Tag Archives: parenting

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.

The social justice of adoption

By Laurel Shaler June 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Parenting in the 21st century

By Laurie Meyers February 22, 2018

Remember when receipt of a coffee mug emblazoned with “Best Mom Ever” or a T-shirt proclaiming “Best Dad Ever” was enough to validate someone’s skills and aptitude as a parent? In the 21st century, it seems that the ante has been raised. In the eyes of society, parents barely qualify as competent — much less “perfect” — unless they can check off all of the following qualifications:

  • Not only attend to, but anticipate, their child’s every need
  • Orchestrate their child’s academic success
  • Provide their child with all the best experiences and most useful activities
  • Make home an oasis of peace and harmony for the family (while simultaneously prospering in their own careers)

Attendance to one’s children at all times is mandatory. No exceptions will be made for parents working two jobs just to get by, single parents or parents of children with special needs. No foolproof instruction manual will be provided.

These extreme expectations, paired with the rapidly accelerating pace of modern life, present significant obstacles and pressures for parents who genuinely want to make their children feel cared for without driving themselves crazy. Many counselors are routinely helping clients respond to these and other challenges of modern-day parenting.

Parenting, problems and pride

“Always on” parenting requires a lot of problem-solving, which leaves parents focused on all the things that are going wrong, says American Counseling Association member Laura Meyer, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Bedford, New Hampshire, who specializes in parenting issues and women’s concerns. In particular, working parents often have a difficult time attending every school function that is offered because they typically take place during the workday. This can feel like a failure, particularly for mothers, says Meyer, who is currently researching women’s parenting experiences.

As a kind of antidote, Meyer encourages clients to look for instances when they did something that made them proud of their parenting: “Maybe I wasn’t able to be there for this one particular event, but I made the costume that my kid wore in the play.”

It’s easy for parents to become trapped in the problems that they face, so Meyer encourages a solution-focused approach. For example, she has a client who is struggling with parenting a son who has intermittent explosive disorder. “She was at her wit’s end,” Meyer says. “He was kicking her [and] she was dragging him out of public venues.”

Meyer asked the woman to tell her what went well that week. At first, the client couldn’t think of anything. Then she remembered putting up a Christmas tree with her son. They had enjoyed decorating it together, and the mother took a photo. Meyer asked the client what might happen if every time that she and her son had a good moment together, she took a photo and included it in a chatbook — a social media app that allows users to generate photo books from uploaded pictures. Then they could sit down and look at the photos together each week.

The client burst into tears, saying it would make a huge difference to look at and remember some of the little victories rather than always thinking exclusively about the failures. Meyer suggested that the client could also use the photos to talk with her son about why that particular experience or day had been so good and then ask him how he had been able to remain calm.

Meyer encourages clients to use their counseling sessions as a time to stop and reflect on the quality of their relationship with their child rather than continually reacting to crises. Parents are often susceptible to getting caught up in the everyday duties of being a parent and missing out on the joy, love and upside of parenting, she says.

Helping prevent sexual abuse

Over the course of seven days in January, 156 young women and teenagers gathered in a courtroom in Michigan to recount how Lawrence Nassar, former physician for the USA Gymnastics team and Michigan State University, sexually violated them. Their stories detailed the widespread damage an unchecked predator with access to children and teenagers can wreak. Some of those who came to speak were accompanied by their parents, who were left to ask — in the words of one mother who testified — “How could I have missed the red flags?”

Most parents don’t have much accurate information about sexual predators, says ACA member Jennifer Foster, an assistant professor of counselor education and counseling psychology at Western Michigan University. Her research focuses on child sexual abuse.

In the past, most sexual abuse prevention efforts were aimed at children in the school system, she says. “This helped to create awareness, but the efforts had a major flaw in that they put the burden of stopping abuse on kids,” Foster observes.

As a former licensed mental health counselor and school counselor in Florida, Foster worked with many children who had been abused. “They would say to me, ‘I did say stop. I did say no,’” she recalls. Unfortunately, it is easy for children to be outmaneuvered and overpowered by adults and older children, so prevention efforts should focus on parents and other adults, Foster asserts.

Foster now helps educate parents about sexual predators. “I want parents to know all the scary info,” she says. This includes working to break down conventional myths. When asked to think about the profile of a “typical” predator, most people picture an adult male with a criminal record who is a stranger, or at least not someone the family knows well. Foster tells parents to picture instead the people they might invite to Thanksgiving dinner, because 90 to 96 percent of sexual predators are either family members or someone who is close to the family (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network puts this number at 93 percent). According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, 36 percent are other children.

Parents don’t typically picture a female offender either, and although the reported incidence of sexual abuse by women is low, experts think that the actual rate is higher, Foster says. Unfortunately, parents are much more likely to hand over the care of their children to a woman — in a day care setting, for instance — without really knowing the person’s background, she continues.

Research also indicates a high rate of sibling-on-sibling sexual abuse, often with the use of force, Foster says. Many parents like to assume that this is something that happens only in families with lower socioeconomic status, but the truth is that it can take place in any family. Foster adds that research indicates that if child or juvenile offenders get treatment, they are likely to recover and not go on to commit the same offense again.

Foster teaches parents about some of the behavioral red flags of possible sexual predators, including spending more time with children than with peers, lacking adult friends, having numerous child-friendly hobbies and making inappropriate sexual comments about children. Foster reported a local teacher who regularly made sexually suggestive comments to his female students, such as, “If you were my daughter, I wouldn’t let you out the door in those pants because I know what I would be thinking.”

“That is such a great example of covert abuse, which was allegedly ignored by school staff when girls repeatedly complained about the teacher. That was one of multiple comments he made. They were told, ‘You’re taking it the wrong way. You misheard. You don’t know how to take a compliment.’ Then, when he had an opportunity and a student in isolation, the abuse moved to overt, with him putting his hand up her shirt.”

That student happened to be a member of a youth group Foster helps lead at her church. She believes the girl felt encouraged to disclose to her because of a pen that Foster often uses that says, “Rape. Talk about it.” Another girl in the group asked why Foster had that pen, and that gave Foster an opening to talk about the work she has done with sexual trauma survivors. After the group, the girl who had been violated told Foster about her experience. Foster contacted the school, which she says took no official action, instead simply allowing the teacher to resign.

Parents should also be wary of adults who are always putting their hands on kids or giving kids hugs, Foster says. These behaviors will often take place in front of other people because predators are testing to see if anyone notices and is alarmed by their actions. Predators also try to spend time alone with children and may give them gifts. Foster says that giving gifts can be an entirely benevolent act, but she also warns that it can be a part of the grooming process. Foster’s family has established a rule that her children won’t take gifts from anyone without first asking Foster or their father.

Foster also teaches her children that no secrets should be kept in their family (although she does distinguish between secrets and surprises). Part of the reasoning for this practice is that sexual predators often try to get children to keep small secrets. For example, “Don’t tell your mom I gave you ice cream before dinner. She’ll be mad at me!” Small secrets are a test of sorts, Foster explains. The predator is trying to gauge what a child will and will not tell his or her parents.

Predators are opportunistic — always looking for ways to be “helpful,” Foster says. They often try to come to the rescue, particularly with families in vulnerable situations, such as a family with a chronically ill child, a family that is new to town or a family headed by a single parent, she says. Becoming the family savior is part of the end goal so that they can get time alone with the children, Foster explains.

Although Foster believes that the burden of spotting and stopping child sexual abuse must be placed on adults, she says that it is still important for children to know that it is not OK for someone to touch them inappropriately. Foster likes to teach parents the language that Feather Berkower, a child sexual abuse prevention expert, uses about “body safety.” The concept is simple enough that even little children can learn it.

Body safety means that no one can look at, touch or take pictures of the child’s private parts, and children should not look at or touch another person’s body parts, Foster explains. She believes that children who aren’t taught about body safety are more vulnerable because they don’t have the language to talk about something that has made them feel uncomfortable, including actual abuse. Children should also learn the anatomically correct names for body parts, Foster says.

Foster’s son knows that everyone has to follow body safety rules. If he goes to a friend’s house, Foster also makes sure that the friend’s parents are aware that Foster’s family follows body safety rules. In addition, because of the prevalence of child-on-child sexual abuse, Foster does not allow closed doors when friends come over to play at her family’s house. She also intermittently checks in with her son about his interactions with the adults in his life by asking if he had fun with the person, what they did together and whether the person followed the body safety rules.

Most parents are also in the dark about how to keep their children safe online, Foster says, but they need to be aware that sexual predators often use online means to target children. Perpetrators often develop social media accounts and profiles, posing as someone who is the same age as the child or adolescent they are targeting and then revealing their true age later. After earning the young person’s trust, the predator may attempt to entice the child or adolescent to meet in person and move their encounters offline.

Foster recommends that families confine technology use to open spaces such as the TV room or kitchen. Parents can make use of tracking tools, but they should also have an open dialogue with their children about their online activity, Foster says. She also advises that parents find out what kind of technology rules other parents have before allowing children to go to their friends’ houses.

As a whole, Foster says, a higher level of vigilance against sexual abuse is required. She notes that most parents are good about discussing safety with their children when it comes to looking both ways before crossing the street, using a helmet when riding a bike or always wearing a seatbelt in the car. But more children are sexually abused each year than are hit by cars, and relatively few families take active steps to prevent that from happening.

“When it comes to child sexual abuse, adults need to take on the responsibility to create safe homes and communities,” Foster says. “Counselors [can] give them the tools they need.”

No longer partners but still parents

“Divorce changes kids’ lives [and] usually not in good ways,” says Kristin Little, a licensed mental health counselor whose Seattle-area practice includes a focus on counseling families that are navigating divorce or separation. “However, kids can manage even difficult divorce changes if well-supported and protected from the most harmful effects of conflict [such as] loss of confidence in their parents’ ability to lead, loss of stability in home/school life and loss of relationship with either or both parents.”

Little says the most essential thing that mental health professionals can do when counseling parents who are separated, divorced or in the process of divorcing is to introduce the idea of the separation of “adult mind” and “parent mind.”

“Parents can be experiencing a high level of anger or sadness while their marriage is ending. This is normal and expected and may be important for them to explore individually,” she says. “However, they continue to be parents and need to separate their own adult experience and reactions from their parenting roles. Giving parents the permission to feel, yet reminding them that they have the responsibility to attend to parenting needs, make important decisions, [and] see and respond to their children’s needs and feelings as separate from their own, is vitally important.”

ACA member Kimberly Mason, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Madisonville, Louisiana, who specializes in family and relationship issues, says that many parents have difficulty managing their anger, guilt and shame, and setting aside their conflict while parenting. To better shield their children from strife, she gives the following recommendations to parents:

1) Have ground rules for communication. Parents should not berate each other or argue in front of their children. If necessary, they should go to a private area to work out their conflict.

2) Each parent should seek individual counseling to work through his or her own issues. This can help limit the level of animosity and frequency of arguments that may occur in the home.

3) Model mutual respect for each other in front of the children. Each partner should also talk to family members and friends and ask them to refrain from saying negative things about the other partner in front of the children.

Parents who are facing divorce or separation are often terrified, which can override their ability to collaborate and make decisions, Little says. They may seek safety by sticking to past patterns of interacting and relying on assumptions about roles or capabilities that they held during the marriage or relationship, she explains. They often have difficulty envisioning change.

“This can result in one parent insisting that they are more experienced than the other and thus deserving of more time, which inevitably triggers fear and anger in the other parent and results in what we often see as a tug of war that rarely serves the kids’ or parents’ needs,” Little says.

Counselors can be a neutral “referee” of sorts for parents, steering the conversation away from who is wrong or right and instead toward developing a working co-parenting relationship that focuses on the future, she says.

ACA member Monika Logan, an LPC in Frisco, Texas, has a practice that focuses on divorce and parenting issues. She says that parents need to learn to form a more businesslike relationship by setting aside their emotions toward each other. Parents can begin to do this by “working on their own feelings related to the separation or divorce and developing a support network,” she says.

Little agrees with encouraging that approach. “[It] allows them to get the important job of parenting done,” she says. “It is essentially undoing the patterns, dynamics and practices of the marriage to allow for a renegotiation of how they will interact [and] the tasks they will agree to in the new co-parenting relationship.”

Each partner must agree to the new “business” guidelines or they won’t work, says Mason, who is also a core faculty member at Walden University. They must commit to putting their children’s needs above their own and making joint decisions. Compromise and consistency are also essential. The parents must be willing to back each other up when making decisions so that the children will still view them as a team, she emphasizes.

“Contrary to what some people describe, healthy co-parenting can be anywhere along the spectrum from parallel parenting — having little contact and overlap between homes and parents — to how co-parenting is usually thought of — frequent collaboration and interaction,” Little says.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to co-parenting, she says. A counselor’s job is to help parents craft a plan that works for each partner, minimizes conflict and, most important, meets the needs of their children.

Coming to terms with coming out

As the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning or queer) community has gained greater acceptance during the past 10 to 20 years, it has become more common for young people to come out to their parents, says ACA member Misty Ginicola, an LPC in West Haven, Connecticut, whose practice specialties include LGBTQ issues. She adds that those who come out are also often taking that step at younger ages than in the past — for instance, as middle schoolers rather than as teenagers.

How parents react to that decision is incredibly important to the mental health of the child. Ginicola, the lead editor of the ACA-published book Affirmative Counseling With LGBTQI+ People, has witnessed parent reactions in her practice that ran the gamut from accepting yet concerned to completely opposed and voicing a desire to “fix” their child. She tells parents looking to “cure” a child that counselors cannot, either from an ethical or a practical standpoint, change someone’s sexual/affectional orientation. However, Ginicola does try to address the concerns of all parents who come to her for help, whether they are “affirming” parents (who are supportive of their child’s orientation) or “disaffirming” (those who reject LGBTQ status).

Even parents who are supportive of the LGBTQ community may have problems adjusting to their own child coming out, she says. They may ask if the child is “sure” or, if a child comes out as gay or lesbian and then subsequently shows interest in someone who is other gendered, they may say, “Oh, so you’re really not [gay or lesbian],” Ginicola reports. These kinds of reactions often spring from parents’ fears that their child will be bullied or belittled or face other hurtful consequences, she says.

However, Ginicola explains to parents that when they ask those kinds of questions or make those kinds of statements, what their children actually hear is that something is wrong with them. Children are very vulnerable when coming out. In fact, the risk of suicide is highest during the coming-out process, but research shows that having supportive parents reduces this risk by half. So, it is crucial for parents to strive to always communicate support and to be willing to admit and apologize when they have said the wrong thing, Ginicola emphasizes.

Ginicola also teaches parents that although they cannot keep their children from being bullied, they can help them cope by building and reinforcing their self-esteem, teaching them good social and emotional skills, and ensuring that they have allies such as friends, teachers and school counselors in place.

One of the ways parents can help build their children’s self-esteem is by helping them find places where they will be accepted through whatever interests and activities they enjoy, Ginicola says. She cautions, however, that parents must take it upon themselves to ensure that these places are safe and not an environment in which their child will be rejected or targeted.

Parents should also talk to their child’s school to confirm that it has sound anti-bullying policies in place, Ginicola says. Most important, parents must make sure their children understand that there is nothing wrong with them and that they are not the problem, she emphasizes.

Unfortunately, the reality is that although acceptance for those who identify as LGBTQ has grown tremendously, they are still at increased risk for experiencing violence, meaning that parents need to talk to children who have come out about safety, Ginicola says. Specifically, children should be careful about who their friends are and make sure that they attend parties and other social events with people who are affirming, she says. Parents should also caution children who are not fully out to be very careful about whom they tell, not because there is anything wrong about telling but because sometimes it can be unsafe, Ginicola says.

Open communication is also essential. Children need to know and trust that they can tell their parents anything, Ginicola says. It is particularly critical that children understand the necessity of informing their parents about any instances of bullying, violence or other actions that threaten a child’s safety, she says.

Counselors must also prepare parents for the rejection that they will experience, Ginicola points out. For example, it is possible that family members might say hurtful things about a child who has come out and question how the parents are raising the child, she says. Community members may also weigh in with their own judgments, which Ginicola has experienced personally, including when a neighbor called child protective services because Ginicola lets her nongender-conforming son wear pink shoes to school. Nothing came of the neighbor’s call, but “it’s scary to realize that while I am getting the rejection for him now, someday he will receive that,” she says.

In some cases, parents may lose a whole community in which they previously felt secure and safe, Ginicola says. For example, in the African-American community, the church often serves as the main safe space for its congregants, but many churches are not affirming of LGBTQ individuals. By choosing to support their children who identify as LGBTQ, the parents may lose an essential source of support.

In cases such as these, Ginicola helps her clients process their grief and encourages them to seek alternative sources of support, such as other parents who have gone through similar experiences. She is also able to recommend online and local groups to which parents can turn. Ginicola also provides validation for the parents, emphasizing that it is the culture that is the problem, not the parents themselves. Another part of the service that counselors can provide these clients is to make sure they are practicing good self-care, she adds.

Ginicola also sees parents who are totally unsupportive of their child’s LGBTQ status. She acknowledges walking a fine line with these clients. Although she doesn’t want to support their beliefs, she tries to identify a way to reach them so that they don’t instead go find a therapist who is willing to attempt to “change” their child.

“[It requires] the same principles that underlie work with any parent that is potentially destructive to a child,” Ginicola says. “[It’s] a delicate balance of keeping them feeling validated without promoting harming their child.”

She starts by probing for what is at the root of the parents’ nonaffirming stance. “Let’s say it’s religious beliefs. You [as the counselor] can’t start quoting Bible verses,” Ginicola says. “That’s not our place, and they’re not going to listen to us anyway because we’re not within their religious group.”

Ginicola validates parents by saying she can see that it might be difficult to feel caught between two conflicting forces — the instinct to love and support their child versus their belief in a religious tradition that rejects their child. Rather than attempting to challenge their religious beliefs, she looks for inconsistencies and discrepancies that she can point out.

“I might say, ‘I’m hearing you say that in your faith you are supposed to love and support your child but also hearing that this [coming out] is something you can’t support. How do you feel about that conflict?’”

Ginicola tries to get these clients to a point at which they are willing to join local or online support groups and talk to other parents who have gone through the same experience. She reasons that these parents will be the best source of support and advice on coping with the conflict of belonging to a faith tradition that does not affirm LGBTQ identity and culture, yet wanting to support a child who is LGBTQ.

Sometimes parents are unwilling to let go of whatever beliefs are informing their anti-LGBTQ stance. In these situations, Ginicola lets them know that they are choosing a dangerous path. When families utterly reject children who come out as LGBTQ, the risk of suicide is exponentially increased.

“At some point,” Ginicola observes, “they have to ask themselves, do they want a gay son or a dead son?”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm by Joshua M. Gold
  • Casebook for Counseling Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons and Their Families edited by Sari H. Dworkin and Mark Pope
  • Youth at Risk, sixth edition, edited by David Capuzzi and Douglas R. Gross

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Divorce and Children” by Elizabeth A. Mellin and Lindsey M. Nichols
  • “Parenting Education” by Carl J. Sheperis and Belinda Lopez

ACA divisions

  • Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling (acachild.org)
  • International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (iamfconline.org)

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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

Viewing fathers as attachment figures

By Ashley Cosentino September 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attachment styles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fathers as attachment figures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents’ roles: Separate but important

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

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

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

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

Need for father involvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

 

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

 

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