Tag Archives: shame

Addressing intimate partner violence with clients

By Bethany Bray June 24, 2019

Licensed mental health counselor Ryan G. Carlson had just earned his master’s degree when he began working on a grant-funded project to provide relationship education to couples in the Orlando, Florida, area. Overseeing the intake process as local couples came into the university-based research center to participate, he quickly learned two things: Domestic violence “is very prevalent — much more prevalent than I realized — and it’s complicated,” says Carlson, an associate professor of counselor education at the University of South Carolina. “Every case was a little bit different than the next.”

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines across the country receive more than 20,000 phone calls.

Approximately 1 in 4 adult women and 1 in 7 adult men report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, 16% of women and 7% of men have experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner.

Carlson’s experience led him to study domestic violence while earning his doctorate, and it remains a career focus for him as he conducts research, does interdisciplinary work and conducts trainings for mental health professionals. “We assume when there’s violence in a couple’s relationship, they will tell us [in counseling]. What I’ve learned is if we don’t ask the right questions, they won’t tell us, and you shouldn’t ask those questions if you’re not ready for their disclosure,” he says. “It’s really complicated and emotionally charged. … A victim’s safety should be at the center of every decision we make as counselors.”

Handle with care

Counselors who notice patterns of maladaptive behavior, self-esteem issues or what appears to be poor decision-making by clients may automatically want to roll up their sleeves and dive into goal-setting and other go-to techniques to foster change and growth. However, engaging in change-focused work when a client is experiencing IPV may be harmful, warns Taylor Cameron, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and director of transitional housing at Denton County Friends of the Family, a nonprofit agency in Texas that provides support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also offers an intervention program for offenders.

The tried-and-true counseling method of talking through clients’ life scenarios, behaviors and choices while asking questions such as “What could you have done differently?” or “What would you want to change if this happens again?” can be hurtful because a counselor may inadvertently be placing the responsibility for the abuse on the victim instead of on the abuser, Cameron says. She cautions that counselors must choose their language carefully to avoid making the client feel that they are somehow to blame for the abuse they have endured.

“Victims of domestic violence do many things to survive or to try to protect themselves within the relationship,” says Cameron, an American Counseling Association member. “However, the partner carrying out the abuse is solely responsible for the violence.” Ultimately, the client can’t control — and should never be made to feel that they shoulder the blame for — what their partner does, she emphasizes.

Carlson, who is also a member of ACA, agrees. He notes that it isn’t helpful for professional clinical counselors to identify client behaviors that could be changed or avoided when clients may have adopted those patterns as a means of self-protection.

“It’s important to be careful about how we phrase things with [these] clients,” says Carlson, director of the Consortium for Family Strengthening Research and coordinator of the Center for Community Counseling at the University of South Carolina. “Avoid anything that has to do with ‘what could you have done differently?’ questions, anything that would allude to how [the client] contributed to their current situation. … It’s a delicate balance, but it’s really important to avoid language that [even inadvertently suggests] a victim is somehow at fault for being in that relationship.”

“It doesn’t matter what they change about themselves because that is not going to change the other person,” says Margaret Bassett, an LPC and deputy director at the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin. Counselor practitioners must consider the entire context of a client’s behavior to fully understand why they’re making those decisions, she says. Decisions that victims of abuse make — often for reasons of safety — can appear maladaptive from outside the context of the abusive relationship.

Bassett recalls a client who talked about agreeing to meet her estranged husband at a public library. Without understanding the full context of the situation — that if she didn’t meet with him, he had a history of escalating — a counselor might assume that the client was complicit in maintaining the abusive relationship rather than appreciate her layered safety planning, Bassett says.

“It was a brilliant move. It was safe to meet there because he couldn’t escalate without drawing attention,” Bassett explains. “Not meeting him just was not possible. This was meeting on her terms versus his terms. … This ties into [a counselor] listening and really hearing what the person is saying and not judging it out of context. Really being able to say, ‘That is a brilliant idea that you had.’ It’s not a good or a bad choice. Instead say, ‘When I hear that, I hear the safety it creates.’”

Victims of abuse often adopt patterns and behaviors that are the best choices they can make in a bad situation, Bassett notes. Professional clinical counselors should listen carefully to understand the full context of clients’ lives and then validate the choices they are making to safely navigate abusive and potentially violent situations. “Respect that they’re making a decision and really understand their safety concerns so your intervention is helpful and doable,” Bassett says.

Power and control

IPV happens between partners of all cultures and backgrounds — couples who are married and unmarried, heterosexual and homosexual, wealthy and poor, religious and nonreligious, white, Asian, Hispanic, African American and every other race. In addition, IPV often intersects with sexual assault; homelessness or disruptions in housing, schoolwork or employment; financial trouble; parenting issues; and myriad other challenges that spill over into the mental health issues that commonly bring clients to counseling.

Although the terms domestic violence and intimate partner violence both include the word “violence,” the abuse doesn’t always have a physical component, or the violent behavior is combined with emotional, nonphysical manipulation. What defines a behavior or relationship as abusive is a common thread of power and control. In its simplest definition, domestic violence is an intentional pattern of behaviors used by the abuser to gain and maintain power and control over another person, Cameron explains.

“It’s important to recognize that abuse is not an anger management issue,” she says. “People who are truly experiencing an anger management issue will go off on their boss, their cousin, the random guy at 7-Eleven. Abuse is carefully targeted at one person.”

Controlling behaviors are one of the biggest red flags counselors should be listening for to determine if a client might be involved in an abusive relationship, either as a perpetrator or a victim. Examples include checking or monitoring a partner’s cell phone, email or social media, or insisting that a partner text when they arrive at and leave from work every day. Other cues for which Cameron stays alert include:

  • Clients who clam up in session or appear to be afraid of their partner
  • Clients who are isolated from friends and family
  • Clients who feel they can’t go to work, school or social engagements because it upsets their partner
  • If one partner is the sole decision-maker or in complete control of the couple’s finances
  • If one of the partners continually feels guilty for their behavior
  • A partner who exhibits extreme jealousy
  • Clients who mention “walking on eggshells” around their partners
  • Clients who are having thoughts of suicide or threatening to harm themselves or their abuser
  • A partner who pressures the other partner to use drugs or alcohol or to not use contraception (or who lies about their own use of contraceptives)
  • A partner who pressures the other partner to have sex or to perform sexual acts that the person is uncomfortable with
  • Clients who talk about a partner belittling or embarrassing them in front of other people

Control tactics often go hand in hand with perpetrators minimizing or placing blame for their behavior, Cameron adds. Perpetrators of abuse may tell a victim that they wouldn’t have to act this way if the person came home from work on time, paid the bills on time, didn’t talk back, etc. Or, Cameron says, they may tell a partner, “It could have been a lot worse. I only shoved you. I didn’t punch you.”

In counseling, perpetrators may make statements such as, “I didn’t hurt her. I just punched the wall.” The behavior implies, however, that the perpetrator could have hurt the person, Cameron points out.

“Someone who is abusive will try and deflect attention away from the abuse,” Bassett says. “They will try and name what is happening. Maybe they push or strangle or pull their partner’s hair. But they will say, ‘I am not abusive because I never hit you. Have I ever hit you?’ or [point out that] there was no bruise. There’s a lot of crazy-making behavior that goes on. They’ll deny it ever happened or focus on something else. Abuse is a pattern of behavior, and the abuser will rationalize those patterns as something else. Pay attention to that as a therapist and help them to name the behavior [for what it is].”

If a client mentions that they fight a lot with their partner or that the partner has a temper or a “short fuse,” counselors can prompt the client to explain the fights, Cameron says. For example, “Tell me what these fights look like. Are there times [when] it feels unsafe?” Victims may use phrases such as “sometimes he is rough with me” or he “put hands on me,” not fully recognizing the behavior as abuse, she notes.

Carlson also recommends that counselors use carefully worded questions to follow up on statements made by clients to further explore the nature of their relationship experience. For example, ask clients how they handle conflict with an intimate partner and then use leading questions to learn more: When there is a disagreement, is it safe to talk about the disagreement? Is there any type of pushing, shoving, hitting, use of objects, physical violence, threatening language or name calling? Is jealousy a motivating factor? Does one partner place blame on the other, making statements such as, “You made me do this”? Is the partner violent or hostile outside of the relationship?

“Ask questions that determine if there is regret or remorse [after conflict] or if they recognize that there are other ways of handling conflict,” Carlson says.

In sessions with individual clients, Carlson recommends that counselors preface some of their most direct questions — such as “Are you afraid of your partner?” — with dialogue that prepares the client. “Say, ‘I have some questions for you about how you handle conflict in your relationship. They’re going to be very direct, and I wanted to give you a heads up, but it will help me better understand what you’re going through.’ Really tap into your basic counseling skills, the relationship-building skills that we learn early on, and emphasize those when such important questions are being asked,” Carlson says.

At the same time, Bassett adds, clinical counselors shouldn’t be afraid to ask hard questions of a client when appropriate. “Ask not just, ‘Has your partner physically assaulted you?’ but ‘Are you afraid of your partner?’ and be willing to explore that. Explore the emotional piece of abuse.”

Counselors can also supplement their own questions by using a formal questionnaire — Carlson recommends Brian Jory’s Intimate Justice Scale — or including questions on intake forms. Keep in mind, however, that clients may answer “no” to questions that later turn out to be a “yes” when explored in therapy.

Perpetrators of domestic violence often use manipulation to gain and maintain control over a person and keep them in the relationship, Cameron says. When alone with a partner, perpetrators sometimes threaten suicide if the partner ever were to leave them, or they make statements inferring that the partner would be worse off on their own: “If you leave, you won’t get any money”; “You will lose the kids”; “No one will ever love you. I’m the only one who will put up with you.”

“One of the biggest power tools is fear — abusers wield fear,” Cameron says. “They use fear to control their partner. In addition, abusers will often apologize for the abuse and say, ‘It will not happen again,’ without being accountable. Then they continue using control tactics.”

This can be complicated further if the couple’s friends and family take sides or if the victim comes from a culture or faith community that emphasizes submission to a partner, views marriage as an unbreakable bond, or values reconciliation over safety, Cameron adds.

Manipulation by a perpetrator can also extend to sexual assault, which often overlaps with domestic violence, Bassett says. “It’s also common for an abusive person to force or pressure sex [with an intimate partner]. They will define the experience as nonabusive and lay the groundwork for the survivor to agree to sex so that they aren’t forced,” she says. “The abuser is [then] able to say that they agreed to sex, making them complicit in what is actually a sexual assault. The abuser defines the experience, and the survivor needs the space and safety to name their experience [in counseling].”

Hard questions, empathetic listening

Most of all, clients who are currently in or have been in an abusive relationship in the past need a safe space to feel heard and validated and to be connected to resources to address their safety, Cameron says. It’s no surprise that building a therapeutic bond is especially important with these clients.

“Communicate that you believe them,” Cameron urges. “The most restorative thing [for the client to hear is] ‘it’s not your fault, and it’s not OK that they are doing this to you.’”

“It’s incredibly important to be nonjudgmental,” agrees Carlson. “There are so many practitioners who have a personal connection to this topic, it can be an emotive experience. The time of disclosure is a very important moment for the victim and can be filled with a lot of embarrassment and shame. When they are deciding how much to disclose, it’s often based on how they feel it will be received. … It’s important to manage your emotions in that moment because it’s such an important moment.”

“You may leave the room and feel, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an emergency. I have to get this person out.’” Carlson continues. “But remember that this is their daily reality. They’ve been living with this [abuse] for a while. It feels like an emergency to you, but to act on that may put the victim in danger. It’s important that the victim drives the steps of what happens next.”

Bassett agrees: “Be very aware that your goal [as a counselor] is not that they should leave the relationship. That needs to be a goal they make themselves. They have to own it, because any decision they make will potentially have ramifications for them.”

Cameron notes that taking decisions out of the hands of clients is one of the worst mistakes counselors can make when working with victims of IPV. “They’ve already had someone control their life, and we don’t want to step into that role,” she says. “The victim has the best knowledge about what they need.”

It’s vital for practitioners to explore a client’s experience with genuine care, says Paulina Flasch, an ACA member and an assistant professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University. “Really show concern and empathy and don’t sound like you’re interrogating them,” says Flasch, who runs a family violence research team at Texas State and worked at a domestic violence agency before and during her master’s program. “Focus on the counselor-client relationship, and ask [hard questions] because you really care. Share that what you’re hearing sounds abusive and that it must have been really hard [to go through]. … If you’re hearing that a past relationship was abusive, it’s important to call it that and identify its aftereffects. It can help validate their current experience and help them understand why they’re struggling. Help them look at patterns and how things tie together. … It’s a very powerful moment when the client connects the dots.”

“This is a person whose boundaries have been violated and who has not had safety and security — and we [counselors] have to be careful with that,” Flasch continues. “We have to let them know there will be a different response and they won’t be demeaned. If they went through that, they’re strong. Recognize that.”

All of the counselors interviewed for this article recommend using psychoeducation techniques and the Power and Control Wheel system (available at theduluthmodel.org) to talk through what a healthy relationship looks like (and does not look like) with clients who have experienced IPV. Bassett also stresses that work with IPV clients must be trauma-informed.

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT), expressive therapies, bibliotherapy or cinematherapy, grounding techniques and decision-making exercises can also help IPV clients, Flasch notes, as can attending support groups for IPV survivors in addition to counseling.

Victims of domestic violence often grapple with intense feelings of guilt or shame, sometimes made worse by harmful stereotypes and society’s general misunderstanding of the complexity of abuse. Victims can hear messages such as “Why didn’t you just leave him?” or “Why didn’t you get out sooner?” in both direct and indirect ways in popular culture, from family and friends, or in offhand remarks by acquaintances.

The reality is that it’s not that simple, Flasch notes. Victims of domestic violence are in the most danger when they are ending a relationship with their abuser (see sidebar, below). In addition, domestic violence often creeps into a relationship slowly over time in ways that are unrecognizable to the victim.

The relationship “hasn’t always been dangerous,” says Flasch, who has a private practice in Austin, Texas, and specializes in working with couples and individuals who have experienced trauma. “There have been a lot of pieces that have kept them in the relationship. If they had known this was going to happen, they would have never been in the relationship. Intimate partner violence is the breaking down of a human. They completely lose their sense of self and begin to believe everything the abuser has said about them. It happens smally and slowly.”

Pointing out this trajectory to the client emphasizes that it wasn’t their fault and helps them learn what to look for in future relationships, Flasch adds. “Normalize it with the client. This [IPV] is very common and very similar in the ways it comes to happen,” she says. “It’s a systematic breakdown of a person that happens in very small steps that no one would recognize unless you know what you’re looking for. Helping them understand what and how it happened can help take away some of that fault and blame. Then work on empowerment. Victims have had to ask their abuser for everything. It’s our job to get their voice back.”

Planting seeds

In addition to providing a safe space to be heard and empowered, counseling can be a place for victims of IPV to learn what a healthy relationship looks like. This is especially true for clients whose histories include past trauma (in addition to IPV) or who haven’t been exposed to healthy relationships in their life, Flasch notes.

“The counselor may be that first one, that first good relationship and having a feeling of being in a room with someone who cares,” she says. “Model that through your interaction with clients. Psychoeducation is a big part of working with [IPV] victims and survivors.”

Flasch suggests using the Power and Control Wheel while discussing what it feels like to be in a healthy relationship: What aspects are present? What does respect look like? How do arguments start and end? What does equality look like?

Making a list of the elements in a healthy relationship can also help, Flasch says. “It’s not tangible [to clients] sometimes. There’s so much self-blame and lack of trust of themselves and their own instincts. They often don’t trust themselves to make decisions or recognize if something [in a relationship] is dangerous.”

It can also be helpful for counselors to talk through boundary issues with IPV survivors, including what is and isn’t their responsibility in a relationship, Bassett adds.

“With someone who is abusive, that person will not accept responsibility [for abusive behavior]. The person who is being abused typically will accept full responsibility,” she says. “They may claim, ‘Oh, he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He’s so sweet, but when he drinks, or goes off his medication [he turns dangerous].’ That’s just not true: The good parts and the loving parts are part of the [control] strategy. Be very clear about that. … Help them not to buy into it, overtly or covertly.”

Couples counseling and safety

A relationship in which IPV is present has, at its core, an imbalance of power and control. This imbalance makes couples counseling an unsafe environment for the person experiencing the abuse, Carlson stresses. If a counselor is working with a couple exhibiting signs of IPV, he or she should take steps to terminate couples counseling as soon as possible while ensuring the victim’s safety, Carlson says.

“If power and control exist in the couple’s dynamic, it’s generally not safe to be in a setting [i.e., couples counseling] where they’re both on equal ground being asked to practice healthy behaviors and make changes,” he explains. “That can’t happen when there’s inequality.”

Cameron agrees. “Each session is posing a safety risk for the victim. In couples counseling, we’re asking both parties to be accountable for solving problems in the relationship, and part of the control tactics [of IPV] is making the victim feel that it’s their fault.” Perpetrators of abuse may retaliate against their partners after counseling sessions in reaction to what was said or disclosed, she says.

On the flip side, abuse victims may say only what they need to say to keep from “making waves” with their abusers during counseling sessions. In addition, “an abuser may be very charming and manipulate the counselor,” Cameron says. Counselors who don’t recognize the manipulation or other possible indicators of IPV can end up unintentionally colluding with the abuser, she points out.

Both Cameron and Carlson recommend that counselors — whether they work with couples or individuals — seek training on IPV to stay informed on best practices and forge connections with local domestic violence agencies. It is important to establish these working relationships ahead of time so that counselors can readily consult with specialists when they identify signs of IPV with a client (or a couple) on their caseload, Carlson says. “Consultation [with an IPV specialist] helps to create a methodical, well-thought-out plan for that point forward,” says Carlson, noting that any consultation must be done within ethical guidelines and without sharing any identifying details about the individuals involved.

Once a counselor has identified that IPV is present in a relationship, the steps to terminate couples counseling must be handled delicately. Counselors should never let the abuser know that they suspect abuse is taking place, Cameron emphasizes. At the same time, a fine balance must be maintained to ensure that a victim doesn’t lose contact with the counselor and is connected to resources before couples counseling is terminated.

“Never confront abuse head-on with both parties in the room. That will put the survivor at risk,” Cameron says. “Get creative for ways to get the survivor alone. … Come up with a reason to separate them and then check in with the survivor. Ask them if they feel safe at home. Just straight up asking if they are being abused — they are not going to recognize it that way. Often, the abuser has worked really hard to convince the victim that there is no abuse.”

Cameron has known counselors who separate the couple by asking one of the partners to fill out paperwork in the waiting room. Practitioners can also try to speak over the phone outside of session to clients who are suspected targets of abuse, as long as they ensure the client is alone for the call, Cameron adds.

Carlson notes that it’s not uncommon in couples counseling for a practitioner to meet with one of the clients individually to work on an issue. Counselors can fall back on that as an excuse to separate a couple when it is suspected that IPV is present, he says.

“When [you] first meet with a couple, separate them to fill out an intake questionnaire and speak with them individually. That way, you set a precedent of talking separately,” Carlson says. “Then, you can say later, ‘We are going to meet individually to follow up on some of the things we talked about’ [at intake]. There is precedence, and it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.”

Flasch agrees and suggests that couples counselors do full individual sessions with both partners after the first two or three sessions, regardless of whether IPV is suspected. In these sessions, counselors should always assess for IPV. She suggests asking questions such as “How do you and your partner show respect for each other?” and “Tell me about your arguments: How do they start and end, and who initiates?”

A counselor’s next step should be to connect the victim with local support services. This must also be handled carefully, Cameron says. For instance, a client could put a domestic violence hotline number in their phone under another name, or the counselor could give the information verbally to the client to remember and look up later. Cameron also recommends that counselors leave pamphlets and other information about domestic violence resources in the lobbies and restrooms of their offices for all clients to see and have access to.

If appropriate, Cameron recommends that counselors also connect perpetrators with a local batterer or offender program.

“It’s important to work in collaboration with your local [domestic violence] agency,” Cameron says. “For us to address abuse in our communities, there needs to be community accountability for abusers, and that can’t just come from domestic violence agencies. It needs to come from all aspects of the community. You’re not going to end domestic violence just by dealing with the aftermath.”

Once clients are given information about IPV resources, it’s up to them to seek help when they are ready and feel safe doing so, Carlson adds. It’s not a counselor’s role to ensure the client has followed up with those resources.

“Sometimes nothing happens,” Carlson acknowledges. “You present resources and opportunities and they know they have options, and that’s the biggest step they want to take at this point in time.”

Relationships post-IPV

Dating and forming new relationships can play a part in the healing process for survivors and help them learn more about themselves, their boundaries and their limits, says Flasch, who co-authored the article “Considering and Navigating New Relationships During Recovery From Intimate Partner Violence” in the April issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development. Counselors should be aware that the risk exists for survivors of IPV to find themselves in another abusive relationship. However, forging new healthy relationships — with a counselor as a support and ally — can be a helpful step in the right direction, she notes.

“Survivors have to work through these issues for a lifetime, so waiting for the ‘right time’ to date post-healing may never come,” Flasch says. “A counselor can be a great support for a survivor. We know that most people continue to date. To say that you should be healed completely before you go out, it’s not realistic. And healthy relationships can be incredibly healing. Having a person who is safe and loving and accepting is a huge benefit. We [counselors] shouldn’t necessarily discourage dating but help them navigate the process. Educate them about red flags and warning signs, and celebrate the successes of milestones reached through dating. Also [process] triggers and things that get in the way.”

“Having experiences with other people and then processing it in counseling can be very powerful and helpful to healing,” she continues. “We can be great allies and celebrate with clients when they try something new.”

For the journal article, Flash and her co-authors studied the experiences of IPV survivors who went on to try new relationships, ranging from casual dating to marriage. Through these relationships, participants reported learning to trust themselves and their instincts and “reclaim parts of themselves lost during the IPV relationships,” Flash wrote with her co-authors, David Boote and Edward H. Robinson.

Dating post-IPV “can be a process for survivors to try and find corrective experiences and explore trust, make decisions that are theirs and be their own person, [and] learn about control and boundaries,” Flasch says. “But this is also a very scary process and one that has a lot of layers to it, so it can bring challenges. It can be hard to learn to trust when it’s been taken away from you in the past.”

 

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IPV: Need-to-know points for counselors

One of the most misunderstood aspects of intimate partner violence (IPV) is how complicated and dangerous leaving an abusive partner can be, says Taylor Cameron, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and director of transitional housing at a Texas nonprofit that provides support services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The power imbalance of abusive relationships often means that one partner has severely restricted the other’s access to finances, friends and family members, and community resources. Separating from an abuser often means starting life over, which is why there is an intersection of IPV and homelessness, she says. These factors are only exacerbated when children are involved or when the victim experiences other forms of systemic oppression such as racism, homophobia or classism.

“They are often trapped between violence and homelessness,” Cameron says. “The abuser has often messed up their credit and finances or totally controlled them, so they’re starting from scratch. The most dangerous time for a victim is during separation and when they are separated [because] the abuser is losing the power they have worked to gain and maintain.”

According to Cameron, IPV victims are at the highest risk of lethality under the following circumstances:

  • When the couple has separated or is in the process of separating
  • If sexual abuse or sexual coercion is present in the relationship
  • If an abuser makes threats of homicide or suicide
  • When a restraining order is filed
  • If the victim is pregnant
  • If strangulation is occurring
  • If violent behavior is occurring outside of the home (which indicates the abuser has escalated to the point where he or she does not care if other people see the behavior, Cameron says)
  • If there is involvement with child protective services
  • If the abuser has access to weapons
  • If the abuser exhibits stalking behaviors
  • If law enforcement is involved

Counselors should also keep in mind that even when victims leave an abusive relationship, they may still come in contact with their abusers — and be put at risk for retraumatization — through legal proceedings, child custody hearings or stalking behavior, adds Paulina Flasch, an assistant professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University.

“Just because someone is no longer in an IPV relationship doesn’t mean they’re no longer in it. Remember that and equip them with tools [to cope],” Flasch says.

 

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Important resources

 

Margaret Bassett recommends the following books for practitioners:

  • Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men by Lundy Bancroft
  • Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know by Sherry Hamby
  • Coercive Control: How Men Entrap women in Personal Life (Interpersonal Violence) by Evan Stark
  • Safety Planning with Battered Women: Complex lives/Difficult Choices by Jill Davies, Eleanor J. Lyon and Diane Monti-Catania
  • The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans
  • Domestic Violence Advocacy: Complex lives/Difficult Choices by Jill Davies and Eleanor J. Lyon

 

Related reading, from Counseling Today:

 

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

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.

Building a kinder and braver world

By Bethany Bray March 13, 2019

When Cynthia Germanotta discusses how complicated and misunderstood mental illness can be, she speaks from a place of knowing because her family has lived the reality. Germanotta is the mother of two daughters, the oldest of which, Stefani — better known as Oscar and Grammy Award-winning artist Lady Gaga — is open about her struggles with posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

“My husband and I tried our best (and still do!) to be deeply loving and attentive parents, who made sure we had regular family dinners and spent hours talking with our children. But, for all of that communication, we still didn’t really understand exactly what they needed sometimes,” Germanotta wrote in a candid essay last year. “Like many parents, I didn’t know the difference between normal adolescent development and a mental health issue that needed to be addressed, not just waited out. I mistook the depression and anxiety my children were experiencing for the average, if unpleasant, moodiness we all associate with teenagers.”

Cynthia Germanotta

Together, Germanotta and Lady Gaga work to combat the stigma and misunderstanding that often surround mental health issues through the Born This Way Foundation, a nonprofit they co-founded in 2012. Germanotta will speak about mental health and the work of the foundation during her keynote address at the American Counseling Association’s 2019 Conference & Expo in New Orleans later this month.

Through research and youth-focused outreach programs, the Born This Way Foundation works to disseminate information and resources about mental health and help-seeking. Its mission is to “support the wellness of young people and empower them to create a kinder and braver world.”

Counselors, Germanotta asserts, have an important role to play in achieving that goal. She recently shared her thoughts in an email interview with CT Online.

 

Q+A: Cynthia Germanotta, president of the Born This Way Foundation

 

Part of the mission of your foundation is to empower young people to “create a kinder and braver world.” From your perspective, what part do professional counselors have to play in that mission? What do you want them to know?

Building a kinder, braver world takes everyone — including (and especially) counselors. As adults who care about and work with young people, counselors can and do help young people understand how to be kind to themselves, how to cope with the challenges that life will throw their way, and how to take care of their own well-being while they’re busy changing the world.

To us, being brave isn’t something you just have the will to do; it’s something you have to learn how to do and be taught the skills for, and counselors can help young people do that. Counselors are a vital part of the support system that we need to foster for young people so that they are able to lead healthy lives themselves and to build the communities they hope to live and thrive in.

 

What would you share with counselors — from the perspective of a nonpractitioner — about making the decision to seek help for mental health issues or helping a loved one make that decision? How can a practitioner support parents and families in making that decision easier and less associated with shame or stigma?

When you’re struggling with your mental health, asking for help is one of the toughest, bravest and kindest things you can do and, for so many, shame and stigma make these conversations even harder. If that’s going to change (and my team works every day to ensure that it does) we have to normalize discussions of mental health, turning it from something that’s only talked about in moments of crisis to just another regular topic of conversation.

Practitioners can help the people they work with, and their loved ones, learn strategies for talking about mental health, equipping them with the skills they need to communicate about an important part of their lives.

 

What motivated you to accept this speaking engagement to address thousands of professional counselors?

My daughter would be the first one to say, we can’t do this work alone. Fostering the wellness of young people takes all of us working together.

Counselors are such a crucial part of the fabric that surrounds and supports young people, so I was honored to be invited to speak to the American Counseling Association and have the opportunity to not only share our work at Born This Way Foundation, but to hear from (and learn from) this amazing group of practitioners.

 

What can American Counseling Association members expect from your keynote? What might you talk about?

I’m so looking forward to sharing a bit about Born This Way Foundation — why my daughter and I decided to found it, what our mission is and how we’re working toward our goal of building a kinder and braver world, including a couple of new programs we’ve excited to be working on this year.

I’m also excited to share what we’re hearing from young people themselves about mental health. We invest heavily in listening to youth in formal and informal situations, in person, online and through our extensive research. We’ve learned so much through this process, and we have some important insights we’re looking forward to sharing, including the results of our latest round of research where we collected data from more than 2,000 youth about how they perceive their own mental wellness [and] their access to key resources.

 

How have you seen the mental health landscape in the U.S. change since you started the Born This Way Foundation in 2012? Are things changing for the better?

Over the past seven years, we’ve seen real momentum around both the willingness to discuss mental health and the urgency of the challenges that so many young people face. We certainly have a long way to go, but I truly believe we’re starting to move the needle.

There are so many examples of the progress being made on mental health — public figures starting to talk about it, global advocates organizing around it, governments starting to invest in it, schools starting to prioritize it, and so much more.

And, as always, I’m inspired by young people who are so much further ahead on this issue than I think we sometimes give them credit for. In the research we’ve done, about 9 out of 10 young people have consistently said mental health is an important priority. There’s still work to do, but that’s a great foundation to build on.

 

After seven years of working on mental health and the foundation’s youth-focused initiatives, what gives you hope?

Young people give me hope. The youth that we have had the privilege to meet and work with throughout the years are so inspiring, demonstrating time and time again just how innovative, brave and resilient they are.

Young people already recognize mental health as a priority and have the desire and determination to change how society views and treats this fundamental part of our lives. Their bravery and enthusiasm make me excited for the future they will build, and [we are] committed to fostering their leadership and well-being.

 

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Hear Cynthia Germanotta’s keynote talk Friday, March 29, at 9 a.m. at the 2019 ACA Conference & Expo in New Orleans. Find out more at counseling.org/conference.

 

Find out more about the Born This Way Foundation at bornthisway.foundation

 

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In her own words

Read more about Germanotta’s perspective and experience through two articles she has written:

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

The messy reality of perfectionism

By Lindsey Phillips February 26, 2019

Philip Gnilka, an associate professor of counseling and the coordinator of the counselor education doctoral program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), has heard of severe cases of perfectionism at college counseling centers in which a student refuses to submit any work out of fear of being evaluated. As long as the student does not turn in work, his or her sense of self remains intact, he explains.

This raises a question: Is perfectionism a bad thing? Within the mental health professions, healthy debate is taking place on this very topic. Some therapists view all forms of perfectionism — whether self-oriented, others-oriented or socially prescribed — as negative, whereas others believe there is an adaptive component to perfectionism.

Gnilka, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and the director of the Personality, Stress and Coping Lab at VCU, is in the latter camp. He notes that, historically, perfectionism has been considered a negative quality, so the goal was to reduce clients’ perfectionistic tendencies to make them “better.” However, he says, this black-and-white thinking — a quality of perfectionism itself — does not fully capture perfectionism.

Instead, Gnilka, a member of the American Counseling Association, argues that perfectionism is a multidimensional construct that consists of perfectionistic strivings (i.e., Do you hold high personal expectations for yourself and others?) and perfectionistic concerns, or one’s internal critic, (i.e., If you don’t meet these standards, how self-critical are you?). He says these two dimensions can help counselors determine who they are working with: an individual with adaptive, or healthy, perfectionism (someone with high standards but low self-criticism) or an individual with maladaptive, or unhealthy, perfectionism (someone with high standards and high self-criticism).

In his research, Gnilka has found that one’s perfectionistic concerns, not one’s strivings, are what correlate with negative mental health aspects. “What’s really correlating with depression, stress and negative life satisfaction is this self-critical perfectionism dimension. It’s not holding high standards itself per se,” he explains.

In fact, Gnilka argues that lowering clients’ perfectionist standards or instructing them to do things less perfectly is the wrong approach. Anecdotally, he’s found suggesting that clients lower their standards is a nonstarter and often doesn’t work. Instead, Gnilka advises counselors to focus their interventions on the self-critical voice. “Focusing on that internal critic … is where you’re going to get your most malleability because that’s the one [dimension] that’s connected with all the [negative aspects of mental health],” he says.

Healthy striving

Beth Fier, the clinical director of SEED Services: Partners for Counseling and Wellness in New Jersey, finds perfectionism to be problematic. “It’s rigid and it’s interfering in some way, and it’s pretty unforgiving in terms of its high standards so that it actually is creating difficulty either for [people] and their experience of themselves or maybe in their relationship to others or how they’re interacting in the world.” However, she also acknowledges that many people want to be high achieving.

Because perfectionism can be limiting with its focus on being “perfect,” Fier, an LPC and an ACA member, likes the concept of excellentism. As an excellentist, people still want to do their best, but the term allows them to think more flexibly about how to do that, she explains. The focus is more on the process, which allows people to appreciate and enjoy the effort, the learning curve and their growth along the way. Perfectionism becomes problematic when people focus solely on the outcomes — on if they meet a certain goal, Fier adds.

Emily Kircher-Morris, the clinical director and counselor at Unlimited Potential Counseling and Education Center in Missouri, offers a similar perspective. Rather than using the term adaptive perfectionism, she prefers the phrase striving for excellence. Perfectionism, she explains, often implies there is no room for error, which becomes self-defeating. “All of these [perfectionistic] characteristics can be strengths,” she notes. “It’s when they go too far that they start causing disruptions to our lives.”

Despite their differences in terminology or mindset about perfectionism, Gnilka, Fier and Kircher-Morris all agree on the importance of healthy strivings and the need to intervene on the critical voice.

Kircher-Morris does this in part by having clients create realistic reframes, which is a way of changing a negative thought into something more optimistic. Counselors can draw thought bubbles and ask clients to fill in one of the bubbles with the negative thought and the other bubble with a realistic reframe. For example, the negative thought “I got an answer wrong when the teacher called on me. Now everyone thinks I’m dumb” could be rewritten as “I am allowed to make mistakes just like everyone else.” This exercise helps clients figure out a way forward without ignoring the uncomfortable emotions, Kircher-Morris adds.

However, too much reframing may cause clients to feel like counselors are imposing a “right” way to think about the situation, says Kircher-Morris, an LPC and a member of ACA. She finds that using dialectical thinking to look at and validate both sides is empowering for clients. For example, one technique she finds helpful is moving clients from either/or statements to both/and statements such as “I’m doing the best I can and I know I can also do better” and “This is going to be really hard and I know I can get through this situation.” By shifting their thinking, clients realize that two opposite statements can both be true; they are not necessarily exclusive to each other, she explains.

Much of Fier’s work involves softening the critical voice. She often poses the following scenario to her clients to illustrate the potential danger of this voice: “Imagine you are put in charge of selecting a child’s kindergarten teacher. Would you want a teacher who is strict and will tell the children they are horrible as a means of motivating them to learn and grow? Would you want a teacher who lets children do whatever they want and not worry about the quality of their work? Or would you want a teacher who has high expectations but works with and supports children to help them figure out opportunities for growth and learning?”

Although the answer seems obvious in that context, it is often difficult for people to apply that same balance of high expectations and support to themselves, Fier says.

Valuing progress, not outcomes

It is common for people who possess perfectionistic tendencies to assume they can achieve something quickly and easily, Fier points out. That’s why breaking down activities into smaller step-by-step pieces that clients can build on is important, she says. This process provides opportunities for positive reinforcement; allows clients flexibility in achieving their overarching aim; and allows clients to focus on what they have accomplished rather than on the ultimate outcome, she explains. 

Fier, the past president of the New Jersey Association for Multicultural Counseling, redirects clients from working toward goals to working toward values and aims, which allows them greater flexibility in how they address the situation. This includes asking clients the reasons they set a particular goal and why that goal matters. Shifting the focus to values and aims helps clients feel good about what they accomplish rather than beating themselves up for what they fall short of achieving, she adds.

Fier recently worked with a client who had a goal of balancing care for her mental and physical self. The client focused on outcome-based goals of diet, exercise and weight loss. By focusing on the outcome, she would berate herself whenever she didn’t make it to the gym. Fier helped the client broaden her perspective on how to achieve her aim or value of having a healthy lifestyle, which can include exercising, eating well, getting adequate sleep and pursuing good mental health.

“Some days that might be going to the gym. Some days that might be taking a quick walk outside because [she has] all of these other competing priorities,” Fier says. “It’s that intention and motivation that keeps [the client] focused on the care piece as opposed to the ‘I didn’t make it’ piece — ‘I screwed up and did it again.’”

Kircher-Morris also warns counselors to watch out for “goal vaulting.” This is when people set a goal and, as they close in on reaching that goal, they instead raise the bar. In the process, she explains, they forget about all the steps they completed to get to that point, which makes them feel like they aren’t making progress or haven’t accomplished anything.

One technique Kircher-Morris uses to address this counterproductive thinking is to have clients write down the steps they have accomplished to reach a certain goal on a graphic organizer, such as a visual symbol of stairsteps or a ladder reaching an end goal.

Kircher-Morris worked with a gymnast who was frustrated because she couldn’t seem to master a back handspring. Kircher-Morris helped the client break down all the skills she had accomplished in pursuit of that goal, such as learning how to do a cartwheel and roundoff. “You have to recognize those successes along the way because, otherwise, you’ll always feel like you’re falling short,” Kircher-Morris says. “A lot of times it’s easier to work backward — starting with the end goal but then thinking back to what were all of the things you had to do to get to that point. That, sometimes, is a little bit easier to conceptualize.”

Understriving

Most people equate perfectionism with overstriving and overachieving. But this isn’t always the case. Perfectionism manifests in different ways, Kircher-Morris points out.

“When clients come in … I hear anxiety, I hear stress [and] I hear being overwhelmed,” she says. “When we get into what is causing that level of distress, I find that it’s often coming from a place of perfectionism, whether that’s manifesting as procrastination or risk avoidance or just really trying to control situations.”

Avoidance, Gnilka says, “seems to be a big coping difference between adaptive perfectionists and maladaptive perfectionists. They use the same amount of task-based coping and emotion-based coping, but the avoidance-based coping seems to be very, very high for maladaptive perfectionists compared to an adaptive one.” Thus, counselors might ask clients why they are avoiding certain things and what they are afraid of, he says.

Kircher-Morris agrees that counselors should help clients understand what they are avoiding. People often assume that avoidance is based on a fear of failure, but what they don’t realize is that avoidance can also result from a fear of success, she argues. For example, imagine a student who avoids going to medical school based on a fear of doing well at school only to discover that he or she hates being a doctor and is unhappy.

“They fear the success that then might lead to something negative in the future,” Kircher-Morris explains. “It’s not something you would typically think of when you’re thinking of perfectionism, but it can have a negative outcome in the future and lead to procrastination or avoidance of decision-making.”

The challenges children and parents face

Socially prescribed perfectionism extends beyond the microcosm of the nuclear family, Kircher-Morris says. Thanks in part to the influence of social media, children and parents alike often start to think that others have a “perfect” life and then feel the pressure to measure up to that impossible standard.

Kircher-Morris recalls a client who chose a college degree program based on the respect he thought it would garner from others rather than based on his own interests. The client had struggled in high school, so he wanted to prove to others that he was capable.

To offset these societal pressures, counselors can help clients become aware of their own personal goals and ways to measure success for themselves, Kircher-Morris suggests. This might include guiding clients to figure out what is at the root of their motivation to get into a particular school or to achieve a certain ACT score, she says.

Kircher-Morris has also noticed a connection between perfectionism and people who are gifted or of high ability. “Part of the reason why you see [perfectionism] so commonly with people who are gifted and … with talented athletes is because things come so naturally to them, so then they don’t know how to handle it when something is difficult,” she says. People who are gifted are often told that they are smart, so they internalize this quality as a part of their identity, she continues. Then, when they face something difficult or challenging, they don’t know how to handle it because it doesn’t fit with who they think they are.

Kircher-Morris builds on these clients’ strengths by using analogies about times in the past when they got through something difficult or handled a situation differently. Then she points out how they could apply those same skills to their current situation. Counselors might also encourage clients to find their own comparisons, which facilitates independence, she adds.

Many parents also feel the pressure to be perfect. Seeing other people’s children getting accepted to elite schools or competitive athletic teams (things that often get trumpeted on social media posts) can cause parents to worry about not being good enough, Kircher-Morris points out. “When they see their child fail, it feels like a reflection on them,” she says. Or there’s the “fear that if [they] don’t handle this correctly, it’s going to change the trajectory of [their] child’s life.”

Counselors can help parents reframe this negative line of thinking. One method is to have them consider how allowing children to make mistakes is actually a sign of good parenting because it helps children learn, grow and become independent, Kircher-Morris says. “You don’t have to be the parent who always has all of the answers and who always manages your emotions,” she reminds parents. “It’s OK to show that vulnerability and process through that.” In fact, she often advises parents to be vulnerable within the parent-child relationship. Rather than hide their vulnerability, parents can talk through their feelings and model how to handle the stress.

For example, if a parent is anxious about a phone call or a meeting, the parent can share that feeling with the child and show the child how he or she would handle the situation. “You’re teaching the kids that it’s OK not to be perfect,” Kircher-Morris says. “It’s OK to have worries and stresses, but also you can still work through them.”

Kircher-Morris also finds that parents sometimes unintentionally facilitate perfectionism in their children. For instance, when a child brings home a school assignment, parents might focus on the errors and have the child correct them. Parents might also offer praise whenever the child scores 100 percent but question the child otherwise (e.g., “What happened? Why wasn’t this a better grade?”).

Another common example is when a parent unloads the dishwasher after the child loads it because it was not done to the parent’s standards, Kircher-Morris says. This behavior undermines the child’s level of independence and feeling of self-efficacy, she explains. In constantly critiquing and correcting their children in such ways, parents are teaching them that there is no room for error and that they aren’t “good enough” unless perfection is attained, she says.

Instead, counselors can help parents learn to focus on the process, not the outcome, Kircher-Morris advises. For instance, rather than fixating on individual test grades, parents can ask, “What did you learn on this paper? What did you get out of the assignment? What was the area of struggle?”

In an episode last year on Kircher-Morris’ Mind Matters podcast (mindmatterspodcast.com), Lisa Van Gemert, an expert on perfectionism and gifted individuals, discussed how teachers and schools also inadvertently engage in behaviors that increase perfectionism in students. She cited two examples of ways the educational system isn’t set up to recognize effort, persistence and diligence. First, teachers often give out stickers to reward “perfect” work. Second, having a perfect attendance award causes some children to come to school even when they are sick just to get the award. These types of rewards set up an unreasonable standard, Gemert said

“When we focus on the outcomes — the grades — then that’s going to lead to that perfectionism,” Kircher-Morris says. “When we focus on the process and the learning, then we’re going to move away from that and really focus on that striving for excellence.”

Imperfect experiments

To ease clients’ expectations of doing things perfectly, Fier often uses the word experiment: “We’re going to experiment this week with trying this [practice] and see how it goes. … This is simply a process that we’re going to test out and troubleshoot and come back to.”

The emphasis on experimenting is also a way of modeling flexibility, Fier stresses. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, I succeeded or I failed,” she says. “You’ve succeeded in the process of attempting.”

Rather than asking clients who expect to do mindfulness or meditation practices “perfectly” to engage in that practice every day, Fier may ask them to experiment with practicing their soothing rhythm breathing (slowing the exhale and inhale down to a rhythmical rate) twice during the week for 30 seconds. Then, the next week she may ask them to engage in this practice for five minutes every day or every other day. Again, counselors should emphasize that they are experimenting and exploring what works for the client, she says.

Kircher-Morris also finds it helpful to frame counseling activities as experiments. She often instructs her younger clients to be “scientists” with her. She tells them that together, they will come up with a hypothesis and test it out.

She has a middle school client who was deliberately not submitting work unless it was “perfect” (i.e., a completed assignment that lived up to her standards). In this situation, Kircher-Morris and the client crafted the following hypothesis: “If I turn in a math assignment and I have missed two problems, nothing will happen.” To test this hypothesis, the client intentionally missed two problems on an assignment that wasn’t worth a lot of points. In doing this, the client realized that the world didn’t fall apart when she got an 80 (instead of a 100) on this one assignment because it didn’t affect her overall A in the class. Kircher-Morris adds that this technique is similar to prescribing the symptom or systematic desensitization (a method that gradually exposes a person to an anxiety-producing stimulus and substitutes a relaxation response for the anxious one).

As scientists, clients also collect data. Kircher-Morris asks clients to document every time that they procrastinate on an assignment, think they are going to mess up or believe they have to do something perfectly. They can track these data with a phone app, in a notebook they carry with them or on an index card placed on the corner of their desk, she says.

Counselors should avoid framing this activity so that it unintentionally becomes a reward system for clients — an assignment they can “win” or “lose,” she warns. Instead, the point of the experiment is to have clients gain awareness, establish a baseline and test whether their beliefs associated with perfectionism are based on emotions or facts, she explains.

The shame of ‘falling short’

Fier doesn’t think she has ever worked with a client with perfectionistic tendencies who wasn’t also experiencing a sense of shame. She finds that perfectionism, depression and anxiety often cluster together, and the underlying thread is “this proneness toward self-conscious emotions, particularly shame, and that tendency to then get caught in a feedback loop in the brain that leads us down this road of self-criticism.”

Because clients who have perfectionistic tendencies often mask their struggles, building rapport and a trusting and open relationship with them as counselors is crucial, Kircher-Morris emphasizes. “They know that they’re in distress. They know that they’re struggling, but they don’t want it to be perceived that they can’t handle it on their own,” she says.

Perfectionism reinforces the idea that we are not enough to reach the standards we set for ourselves — the ones that are unrelenting and too high to be achieved, Fier says. “We start to have this sense of self that is based on this global sense of failure,” she explains. “It’s not that my behavior failed or that one part of me hasn’t been able to accomplish something. It’s that I’m the failure.”

In addition, shame makes people feel like they don’t belong, so they want to hide or disappear, Fier adds. In fact, some clients experience such a sense of unworthiness — to the point of self-loathing — that they often don’t feel they deserve compassion, she says. Thus, she finds compassion-focused therapy beneficial. Some compassion-focused techniques that help to regulate the body include soothing rhythm breathing, body posture changes (e.g., making the back and shoulders upright and solid and raising one’s chin to help the body feel confident) and soothing touch (e.g., placing hands on one’s heart).

Fier will also have clients imagine a compassionate image such as a color that has a quality of warmth and caring. She has clients explore their various emotional selves, such as their anxious self or their angry self, and think about how these emotions feel and sound when they speak to the client and to each other (e.g., “What does the angry self say to the anxious self?”).

Fier acknowledges that these practices and techniques do not get rid of the self-critical thoughts or difficult emotions entirely. However, over time, clients learn to pull up a compassionate self to sit alongside the difficulty, she says. “The compassionate self is the hub of the wheel that holds all these other parts of [the individual together],” she adds.

Kircher-Morris also identifies another point of emphasis. “One of the main components of perfectionism is a discomfort with vulnerability,” she says. “So, when [counselors] can facilitate that and give permission for that vulnerability, that’s where the change happens.” She recommends that counselors look for opportunities to use appropriate self-disclosures with these clients. She believes this gives clients permission to be vulnerable and reduces the power differential between client and counselor.

Being vulnerable and compassionate takes strength, Fier points out. She helps clients redefine strength — which in the United States is often viewed in terms of competition and domination — to realize that it is about being open to care and vulnerability.

Fier has also learned an important lesson: When working with clients, she doesn’t begin discussing compassion as something warm and caring. When counselors begin a session discussing compassion as a caring aspect, some clients think this emotion is too scary or difficult for them to relate to, she explains.

Instead, Fier begins by talking about accessing courage and eventually transitions into the courage it takes to be open, vulnerable and compassionate. She finds that some clients have experiences of feeling courageous or strong, but they have a difficult time connecting to experiences in which they have offered themselves any sort of care or comfort. “So, if [counselors] can start with where the client is and build up that courage, [they] can use that to help access the vulnerability and begin to redefine the strength aspects of being vulnerable,” she says.

Living with imperfection

For some counselors, perfectionism hits close to home. Counseling is a profession in which people often feel like they need to get it “perfect,” Fier says.

Kircher-Morris suggests that counselors follow the advice they often give to clients: Make the best decision based on the information you have at the time. “Our clients give us what they can, and it’s our job to connect with them and facilitate that and help them put those pieces together,” she says. “But we’re also working with what we have at the time, whether that’s our training and our professional development … [or the client] relationship and what we know about that particular client.”

Kircher-Morris says she often looks back at herself from five years ago and sees a counselor who thought she had everything figured out and knew what she was doing. Now, she says, she
realizes she was just doing what was best in the moment.

Counselors have to remember that they will not always get it “right,” and they have to learn to tolerate imperfection, Fier says. Every morning, Fier glances at the misaligned shower shelf in her bathroom, which serves as a gentle reminder that it’s OK to live with imperfection. Counselors can guide clients to find similar reminders to help them feel less threatened by imperfection, she suggests.

Perfectionism always goes back to one central issue — the self-critical voice, Gnilka asserts. “The idea that human beings are going to be able to walk around in life and not have any self-critical talk is just not possible. It’s not that healthy perfectionists are just walking around with no self-critical piece to them. It’s just that they’re walking around with no more, or maybe slightly less, than the average person of the population,” he says. “What [counselors] are trying to do is alleviate [the critical voice] so it’s not so critically depressing and keeping people from enjoying life.”

At the end of the podcast episode on perfectionism, Kircher-Morris acknowledges that if we don’t allow ourselves to admit we have flaws, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. “Perfectionism is the refusal to show any vulnerability,” she says. “It’s vulnerability that allows us to be authentic, who we really are, and establish those strong relationships with those around us. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be perfectly imperfect.”

 

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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.

What’s left unsaid

By Lindsey Phillips January 3, 2019

A child discloses that her grandfather has been sexually abusing her, and the mother’s response is shock that his abuse didn’t stop with her when she was a child. This scene is not uncommon for Molly VanDuser, the president and clinical director of Peace of Mind, an outpatient counseling and trauma treatment center in North Carolina. As she explains, adult survivors of child sexual abuse often assume that the offender has changed or is too old to engage in such actions again. So, the abuse persists.

Concetta Holmes, the clinical director of the Child Protection Center in Sarasota, Florida, has treated clients with similar intergenerational abuse stories. “In that unresolved trauma … what has happened is now a culture of silence around sexual violence that is ingrained in the family,” she says. “That [affects] things like your feelings of safety, security [and] trustworthiness, and it reinforces that you should stay with people who hurt you.”

Kimberly Frazier, an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Rehabilitation and Counseling at Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center, acknowledges that people often don’t want to think or talk about child sexual abuse, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. The nonprofit Darkness to Light reported in 2013 that approximately 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18.

Because of the culture of silence that surrounds child sexual abuse, it is safe to assume that the true number is even higher. Cases of child sexual abuse often continue for years because the abuse is built on a foundation of secrets and fear, Frazier points out. Survivors frequently fear what will happen to them (or to others) if they tell, or the shame they feel about the abuse deters them from disclosing.

Societal norms can also diminish a survivor’s likelihood of disclosing. For example, society has for decades implicitly sanctioned sexual interactions between boys who are minors and adult woman, but it is still abuse, says Anna Viviani, an associate professor of counseling and director of the clinical mental health counseling and counselor education programs at Indiana State University. Holmes adds that gender stereotypes such as this can cause boys to feel as though they shouldn’t be or weren’t affected by sexual abuse, which is not the case.

“I think the biggest fallacy [counselors have] is that [child sexual abuse] is going to impact people from a particular demographic more than another,” Viviani says. “Childhood sexual abuse cuts across every demographic. I think the sooner we can accept that, the sooner we’re going to be better at identifying clients when they have this issue in their history.”

Putting on a detective hat

Identifying signs of child sexual abuse is neither easy nor straightforward. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the signs are not clear-cut, says VanDuser, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and an American Counseling Association member. Regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting can indicate abuse, but they might also be the result of other changes such as a recent move, a new baby in the family or a military parent deploying, she explains.

VanDuser also warns that child sexual abuse is insidious because a lot goes on before the offender actually touches the child. “Childhood sexual abuse sometimes leaves no physical wounds to identify,” she says. Some examples of noncontact abuse include peeping in the window at the child, making a child watch pornography or encouraging a child to sit on one’s lap and play the “tickle game.” Such activities are part of the grooming process — the way that offenders build trust and gain access to the child.

In addition to physical signs such as bladder and vaginal infections, changes in eating habits, and stomachaches, survivors of child sexual abuse also demonstrate behavioral and emotional changes. One major warning sign is if the child displays a more advanced knowledge of sex than one would expect at the child’s developmental stage, VanDuser says.

Other possible behavioral signs include not wanting to be alone with a certain person (e.g., stepfather, babysitter), becoming clingy with a nonoffending caregiver, not wanting to remove clothing to change or bathe, being afraid of being alone at night, having nightmares or having difficulty concentrating. In general, counselors should look for behaviors that are out of character for that particular child, VanDuser advises.

Viviani, a licensed clinical professional counselor and an ACA member, also finds that people who have experienced child sexual abuse have higher rates of depression, anxiety, panic disorders and posttraumatic stress disorders.

Because the signs of child sexual abuse are rarely clear-cut, counselors must be good investigators, Viviani argues. In her experience, adult survivors present with an array of symptoms, including health concerns, relationship problems and gaps in memory, so counselors have to look for patterns to discover the underlying issue.

If counselors notice any of these signs, VanDuser recommends asking the client, “When did this problem (e.g., bed-wetting, cutting, nightmares, acting out in school) begin?” Counselors can then follow up and ask, “What else was going on at that time?” The answers to these questions often reveal the underlying issue, she notes. For example, if the client responds that his or her depression or vigilance to the environment began around age 12, VanDuser says she will dig deeper into the client’s family relationships.

Frazier, an LPC and a member of ACA, suggests that counselors can also look for patterns in a child’s drawing — for example, what colors they use, how intensely they draw with certain colors, or if they scratch out certain people or choose not to include someone — or in the choices children make with activities such as feeling faces cards (cards that depict different emotional facial expressions). When Frazier asked one of her clients who had come to counseling because of suspected sexual abuse to select from the feeling face cards, she noticed the client consistently picked cards with people wearing glasses. Frazier later discovered that the child’s abuser wore glasses.

For Frazier, becoming a detective also involves going outside of the office to observe the child in different spaces, such as in school, in day care or at the park. Frazier includes the possibility of outside observations in her consent form, so the child’s parent or guardian agrees to it beforehand. She advises that counselors should take note of whether the child’s behavior is consistent across all of these spaces or whether there are changes from home to school, for example. In addition, she suggests asking the parents or guardians follow-up questions about how the child’s behavior has changed (e.g., Has the child lost the joy of playing his or her favorite sport? Is the child withdrawn? Is the child fighting?).

Speaking a child’s language

Young children may not have the words or cognitive development to tell counselors about the abuse they have been subjected to. Instead, these children may engage in traumatic play, such as having monsters in the sand tray eat each other or being in a frenzied state and drawing aggressive pictures, VanDuser says.

“One of the most important things for clinicians to remember when they’re working with kids and abuse is that it’s really critical to be working within the languages that children speak,” says Holmes, a licensed clinical social worker and a nationally credentialed advocate through the National Organization for Victim Assistance. “Children speak through a variety of different languages that aren’t just verbal. They speak through play. They speak through art, through writing [and] through movement, so it becomes really important that clinicians get creative in using evidence-based practices and different modalities to talk with children through their language. … Talking in a child’s language allows them to feel like the topic at hand is less overwhelming and less scary.”

For example, children can use Legos to build a wall of their emotions, Holmes says, with counselors instructing clients to pick colors to represent different emotions. If orange represents sadness and red represents frustration and 90 percent of the child’s wall contains orange and red Legos, then the counselor gets a better visualization of what emotions are inside the child, she says.

Next, counselors could ask clients what it would take to remove a red brick of frustration or what their ideal wall would look like, such as one that contains more bricks representing happiness or peace. Counselors can also ask these clients to rebuild their Lego walls throughout therapy to see how their emotions are changing, Holmes says. This method is easier than asking children if their anger has decreased and by how much, she adds.

Frazier, past president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, a division of ACA, also finds that working with children keeps counselors on their toes. Children are honest and will admit if they do not like an intervention, so counselors have to be ready to shift strategies quickly, she says. For this reason, counselors need to have a wide range of creative approaches in their counseling bag. She recommends drawing supplies, play school or kitchen sets, play dough and sand trays.

With sand trays, Frazier likes to provide dinosaurs and other nonhuman figurines for children to play with because it helps them not to feel constrained or limited. This allows them to freely let a dinosaur or car represent a particular person or idea, she explains.

Frazier also recommends the “Popsicle family” intervention, in which children decorate Popsicle sticks to represent their family members and support systems. This exercise provides insight into family dynamics (who is included in the family and who isn’t) and allows children to describe and interact with these “people” like they would with Barbie dolls, she says.

Frazier advises counselors to keep culturally and developmentally appropriate materials on hand. For example, they should have big crayons for young children with limited fine motor skills, and they should have various shades of crayons, markers, pencils and construction paper so children can easily create what they want.

Being multiculturally competent goes beyond ethnicity, Frazier points out. Counselors should understand the culture the child grew up in and the culture of the child’s current locality because what is considered “normal” in one city or area might differ from another, she says. For example, in New Orleans, where she lives, people regularly have “adopted” family members. So, if a child from New Orleans were creating his or her Popsicle family, it wouldn’t be strange to see the child include several people outside of his or her immediate family and refer to them as “cousin” or “aunt,” even if they aren’t blood relatives.

Thus, Frazier stresses the importance of counselors immersing themselves in the worldview of their child clients. “You can’t be a person who works with kids and not know all the shows and the stuff that’s happening with that particular age group, the music, the things that are on trend and the things they’re talking about,” Frazier says. “Otherwise, you’ll always be behind trying to ask them, ‘What does that mean?’”

With adolescents, Holmes finds narrative therapy to be particularly effective, and she often incorporates art and interview techniques into the process. For example, the counselor could ask the client to draw a picture of an emotion that he or she feels, such as anger. Next, the client would give this emotion a name and create a short biography about it. For example, how was anger born? How did it grow up to be who it is? What fuels it? Why does it hang around?

Next, Holmes says, the counselor and client could discuss the questions the client would ask this emotion if it had its own voice. Then, the client could interview the initial picture of the emotion and use his or her own voice to answer the questions as the emotion would. The answers provide insight into the emotional distress the client is feeling, Holmes explains.

Frazier will do ad-lib word games with older children, who are often more verbal. While clients fill in the blanks to create their own stories, she looks for themes (e.g., gloomy story) or the child’s response to the word game (e.g., eager, withdrawn). 

Long-lasting effects

Unfortunately, the effects of child sexual abuse don’t end with childhood or even with counseling. “Children revisit their trauma at almost every age and stage of development, which is every two to three years,” Holmes notes. “That might not mean they need counseling each and every time, but they find new meaning in it or they find they have new questions … or new emotions about it.”

Viviani, VanDuser and Frazier agree that recovery is a lifelong process. As survivors age, they will have sexual encounters, get married, become pregnant or have their child reach the age they were when the abuse occurred. These events can all become trigger points for a flood of new physical and emotional symptoms related to the child sexual abuse, Viviani says.

Often, an issue separate from the abuse causes adult survivors to seek counseling. In fact, VanDuser says she rarely gets an adult who discloses child sexual abuse as the presenting issue. Instead, she finds adult clients are more likely to come in because their own child is having behavioral problems or because they’re feeling depressed or anxious, they’re having nightmares or they’re married and have no interest in sex.

Adults survivors often experience long-term physical ailments. According to Viviani, who presented on this topic at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta, some of the ailments include diabetes, fibromyalgia and chronic pain syndromes, pelvic pain, sexual difficulties, headaches, substance use disorders, eating disorders, cardiovascular problems, hypertension and gastrointestinal problems.

Another long-term issue for survivors is difficulty forming healthy relationships. Because child sexual abuse alters boundaries, survivors may not realize when something is odd or abusive in a relationship, VanDuser says. For example, if an adult survivor is in a relationship with someone who is overly jealous and possessive, he or she may mistakenly translate that jealously into a sign of love.

Child sexual abuse can also affect decision-making as an adult around careers, housing, personal activities and sexual intimacy, Viviani notes. For example, one of her clients wanted to attend a Bible study group but didn’t feel safe being in a smaller group where a man might pay attention to her. In addition, Viviani finds that adult survivors sometimes choose careers they are not interested in just because those careers provide a safe environment with no triggers.

To help adult clients make sense of the abuse they suffered as children and move forward, Viviani often uses meaning-making activities and mindfulness techniques. She suggests that counselors help these clients find a way to do something purposeful with their history of abuse, whether that involves sharing their story with a testimony at church, volunteering for a mental health association or participating in a walk/run to raise awareness of suicide prevention.

Finding self-compassion

Survivors of child sexual abuse often blame themselves for the abuse or the aftermath once the abuse is revealed, especially if it results in the offender leaving the family, the family losing its home or the family’s income dropping, VanDuser says. One of her clients even confessed to thinking that she somehow triggered her child sexual abuse from her stepfather.

“Sometimes the worst part is the dread [when the child knows the sexual abuse is] coming eventually. So, sometimes a teenager will actually initiate it to get it over with because the only time they feel relief is after it’s done,” VanDuser explains. “Then they know for a while that they won’t be bothered again.”

Counselors often need to shine a light on survivors’ cognitive distortions to help them work through their guilt and shame, VanDuser says. She tries to help clients understand that the sexual abuse was not their fault by changing their perspective. For example, she will take a client to a park where there are children close to the age the survivor was when the abuse happened. She’ll point to one of the children playing and ask, “What could the child really do?” This simple question often helps clients realize that they couldn’t have done anything to prevent the abuse, VanDuser says.

Viviani takes a similar approach by talking with clients in the third person about their expectations of what a child would developmentally be able to do in a similar situation. She asks clients if they would blame another child (their grandchild or niece, for example) for being sexually abused. Then she asks why they blame themselves for what happened to them because they were also just children at the time.

“As you frame it that way, they begin to have a little bit more compassion for themselves, and self-compassion is something that’s so important for survivors to develop,” Viviani says. In her experience, survivors are hard on themselves, often exercising magical thinking about what they should or should not have been able to do as a child. “As we help them develop self-compassion and self-awareness, we see the guilt begin to dissipate,” she adds.

Regaining a sense of safety

Safety — in emotions, relationships and touches — is a critical component of treatment for a child who has been sexually abused, Holmes stresses.

Counselors should teach clients about safe and unsafe touches, personal boundaries and age-appropriate sexual behavior rules, adds Amanda Jans, a registered mental health counseling intern and mental health therapist for the Child Protection Center in Sarasota. Counselors can also help clients “understand that they are in charge of their bodies, so even if a touch is safe, it doesn’t mean they have to accept it,” she says.

Hula hoops provide a creative way to discuss personal space boundaries with clients, Holmes notes. Counselors can use hula hoops of different sizes to illustrate safe and unsafe boundaries with a parent, sibling, friend or stranger, she explains.

VanDuser helps clients engage in safety planning by having them draw their hand on a piece of paper. For each finger, they figure out a corresponding person they can tell if something happens to them in the future.

Counselors can also take steps to ensure that their offices are safe settings. Jans, an ACA member who presented on the treatment of child sexual abuse at the ACA 2018 Conference, uses noise machines to ensure privacy and aromatherapy machines to make the environment more comfortable. She also has a collection of kid-friendly materials, so if a child starts to feel dysregulated during a session, he or she can take a break and play basketball or color.

Likewise, if clients are hesitant to discuss the topic, Jans allows them to take a step back. For instance, she has clients read someone else’s experience (either real or fictional) rather than having them write their own story, or she has clients role-play with someone else serving as the main character, not themselves. This distance helps clients move to a place where they eventually can discuss their own stories, she says.

Another technique Jans uses to ease clients into writing and processing their own stories is a word web. Together, Jans and a client will brainstorm words related to the client’s experience and put the words on a web (a set of circles drawn on a paper in a weblike pattern). Jans finds this exercise helps clients get comfortable talking about the subject and, eventually, these words become part of their narrative.

VanDuser also suggests getting out of the office. Sometimes she takes child and adolescent clients to a store to get a candy bar. On the way, she will ask them what they are feeling or noticing. If clients say that someone walking by makes them feel strange, VanDuser asks how they would address this feeling or what they would do if someone approached them. Then they will talk through strategies that would make the client feel safe in this situation.

Taking back control

Survivors of child sexual abuse often feel they can’t control what happens around them or to them, Frazier says. So, counselors can get creative using interventions that return control to these survivors and make them feel safe.

Viviani helps clients regain some sense of control in their lives by teaching grounding and coping skills. “Coping skills are so important to helping them begin to trust in themselves again so that they have the skills to really uncover and deal with the abuse,” she explains.

In sessions, counselors can help clients recognize what their bodies feel when they are triggered. Then they can help clients learn to deescalate through grounding skills such as noticing and naming things in their current surroundings or reminding themselves of where they are and the current date, Viviani says. Rather than reliving the incident — being back in their bedroom at age 5, for example — clients learn to ground themselves in the here and now: “This is Jan. 10, 2019, and I’m sitting in my office.”

VanDuser highly recommends trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT) for work with survivors of child sexual abuse. TF-CBT is a short-term treatment, typically 12-16 sessions, that incorporates psychoeducation on traumatic stress for both the child and nonoffending parent or caregiver, skills for identifying and regulating emotions, cognitive behavior therapy and a trauma narrative technique.

For a creative approach, VanDuser suggests letting children use crayons and a lunch bag to create a “garbage bag.” She first writes down all the bad feelings (e.g., fear, anger, shame) the client has about the abuse. As the child finishes working on one of the bad feelings, he or she puts the feeling in the garbage bag. When all the feelings are in the bag, VanDuser lets the client dispose of it however he or she wishes — by burning it, burying it, throwing it in the actual garbage or some other method.

Jans and Holmes suggest empowering clients by giving them some control in session. For example, if clients are feeling sad, the counselor can remind them of the coping strategies they have been working on (perhaps progressive muscle relaxation and grounding techniques) and ask which one they want to use to address this feeling. The counselor could also list the goals of therapy for that day and ask clients which one they want to work on first, Holmes says.

Holmes acknowledges that clients may never make sense of the abuse they suffered, but counselors can help them make sense of the abuse’s impact and aftermath. For Holmes, this meaning making involves clients being empowered to reclaim their lives after abuse rather than being held hostage by it, realizing that trauma doesn’t have to define them and learning to be compassionate with themselves.

The hero who told

Holmes encourages counselors not to shy away from discussing child sexual abuse. “If clinicians hesitate, clients will hesitate. If the clinician avoids it, the client will avoid it,” Holmes says. “It’s the clinician’s responsibility to take the lead on this topic. Sexual abuse is so widespread in our society that we do our clients a disservice when we don’t incorporate sexual abuse histories into our [client] assessments.”

Typically, however, counselors are not the first person a child will tell about the abuse. Often, children first disclose the abuse to a teacher or other school personnel, and their reaction is crucial in ensuring that the child gets help, Viviani says.

Thus, she advises counselors to partner with schools and child advocacy organizations to educate them on what they should do if a child discloses sexual abuse. “They need to know what to do,” Viviani emphasizes. “They need to know what to say to support that child because we may not get another chance, at least until they hit college age when they’re not under that roof anymore, or we may never get that chance again.”

Counselors must also empower survivors of child sexual abuse. “They shouldn’t be waiting for the therapist … or their best friend to ride in and save them. We want them to be the hero of their own story,” Holmes says. “And how we do that is through finding ways they can start to recognize and make safe and healthy decisions about different pieces of their life, and we want to model that even within the therapy environment.”

The end result of TF-CBT is the child writing his or her own narrative of the sexual abuse. VanDuser emphasizes that no matter how the child’s sexual abuse story begins, it always has the same ending: the hero — the child — who told.

 

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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 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.

Standing in the shadow of addiction

By Lindsey Phillips October 30, 2018

Theresa Eschmann, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and addiction family specialist in private practice in St. Louis, experienced firsthand the power of denial in adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders. All her life, Eschmann had witnessed her mother struggle with this disorder, yet upon finding her mother dead with a bottle of alcohol in her hand, Eschmann’s first response was denial. She couldn’t believe that her mother’s alcohol use disorder had caused her death, initially insisting that someone must have poisoned her.

“I … took a chemical dependency proficiency certification to try to get some understanding of what killed her because it couldn’t have just been alcohol,” Eschmann says, explaining her thinking at the time. “Alcohol made you sick. It made you have delirium tremens. It made you see things. But it couldn’t have killed you.”

Denial is often a strong coping mechanism for adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders, says Lisa Kruger, an LPC and psychotherapist and the owner of Stepping Stone Psychotherapy in the Washington, D.C., metro area. “They have to deny any feelings of sadness or anger that they might have in order to survive,” she says.

This denial extends to adult children’s own potential struggles with substance use disorders. Keith Klostermann, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology and the director of clinical training for the marriage and family therapy program at Medaille College, had a female client whose father chronically abused alcohol, and her own drinking often led to fights with her boyfriend. One of these drunken fights resulted in her breaking her foot. Even so, she maintained a permissive attitude toward drinking and brushed it off as a recreational activity.

The client was firmly in denial and not yet ready to address either her experience of growing up around substance abuse issues or her own drinking habits, says Klostermann, a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed mental health counselor who maintains an active practice in New York. Counselors may be eager to push clients to explore these issues, but Klostermann warns that discussing the implications of this childhood experience before clients are ready is a recipe for disaster. Taking that approach may lead to problems establishing a therapeutic alliance or cause clients to end counseling prematurely, he explains. Instead, he advises, counselors can help clients connect the dots and arrive at an understanding that their behavior makes sense based on their experiences growing up.

Asking the right questions

Being an adult child of a parent with a substance use disorder is not uncommon. According to the National Association for Children of Addiction, 1 in 4 children in the United States (or approximately 18.25 million children) live in a family with a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Yet, Eschmann, a certified master addiction counselor and a member of the American Counseling Association, says it’s her sense that asking whether clients grew up in homes where addiction was present is often skipped over in clinical assessments.

In addition, because these individuals have frequently learned to minimize, discount or deny the implications of growing up in a home with substance abuse, they aren’t particularly likely to seek counseling for those issues.

Being a child of a parent who abused substances “may be the elephant in the room, but that may not be what brings them in. They may not recognize it,” says Klostermann, an ACA member. “The stuff that happens to us when we were younger, a lot of times we carry with us, [but] we don’t even realize why we do the stuff we do. We just sort of do it out of inertia.”

Klostermann and Kruger say that many of their clients present with relationship problems, anxiety, stress, depression and substance use. Often, the counselors note, these issues result from growing up with a parent who had a substance use disorder.

The environment of walking on eggshells around a parent who is under the influence of a substance creates and breeds anxiety for the child, Klostermann explains. When the child becomes an adult and engages in stressful situations in college (e.g., exams) or at work (e.g., deadlines), the person’s anxiety can snowball, he adds. Likewise, they may struggle with adversity and withdraw socially because they find it difficult to navigate relationships. This isolation can lead to depression, which is a real challenge, Klostermann says.

Counselors can look for possible warning signs that their adult clients were exposed to substance abuse issues in the home as children, Klostermann says. For instance, clients might engage in avoidant strategies (e.g., using alcohol as a way to cope with stress) or have a permissive attitude about substance use (e.g., “I don’t drink much. I only have a 12-pack a day.”).

Kruger, an ACA member who specializes in the areas of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, trauma and addiction, had a male client who came to see her for help with relationship issues and high anxiety. In his intake paperwork, the client wrote that he drank nightly, so she asked him how many drinks he had in a week. “It was 50 to 60 a week,” he replied, “but now it’s only 20 or 30.” This response was a big red flag, yet he didn’t realize that his drinking was a problem, she says.

To help clients recognize unhealthy behaviors, Kruger often uses motivational interviewing techniques. For example, with this client, a counselor might ask, “How is drinking 20 or 30 drinks a week working out for you?”

If counselors see potential warning signs, Klostermann advises asking questions about current substance use patterns, previous substance use, parental substance use and family attitudes around drinking. For example, counselors might ask the following questions: What was it like growing up in your home? What does drinking a lot or having a good time mean to you? What does that look like? What are the holidays and celebrations like in your family? What is a typical family dinner or birthday party like?

“Substance use is built around so many family functions and gatherings and celebrations,” Klostermann says. So, if a client comments, “My parents liked to party,” counselors could follow up by asking the client to explain what that means and what the implications are for the client’s life (e.g., increased violence after a parent drank, embarrassment when a parent became intoxicated at a social event). Klostermann explains that these types of questions help clinicians gain a better understanding of not just the acute nature of growing up in an environment with substance abuse but also the context of it — for instance, whether parental drug use led to a more permissive attitude at home or whether the child adopted unhealthy coping strategies.

In addition, adult children often find it easier to talk about others rather than themselves, Klostermann says. By asking these types of nonjudgmental questions (e.g., “Did drinking like that seem to work out for your mom?”), counselors can help clients create insight and awareness by changing the frame of reference, he explains. This technique helps clients gain an understanding about not only the severity of their parents’ alcohol or substance use but also the emotional implications of that behavior, he adds.

After counselors establish that awareness, Klostermann says, they can connect it to the client’s present situation (e.g., “Does drinking affect your relationships or grades?”). He suggests that counselors could also try to educate clients by saying something along the following lines: “Given what you described about your [parent’s] history, it’s not uncommon for people that grow up in these homes to sometimes exhibit certain behaviors. Sounds like that might be happening for you.”

Counselors are “planting the seed [and] leaving the door open but also helping [clients] to connect the dots and understand this is what’s going on and here’s why,” he explains.

In addition to asking about clients’ personal and family substance use histories, Kruger often focuses her questions on clients’ relationships with their parents. These questions can help bring out emotions such as shame, guilt or anxiety that stem from being a child of a parent with a substance use disorder, she says.

Emotional and attachment wounds

“Adult children of alcoholics … have difficulty identifying and expressing emotions,” Kruger explains, “because when they were kids, they had to set aside their own emotions — maybe they had to care for their parents. … They didn’t understand what their emotions were because what they saw in their parents’ relationship was inconsistent presentation or organization of emotions between them and maybe even between the parent and child too.”

To help clients who are having difficulty expressing their emotions, Kruger provides a sheet that shows 50 visual representations of emotions and asks clients to name the emotions that describe how they are feeling. She says this activity, which she refers to as an “emotional cheat sheet,” is “a good springboard … for clients who really don’t have the language [for their emotions].”

Kruger and Eschmann find that codependency is another common issue for adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders. Because these adult children grow up being sensitive to the needs of their parents — even to the point of ignoring their own needs — they often engage in approval seeking, which leads to codependency, Kruger explains. This need for approval and to avoid conflict can result in these individuals seeking acceptance from others who do not treat them well, which causes lower self-esteem, she says.

Often, clients who are codependent will assume they are OK because they are not the ones causing problems, Eschmann observes. She questions clients on codependent behavior by asking about their controlling behaviors, approval-seeking behaviors, anxiety, and distortion around intimacy and separation.

For Kruger, it all comes back to attachment — how bonds are created and broken. Parents who struggle with alcohol use disorders are typically inconsistent in their parenting and in their show of emotion toward their children. As she points out, this can create attachment wounds and be stressful for children growing up under these circumstances. Children may be doubly affected because they still depend on parents for care and for getting many of their emotional needs met. At the same time, these children often aren’t in a position to fight or to flee elsewhere, she adds.

Counselors can help adult clients gain awareness of how their current relationship patterns are affected by their childhood experiences, Kruger says. One technique she finds helpful involves taking the client’s experiences and imagining how those experiences would be perceived on The Brady Bunch. As a member of The Brady Bunch family, Kruger explains, the client would notice instantly if a partner or spouse were abusive because of the contrast with the sitcom family. However, growing up in a stressful environment with one or both parents suffering from an alcohol use disorder tends to distort a person’s perceptions of what is “normal” or acceptable.

For example, having a parent who drank and was inconsistently present when the client was a child would affect the client’s ability to evaluate his or her current relationships. If the client has a partner who sometimes withholds affection or emotion, is manipulative and comes around only when he or she wants something, the client won’t necessarily notice any red flags because those are the circumstances and relationship patterns the client knows from growing up, Kruger explains.

Kruger also gives short attachment assessments and finds that these clients often present with anxious attachments. “In relationships, [they cater] to the other person because that attachment anxiety comes up and that need for approval keeps them in relationships” — including bad ones, she says.

To help clients see the connection between their view of themselves and their relationships with others, Kruger will have clients write out how they view themselves, how they view other people and how they view the world. Then, they will discuss how these views are created, how clients are perpetuating these views and how they would like to see themselves in relationships.

The exercise is particularly helpful for clients who find themselves in toxic relationships, Kruger adds. “It’s really rare [for] somebody in a toxic relationship [who is] being manipulated to say, ‘I see myself in high regard, and I think I’m great.’ It’s usually the opposite,” she says.

Making meaning of conflicted feelings

Another crucial part of adult children’s recovery is sorting through their conflicted feelings of love, disappointment, anger and shame. In fact, both Eschmann and Kruger find that shame and guilt are common presenting issues.

Children often feel that a parent’s situation is their fault, and they find it difficult to process these multilayered emotions, Kruger notes. They simultaneously feel disappointment in and love for their parent. For adult children, processing and making sense of these feelings is a substantial part of recovery, she explains. Counselors should acknowledge that shame piece and how clients have “put that burden on themselves and carried that burden with them throughout adulthood,” Kruger advises. 

“Shames translates to I am bad,” Kruger points out. “Even if [clients] don’t present it on the outside, they’re usually coming in with some pretty damaged self-esteem and are already judging themselves.” In part for that reason, she emphasizes the importance of creating a nonjudgmental atmosphere in counseling.

When self-esteem, thoughts and feelings are involved, Kruger uses cognitive behavior therapy techniques. She says she has experienced a good deal of success with an exercise that blends cognitive restructuring and emotion identification. In the exercise, clients look at a triggering event and then identify their negative self-talk and automatic thought, the feeling that this thought creates, evidence to strengthen this thought, evidence against this thought and a new thought that they can believe.

The exercise allows clients to recognize their negative self-talk and its consequences and enables them to reconfigure these self-demeaning thoughts in a way that is believable to them, Kruger explains. For example, clients might think that they are “bad” and list all of the evidence they have for that thought. Next, they could counter that thought with the fact that they recently got a raise at work. Finally, they could create a new thought that sometimes they do good things, Kruger says.

“These clients need validation,” Eschmann emphasizes. “They didn’t get it growing up.” Instead, she explains, the parent who was abusing alcohol or other substances has often discounted the adult child’s feelings and experiences.

Klostermann also stresses the importance of normalizing these clients’ emotions and experiences. These clients may not realize — or, in some cases, perhaps don’t want to realize — the impact on them of their parents’ drug or alcohol use, he says. He notes how difficult it can be for clients to verbalize that their parents had or have a drinking problem, especially if they maintain a glorified version of their parents. For this reason, counselors need to help clients understand that it is possible for them to love their parents while still recognizing that their parents made mistakes.

Kathleen Brown-Rice, department chair and associate professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Sam Houston State University, agrees. Counselors must keep in mind that the family member is someone whom the client still loves and cares about, she says. Counselors can give clients the “space to say that you can love somebody and also be disappointed by their behaviors. You can love someone, and they can love you, and they can still hurt you,” she says. “[It’s] helpful for clients to understand that it’s more complicated than just [their parents are] bad or they don’t love [them].”

Eschmann helps clients focus on unresolved grief, which is common for adult children who grew up with parental substance abuse. Adult children are often hesitant to admit that their mom left them alone all night with a stranger or that their father came home drunk and had violent arguments with their mother, Eschmann says. They might not want to admit that these past events are why they get triggered today during certain situations.

“[Clients] have to accuse before [they] can excuse,” Eschmann asserts. “They have to go back and [ask], ‘What happened to me?’ This isn’t about [the parents] anymore. It’s about [the client].” If clients become more aware of what happened to them and what kind of environment they lived in that made them fearful and anxious today, then they can start healing, she adds. 

Mindful resilience 

Adult children who grew up in the same environment with substance abuse can respond very differently. One person may be angry, whereas another may be empathetic, and still another may end up also struggling with a substance use disorder. This raises the question of why some adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders are more resilient than others.

Resilience is “critical in terms of shaping kids’ development as they transcend into adulthood in terms of the choices that they make and the way that they deal with stress and conflict,” Klostermann points out. Based on his clinical experience, Klostermann suggests that having other healthy outlets (e.g., extracurricular activities such as sports, positive role models such as grandparents) and an ability to contextualize what is happening help to foster resilience.

Brown-Rice, an LPC and a member of ACA, acknowledges that there is more than simple genetics at play with resiliency. “Resiliency is not a moral characteristic. It’s a function of our brain,” she says. It’s “how our brain controls for those genetics … how that resiliency comes in and how we support that.”

Recently, she, along with Gina Forster (a lecturer in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago) and several other colleagues, conducted a study funded partly by a grant from the Center for Brain and Behavior Research at the University of South Dakota on college students who had similar experiences of being adult children of parents with substance use disorders. The participants identified as either engaging in risky substance use (the vulnerable group) or not engaging in risky substance use (the resilient group).

“Overall, their experience being raised by a parent who met the criteria for having a substance use disorder appeared similar,” says Brown-Rice, who presented the findings at the ACA 2017 Conference in San Francisco. However, “vulnerable individuals had lower scholastic performance … [and] reported poor overall psychological, physical and social health and more polysubstance use.”

The study also revealed another difference: The vulnerable group had a short allele of the serotonin transporter gene, which meant they were more likely to react to stressful events. “[This group] had a reduced uptake of their serotonin, which can increase depression and stressful life events,” explains Brown-Rice, associate editor of the Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling.

Brown-Rice and the other researchers also measured brain activity while the participants viewed positive images (e.g., a cuddly bear), negative images (e.g., a crying baby) and neutral images (e.g., a chair). They found that the vulnerable group had altered brain activity when processing negative images. This group recognized the negative image but refused to store it, Brown-Rice explains.

Brown-Rice hypothesizes that this refusal to store negative images is an important factor in resiliency levels. To illustrate, imagine that you are walking outside and see a stick. Initially, your brain may think that the stick is a snake, so you jump back. As Brown-Rice explains, when you first see the stick, the amygdala activates and warns you because it looks like something that the brain remembers could hurt you. But after taking a closer look (i.e., storing the image), you realize it is just a stick, so you relax.

Resiliency depends on our ability to realize that the stick is not a snake. Some people, however, may be more likely because of brain functioning or genetic variations to see the stick and just react by running, Brown-Rice says. Thus, counselors can help certain clients by nurturing the parts of the brain that activate during stressful situations, she explains.

Brown-Rice incorporates this research into her clinical practice. She tells her clients that they have a resilient part of the brain — the prefrontal cortex — and that in session, they can work on controlling their brain and building their optimism and resiliency. She suggests that counselors use mindfulness techniques, such as guiding clients in breathing exercises and finding a safe place to go when triggered, because mindfulness is effective in calming the amygdala, which activates during stressful events.

Consistency also helps promote clients’ resiliency, Brown-Rice notes. If counselors are inconsistent, she says, that will put clients on edge.

Klostermann agrees. He finds that having a clear agenda helps to create a sense of safety and build rapport with clients. He informs them about his clinical approach and what to expect during the session and tells them there is no assumption on his part that they will schedule another appointment.

Kruger recommends using clients’ resiliency to help strengthen their internal sense of self. After all, she points out, adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders have already developed survival strategies, such as caring for siblings in areas in which the parent was lacking.

Instead of simply telling clients that they have strengths, Kruger uses motivational interviewing, which allows clients to identify and recognize their strengths themselves. For example, rather than telling a client, “You seem to be good at your job,” she might ask, “In what ways are you praised at your job?” This question helps clients reach the conclusion themselves, which builds their internal positive regard.

One more piece of advice for working with adult children of parents with substance use disorders: Counselors shouldn’t be afraid to change their approach if it’s not working. For example, Brown-Rice says, research has shown that people who have a short allele for serotonin may be resistant to cognitive behavior treatment. “If clients are not responding, we have to think maybe we need to change,” she says. “Maybe we need to move. Maybe we need to [incorporate] some of these mindfulness techniques. Maybe we need to do something else.”

Sometimes, it may be the counselor, not the client, who is being resistant, she stresses.

Halting the domino effect

The desire to get treatment for someone with a substance use disorder often overshadows the way that addiction affects the person’s family and others who care about the person. It shouldn’t.

In her educational video on addiction in the family, Claudia Black, an expert in addiction, highlights a child’s drawing of his experience living in a home where substance abuse is present. The child draws images of dominoes and writes, “Alcohol and drugs are like dominoes. They knock down the person, who knocks down everyone, including themselves.” The child’s words illustrate the way that addiction permeates and affects the entire family, not just the person with the substance use disorder.

For the first two years after her mother died from alcohol-related causes, Eschmann found herself crying repeatedly. Her grief and denial led her to learn more about chemical dependency, addiction and adult children of parents with alcohol use disorders. Counselors need to understand that the family has an emotional illness as well, Eschmann emphasizes. This illness is just as progressive as what the person with the substance use disorder is facing, she adds.

Brown-Rice reminds clients that they are not responsible for their substance use issues, but they are responsible for how they respond to these issues. For adult children of parents with substance use disorders, this means learning how their childhood experiences affect their current behaviors and choices.

Adult children of parents with substance use issues often feel isolated. Support groups such as Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics are helpful because they provide opportunities for people with similar experiences to share their stories and come to the realization that they’re not alone, Kruger says.

Counselors should also help clients understand that their parents’ substance use is not their shame to carry and substance abuse is not a legacy that they have to repeat, Brown-Rice says. Then, clients will realize that choosing a different path doesn’t mean that they are being disrespectful or dishonoring their parents, she explains.

The hope is that this different path will stop the domino effect of addiction, shame, depression and pain.

 

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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.

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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.