Tag Archives: men’s issues

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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Entering the danger zone

By John Sommers-Flanagan October 28, 2014

For the most part, the United States lacks a coherent and systematic approach to sexual education. Instead, as lampooned in an online issue of The Onion, sex education is typically informal, unorganized and inaccurate. The Onion article describes a scene in which a 10-year-old boy takes his 8-year-old cousin behind his parents’ garage with a page ripped out of a magazine and shares “the vast misguided knowledge of human sexuality he had gleaned from classmates’ hearsay as well as 12 minutes of a Real Sex episode he watched in a hotel room once.” The older boy recounts his rationale: “Every time people have sex the woman has a baby, and I just want [my younger cousin] to be completely prepared before getting naked with a girl.”

The good news is that The Onion deals in news satire. The bad news is that the current state of sex education in our country isn’t much better than the fictional version portrayed in The Onion.

Image of youth looking at laptop computerConsider that a report this past April from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that more than 80 percent of adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 have no formal sexual education before actually having sex. If teenagers have no formal sex education, then what informal sex education do you suppose they take with them into their first sexual experiences?

One such source of informal sex education is pornography. In 2009, University of Montreal professor Simon Louis Lajeunesse designed a study to evaluate how pornography use affects male sexual development. He planned to interview 20 males who had viewed pornography, then compare their responses with those of 20 males who had never viewed porn. Remarkably, Lajeunesse had to abandon his project because he couldn’t find any college-aged males who hadn’t already viewed porn.

Other researchers report similar experiences. It appears that most boys, rather than learning about sex from a well-meaning, albeit uninformed cousin, get their information from the pornography industry … and my best guess is that the porn industry isn’t focusing on the best interests of American youth. This is one way in which reality may be worse than The Onion’s satiric version of events.

The absence of formal and accurate sexual education is a particularly American problem that may find its way into the offices of professional counselors. Many young males probably have little basic knowledge about sex and sexuality, or hold unhelpful ideas. Some will have porn addictions. Others will want to talk about how pornography may be affecting their real sex lives. You may also have clients who are concerned about their partner’s or potential partner’s porn viewing behaviors. Working with young (and older) males (and females) who want to talk about their sexual knowledge, beliefs and behaviors, including watching pornography, is both a challenge and an opportunity for professional counselors.

Counselors have an ethical mandate to strive toward competence. As articulated in the multicultural counseling literature, this requires cultivating personal awareness, gathering knowledge and developing skills.

Awareness: Expanding your comfort zone

Talking about sex, sexuality and sexual attraction can be difficult at every level. Think about yourself: How easy is it to talk about sex with your supervisor, colleagues, students or clients? Your own experience may give you a glimpse into how challenging it can be to broach the topic of sex — even for professionals.

In comparison, it’s probably an understatement to say that it is especially difficult for boys to initiate a conversation about sex or sexuality with a professional counselor. This is why counselors who work with boys should become comfortable initiating conversations about sex. If you don’t ask at least a few gentle, polite, yet direct questions, you may be waiting a long time for the boy in your office to bring up the subject.

On the opposite extreme, some young clients will jump right into talking about sexuality and push us straight out of our comfort zones. Recently, I was working with a 16-year-old boy who described himself as a polyamorous “furry” (which I later learned involved sexualized role-playing as various animals). Admittedly, it was a challenge to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude. But without such an attitude, we wouldn’t have been able to have repeated open and useful conversations about his sexuality and sexual identity development.

Knowledge: The effects of pornography on boys and men

Many potential areas related to sexuality deserve attention, focus and discussion in counseling. But because pornography and mixed messages about pornography are everywhere, it can be an especially important subject.

Most counselors probably believe that repeated exposure to pornography has a negative impact on male sexual development. This negative impact is likely exacerbated by the fact that most boys aren’t getting any organized, balanced and scientific sexual information. Nevertheless, within the dominant American culture, there remains strong resistance to both sex education and pornography regulation. Even in a recent issue of Monitor on Psychology, the authors of an article questioned whether porn is addictive and blithely noted that “people like porn.”

It’s not surprising that porn has advocates. After all, it’s estimated to be a $6 billion-plus industry. In addition, media outlets explicitly and implicitly use pornlike sexuality to attract an audience and sell products. Recently we’ve seen the increased use of hypermasculine male body types in the media, but most of the rampant sexual objectification still focuses on young female bodies.

Given that sexual development includes a complex mix of culture, biology and life experience, it’s not surprising that researchers have had difficulty isolating pornography as a single causal factor in male sexual developmental outcomes. However, a summary of the research indicates that as the viewing of pornography increases, so does an array of negative attitudes, behaviors and symptoms. Generally, increased exposure to pornography is correlated with:

  • More positive attitudes toward sexual aggression, increases in sexual aggression, multiple sexual partners and engaging in paid sex
  • Increased depression, anxiety and stress, and poorer social functioning
  • Positive attitudes toward teen sex, adult premarital sex and extramarital sex
  • More positive attitudes toward pornography and more viewing of violent or hypersexual pornography
  • Higher alcohol consumption, greater self-reported sexual desire and increased rates of boys selling sexual acts

In contrast to these findings, a 2002 Kinsey Institute survey indicated that 72 percent of respondents considered pornography to be a relatively harmless outlet. This might be true for adults. I recall listening to B.F. Skinner talk about how older adults could use pornography as a sexual stimulant in ways similar to how they use hearing aids and glasses.

But the point isn’t whether people like porn or whether porn can be relatively harmless for some adults. The point is that pornography is a bad primary source of sexual information for developing boys and young men. As a consequence, it’s crucial for counselors who work with males to be knowledgeable about the potential negative effects of pornography.

Skills: How can counselors help?

A big responsibility for professional counselors who work with boys is to consistently keep sex and sexuality issues on the educational and therapeutic radar. This doesn’t mean counselors should be preoccupied with asking about sex. Rather, we should be open to asking about it, as needed, in a matter-of-fact and respectful manner.

As with most skills, asking about sex and talking comfortably about sexuality requires practice and supervision. But as Carl Rogers often emphasized, having an accepting attitude may be even more important than using specific skills. This implies that finding your own way to listen respectfully to boys (and all clients) about their sexual views and practices is essential. It also requires openness to listening respectfully even when our clients’ sexual views and practices are inconsistent with our personal values. As with other topics, if we ask about it, we should be ready to skillfully listen to whatever our clients are inclined to say next.

Case example

Some years ago, I had a young client named Ben who was in foster care. We started working together when he was 10 and continued doing so intermittently until he was 17.

When Ben was approximately 13, I routinely started asking him about possible romance in his life. He typically redirected the conversation. Occasionally he gave me a few hints that he wanted a girlfriend, but he mostly still seemed frightened of girls. As my counseling with Ben continued, I became aware that I had been conspiring with him to avoid talking directly about sex, possibly because I was afraid to bring it up.

I finally faced the issue when I realized (far too slowly) that Ben had no father figure in his life and, thus, I was one of his best chances at having a positive male role model. With encouragement from my supervision group, I was able to face my anxieties, do some reading about male sexual development and finally broach the subject of having a sex talk with Ben.

Toward the end of a session I said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking. We’ve never really talked directly about sex. And I realized that maybe you don’t have any men in your life who have talked with you about sex. So, here’s my plan. Next week we’re going to have the sex talk. OK?”

Ben’s face reddened and his eyes widened. He mumbled, “OK, fine with me.”

The next session I plowed right in, starting with a nervous monologue about why talking directly about sex was important. I then asked Ben where he’d learned whatever he knew about sex. He answered, “Sex ed at school, some magazines, a little Internet porn and my friends.”

I felt a sense of gratitude that he was listening and being open, even if we were both feeling awkward. We talked about homosexuality, pornography, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, contraception and emotions. I tried to gently warn him that too much porn could become way too much porn. He agreed. He told me that he didn’t feel like he was gay but that he didn’t have anything against gays and lesbians. At the end of the conversation, we were both flushed. We had stared down our mutual discomfort and navigated our way through a difficult topic.

Professional sex educators emphasize that parents shouldn’t have just one sex talk with their kids; they should have many sex talks. What I thought was THE talk with Ben turned into something we could revisit. Over the next two years, Ben and I kept talking — off and on, here and there — about sex, sexuality and pornography.

Final thoughts

Boys are a unique counseling population, and sex is a hot topic. Together, the two provide both challenge and opportunity for professional counselors. As counselors, we should work to develop our awareness, knowledge and skills for talking with boys about sex and sexuality. You may not be the perfect sex educator, but when the alternatives for accurate information are pornography or someone’s uninformed older cousin, it becomes obvious that having open conversations about sex with boys is an excellent role for counselors to embrace.

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Readings and resources for working with boys and men

  • A Counselor’s Guide to Working With Men, edited by Matt Englar-Carlson, Marcheta P. Evans & Thelma Duffey, 2014, American Counseling Association
  • “Addressing sexual attraction in supervision,” by Kirsten W. Murray & John Sommers-Flanagan, in Sexual Attraction in Therapy: Clinical Perspectives on Moving Beyond the Taboo — A Guide for Training and Practice, edited by Maria Luca, 2014, Wiley-Blackwell
  • Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, by Michael Kimmel, 2010, Harper Perennial
  • Tough Kids, Cool Counseling: User-Friendly Approaches With Challenging Youth, second edition, by John Sommers-Flanagan & Rita Sommers-Flanagan, 2007, American Counseling Association
  • The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, by Jackson Katz, 2006, Sourcebooks
  • The Good Men Project: goodmenproject.com

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a counselor educator at the University of Montana and the author of nine books. Get more information on this and other topics related to counseling and parenting at johnsommersflanagan.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.

Behind the book: A Counselor’s Guide to Working with Men

By Bethany Bray August 13, 2014

It is widely acknowledged that men are less likely than women to seek help for mental health issues. At the same time, men’s issues can be misunderstood or overlooked by counselors, the majority of whom are women, say Matt Englar-Carlson, Marcheta Evans and Thelma Duffey, the authors of A Counselor’s Guide to Working with Men, published this past spring by the American Working_w_men_brandingCounseling Association.

“Counselors might not think there is much to know in terms of counseling competency when working with men. By default, counselors might adopt a universalistic perspective that ignores male culture and minimizes the experiences and stresses of growing up male. … Like other dimensions of identity, masculinity wholly influences the well-being of men and therefore must be considered and assessed if counselors wish to create effective therapeutic outcomes,” they write in the preface of their book.

Seventy percent of counselors are female, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, and roughly 75 percent of American Counseling Association members are female.

With this in mind, there are gender-specific themes that counselors should keep in mind – and be sensitive to – when working with men, say Englar-Carlson, Evans and Duffey.

 

Q+A: A Counselor’s Guide to Working with Men

Responses from co-author Matt Englar-Carlson

 

Men are statistically less likely to seek help for mental health issues. From your perspective, what can counselors do to help this?

The data here is very clear. Referrals for mental health services are about the same for men and women, and across the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the incidence of disorders are believed to be equivalent for men and women. Yet, regardless of demographic factors, men are less likely to seek help for mental/physical health concerns. So there is something about how men are living their lives and also how the mental health profession operates that maintains this discrepancy.

There is not enough space here to address the question fully, but counselors can recognize that seeking counseling often is stigmatizing for men and violates masculine norms about how many men should live their lives. Seeking help means relying on others, admitting the need for help, recognizing the influence of emotional problems — and if men are invested in a model of masculinity that values being strong, self-reliant and maintaining emotional control, then counseling is a tough sell, as the popular perception of counseling directly conflicts with this.

To address this, counselors can initially address men’s self-stigmatizing beliefs, normalize concerns and encourage expectancy in a positive outcome, reframe masculine-associated negative beliefs, validate the courage to seek help and the ability to overcome obstacles and, most importantly, meet men where they are. And that can mean getting out of the office and into the community to the places where men congregate. Go to gyms and athletic clubs, fraternal organizations (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.), churches, business organizations and other places where men go and see if there is a way to talk about men’s health.

Often it is better to modify the message to reduce resistance. For example, I often talk about “men’s health” rather than just “mental health,” as I know that mental health is more stigmatizing. Other research indicates using terms like “coach” rather than “counselor” can be helpful. All of this is really about being strategic in knowing the audience you are trying to target. So you can see that counselors might find themselves borrowing tactics from public health to reduce barriers to help-seeking and working to create social norms where men come to recognize their concerns as normal.

The key here is that counselors cannot do this if they do not understand the men they are trying to help. Counselors need to be masculine-sensitive in their work so that that are able to actually help men when they do come.

 

What advice would you give to counselors to prevent gender bias when working with men and to keep away from stereotypes — men are “macho,” unemotional, etc.?

The first answer here is that counselors need to do their own work to address their own barriers to working with men. Men and women alike need to examine their own stereotypes about men and their own past experiences so that they are not limited in how they understand the full range of men’s lives.

It is important to know that many men are invested in presenting an image and seeing themselves in a manner that matches the dominant masculine norm. Yet research on masculinity indicates that most men are of middling masculinity. It doesn’t matter how it is measured — most men score close to the middle of the scale. Research also tells us that most men think they’re not as masculine as other men they know, and most men don’t think they’re as masculine as they ought to be. So in other words, the average man thinks he ought to be more masculine. He’s likely to believe that he’s the least masculine guy in the group.

From that perspective, it’s no surprise that men make the effort to prove their masculinity again and again — and that it doesn’t take much prodding, even when it involves doing something stupid. As counselors, we have to use this information wisely, and see and experience the full range of the men that we see. We can easily reinforce masculine norms if that is all we expect, or we can be wise and patient enough to understand that there is a duality to how many men present. They will show you the toughness in order to protect their own tenderness, and they may present as stoic and unemotional in order to protect deeply painful and hurtful feelings. I think counselors need to acknowledge the toughness in order to experience the tenderness and understand why the toughness exists.

One of the key concepts here is being aware of the role of shame in men’s lives (see the article on men and shame by David Shepard and Fredric Rabinowitz in the Journal of Counseling & Development special issue on men and counseling). If counselors are sensitive to men, shame and emotions, then they will quickly learn that what you see on the outside is not always what is going on on the inside for many men.

 

Who is your target audience for A Counselor’s Guide to Working with Men?

Our audience is rather broad, knowing that everyone has some contact with boys, adolescent males, men and fathers in their personal and professional lives. The ideas in the book are tailored for clinical work with men, but we think the insights gained about male socialization and men’s health behavior could assist the reader with any of the men in their life. Most people know so little about the socialization and psychology of men, and it is rarely discussed in professional circles or among men themselves. We believe that a little knowledge can go a long way, and we hope the book helps the reader develop more sensitivity to men’s lives.

We also are aware that men may not always follow traditional help-seeking pathways, so this book was aimed to help professionals meet men where they are. If that means in a primary care setting, a school, private practice, community mental health facility … any setting is fine, as any interaction is an opportunity to promote health and wellness.

 

What do you hope counselors take away from the book?

That is a good question, as we considered that idea on many levels. On a basic level, our hope is that counselors learn about the wide range of men and masculinities and how male development can contribute to the difficulties many men experience around living healthy lives. This awareness can shift not only how counselors conceptualize the needs of men, but also how counseling is presented and practiced.

We also believe that ideas in this book will challenge readers to do some self-reflection about their own experiences, beliefs, biases and judgments about men. That process of reflection is critical in being a caring and compassionate counselor who works with men.

At a more technical level, there are many interventions and skills presented that can help counselors create better helping relationships with men and deepen the clinical experience. And I think that is something that our book really highlights — that men crave and can co-create deeper relationships. We put that idea front and center since it is critical to shaping how counselors work with men. You can see that we view working with men through the lens of developing relational cultural competency. Thus, our book looks at knowledge, beliefs and skills.

 

What would you want all counselor practitioners — school counselors, addictions counselors, mental health counselors, etc. — to know about the book’s subject matter?

First of all, we see this as practical book with clear ideas and case examples that illustrate concepts in action. Further, the book has multiple reflective questions embedded in each chapter that are designed to create a dialogue with the reader. We take an inclusive approach to understanding men and recognizing the wide range of identities associated with how men organize their lives.

We also present the book from a social justice perspective, recognizing the conflicts and barriers — intrapersonal, interpersonal, societal — that contribute to many men’s difficulties in being healthy. We present that perspective with the realization that health needs of men are vast and that the health disparities encountered by many men, but particularly men of color, need our immediate attention. It is easy to observe that men do not seek counseling as much as women, but the real question is, what are counselors doing to tailor their work to bring men to address why men might be hesitant?

 

Considering that the majority of counselors are women, do you think men’s issues and gender-specific needs are often overlooked or unrecognized in counseling sessions?

That is somewhat complicated to explore. I think that everyone recognizes sex and gender in a counseling session, but not everyone realizes that gender is salient to many men who are in counseling. I think that is true for almost any counselor. So in that sense, it might get ignored, or it plays out in sessions without any specific attention.

It is true that the most common counseling dyad is female to female, so in many cases, it might just be that counselors are not seeing as many men. But as I mentioned above, that also is a pretty significant issue that we ought be to addressing. Some counselor educators do not think the field should look at men’s issues. Due to many factors, it is also true that few counselors receive any formal training about working specifically with men.

One of the ways that male power and privilege works is that it clouds others — men and women alike — from seeing the pain and suffering of men. It leads many to assume that men do not need, want or will not accept assistance. It also deludes people — again, men and women alike — into not examining the role of gender for men. When gender is addressed in counselor training, it is often referring to women’s issues — take a look at chapters on gender in most multicultural counseling textbooks. So I do see a gap between what many men experience in their lives associated with their mental health needs and the counseling profession’s ability to comprehend and meet those needs effectively.

 

 

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A Counselor’s Guide to Working with Men is available from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222

 

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About the authors

Matt Englar-Carlson is a professor of counseling and co-director of the Center for Boys and Men at California State University, Fullerton.

Marcheta Evans is dean of the School of Professional Studies and the Worden School of Social Service at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. She served as ACA president for 2010-2011.

Thelma Duffey is ACA president-elect. She is a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

 

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Related reading: See “Men Welcome Here,” Counseling Today‘s cover story from August 2010: ct.counseling.org/2010/08/men-welcome-here/

 

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

 

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