a lasting secure base and refuge for safety in periods of distress, whereas the other parent serves as the primary attachment figure for providing opportunities for exploration and excitement. There are fluctuating amounts of commonality between the two attachment roles; however, each parent will offer one type or the other. Scholars have established that individuals who excel in social situations as young adults typically had mothers who delivered a stable secure base and a positive model for intimate relationships within the family and fathers who shared in exhilarating play and interactive encounters.

To optimize the chances of a child being successful, two distinctive systems need to be in place: a secure base for the child to come back to when the action ends or goes wrong, and a trustworthy confidant to show the child the way. Children can use their parents as a secure base in diverse ways, and each parent can attend to a child’s needs differently. For instance, fathers generally take part in more physical play, inspire more risk-taking and induce a greater assortment of excitement and stimulation in play than mothers do. Fathers typically encourage competition, challenge, initiative and independence. Parents who compete for their child’s love and devotion are more likely to have offspring who are insecurely attached to both parents.

Little is known with certainty about the behavioral correlates of secure child-father attachment. Measures of this attachment should include the assessment of warm, supportive and sensitive challenges during joint play. These are indicators of an activation relationship. If we begin to view men as primary attachment figures, a change might take place in the importance we ascribe to fathers.

Need for father involvement

The issue of fatherlessness is discussed in many books and articles, but it is primarily prioritized as a financial problem. These children are considered worse off because they may not have the same level of monetary resources that can give them a better life. Most of the initial early research concentrated on the regularity of contact with the father and payment of child support. The financial assistance of fathers is unquestionably a vital resource for children in all forms of families. However, if children truly are to “profit,” fathers also need to be obtainable and involved in their children’s lives.

There is a need to reevaluate the significance of fathers and to recognize that their worth in their children’s lives is equal to that of mothers. Regardless of the eminence of the mother-child bond, children who are close to their fathers are happier, more fulfilled and less anxious. According to the research, it is important to position the father within the larger context of family relationships. When nonresident fathers maintain parentlike contact, partake in an assortment of activities with their children and spend holidays together with their children, the children’s welfare is sustained. Positively involved fathers reduce their children’s probability of externalizing and internalizing difficulties, limit children’s school failures and avert children’s self-image problems during puberty. The social interactions between fathers and their children who are raised by a single parent are important predictors of healthy functioning in children in both cognitive and behavioral realms.

The transference of social capital between nonresident fathers and their children is calculated by the quality and quantity of involvement. High-quality father involvement is essential for children’s security because fathers who cultivate close relationships with their children are more effective in observing, teaching and communicating. When children sense love and care from their fathers, their sense of emotional security is reinforced. Emotional security helps children cope with stress and makes them less susceptible to anxiety and depression. When both parents are involved, children are more likely to respect and obey parental rules and imitate parental behavior.

Studies of nonresident fathers often indicate positive correlations between father involvement, regular payment of child support and children’s behavioral adjustment, psychological welfare and academic achievement. Frequency of noncustodial father visits has been found to be linked to greater academic achievement, self-esteem, social competition and overall well-being of children. Father involvement is also positively related with children’s social capability, internal locus of control and capability to empathize. A father’s involvement in making key decisions that impacted his children also led to grown children looking to him for support. A longitudinal study of 12th-graders in divorced families found that children with recurrent contact with their fathers received more guidance and provision and were less depressed.

According to the literature, the lack of a father in a child’s life can have damaging effects on both boys and girls. Male and female adolescents from divorced and remarried families exhibit higher rates of conduct disorders and depression, and they are more likely to become teenage parents.

Boys whose biological fathers do not live with them have increased chances of conduct problems and acting out more frequently at home or school, whereas girls are more likely to become depressed. Many researchers believe that boys respond longer and further to the separation from their father attachment figure. Boys, more so than girls, can suffer from lack of contact with a father attachment figure, causing them to struggle in school.

Bowlby’s attachment theory presents that both parents are needed as attachment figures in a child’s early development. We have a long way to go before our society considers fathers to be just as important as mothers, but each step is a step closer. A successful future depends on children having secure relationships with their fathers. This means fathers being able to see their children often and being regarded as more than just financial support. Fathers are attachment figures who challenge their children and are right there with their children to explore the scary world ahead of them.

 

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

Ashley Cosentino is an assistant professor in the Counseling Department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor and a national certified counselor. Contact her at acosentino@thechicagoschool.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

 

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

 

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