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‘Child abuse in disguise’: The impact of parental alienation on families

By Scott Gleeson March 9, 2023

a young child hugs his parent's waist tightly; the parent's arm is around the child with their hand on the child's back

Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock.com

Ingo Weigold, a licensed professional counselor at Centennial Counseling Center in St. Charles, Illinois, sat at his desk as tears rolled down his face. For five years, he had been alienated from his children by his ex-wife, which emotionally harmed his children and prompted him to regularly feel like an unworthy parent. But after a grueling court battle that spanned several years, a judge finally ruled in favor of Weigold to have majority custody of his two children, and his ex-wife was issued to pay child support.

“I’m sitting here reading the judge’s ruling just crying and thinking, ‘This can’t be real.’ All of the anxiousness, the fear, the anger and the suffering just drained out of me,” recalls Weigold, a member of the American Counseling Association. “Throughout this process of fighting for them, the most important thing for me as a man and as a father was to actually be there and be present, to give my kids a chance at being good members of society away from a childhood that was marred by child abuse. Because parental alienation is child abuse in disguise.”

Parental alienation has been defined by experts as a form of manipulative estrangement induced by an alienating parent that causes children to refuse to have a relationship with the targeted parent as a result of exaggerated or false information that dissuades an emotionally vulnerable child away from the targeted parent.

Although the term is controversial when used in the legal system, counseling experts are fighting to have it included in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) because of its hidden prevalence and the need to educate clinicians on efficient treatment methods.

“From a parent’s perspective, I think this is incredibly difficult,” Weigold says. “I see why parents walk away from their families because the easier thing to do is let the other parent have what they want, let them continue to dictate everything. I didn’t have a dad growing up. I could never do that with my kids; I couldn’t let them sit in this manipulation any longer.”

Now, Weigold is helping other parents who find themselves in similar scenarios in his work as a counselor, and he’s helping to spread word on an area that doesn’t receive enough attention in the mental health field.

“I was down to my last few pennies and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of my retirement on legal fees going to court,” Weigold says. “I know I was lucky and other people aren’t. There are people out there who need us as therapists to help, and we can help them by knowing how to be detectives and get to the truth of these situations.”

Whether treating children, working with families or providing care to an alienated parent as a therapist, experts agree that far more needs to be done to bolster awareness and training.

“Parental alienation leads to highly complicated and difficult cases that require far more knowledge and specialization,” notes Amy Baker, a psychologist and parental alienation expert who has written over 65 peer-reviewed articles on the matter. “In other words, even seasoned clinicians with experience in family systems are still, in a way, a novice when dealing with alienation. Humility would be the most important thing for clinicians to have in this regard.”

Seemingly counterintuitive

Baker, director of research at Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection, acknowledges that having clinicians take a humble approach to parental alienation treatment runs counterintuitive to most regular forms of mental health treatment.

“Parental alienation challenges our assumptions about what is happening in the family,” she explains. “It’s intuitive to believe that children side more with the better parent. That the kids know which parent is going to better take care of them, get them to soccer practice. That’s actually not always true. What’s also counterintuitive is this false notion that the stronger a child claims to believe or feel something, the more likely it is to be true. In parental alienation cases, kids can very strongly make their case or be adamant for something that is not actually how they feel.”

Baker advises therapists to keep their clinical “magnifying glass” out a little longer when assessing not only the children but also the parents in suspected alienation cases. Parents will often enter sessions wearing a mask or facade to portray themselves — and the situation — in a deceiving way that caters to them and to paint the other parent as problematic, she notes.

Another way parental alienation cases are counterintuitive, Baker adds, is based on the idea that the parent who seems calmer and more rational is the “better” parent. “This is profound because clinicians are trained to rely on what they feel with a client or parent of a client,” she says. “But how the parent presents to the therapist is not always diagnostically true. Of course, the alienating parents are acting that way because the kids are loving on them as a result of their manipulation; they’ve got everything going their way.”

“The alienated parent, meanwhile, is anxious, agitated and afraid,” she continues. “They have an agenda to try to convince everybody what’s happening to them is alienation. The disposition of a person could be based on the situation, and clinicians should not be making assumptions when the targeted parent is acting out.”

Baker, co-author of Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You and Surviving Parental Alienation: A Journey of Hope and Healing, says two instrumental goals therapists must strive for if they determine parental alienation is at play are correcting a child’s distortions of the situation and holding the favorite parent accountable in treatment.

The goal for parental alienation is to help the child have a healthy relationship with both parents, Baker stresses. “It’s important for clinicians to know that, in general, children do better when they have a relationship with both parents and that, in general, children do not always know what’s best for them,” she says.

Baker adds that divorces have an unhealthy side effect in overempowering children and that it’s important for parents not to acquiesce to their needs out of guilt. “There’s too often the notion of ‘that’s what the child wants,’” she says. “We don’t let children drink or get married and do all sorts of things when they’re too young. [Adults] have a responsibility to protect children, sometimes from themselves.”

“I do believe we have an obligation [clinically] to try to figure out what’s best for the child, taking their preference into account, but by no means is their say-so the north star,” she adds.

Stephannee Standefer, a licensed clinical professional counselor and program director at Northwestern University’s online counseling program, says the goal of therapists is not to disempower a child’s voice but rather to reestablish the family system that’s been misconstructed. Parental alienation cases often showcase a child having power in an unhealthy fashion, and they can become pawns to the alienating parent who is taking advantage of the fractured family system amid or in the aftermath of a divorce, she notes.

“We can know all of this about how it should be in a family system, but we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we the ones to rebalance the power and homeostatic situation as therapists?’” says Standefer, an ACA member and president of the Illinois Counseling Association. “It’s important we don’t accidentally as therapists come into the family system or stay there.”

To evade becoming part of the family system, Standefer says it’s vital therapists establish rules that clearly outline what the therapist’s role is. That boundary, in turn, can help put the focus on the parents’ growth.

“An alienated parent, for instance, must be doing his or her own individual work. Because that much powerlessness they’re feeling will impair the parent and the children. And for the alienating parent, we must hold them accountable to be a part of the family system, not their own narrative that caters to them,” Standefer notes. “We can use all the microskills we want to help families with communication, but the macro has to be how each person is fitting into the system.

Avoiding distortion traps

Alienation cases vary, but court proceedings and even 50/50 splits don’t always determine how often the kids will see their parent because the distorted reality an alienating parent spins can prompt a child to remain allegiant to them by refusing to spend time with the targeted parent.

Weigold says in his situation the manipulation of his children (with his ex-wife telling them a false narrative) began as his marriage was ending and before the divorce was even finalized.

“It became this campaign of dad’s bad and everyone should stay away from dad, including you two as kids,” Weigold said of the alienation inflicted on his children. “It’d always be something like [his ex-wife saying], ‘When dad shapes up or stops abusing you, you can see him.’ When in reality that was a projection coming from her.”

Baker says the targeted parent who is being alienated often falls into a “distortion trap” where they frustratingly try to defend themselves or uncover the truth, but this only makes them look worse to the children.

“Clinicians can have the assumption that it takes two to tango or that there’s two sides to every story,” she notes, but “in a parental alienation, the truth is it only takes one parent to trick another parent.”

Susan Heitler, psychologist and parental alienation expert who wrote Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief From Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More, says the alienator’s narrative can fool lawyers, close confidants and even the targeted parent because they’ll often deprecate the targeted parent’s feelings to twist reality. They’ll go out of their way to cultivate a narrative not just to the children and targeted parent but to everyone in their life. One common theme that counselors need to look out for, Heitler says, is that the alienator often needs to be seen as the victim at all times.

“A [targeted] parent will feel sad and say, ‘I miss my kids,’” continues Heitler, who practiced treating families from 1975 to 2020 at the Rose Medical Center in Denver. “Instead of responding with compassion to the other parent, the alienating parent may say, ‘You shouldn’t feel sad’ or ‘You’re being foolish.’ That’s part of the manipulation. It works really well because alienators are usually quite charming to everyone on the outside, she notes.

“In most cases, the alienating parent is acting on feelings of hurt related to the divorce, which are not about the kids. Or that parent more than likely has an undiagnosed personality disorder that they’re inflicting onto other family members,” Heitler adds.

“It’s like getting sucked into a vortex,” Weigold says, describing his own situation with his ex-wife. “Principals, teachers and people in the community would believe her, as if she were the victim, and the people [in the children’s life] throw out logic and act on feelings. It’s why as therapists, even when we get a [behavior] report from a school, we need to do our due diligence because so many people can be duped by the [alienating] parent.”

Heitler agrees that it’s important to corroborate facts in alienating cases as a clinician. “We need to be investigative and gather all the facts and make sure they’re actually truths. One parent may claim the targeted parent is sexually molesting the kids. Well, there are lie detector tests to address this.”

Weigold says he saw the distortion trap he fell into only in hindsight. “I think my biggest mistake was for a time I tried not to acknowledge the lies being told to them. I’d try to stay neutral and be a calming presence to them,” he recalls. “I’d try to tell them, ‘You guys are too little — it’s OK.’ I would allow them to come and say things their mom was saying and I’d never argue back.” About a year and a half ago, he started telling them the truth about what their mom was saying, making it child appropriate, but he says this only distressed them because then they had one parent saying one thing and the other saying another.

That moment of feeling torn between two parents’ version of the truth is where children can get caught in the “loyalty conflict,” Heitler says.

“When a child loves mommy and [the] daddy has made her into a devil, they become dependent on the parent who is the alienator, so they often adopt the alienator’s ways of seeing the situation,” she explains. “It’s loyalty [to the alienating parent] but a loss of the self for the children, forming a symbiotic relationship.”

Writing out these accusations the children often say about the targeted parent can help them sort through what is true or not for themselves. Heitler once worked with two teenage sisters who were alienated from their father. “They had all these negative words to say about their dad,” she recalls. “So we wrote all the words like ‘selfish’ down, and I asked them, ‘Who does this more?’” They all responded that their mom was the selfish one.

Diagnosing parental alienation

Dr. William Bernet, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says that he and colleagues in the field have made dedicated efforts to have parental alienation included as a term in the DSM because properly identifying and defining alienation from the onset is the best way to combat counselor negligence.

“The problem with not naming parental alienation anywhere in the DSM is that courts can argue it isn’t real, and then, in turn, parents cannot defend themselves legally,” Bernet says. But “if it’s taught to clinicians of all types and accepted into curricula, then mental health practitioners can be held more accountable to identify these cases.”

Bernet, co-editor of Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals, sees therapists making two mistakes with parental alienation. First, they often fail to properly diagnose parental alienation early on in treatment. Second, they rely on traditional clinical approaches for far too long when treating this issue.

“Traditional family therapy approaches can be helpful in mild cases,” Bernet says. “But in more moderate or severe cases, alienation needs to be identified and both parents need to agree to be part of treatment.”

Bernet says that having only one parent attend sessions or offering traditional family therapy without identifying alienation has the potential to worsen the balance and allow an alienating parent and child to continue to target the other parent. If that happens, “therapists actually can make it worse,” he stresses, “because a child is going to be even more narcissistically powerful and won’t do what the therapist asks out of allegiance to the alienating parent.”

Bernet developed the five-factor model, which is an effective method to use when diagnosing parental alienation. This model includes five criteria for diagnosis:

  1. Contact refusal: Is the child refusing contact with a parent?
  2. Previous relationship: Did the child previously have a positive relationship with the rejected parent?
  3. Lack of abuse: Does the rejected parent show signs of being abusive or neglectful
  4. Alienating behaviors: Is the preferred parent engaging in alienating behaviors?
  5. Child symptoms: Is the child manifesting symptoms of alienation?

Although it’s essential for counselors to properly diagnose for treatment, custody evaluators should be the ones making decisions related to parental alienation, Baker cautions. And she advises clinicians to call for a proper custody evaluation if they suspect parental alienation.
avoiding counselor negligence.

Avoiding counselor negligence

Heitler finds that counselor negligence is common in parental alienation cases, so she agrees that clinicians run the risk of making the situation worse when they enable the alienator or try to focus on surface tactics such as communicative skills in co-parenting.

“If the clinician doesn’t understand parental alienation and buys into the alienating parent’s story with their treatment plan, they’re participating in child abuse,” Heitler says. “It comes down to beneficence, not maleficence, do not harm in the [ACA Code of Ethics]. The naivete can result in extreme harm if it means backing up a mother or father who is the alienator.”

In a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage in 2020, Baker, along with two other colleagues, surveyed 120 clinicians in the United States who conducted work as court-ordered reunification therapists, and they found widespread negligence across the board.

“What’s happening in outpatient reunification therapy is not only not helping [but] it’s making things far worse,” Baker stresses. “One major problem in general is that clinicians often let these cases go on and on with middle-of-the-road treatments without getting to the underlying cause. Many therapists let these cases go for years without saying, ‘Gee, I’m not really doing anything good here.’”

“There’s this false belief that it’s impossible to tell what’s really going on,” she continues. But “it’s not impossible to tell if clinicians were trained specifically in this subspecialization.”

Baker stresses the need for therapists to use a timeline, such as six to 10 sessions, to make sure progress is being made. “If nothing good is happening in treatment, write a letter to the court and recommend a higher level of treatment,” such as having the family go to a facility that specializes in parental alienation, she advises.

Bernet says effective approaches, particularly when working with children affected by parental alienation, include the multimodal family intervention, which involves everyone participating in some way in the treatment plan, and family bridges, a cognitive behavioral approach where the main focus is helping a child adjust to living with a parent they claim to hate.

“It’s painful to be caught in between two parents who are fighting each other,” Bernet notes. “Then to make it worse, there’s hidden guilt and shame for the child for feeling like they played a part in rejecting the parent. It’s an unhealthy position to be in.”

Standefer agrees that counselors must hold themselves accountable to limitations and push themselves to be more equipped in helping families. She said one additional layer of negligence she sees is that clinicians may allow parents to dominate treatment time to the point that the children are not receiving proper care.

“What’s at stake here are the children,” Standefer says. “It’s important therapists create a safe space and build an alliance when working with them. They need a voice. … We just have to be careful that voice is not actually the alienating parent’s. It’s our job to bring out their true voice.”
creating a team of support.

Creating a team of support

The severity of parental alienation cases can be far-reaching. As Bernet notes, it not only affects children’s well-being but also leaves targeted parents in desperate need of support.

“It can be unbelievably frustrating and agonizing for the targeted parent,” Bernet says. “They’re in need of various forms of support and coaching on how to behave when they see their children. Because I’ve seen some cases where the targeted parent will become so aggravated and retaliate against the child even though the child themselves is just mimicking or representing the alienating parent who is hurting them.”

“In worse scenarios, it’s not just parents giving up on their kids,” he adds. “They give up on life and commit suicide. This is serious on multiple levels.”

As a parent in recovery from alienation, Weigold says that a support system in conjunction with a therapist was necessary in getting his kids back into his life. “I think it’s important for anyone who is going through this to find a supportive person in their life that can help them to pull out the truth of what’s going on,” he says. “You can start to feel crazy and wonder, ‘Am I really this person?’ The narrative becomes so strong from the children and the ex-wife together. You need to have people in your life who can say, ‘This is not real. Those are not truths; trust your gut.’”

This support often needs to come from more than just one person, Weigold adds. “In my situation, therapists along the way would tell me I’m a good father. My friends and mom would say, ‘You’re a good dad.’ God was a big thing for me in the beginning to see myself as not a bad person,” he recalls. “You almost need a whole team of people because this pull is so strong. It’s like a superhero movie, and you need all the Avengers to fight this — for yourself and your children. That’s how powerful the pull in the other direction can be.”

Heitler agrees a support system is vital. Because targeted parents often experience severe symptoms of depression and anxiety as a result of feeling miscast, she is intentional about outlining the difference between warranted estrangement from children (based on prior abuse in the household) and being alienated (based on no factual forms of abuse in the household before separation) to help reality test a client under the spell of manipulation.

“Clients who are alienated are often distraught because they’ve lost their children and they’re asking, ‘Who do I believe anymore?’ They can be habitually anxious,” Heitler notes. One treatment method she finds helpful is having them do a concerns dump. The client writes down all their worries, such as “I don’t know what’s going on anymore” or “I don’t have enough money to go to court” and hands them to Heitler. “One by one, we’ll go through and make a plan of action for all these anxieties swirling around in their head,” she says.

Although leveraging one’s support base is helpful, Weigold acknowledges that overcoming those fears and anxieties must ultimately come from within. And that takes courage.

“Someone told me once that the only time you can have courage is when you’re afraid,” Weigold says. “I was afraid when I went back to court. I feared I’d lose everything I have and end up with nothing better for my kids. My son said, ‘Dad, I want you to fight for us.’ That gave me the courage I needed. I just told myself I’m going to show my children I’m fighting for them even if I go down doing it. I hope they can take away that message someday — that their dad fought for them and now he’s not going anywhere.”

Scott Gleeson is a licensed clinical professional counselor in the Chicago suburbs, specializing in trauma and relational dynamics. He spent over a decade writing for USA Today, where he won national writing awards from the Associated Press and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. His debut contemporary novel, The Walls of Color, and its sequel, Spectrum, will hit bookshelves in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

Editor’s note: Gleeson is colleagues with Ingo Weigold, one of the counselors interviewed for this article, at Centennial Counseling Center in St. Charles, Illinois.

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.

Tough love: Supporting parents of children in unhealthy relationships

By Katie Bascuas December 7, 2022

Most parents would do anything to protect their children from pain. So watching a child struggle with an addiction, whether to a substance, behavior or even a relationship, can be an excruciating experience and bring up feelings of guilt, grief, self-doubt, worry and isolation. This situation becomes trickier when the child becomes an adult because parents can no longer intervene or make decisions on behalf of their loved one. 

Most people understand the challenges that surround having a child who struggles with a substance addition, but having an adult child in an unhealthy romantic relationship or a relationship in which there may be emotional abuse, such as inappropriate use of control, disrespect or dishonesty, is often considered less “taboo” or more acceptable than a substance addiction. Most people desire the feeling of being loved and accepted, including in romantic relationships. Therefore, parents can sometimes feel helpless when they think their child may be in a toxic and painful relationship.

“I’ve got half a dozen people I’m working with right now who are dealing with this, and my encouragement to someone who has a loved one in an unhealthy relationship is that it’s going to be difficult to talk them out of it because it’s just not rational,” says Ronald Laney, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at Change Inc. in St. Louis. “The other person is going to feel that that relationship, whatever it is, is filling a void that started long, long ago.

For counselors, supporting these parents can look similar to working with clients who have loved ones struggling with an addiction. There may be questions around how much to get involved, whether to distance themselves from their child or if they’re doing the right thing. 

And depending on the parent-child relationship, helping parents to understand and accept the situation could be challenging. For example, there may be years of unhealthy patterns of co-dependent and enabling behaviors that inadvertently perpetuate and reinforce the child’s addictive patterns, says Laura Whitcomb, an LPC who owns and operates NoCo Counseling in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Parents are willing to do and give everything for their kids,” Whitcomb says. But “they’re often trying to control someone else’s behavior and ensure someone else’s well-being, and that person is not making those same choices.” 

Counselors can play a key role in helping parents better understand what their child may be experiencing as well as normalizing the parents’ feelings and experiences and helping them reach a place of acceptance of the situation so as to ensure their emotional and mental well-being. 

Meeting clients where they are

While it might seem like a no-brainer, Whitcomb says one of the most important things to remember when working with parents seeking support around an adult child’s unhealthy relationship is to meet those clients where they are, but she admits this can be challenging. 

“I care so much that sometimes I get ahead of myself,” Whitcomb says, noting that she has to sometimes stop herself from giving advice or providing feedback that clients may not yet be ready to hear. “I really want [the clients] to be OK. I want them to get some joy back in their lives, and I want them not to be taken advantage of and have all this responsibility that isn’t really theirs. Some of these parents should be looking toward retirement or traveling, and they’re just sacrificing everything.”  

Because counselors are trained to examine the big picture, they may recognize things that may benefit the client before the client does, notes Robin Witt, an LPC and director of relationship dynamics at the Better Institute in Pittsburgh. “My biggest piece of advice is meeting the client where they’re at and working at the pace that they feel comfortable because, especially in these trickier situations, we can see the solutions but they’re not always willing or ready to see it, and if we push it, we can lose the client,” she says. “They could get scared or intimidated, and the biggest thing that we can do for them is to be a validating, supportive resource. We might be the only person that they’re talking to about this, and … what’s most important is keeping that professional relationship safe.” 

Witt focuses on client goals and knows that change can be gradual because clients do not have control over their loved ones. And truly accepting the fact that they may not be able to change the situation to the degree that they would like often takes time. “This is not a four-sessions-and-they’re-done thing,” she explains. “So keeping a slow pace and being mindful that the client is the driver is important.” 

Whitcomb says she has to remind herself as much as her clients that she may be getting ahead of them and that the process of learning how to support and engage with a loved one in an unhealthy relationship — similar to someone with an addiction is often long and complicated. She uses frequent check-ins and asks clients what changes seem manageable to them and what they are thinking and feeling in order to gauge where they are and what they want to accomplish as well as to help them set reasonable expectations. 

Some clients, for example, may take quick or impulsive action to try and fix or ameliorate the situation, such as giving ultimatums to their loved ones, but Whitcomb says those types of actions often just push the child away and have the potential to hurt the relationship. “A lot of people seem to want to do that. They want the problem to be solved. Most of us do,” she says. “So really try and shift their focus back to themselves, less on the unhealthy person and more on them.”

Whitcomb says she draws from her experience growing up with parents who had substance use issues to help clients learn to redirect their focus to themselves. It took her several Al-Anon Family Group meetings before she realized that focusing on herself, not her parents, was one of the first steps toward healing.

“It took me four meetings before I realized, ‘Oh, these people are no longer consumed with what their addict is doing. They are focused on their own lives and rebuilding their own lives,’” she recalls. “It took me a while to get it because people are holding so much intense emotion. We’ve been hurt a lot. That lightbulb doesn’t go on just overnight.” Whitcomb says that she uses this insight to prevent herself from getting ahead of clients as well as to help explain to clients the common tendency to focus on the other person.

The importance of psychoeducation

Another helpful component of supporting parents whose adult children are in unhealthy relationships is psychoeducation, which can include accurately labeling unhealthy or abusive relationships and modeling empathy and understanding.

Witt admits there can sometimes be a fine line between educating clients and validating and supporting them. The clinician, for example, wants to acknowledge the client’s experience and how painful it may be, but they also want to help the client understand the reality of the situation, which may involve exploring uncomfortable truths such as the fact that their child is likely unaware of or unwilling to accept that they are in an unhealthy relationship and subsequently are likely in denial about the effects that the relationship is having on other family members. 

Witt finds that naming and defining abusive relationships can help clients better understand what a loved one might be experiencing. Depending on where the client is at, this can be incredibly validating in the moment, or it might be information that clients come back to in the future. “Giving them the vocabulary can be important because we might only get that client for a short time,” Witt notes. “We’re planting seeds. Someone else is watering them, and we also might be watering seeds that therapists or others have been planting and watering.” Then, if the child becomes more open to discussing their relationship or relationship dynamics down the road, the parent will be more prepared to help their child see and understand some of the unhealthy patterns taking place, she adds.

Clinicians can also teach parents the importance of meeting their child where they are, while also modeling this behavior within the therapeutic relationship, says Laura Copley, an LPC who owns and operates Aurora Counseling & Well-Being in Harrisonburg, Virginia. 

“If I was seeing a mother whose son or daughter was coming home from college and all of a sudden in this toxic or manipulative relationship, I would first need to help teach her how to slow down enough to recognize where her child is at,” she says. To do this, Copley may use open-ended questioning to encourage the mother’s exploration into her child’s mindset. For example, she may ask the client questions such as “What do you think your child is experiencing right now? How do you know your child is experiencing that? What are some of the things they’re showing you that is making you feel like this is how they’re connecting to this relationship? And if that’s the case, what might be something your child needs to hear first from you?”

Copley also advises clients to show an interest in their child’s partner by asking how that person is doing and demonstrating concern for the partner’s well-being. Clients “don’t like this part, but it works,” Copley admits, because it’s a way to show genuine concern and hopefully create a safe space where the child can open up about their own well-being without getting defensive or reactive. “The son or the daughter then starts to trust, starts to feel safe, starts to express what they’re experiencing,” she explains. Then parents can reassure their child that if something bad happens in the relationship, they can stay with them, no questions asked.

Copley says that it can also be helpful to teach parents about the positive and negative personality characteristics that are often present in someone engaging in an unhealthy relationship. For example, a person may identify as being a “savior,” so they are loyal, committed, loving and courageous. On the other hand, saviors are also prone to attracting others who “need” saving, so they may also have a fear of asking for their needs to be met or a fear of being vulnerable or getting hurt, she notes. 

“This is all part of the conversation that we could have with parents to help them understand how to bridge the mindset of where their child might be,” says Copley, who adds that she would also role-play and model various ways to approach the loved one. “How we approach another human being, even somebody like our child, around something like this will deeply influence how they receive the message.”

Setting healthy boundaries

Working with clients to set healthy boundaries is another important aspect, but it can be incredibly challenging. 

To overcome difficulties with boundary setting, Laney encourages clients to think of it as setting a boundary not only for themselves but also for their loved ones. For example, he says that parents could tell their child, “Out of my care for you, I’m going to set this boundary because it’s not doing you any good to allow you to continue to treat me in that manner.” Framing the boundary as a means of protecting the child has helped many of Laney’s clients overcome their hesitancy to set boundaries. 

Another challenge with setting boundaries, especially in the beginning, can be finding the right balance. Clients sometimes move from having no boundaries to the extreme, Laney notes. For example, a parent may go from talking to their child every day to cutting off communication completely, rather than just communicating less. “We have to find that sweet spot,” Laney says.

Therefore, it’s important for counselors to help clients understand the nuance of boundary setting as well as the feelings of guilt and anxiety that can come along with setting limits with loved ones. Witt says that she encourages clients to make values-based decisions around things such as finances, faith, career and physical well-being when setting boundaries to ensure greater success.

“Making values-based decisions leads to those boundaries that actually stick,” Witt explains. For example, a parent may value attending church every Sunday, so if their child asks them to watch their grandkids one Sunday so that they can spend time with their partner, the parent may feel more empowered to say no because it will be a values-based decision. 

“If it’s values based, [the client] is more likely to uphold the boundary versus something they feel they ‘should’ do,” Witt says. “And setting a boundary that’s not going to stick is not going to be helpful to anybody.”

Dealing with guilt, grief and shame

There’s also the possibility that parents will feel a sense of guilt while watching a child in an unhealthy relationship dynamic and wondering how their parenting style or the child’s upbringing might have contributed to the situation. 

“The reality is that … our early attachment styles can absolutely set the stage for what we expect in romantic relationships, how we expect to get treated, how we get our needs met and if that’s replicated,” Copley says. So she likes to keep clients who may be experiencing these feelings of guilt focused on the present and what they can do now as opposed to exploring past events, at least when it comes to their goal of helping their child. 

Copley refers to having clients focus on what they can do in the present as a corrective experience, one in which behaviors and dynamics from the past can be corrected in the present by making another choice and behaving differently. For example, if a parent avoided tough conversations with their child in the past because of their own discomfort around confrontation, they could decide that moving forward they will be more open to having difficult conversations with their child. 

“If there’s shame and guilt for something the [parent’s] recognizing, we can either spiral into that shame and guilt and once again make it about us,” Copley explains, “or we can say it’s a signal that another opportunity is present for you to do something different and get redemption over anything that happened in the past.” 

Copley also teaches clients how to better manage the uncomfortable feelings that their child’s relationship may be bringing up in them by using somatic techniques to decrease the chances of reacting out of fear and trying to control the situation. Often, “the storm of emotions that are more than likely in them is because they’re so afraid of what their child is going through and the pain that they must be going through,” she explains. “And if we project that fear onto someone who thinks they are in love, that’s going to push them away and make them protect the toxic person more.” 

Sometimes parents feel guilty because they were also in an unhealthy relationship when their child was growing up. Witt advises clients who are worried their child may have witnessed unhealthy relationship patterns from them to have an honest and transparent conversation with their child about it. “We can’t go backwards, but we can be mindful of what we can do today to move forward,” she notes. “Whether that’s an apology or having an age-appropriate conversation to explain ‘This is why I handled things the way I did,’ [it] can enhance the relationship that you now have with that adult child.”

To help clients work through some of the shame and guilt that they might feel in these situations, Laney says that he likes to reinforce self-compassion and will often work with clients to explore how they can accept both difficult emotions and realities. For example, he might work with clients on how to hold the sense of sadness that their child might be in an unhealthy situation with possible feelings of guilt as well as possible disappointment around the dynamics of the relationship they have with their children. 

Accepting what you can’t change 

Although it’s not easy to come to terms with potentially challenging realities, such as a child’s unhealthy relationship and its effects on the wider family, embracing a certain amount of acceptance and equanimity can be one of the healthiest solutions for these clients, Laney says. 

“At some point there’s almost a surrender,” Laney says. “We exhaust ourselves trying to change things that we really can’t change. There’s something of a letting go there.”

Whitcomb also emphasizes acceptance, especially self-acceptance, in these types of situations that often involve an element of codependence or a preoccupation over the child and the child’s relationship at the expense of parent and their well-being. “Codependence feeds on avoidance of one’s own needs and difficult emotions because by being consumed by the problems of another, we are better able to ignore and avoid encountering our own,” she explains. “As I encourage parents and family members to shift their focus from the person they are enmeshed (overinvolved) with, I also try to guide clients to identify their own strengths as well as parts of themselves they perceive as flawed.” In recognizing their strengths and taking time for self-care, clients can start to develop not only a healthier sense of confidence and independence but also more self-compassion, she says, which in turn can cultivate more compassion for others.



Contact the counselors interviewed in this article: 



Katie Bascuas is a licensed graduate professional counselor and a writer in Washington, D.C. She has written for news outlets, universities and associations.


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.

Curfew is when?! Helping parents and teens see eye to eye on boundaries and rules

By Bethany Bray October 28, 2022

Le’Ann Solmonson, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who owns a private practice in Nacogdoches, Texas, once worked with a teenager who was continually grounded by her parents. The client, a high school senior, was brought to counseling by her parents, who saw her rule-breaking behavior as the presenting concern.

The family was stuck in a repeating pattern where the teen would break her curfew and the parents would respond by grounding her and taking away her car and cell phone for a month to cut off all her social activities outside of school, Solmonson recalls. As soon as the punishment was lifted and the teen regained her freedom, she would immediately break her curfew, only to be grounded again.

Solmonson focused on strengthening the teen’s decision-making skills in counseling. However, she says it was equally — if not more — important to offer psychoeducation to the parents on the developmentally appropriate needs of adolescents, including social connection with peers.

BNP Design Studio/Shutterstock.com

The parents did not understand that being grounded and cut off from social activities for a month is “forever” in the life of a high school senior, Solmonson says.

She worked with the parents and teen to create a plan for privilege restriction that gave the teen incentives to work toward, rather than a lengthy and complete shutoff of her freedoms. Whenever she broke curfew, the teen would be grounded without access to her car or cell phone for one week. After that, she was given access to her car to drive to school and other activities without friends as passengers. As the teen learned to respect the boundaries her parents established, she was gradually allowed to attend school football games and other events that were pivotal in the social life of a teenager.

The flexibility and freedom of this new plan further strengthened the teen’s decision-making skills on her own. In turn, the parents better understood their daughter.

Counselors are often “put in a hard spot,” Solmonson admits, because they can easily see patterns and reasons why rules and boundaries aren’t working in families where the parents and an adolescent child are at odds. For this young client, the parents’ punishments were too stringent, which curtailed any chance for the teen to learn to make better decisions on her own.

The counselor’s role, Solmonson says, is to help both parents and teens explore the factors that contribute to the child’s rule-breaking behaviors and meet in the middle to give the teen enough autonomy to mature and learn as they go.

Putting things into context

Skill building in areas such as communication, listening and distress tolerance is an essential part of counseling for teens and parents who are in conflict. Disagreements often arise over boundaries, and a key first step, Solmonson says, is to talk with parents about the importance of keeping an open dialogue with their child(ren) about the rules they set, including the context of why they’ve established them.

These conversations ensure that both parents and child have an opportunity to listen and voice their feelings even while the parents retain their rule-setting authority, Solmonson notes. She coaches parents to use phrases such as “This is the reason our family does (or doesn’t do) that,” “These are the reasons why this is the limit” or “I’ve given you my reasons and I understand that you don’t like my reasons and don’t agree, but we’re still going to do this.”

“One of the most important things parents can do is give their child a voice and make it clear that they’re open to hearing what they think,” says Solmonson, the immediate past president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of the American Counseling Association.

A focus on context can also be helpful for parents who see their child’s rule breaking as the root of conflict in the home. Hayle Fisher, a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) and director of adolescent services at a behavioral mental health provider in Mentor, Ohio, says she often spends time equipping parents with skills to identify what is and isn’t risky behavior. This can be especially helpful for parents whose worries are based on past experiences such as suicidality or self-harm in a child, notes Fisher, who runs her practice’s intensive outpatient program for adolescents as well as a counseling group for parents focused on navigating family challenges with teens.

For example, parents may blow up in anger when they find out that their child has used marijuana or become sexually active. A counselor can offer psychoeducation to parents that while it’s common for teenagers to experiment with substances, signs that indicate it’s a problem are when a teen is overusing a substance, using it to cope, driving under the influence, selling the drug or engaging in other illegal activity. Similarly, exploring one’s sexuality can be a normal part of adolescence, but engaging in risky behaviors such as having unprotected sex is a red flag.

Fisher uses the acronym FIDIL (sounds like “fiddle”) that she learned while in graduate school to help parents consider the full context of their child’s behavior and decide whether it’s risky. This method prompts the parent to look at:

  • F: What is the frequency of the behavior? Is it once per day, once per month, etc.?
  • I: How intense is the behavior? (For example, does self-harm involve scratching oneself or cutting to the point the child needs stitches or medical attention?)
  • D: What is the duration of the behavior? How long does the behavior last?
  • IL: What is the interference level of the behavior? How does the behavior affect the child’s functioning (daily, academic, occupational or social)?

These questions also prompt parents to think more deeply about the reasons why their child is engaging in a behavior and to identify needs the child has that are going unmet, Fisher notes. The hope is that parents will come away with increased empathy for their child and the desire to help them make behavioral changes in a supportive way.

“A lot of the time, the fight is over ‘I found cannabis in your room’ rather than the reasons why they’re using,” Fisher says. So she sometimes poses the question to the parents: “Why do they feel the need to engage in this behavior? Even if all their friends are doing it, why are they?”

Consistency is key

Consequences must be appropriate for adolescents, but they also need to be consistently enforced.

Marcy Adams Sznewajs, an LPC who counsels teenagers and young adults at the therapy practice she co-owns in Beverly Hills, Michigan, finds that parents sometimes backslide or waver on the penalties they create because they either feel the punishment was too strict or feel bad about enforcing it. Not only does this pattern send a mixed message to the child, but it also sabotages the work Sznewajs does in counseling to foster young clients’ decision-making skills.

In these cases, it may be necessary to discuss with the parents the need for clear communication and consistent expectations for their child, Sznewajs says. She explains to parents that her role is to help their child grow and build skills, and that can’t happen when situations are fixed for the child before they can learn from them.

Sznewajs once worked with a teenage boy who, upon leaving home to attend college, began to use marijuana and failed two classes in his first semester. His parents gave him an ultimatum: They would take his car away if he didn’t start passing his classes and get a job, or he would need to come back and live at home.

In his second semester, he continued to fail his classes and didn’t get a job either, so the parents took his car away. In counseling, Sznewajs prompted the client to explore his values, including his desire to get an education, and think about choices that he could make differently to re-earn his parents’ trust.

In the next session, the client reported that his parents had given his car back after one week because they felt bad that he was struggling to get to class without it. The client lost an opportunity to problem-solve, Sznewajs notes, and the parents’ inconsistency made her job “infinitely harder.”

Ultimately, she had an honest conversation with the parents about the need to be consistent with consequences for their child so that he can learn to cope with challenges.

“It’s not my job to tell a parent what to do. It’s not appropriate to point out that I don’t think they’re doing the right thing,” she says, but “having boundaries set and then discarded gives a really inconsistent message to the child and does not help them cope with difficult situations. It doesn’t help them make better decisions.” 

Is it negotiable?

When seeing an adolescent client in a session with their parents, Solmonson often finds it helpful to moderate discussions about boundaries by prompting them to create two lists: one for rules that are negotiable and one for rules that aren’t. This activity allows both parties a chance to voice their feelings, give feedback and collaborate with her in session to guide the process.

For example, the family may decide that curfew is negotiable, depending on what the teen is leaving the house for and whether it’s an organized event with a set ending time. Or parents may agree not to dictate who the teen befriends so long as they’re making good choices when they’re with those friends, and the parents will only intervene in instances when the teen makes bad choices.

Examples of nonnegotiable rules that families have agreed on include not having drugs or illegal substances in the home and never sneaking out of the house without the parents’ knowledge, Solmonson explains.

“When you find things that you can negotiate on, it gives the adolescent a sense of empowerment and a sense of control over their own life,” Solmonson says.

Seeking safety

It’s natural for children to begin to seek more autonomy as they reach adolescence, but this aspect of development often causes friction between parents and children.

For many parents, behavior that is within the family’s rules “feels safe,” whereas rule breaking can feel like a rejection of the parents, says Martina Moore, an LPCC and counselor supervisor who is president and CEO of an outpatient treatment center for co-occurring disorders in Euclid, Ohio. The heart of what sparks disagreements with children during this stage is fear.

Parents feel discomfort when they don’t have the relationship with their child that they’ve always pictured, or when the child is not fulfilling the ambitions and hopes the parents had for them. Parents often overcompensate with strict rules to try and find control, notes Moore, the president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA.

Moore uses these situations as an opportunity to foster discussions with parents about the vision they have for their child versus the vision the child has for themselves. She encourages parents to ask their child what they want out of life – a question that many parents have never considered before, Moore notes.

She empathizes with parents while addressing their fear directly, telling them, “What you’re afraid is that they [the child] are going down a path that derails the hopes you have for them.”

“We see the world as a scary place that can be so unforgiving that we get really fearful of what’s going to happen with our children,” she adds.

Solmonson says that she encourages parents to focus on connecting with their child despite the disagreements, frustration and discord that happen during adolescence. Putting energy and care into the relationship with their child now, when it’s difficult, may result in the child choosing to have a relationship with them later in life, when it’s optional, Solmonson explains.

She urges parents, “Don’t let the conflict destroy the relationship. Conflict is inevitable and will always happen. Take a step back, [think of the big picture] and prioritize the relationship.”



Read more on how counselors can help parents and teens navigate conflict in Counseling Today’s November cover story.

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


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.

Confidentiality comes first: Navigating parent involvement with minor clients

By Bethany Bray

What is said between a counselor and an individual client is confidential, even when the client is a minor. But parents often want to be kept in the loop about their child’s progress in therapy. This can put the counselor in a tricky situation, especially when the parents want to control or influence the counseling process.

The only scenario in which counselor-client confidentiality can be broken is in situations that necessitate protecting the client or others “from serious and foreseeable harm,” such as suicidal intent. (For more on this, see Standard B.2.a. of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics.)

Marcy Adams Sznewajs, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who often works with teenage and young adult clients at her group therapy practice in Beverly Hills, Michigan, says she empathizes with parents who ask about what she’s covering in counseling sessions with their child. However, she finds it helpful — and necessary — to offer a firm explanation of counselor-client confidentiality whenever she begins counseling a young client.

Sznewajs says that she emphasizes to parents that she will let them know if their child discloses anything that will put the child in danger. She also makes it clear to both parties that she will only invite parents into the counseling sessions if the young client grants permission.

This conversation is often not what the parents want to hear, Sznewajs admits, but it is important because it spells out the boundaries of what the counselor is obligated to tell the parents and reassures the client that their privacy will be respected.

Sznewajs stresses to families that they all must trust the process for her work to be effective.

“It’s important for the teenager to trust an adult with these difficult thoughts and feelings, and legally and ethically I have to keep it confidential,” says Sznewajs. “I’d be doing my client a huge disservice [if I disclosed session details to the parents]. That’s not only unethical, it’s damaging — and what does it teach the kid? That this person that you’re supposed to trust, you can’t.”

The feelings behind the questions

Parents’ concerns and questions about the work their child is doing in therapy are often rooted in fear, says Martina Moore, a licensed professional clinical counselor supervisor with a mediation and counseling practice in Euclid, Ohio. Not only do parents worry that the challenging behaviors that caused their child to seek counseling, such as rule breaking, isolation, defiance or problems at school, will have negative long-term outcomes in the child’s life, but they might also feel these issues are a reflection of their parenting abilities.

“Parents sometimes have such anxiety about their children it’s [gotten] to the point where they are increasing their child’s anxiety,” notes Moore, president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of the American Counseling Association.

Although Moore makes a point to validate these fears with parents, she also emphasizes that it’s good for the child to grow and build autonomy through counseling on their own. She applauds parents for seeking help while explaining that she needs the freedom to work with the child alone for the counseling process to work.

“I also spend time with parents to dig into what their fear is. They’ve come to counseling [with their child], so they must believe that there is benefit in this process,” Moore says. She emphasizes to parents that they need to trust the process. “I spend a lot of time with parents getting their buy-in,” she notes.

In addition to fear, parents may also struggle with strong feelings of shame for having a child who is engaging in risky behavior and failing to thrive.

Le’Ann Solmonson, an LPC in Texas who has extensive experience working with children and adolescents, says she makes a point to acknowledge and normalize parents’ feelings of vulnerability and worry. If appropriate, Solmonson says she will sometimes disclose that she’s experienced similar feelings when her adult children sought therapy.

“No parent is perfect, and you worry over feeling like they are talking [in therapy] about what you’ve done wrong,” says Solmonson, the immediate past president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of ACA. “It’s a very vulnerable thing to have your child go to counseling. You can’t help but feel that it’s a reflection on you as a parent and feeds into fears that you’re ‘screwing your kids up.’”

Navigating the balance

Counselors often need to get creative and act diplomatically to keep parents in the loop while maintaining young clients’ confidentiality and trust.

When parents insist on being involved in their child’s counseling, Moore negotiates with both the parents and client to find a plan that they all agree on while staying within ethical boundaries.

This was the case for a teenage client Moore once counseled who had substance use disorder. The parents were worried about their child and wanted to be involved in the counseling process. Moore facilitated a discussion and, eventually, they all came to an agreement that Moore would work with the teen alone but would let the parents know whenever the client had a relapse or break in recovery, she says.

Keeping lines of communication open and having regular check-ins with parents is beneficial to the counseling process with young clients, Solmonson notes. She often prompts child or adolescent clients to identify one small thing they are comfortable sharing with their parents at the conclusion of each counseling session, such a breathing technique they learned or new words they discovered to describe their emotions. This keeps the parents in the loop while ensuring that the client maintains control over the process.

When parents are left completely in the dark about their child’s work in counseling, it can exacerbate worry, cause them to “fear the worst” and catastrophize about what the child might be saying, Solmonson adds.

Sznewajs notes that talking with young clients about keeping their parents updated also provides the opportunity to check in with the client and ask what they feel is going well. She sometimes begins by asking the client how they feel things are going in counseling and transitions to what (or if) they would want her to share with their parents about their progress.

Disclosure of life-threatening behavior

When a young client is engaging in risk-taking behaviors that are life threatening (i.e., suicidal actions, self-harm), ethically, parents need to be brought into the conversation, says Hayle Fisher, a licensed professional clinical counselor and director of adolescent services at a behavioral mental health provider in Mentor, Ohio. While this is crucial to do, it can also impair the therapeutic relationship with the teen, she adds.

Fisher finds the vignettes in the 2016 British Journal of Psychiatry article “‘Shhh! Please don’t tell…’ Confidentiality in child and adolescent mental health” particularly helpful for examples on navigating these conversations. She keeps the following notes for herself, drawn from that article, for situations when she must disclose a young client’s harmful behavior:

  • Tell the client what you (the counselor) are planning on disclosing to the parents, with an emphasis on the full context of why you need to. Ask for their feedback on how they might like to edit what you plan to say.
  • Talk through the potential benefits and costs of disclosing to the parents. Ask the client how they feel about the disclosure and consider their views as you move forward.
  • Validate any fears the client may have about the disclosure, such as losing access to resources and freedoms, feeling blamed or ashamed, or being concerned that the police or social services will become involved.

To maintain trust and a therapeutic alliance with young clients, Fisher emphasizes that it’s important for a counselor to give the client as much control as possible over how this communication will occur. If the disclosure happens during an in-person session and the parents are nearby, she gives the client the choice to either stay in the room or step out and wait in the lobby when she invites the parent(s) in to tell them.

Fisher also gives young clients the option to tell their parents before she does. However, this is only appropriate if the client’s risk of harm is not imminent, Fisher stresses. In this scenario, she tells the client that she will call at a certain time the following day to speak with their parents, check in and provide support for the parents and client.

“This option is especially powerful,” Fisher explains, because it “reinforces the adolescent taking accountability for their actions, increases communication skills and fosters independence in the situation so they are not dependent on the counselor for navigating conflicts with their parents.”

Sznewajs also takes a collaborative approach when it’s necessary to break confidentiality to inform a client’s parent or guardian about harmful behavior or intent. She says she tries to take the client’s feelings into consideration while modeling firm boundaries.

Although not having the conversation with the parents isn’t an option, client can choose how and when it happens, Sznewajs explains. She offers to involve the parents in person, call them on the phone, do a video chat during the counseling session or wait until after the session ends.

Sznewajs says she explains to young clients: “I want to make sure you stay safe, so we have to bring your parents into this conversation.” She adds that she tries to “do it in a collaborative way, even when it [the situation] is dire.”





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


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.

De-escalating conflict between parents and teens

By Bethany Bray October 26, 2022

It’s natural for adolescent development and parent-child conflict to go hand in hand.

Le’Ann Solmonson, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who owns a private practice in Nacogdoches, Texas, has worked with children and adolescents in school and clinical settings throughout her career. Time and time again, she’s seen families fall into a pattern as children reach adolescence: The youth wants more autonomy — a normal aspect of adolescent development — and begins to push against their parent’s rules and boundaries. In response, the parents tighten their control or inflict punishment, only to have the adolescent push back harder, break more rules and chafe against their parents’ preferences. Thus begins a repeating spiral of friction, frustration and misunderstanding — on the part of both the teenager and the parents.

“Conflict is very much a product of adolescent development,” says Solmonson, the immediate past president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of the American Counseling Association. “Adolescents’ whole goal is to figure out ‘Who am I? Where do I fit in?’ and begin that separation from their parents and become more independent. … Some of that development leads to trying out new things, thinking a little differently [than their parents] and not having the cognitive development to think through something that looks fun but might be dangerous. These are natural things that can fuel conflict and disagreements.”

Parents vs. teen

Hayle Fisher, a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) and director of adolescent services at a behavioral mental health provider in Mentor, Ohio, runs her practice’s intensive outpatient program for adolescents as well as a counseling group for parents focused on navigating family challenges with teens. In her experience, a teen’s risk-taking behaviors are often what the family names as the presenting problem. And while problems such as reckless driving, disordered eating, skipping school, risky sexual behaviors, substance use and self-harm or suicidal ideation do need attention in therapy, there is often conflict in the home that is exacerbating the teen’s behavior. Even if a family is not having traditional “blowout” style arguments, conflict is often present in the form of unhealthy patterns and instability, says Fisher, the president of the Ohio Association for Specialists in Group Work. Examples include invalidating behaviors and dialectical dilemmas (e.g., forcing independence vs. fostering dependence, normalizing pathological behavior vs. pathologizing normal developmental behavior, extremes in excessive leniency vs. authoritarian control).

Because of this, Fisher feels that a systems approach works best for counseling teenage clients who are in conflict with their parents. The intensive outpatient program at Fisher’s practice provides individual and group counseling for adolescents as well as group counseling for the parents.

While it’s vital for the teen to focus on decision-making, emotion regulation and other skills in counseling, sometimes it’s even more important for the parents to work on similar issues in counseling themselves, she adds. Not only are parents often unequipped with the tools they need to navigate conflict, but they sometimes carry bad experiences and patterns they picked up from their own parents and upbringing.

When working with teenage clients who are at odds with their parents, counselors are often given the difficult task of fostering growth in the adolescent while knowing they have little control over their home environment and their parents’ willingness — or lack of willingness — to work on their own unhealthy patterns and behaviors. Counselors must also strike a balance between fostering trust with the teen and maintaining client confidentially and accommodating parents who want to be kept in the loop about their child’s progress, perhaps even to the point of wanting to control or influence the process, notes Marcy Adams Sznewajs, an LPC who co-owns a group therapy practice in Beverly Hills, Michigan.

(For more on maintaining client confidentiality while managing parents’ requests to be kept in the loop about their teen’s progress in counseling, see the online exclusive article “Confidentiality comes first: Navigating parent involvement with minor clients.”)

“It’s very challenging to work with teenagers because of parents,” says Sznewajs, who often works with older teens (15+) and emerging adults. “It’s a dance between involving the parents, helping the parents parent better and maintaining the trust of the teenager, and there’s no formula that always works.”

Getting started

The counselors interviewed for this article agree that when counseling adolescents who are in conflict with their parents, an important first step is for the practitioner to offer an honest yet firm explanation on the limits of client confidentiality to both parties. This includes explaining that what is said in counseling sessions is confidential — even when the client is a minor — except in situations that necessitate protecting the client or others “from serious and foreseeable harm,” such as suicidal intent. (For more on this, see Standard B.2.a. of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics at counseling.org/ethics).

This conversation is often not what the parents want to hear, Sznewajs admits, but it is important because it spells out the boundaries of what the counselor is obligated to tell the parents and reassures the adolescent that their privacy will be respected.

In addition to conversations about confidentiality and the counseling process, clinicians should conduct a thorough assessment, including screening for mental illnesses that can surface during adolescence, notes Martina Moore, an LPCC and counselor supervisor who is president and CEO of an outpatient treatment center for co-occurring disorders in Euclid, Ohio.

It’s not uncommon for family conflict to crescendo with the onset of a mental illness in a teenage child, says Moore, a faculty member in the clinical mental health counseling program at John Carroll University.

Challenges with concentration, irritability, sleep problems, and mood spikes and swings can be a normal part of adolescence, but they can also be symptoms of a developing mental illness, Moore says. In counseling, completing a thorough assessment before creating a treatment plan with teenage clients is important to gather more information and parse out symptoms that may be part of adolescent development and/or signs of mental illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders can be a particularly helpful resource in this process, she adds.

When counseling teens who are in conflict with their parents, getting the full picture during the assessment process often involves speaking with the parent(s) to learn what they see as the teen’s symptoms and challenges. However, there is no hard-and-fast method to do this, and the counselors interviewed for this article say that they vary their approach depending on the family dynamics and the client’s needs.

Moore and Solmonson say they often meet with the parents alone to hear their perspective as the teen begins counseling. It’s simply not helpful to have the client (the teen) in the room while the parents “rant” about the family’s situation, notes Moore, president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA.

“If there’s so much anger between them, it may be better to see them separately for a while to diffuse and process their anger and prepare them for a better way to come back into dialogue,” Solmonson says. “If I’m just playing referee, then everyone being in the same room is not effective.”

At the same time, having everyone in the room together — either at intake or later in therapy — can tell a counselor volumes about the family’s dynamics and issues that need addressing, adds Solmonson, an ACA member. “Sometimes it’s needed to get the whole picture of what’s going on,” she says.

Talking with the parents also creates an opportunity to ask them about their upbringing and things they have learned or internalized from their parents, Solmonson says. She asks parents what they did and didn’t like about the way their parents brought them up and what they want to emulate or keep from repeating.

This information is so valuable that Solmonson says she makes a point to have this conversation with the parent(s) of every teen she counsels.

Building better communication skills

When there is friction between parents and teenagers, communication is often the primary and most important skill they all need to build in counseling, Sznewajs notes. The relationship often naturally improves, she says, when a family begins to communicate better, truly listen and empathize with each other’s perspectives.

The counselors interviewed for this article suggest using the following techniques with parents and adolescents to strengthen their communication skills — and, in turn, their ability to tolerate and navigate disagreements.

Active listening: Sznewajs begins communication skill building with teens and parents by seeking the client’s permission to involve all of them in a session together. Once together, she thanks them for agreeing to work as a group and asks the family to name a minor conflict that they struggle with, such as squabbles over expecting the teen to drive a younger sibling to school. Because it’s a learning exercise, it’s best if they stay away from larger, high-stakes conflict, Sznewajs explains.

When she prompts the family to explain the disagreement, usually “everyone starts talking at once,” Sznewajs says. If this happens, she asks them to slow down and take turns so she can fully understand the situation and invites the teenager to start by explaining their perspective. Then, she prompts the parents to speak and give their perspective as well as reiterate what their child said.

Usually, the parents immediately jump to why the teen’s take is wrong rather than summarizing the teen’s experience. If this happens, Sznewajs will gently remind them that she wants to hear what they think their child’s perspective is, not whether it’s right or wrong, and explains that this response is common among families she works with. She also gives the adolescent the same assignment: Paraphrase your parents’ position without giving an opinion on what was said.

Sznewajs then continues the discussion by asking the teen and the parents to talk about how it felt when the other party paraphrased their experience. The aim, she explains, is to foster active listening skills and empathy toward the other party’s point of view.

“I emphasize that the important thing isn’t to agree but to feel heard,” Sznewajs adds.

Responding to “mistakes”: Parents often need to work on how they respond to their teen when what they see as a failure or mistake occurs. Sznewajs says she does this work either with the parents alone or with the family together, depending on what is appropriate and preferred by the client.

When a teenager or young adult makes a poor decision or has a slip-up such as failing a class, parents often default to anger, blame or “I told you so” lectures, Sznewajs says.

However, a better approach — and one that quells patterns of conflict — is to consider the full context of what happened and support the child so they can solve the problem on their own. Sznewajs says she often offers psychoeducation to parents on how becoming angry or interfering in the situation to circumvent conflict — such as paying for the child to retake a college class they failed — may not be helpful in the long run. Collaborating with the teen to find out what led to the situation and what they need to resolve it will keep them from feeling misunderstood and fueling further conflict, she stresses.

Instead of responding in anger, she coaches parents to use supportive statements such as “That must have been so stressful. How can we keep that from happening again?”

Sznewajs takes a truthful, direct approach with parents. She explains that their child “is trying to figure out life” and reminds them that mistakes happen. She may tell parents, for example, “Sometimes kids do dumb stuff, and they learn through trial and error, just like you did.” It’s often teaching parents to “be empathetic about the disaster that just occurred instead of angry,” Sznewajs says, “One of the most important pieces of work I do with families is helping them collaborate with their kids when they make a mistake rather than getting angry at them.”

It can be hard for parents to resist the urge to become involved in their child’s challenges, Sznewajs acknowledges, but allowing them to fail — within a supportive setting — furthers them on the path to becoming an autonomous adult. Teens who aren’t “allowed” to make mistakes because their parents respond with anger and blame often struggle to problem-solve and navigate challenges later in life, she says.

“The overarching goal [of counseling] with teenagers is to help them become autonomous, self-sufficient, confident adults,” Sznewajs notes. “And the best way to do that is to help them communicate effectively and support them as they learn to solve their own problems.”

Modeling respect: Counselors may need to work on self-awareness and patience with both teenage clients and their parents to bridge communication gaps. When parents and teenagers are at odds, both parties often come to counseling feeling disrespected, Sznewajs says. “Parents who demand respect [from children] but don’t give it back make for a pretty high-conflict home,” she adds.

Solmonson often stresses to parents that if they want respect during disagreements with their child, they’ll need to model that. For example, if a teen replies to a question in a sarcastic or disrespectful way, Solmonson coaches parents to respond by saying, “I’m going to give you a do-over. Do you need a minute to think about how to say that?” rather than blowing up in anger and furthering the conflict.

“If you [parents] raise your voice [at a child], you’re giving them permission to raise their voice back. If when they escalate, you escalate with them, you’re just fueling the fire,” Solmonson says. “Parents need to know how to handle things when feelings are big, and sometimes that means [saying,] ‘We’re going to take a minute apart’ and recognizing that ‘I don’t want to speak to you from the [emotionally escalated] place I’m at right now.’”

Taking a break: In moments of friction, parents often overcompensate and repeat themselves because they feel a child is not listening, Solmonson notes. It can be helpful to validate this experience for parents, she says, and explain that it’s a natural reflex to repeat yourself when you don’t get acknowledgment or a response from the person you’re talking to. But it doesn’t mean they’re not listening.

Solmonson also finds it can be helpful to establish a signal — such as making the timeout “T” signal used in sports with your hands — that either party can use when they need to take a break from a conversation or indicate that a topic is exhausted.

Fisher sometimes encourages families to use a signal or ring a bell she has available during in-person sessions to indicate that a member of the family is feeling invalidated or steamrolled during family conversations and disagreements.

The use of a “timeout” signal proved helpful  when Solmonson once worked with a family that had three adolescent sons. The mother “was very willing to work on becoming a better parent, but she would just talk and talk and talk” during disagreements, Solomon recalls. So the sons needed a tool to let their mom know, “OK, we’ve heard you. You’ve explained it enough. We understand.” 

It’s also important to emphasize to parents and teens that taking a break means walking away for a minute to calm yourself before returning to the conversation, Solmonson says. It doesn’t mean storming off to fume and feed your anger or leave the house entirely. A counselor can also equip both teens and parents with calming techniques and self-talk affirmations that focus on needing to hear what the other party has to say, she adds.

Part of this work , Solmonson notes, includes psychoeducation on the importance of “picking your battles.” She says she often tells parents and adolescents, “If you wait until something is really important to you and engage in a discussion on why it is important to you, you’re more likely to be listened to. But if you argue [about] every little point, the other person is going to stop listening.”

Reading nonverbals: Moore finds that she often needs to explain to parents that it can be a developmentally appropriate response for an adolescent to shut down when they become overwhelmed. During conflict, the reflex to stop talking and disengage can be one of a teen’s strongest tools, she says. Sometimes, they simply don’t have any more words.

Parents often need coaching on ways to respond to this behavior without losing their cool, says Moore, an ACA member. They may need to learn to gently ask their teen “Do you understand what I’m asking?” without expecting anything more than a nod. Moore sometimes serves as the moderator when families practice this technique in counseling.

“Children and adolescents have a built-in process to shut down and stop communicating [when overwhelmed], but their body language and their lack of words are telling us a lot,” Moore says. She has noticed that parents’ reaction is often to escalate, yell and become agitated. Instead, Moore teaches parents to notice their child’s body language and nonverbal cues and ask what it is telling them. 

“It tells you that what you’re doing is not working and you’ve hit a roadblock,” she says. “I have to teach parents that it’s not defiance. It’s gotten to a point when they [the adolescent] can’t go any further. They don’t have the capacity.”

Returning to the wise mind: Fisher works at a practice that uses dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and finds the method particularly helpful and appropriate for adolescent clients because of its focus on differentiating between human’s emotional and rational states of mind. DBT guides clients to identify and use their “wise mind,” which draws upon a middle ground of both emotional and rational thinking.

A person who activates their wise mind is able to acknowledge and respect the emotions they are feeling while viewing a situation logically, Fisher explains, which is really useful during conflict.

Emotion regulation and distress tolerance are core treatment targets in DBT, which can also help both teens and parents during times of stress and disagreement, Fisher notes. She says she often talks with parents and teens about the need to ride strong emotions like a wave, rather than reacting with impulsivity, and offers psychoeducation on how humans’ emotional reactions usually tend to recede within 30 minutes.

DBT also fosters skills that can help teens to rationally think through the urge to turn to negative coping mechanisms such as self-harm, Fisher adds. She equips teen clients with numerous age-appropriate mechanisms that they can use to take their minds off distress and invite calm, such as reciting Taylor Swift song lyrics or playing solitaire on their phone.

Observing family dynamics: Moore is trained in Gestalt therapy and pulls from that method to focus on communication with parents and teenage children who are in conflict. One exercise that Moore finds helpful involves inviting the entire family to a counseling session and having them sit in a circle facing each other. She gives them a discussion prompt and then sits outside of the circle as an observer. While the family discusses the prompt, Moore listens, observes the family’s dynamics and pauses the conversation to occasionally offer comments on some of the interactions and patterns she is noticing. The power in this technique, Moore says, is that it prompts the family to communicate naturally.

The goal, she continues, is to bring awareness to sticking points that the family may not be cognizant of and give them techniques and assignments to improve communication, which they first try in session and then later at home.

Moore used this method with a family she once worked with that had three adolescent children (one son and two daughters). While discussing the prompt, a disagreement arose, and the mother began to raise her voice. When that happened, the three children slumped down in their chairs and stopped talking, and the father started looking around the room, avoiding his family’s gaze, Moore recalls.

Moore paused the conversation and said, “I’m noticing that when conversations get a little heated, mom’s voice escalates and all three children slump down in their chairs, and dad is disconnected too.” Then she asked the group whether this is a usual pattern of communication in their home. The children immediately said “yes” and reported that when their mother starts to escalate, “there’s nothing we can say” to placate her.

This conversation helped the mother realize that she felt a need to “project dominance” and speak louder when she assumed her children were not listening to her. As a result, she was shutting down communication, Moore notes.

Moore had the family work on rerouting this pattern in session with her and as a homework assignment to try later at home. She asked the mother to work on being more aware of her body language, voice volume and the needs of her children during arguments. The children were challenged to try and empathize with why their mother felt she wasn’t being heard and find gentle ways to signal to their mother that she was becoming escalated during disagreements while remaining engaged.

Using humor: Counseling sessions may be the last place an adolescent wants to be, Fisher acknowledges. This can especially be the case if their parents told them they were going to counseling five minutes before the appointment to minimize complaints and disagreement from the teen.

She finds humor to be a great way to break the ice, build rapport with adolescent clients and make counseling “easier to digest,” as long as it’s appropriate and a good fit for the client. 

Recently, Fisher had an intake session with a family, and it soon became clear that the teen was completely turned off and “wasn’t having it.” She diffused the situation by naming what she was observing in a humorous way: “It seems like you don’t want to be here, and I’m just this weird person asking a bunch of questions today!” This statement validated what the teen was feeling and helped make the session seem less adversary, she recalls.

Fisher cautions counselors to be careful when using humor and know how to use it appropriately. “Don’t use it to minimize emotions that a client is feeling,” she says, “but humor can normalize discomfort and helps the counselor come across as nonthreatening.”

Coping with unhealthy dynamics 

When working with parents and teens who are at odds, counselors can be put in a difficult situation if the parents expect the practitioner to “fix” their child without doing their own work to change unhealthy dynamics in the home environment. The counselors interviewed for this article say this is a common scenario, so during intake (as well as whenever this issue becomes a challenge later in therapy), they make a point to talk with parents of teen clients about the need to be open to change themselves.

“It doesn’t matter how hard a kid is trying to make changes in their own life [via counseling] if change is not supported in their [home] environment. … I can do fabulous work with a child but sending them back into an unhealthy environment that hasn’t changed will be detrimental and they won’t make progress,” Solmonson says. “Unless you [the counselor] can make some changes to the child’s environment, you’re not going to be as successful as you can possibly be.”

It’s vital for practitioners who work with teens to tailor their counseling approach to be sensitive to this lack of autonomy, Sznewajs stresses. Even older teens who work, attend college or live away from home often remain financially dependent on their parents, she adds.

It can be a challenge when a client’s home environment remains problematic, Sznewajs says, but “it informs my therapy so much. I can see what the problems are at home and what my client needs to cope because change likely won’t happen.”

When a teenage client’s parents are resistant, unsuccessful or unable to make changes in family dynamics, Sznewajs often helps the client shift their focus from feeling frustrated and complaining about toxic patterns at home to finding ways to cope and build small pieces of autonomy within their situation. She guides the client to explore and identify aspects of their home life that they have to tolerate while finding ways to manage and be true to themselves without stoking conflict and increasing turmoil.

She uses acceptance and commitment therapy to prompt them to identify what they can and cannot control. Techniques that help teenage clients identify and explore their values, Sznewajs says, can also be helpful and give them things to focus on that are within their control.

Fisher uses DBT to help adolescent clients identify their core values. It can be helpful to have the client explore what they want in their life and what is missing as well as how their values might conflict with or be similar to ones their parents hold, she explains.

“A lot of this work is managing situations that aren’t ideal, which is good training for real [adult] life,” Sznewajs adds. “We are not always in situations that are what you want them to be.”



Read an online companion piece to this article, “Curfew is when?! Helping parents and teens see eye to eye on boundaries and rules.” And search for articles with the tag “teenager” at ct.counseling.org for more on the nuances of counseling adolescent clients.

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


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.