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Supporting clients through the anxiety and exhaustion of food allergies

By Bethany Bray November 27, 2018

The diagnosis of a food allergy is life-changing, not just for the individual but for those who love and live with that person. In addition to avoiding exposure to certain foods, the condition requires that these families and individuals explain, over and over again, the seriousness of the allergy at schools, restaurants, social gatherings, workplaces, daycare facilities and countless other places.

It can all be exhausting, says Tamara Hubbard, a licensed clinical professional counselor whose son was diagnosed with a peanut allergy six years ago. Families receiving a new allergy diagnosis face steep learning curves that can cause them to worry and to overthink every detail of what their child or other loved one eats or might be exposed to.

“It’s almost like Russian roulette. You don’t know when an [allergic] reaction will happen, even when you take precautions,” Hubbard explains. “There’s a constant level of fear and anxiety at all times in the background that parents and caregivers need help managing.”

Food allergies affect an estimated 4 to 6 percent of children in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 1997 and 2007, food allergies increased 18 percent among American children and adolescents younger than 18.

A food allergy reaction sends someone in the United States to the emergency room every three minutes, reports the nonprofit organization Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

Counselors can help clients work through the anxiety and other mental health issues that food allergies sometimes exacerbate, but they can also be a source of support simply by serving as a listening ear. Clients may come to a counselor’s office worn out from the self-advocacy and constant vigilance that a food allergy requires, explains Hubbard, who has a private practice in the suburbs of Chicago that specializes in supporting clients (and their families) with food allergies.

With food allergies, there is sometimes “a constant feeling of having to fight in every conversation to get your point across,” she says. “Just being an empathic, listening ear [as a counselor] and wanting to learn, that makes a huge difference in their anxiety level and ability to release tension.”

At the same time, counselors should research and learn about food allergies to become a competent support to clients, Hubbard emphasizes. For example, they should know that an intolerance or sensitivity to a food is very different from a diagnosed allergy.

With a food allergy, the immune system views the allergen — for example, wheat, shellfish or peanuts — as an invader and overreacts whenever it enters the body. Someone who ingests a food that he or she has an intolerance or sensitivity to will experience discomfort but not the potentially life-threatening reaction that comes with an allergy, Hubbard explains.

Counselors who understand the biological and mental health implications of food allergies can help these clients to live fuller lives, Hubbard says. Although the most important thing counselors can do is learn about and understand food allergies, exercising compassion is also essential, she says.

“Sometimes, even medical professionals aren’t good at that part. They send [people] off with an EpiPen and say, ‘Come back in six months.’ In a perfect world, they would send them off with a list of resources for mental health and wellness,” says Hubbard, an American Counseling Association member. “Counselors can play a very important part to fill in that gap, even if it’s just an empathic ear. That is incredibly therapeutic in itself.”

 

Tempering the uncertainty

The anxiety that families and individuals with food allergies often experience is more complex than simply worrying about possible exposure to an allergen, Hubbard says. Anxiety can spike over everything from sending a child to school and worrying that the staff won’t follow allergy-safe protocols to second-guessing whether a food product might contain nuts, even when the label says it doesn’t.

In the United States, companies are required to note on food labeling whether a product contains one or more of the eight most common allergens. These potential allergens are:

  • Milk/dairy
  • Eggs
  • Fin fish (e.g., salmon, flounder, cod)
  • Shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp)
  • Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

However, U.S. companies are not required to disclose whether a product is made in a facility or on equipment that is or was exposed to those eight allergens, Hubbard notes.

With that in mind, navigating grocery stores, restaurants and social gatherings involving food can be anxiety-provoking for those with food allergies — and especially for newly diagnosed families, Hubbard says. Some parents react by restricting their child’s activity to reduce the risk of exposure.

Allergy diagnoses are sometimes given after a person has experienced one initial anaphylactic reaction. This can create uncertainty concerning how much of the allergen is too much. For example, is it OK to be near someone else who is eating the food to which the person is allergic?

“There is fear of the unknown: ‘How much of the allergen will it take for my child to react?’ There are different layers to the anxiety, and it’s important [for counselors] to understand each layer,” Hubbard says. “Also, the anxiety affects each member of the family; they will all feel it. There’s a lot to unpack when you are assessing a client who is dealing with food allergies.”

Counselors who understand the complexity of the issue can help clients find balance and equip them with tools to manage the anxiety, Hubbard notes.

“Ultimately, the goal is to help the client — whether it’s the allergic person themselves or a caregiver — assess the risk for every situation they’re going to be in. Is their anxiety based on fact or emotion? We can tell ourselves that everything is unsafe, or we can navigate [the risk] and take precautions,” she says.

 

Finding balance

There is a balance between living in fear and frustration because of food allergies and still enjoying a good quality of life, Hubbard stresses. “Understand that in many cases, when someone is newly diagnosed, especially if it’s a young child, the person or family may be very overwhelmed initially,” she says, “as there can be a steep learning curve when your lifestyle needs to suddenly change due to a food allergy diagnosis. Some people navigate this well, while others need support and guidance. I typically encourage people to remember that it will take time to get used to the diagnosis and gain all of the necessary knowledge to live a well-balanced life between food allergy fears and empowerment. I also encourage those who are newly diagnosed to learn the basics at first and, over time, as they feel ready, branch out to other related food allergy topics, such as potential treatments, research and advocacy.”

Here are some tips for counselors to keep in mind related to food allergies:

> Prepare for an emotional roller-coaster: Food allergies can be life-threatening, so it’s understandable when individuals (or their families) experience strong emotions such as fear, sadness, anger or guilt connected to the diagnosis. Of course, these emotions can eventually lead to becoming overwhelmed or burning out, Hubbard says.

“If a child has a [allergic] reaction, the parents can feel strong emotions of ‘what did I do wrong?’ At the same time, they could have done everything 100 percent right,” Hubbard says. “The reality is that it’s a big deal, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a … crisis every day.”

Equipping clients with coping mechanisms will not only help them manage their own anxiety and strong emotions but will also keep them from transferring those feelings to the child or family member with the allergy, Hubbard says.

Counselors can also help clients work through their feelings of loss concerning what their life (or their child’s life) might have been like without the limitations of a food allergy. For example, they may yearn to eat at a restaurant without having to ask about the establishment’s allergy protocols or to eat lunch with friends in the school cafeteria instead of sitting at a separate table or worrying about what foods they could be exposed to.

“These children [with food allergies] have to grow up a little quicker in some respects. They have to learn to speak up for themselves and make decisions,” Hubbard says. “It’s about managing the feelings and finding ways to help them empower themselves and advocate to come through with some balance.”

> Move toward acceptance: One of the most important things counselors can do is help clients reach acceptance of the food allergy diagnosis, Hubbard says. This can have similarities to grief work, including helping clients come to terms with the fact that they can’t change the situation, she explains. Narrative therapy can assist clients in reframing their feelings and taking control of their story.

Role-play can be beneficial for clients of all ages because it helps them learn to navigate their feelings and the language they will need to use to advocate for themselves. (For example, how will they explain that they can’t eat the cake at an upcoming birthday party?) Hubbard says she also finds play therapy, mindfulness and cognitive behavior therapy helpful for clients with food allergies.

Above all, she says, counselors should make sure their approaches are tailored to and appropriate for the individual client. “For kids, it’s not appropriate to talk about the risk of death [involved with food allergies], but coping with their feelings and worry is appropriate,” she notes.

Counselors can also model acceptance for clients in session, Hubbard adds. It can be a relief to find that “they don’t have to walk into a session defending themselves,” she says. “They can learn that not every conversation has to be fight-or-flight. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, for sure, just as with any chronic illness. Help clients pace themselves.”

> Find the right words: An individual with food allergies (or the parents of a child with food allergies) will need to explain the allergy to everyone from school staff to well-meaning relatives who are hosting a holiday dinner. Be aware that there can be cultural and generational differences in levels of understanding and flexibility surrounding food allergies, Hubbard advises.

“This can be hard for people who aren’t comfortable speaking up. If they’re not a natural advocate, it will now fall to them to educate [others] and advocate,” she says. “A counselor can help them manage the feelings around that, [including] frustration, burnout and exhaustion.”

> Guide children (and parents) as they grow up: Parents may find themselves growing anxious as their child with food allergies ages, develops more independence and spends more time away from home. Counselors can offer support as these families navigate the child’s developmental milestones. This might include encouraging the family to gradually give the child more freedom and responsibility to make safe choices independently.

For example, teenagers who are beginning to date may have to inform their love interests that they shouldn’t kiss for a while after the person has eaten something containing an allergen. “For every phase of life, there will be an additional need to explain and educate [about the allergy], and that can be exhausting,” Hubbard says.

> Be aware that “relapses” are possible: Clients who have made progress on accepting a food allergy and managing the emotions that come with it can “go back to ground zero” anytime they experience an allergic reaction or exposure scare, Hubbard says. Counselors shouldn’t be disappointed if these clients sometimes backslide on the progress they have previously made in therapy.

> Work with the allergist: Professional counselors shouldn’t hesitate to contact a client’s allergist (if the client grants permission). Counselor practitioners can learn a lot about the specifics of a client’s needs from the allergist, Hubbard says. For example, some food allergies are milder, whereas others can cause a reaction even from airborne exposure (for example, peanut dust). “Each client will have a specific set of data [regarding his or allergy],” Hubbard explains. “It’s important to stay connected with their allergist and check in to help you better understand.”

> Be cognizant that allergy-related bullying does happen: Being aware of allergy-related bullying is especially important for counselors who work in school settings or with children and adolescents in their practice, Hubbard notes. Up to one-third of children with food allergies have faced bullying, according to FARE.

This can include overt bullying, such as taunting or threatening a classmate with an allergen. But allergy-related bullying can also come in less obvious forms, such as when an adult (teacher, sports coach, etc.) points out the individual with an allergy and labels them as the “reason” the class or team can’t have certain foods. This type of scenario can make individuals feel bad about their allergies and the inconveniences they may present, Hubbard says.

 

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The Food Allergy Counseling Professionals Networking Group

Started by Tamara Hubbard, this group is open to counselors who work with clients who are managing food allergies. Connect with them on Facebook: facebook.com/groups/FoodAllergyCounselingProfessionals/ to share resources and network with other professionals who specialize in this area.

 

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Contact Tamara Hubbard and find resources at her website: foodallergycounselor.com

Hubbard also writes a blog on allergy-related issues, including a series titled “Four things counselors should know about food allergies.”

 

 

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Related reading

Hubbard suggests the following resources for counselors or clients looking to learn more about food allergies and their connection to mental health:

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Counseling Connoisseur: Children and grief

By Cheryl Fisher November 13, 2018

Nicolas was just under 3 years old when he attended his grandfather’s funeral. He wandered through the sea of adults, holding tight to his mommy and daddy’s hands as he made his way to the front of the line where his grandfather lay peacefully in the casket. His grandmother picked him up as he tried to climb into the casket. “Sleeping?” he asked his grandmother. “No, sweetheart. Your grandfather died.” Nicolas paused looking at the man in the box and back at his grandmother, “Sleeping?” he tried again. “No, he has died. He is not sleeping”, the grandmother replied softly. Nicolas looked around and attempted to contort his face — mimicking the adults around him. “They are sad, honey. When someone dies, we can feel sad,” his grandmother attempted to explain. Nicolas just watched, trying to imitate the adults around him as the man in the box continued to sleep.

 

According to William Worden, psychologist and grief expert, all children grieve regardless of age and stage of development. However, each stage provides a different understanding of death and loss. Grief can be experienced in a variety of ways. A child may experience a physical manifestation such as shock, or somatic ailments. They may feel anxious, angry, depressed or withdrawn. The children may act out behaviorally, resulting in biting or hitting. Additionally, there are critical periods where adverse experiences impact the neurological development of children in more critical ways. Having an understanding of how developmental stages affect the manifestation of grief can help counselors provide more effective support for children who have experienced a loss.

Infants and preschoolers: Infants and preschool age children experience life through their senses. Object permanence doesn’t become established until approximately 28 months. Therefore, children at this age may experience grief as the annihilation of existence: now you see me, now you don’t. Challenges resulting from loss at this age include a desire to connect to others but not knowing how, which may cause either clingy or standoffish behavior. A child may also exhibit a decrease in impulse control and tolerance, an increase in uninhibited behavior and poor emotional regulation, and possibly difficulty with toilet training. This is a critical period, neurologically. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Therefore, losses at this age have a higher chance of impacting children in significant ways.

School-age children: As children continue in their development, they are able to recognize attachment relationships, and they may experience loss as abandonment. School-age children may become preoccupied with death, which may become demonized during this stage, and children may experience anxiety related to the idea of mutilation. For example, children in this age group may talk of “blood and guts” and the Grim Reaper when referring to death. Children during this age are capable of conceptualizing loss as permanent and experience magical thinking. Grief may manifest as hyperactivity, emotional eating and/or somatic complaints. Children may withdraw or become argumentative and demanding. They may have difficulty concentrating and demonstrate a decrease in academic performance. Additionally, they may identify with the deceased by exhibiting similar behavior or experiencing symptoms of a loved one’s terminal illness. For example, Tony, an 8-year-old client came to me experiencing pain in his chest. A full pediatric work-up did not find a physiological etiology to his discomfort. However, in his intake, Tony stated that his grandfather had just died. When I asked his parents about Tony’s grandfather’s death, they indicated that he had died of lung cancer. Tony’s chest pain appeared to be a somatic manifestation connected to his grandfather, and after a few months in play therapy, Tony was able to work through his grief in a way that allowed him to find other ways to remember his grandfather.

Adolescents: Adolescents are capable of abstract thinking and struggle with the concepts of being versus non-being. While teens may feel immortal, they have increased awareness of the permanence of death. They may begin to think about death in terms of their own mortality. Teens may have experienced a variety of losses by now, and are better able to differentiate between types. The death of a distant elderly relative may feel different than the loss of a close friend.

Grief may manifest in a variety of ways including survivor’s guilt, a reduced sense of spontaneity, self-medicating (food, drugs, sex, etc.), social isolation and cyber mourning. Thanatechnology, or the use of media and technology to mourn, may be a way to seek comfort and connection through mourning sites, grief blogs and music playlists. However, it may also be a venue to glamorize loss in an unhealthy manner.

For example, I was working with a 16-year old girl who was devastated by the sudden death of her classmate by drug overdose. In addition to experiencing survivor’s guilt, she began engaging in high-risk behavior such as getting intoxicated at parties and offering sexual favors. This was a complicated situation as the client was not only grieving her classmate but also struggling with her own identity and self-worth. “Why should I live and she die?” We used an online memorial site to create a digital scrapbook of her friend’s favorite music, poems and pictures of special places they had gone together. I watched my client (and, with her permission, the memorial they had created) carefully. I started to get concerned as it remained a dark space for several months with little construction of hopeful meaning in sight. One day while the client was lamenting this loss, I asked, “Where would you have liked to go with your friend?” This led to a discussion about how the client and her friend had talked about hiking the Appalachian Trail when they graduated from high school. I grinned and said, “What a lovely tribute to your friendship to keep that promise.” By the next session, she had begun adding pictures and maps of the Appalachian Trail, marking the route she planned to take in a post-graduation trip to honor her friend.

 

Grief Work

It’s important to acknowledge that the deaths of family members or friends are not the only losses which can cause grief in children. For example, the death of a beloved pet, the divorce or separation of parents or a move to another school are all events that can evoke a significant sense of loss. It is vital to honor and understand these losses and ensure that children are allowed to express the accompanying grief.

Recognizing the varied symptoms of grief in children is essential as it may be masked in a variety of behaviors resulting in misdiagnosis and treatment. Even the most well-intentioned clinician or educator may misread and pathologize a child’s lack of concentration, fidgeting and restless behavior. This was the case for 5-year-old Andrew whose grandmother died suddenly from a heart attack. Andrew was very close to his grandmother, and even though his parents provided him with age-appropriate information around her death, Andrew began eliciting restless and inattentive behavior at school. Even though [his teacher was] aware of the death, notes were still sent home daily indicating that Andrew was disruptive in class. On the last day of the week, and the day before Andrew’s grandmother’s memorial service, the teacher’s note read, “Andrew is exhibiting signs of ADHD.” Andrew had not previously experienced difficulty in class. This is an example of a misdiagnosis. Andrew did not need medication or treatment for attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), but support during his grieving process.

After all, the goal of grief work, according to Worden, is to emotionally relocate the deceased loved one in a way that allows the child to move forward. In this way, children discover ways to remember the loved one in a healthy way. This involves helping children create connection to self, to others and to the sacred.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@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.

Working with foster and adoptive families through the lens of attachment

By Somer George October 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Where healing happens

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

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

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

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

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

The counselor’s role

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A different path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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

 

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Related reading, from Counseling Today:

Fostering a brighter future

Through the child welfare kaleidoscope

 

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

 

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.

The dismissal of divorce advice

By David L. Prucha August 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

 

The background for badmouth

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

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

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

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

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

 

The child healer

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Swinging pendulums

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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