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Will my child’s counselor judge my parenting?

cute daughter and dadI know that for lots of people it’s scary to bring your child to a counselor. You’re already worried about your son or daughter and then you have to bring them to a stranger in the hopes they can help. It’s never fun coming to experts and saying, “Hey, I’m stuck and I’m scared and I need help.” But it’s even harder when we’re looking for support over something as emotionally fraught as parenting. Especially since most of us already get criticism from friends or family or teachers or some know-it-all magazine or Dr. Phil.


I want to reassure you that I don’t look at parents with an eye to catch them out doing something wrong (and none of the child therapists I run around with do this either). I mean, I’m a parent, too, and I know how judgment feels (lousy and unhelpful) so why would I want to visit that on my clients?

Besides even if I know exactly the right way (mostly) to raise my kids that doesn’t translate to knowing exactly the right way for you to raise yours. No, I meet with parents to better understand their goals, their hopes, their values and then I mix that all up in the things I’ve learned about kids in general and their kids in particular and what the research says and some practical tips I’ve learned along the way so that together — together, mind you — we can help you build something better.

There is no one-size-fits-all for parenting. What works great for one family would never fly in another because we’re totally different people raising totally different kids in totally different circumstances.

Does that mean I won’t have opinions? Of course not. I love to have opinions and I’ll share those opinions with you but I’ll do in the context of my understanding of your unique experiences. So if I think your discipline techniques are causing you problems, I’ll tell you that but I won’t try to get you to become a totally different kind of parent. I’ll try to help you figure out ways to do things differently to help you discover your best parenting self.

I won’t judge you. I won’t sit around trying to figure out how wrong you are. (In fact, one of the most important thing I do with parents is find out what they’re doing absolutely right so they can do more of it!) I certainly won’t blame you for all of your child’s problems even though you might be blaming yourself.

I know that parents aren’t always at their best. I know that they make mistakes. I know this because I’m a parent and I make mistakes (ask my kids, I’m sure they have a list running). But I don’t believe in perfect parenting anyway; I believe in pretty darn good parenting and I believe that is plenty. I believe in celebrating your strengths and forgiving yourself your weaknesses even as you work to shore them up. I believe that chasing down perfection makes it harder for us to be pretty darn good. I will not judge you. I will be honest and encouraging and I’ll give you lots of tips. And I’ll listen a lot because I know that you are the expert even if you’re not quite sure about that just yet. I’ll help you get there.

Not a pathology or an aberration

But more fundamentally, it took attunement to my daughter and a willingness to view her behaviors in a context and understand what I was seeing. Many well intentioned friends assured me that Sal’s emotional outbursts were developmentally normal and that their own children had done the same things. It took some extra sensitivity, and trusting my gut, to see that something was indeed amiss. Her episodes were too intense, lasted too long, and persisted past what was typically age appropriate.

Initially, seeking out therapy was crushing; the last thing I wanted was for Sal to be slapped with a scary sounding acronym. But after the blow of that first diagnosis, I quickly learned to look past the labels and see that they don’t define who my daughter is. Sal is not a pathology or an aberration. Her neurobiological and psychological responses to her experiences were completely normal. It was the circumstances that were extraordinary.

–source: BAAS.org: Bay Area Adoption Services

This is a very long article but it’s also very good. The last paragraph I quoted above is so important in our understanding and acceptance of the experience of children who survive trauma and loss.

You know what the Children’s Defense Fund slogan is? It’s the Irish Fisherman’s Prayer: “Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.”

Boundaries in counseling

brightcushions-insideLast week I said that I wanted to write about how the boundaries in counseling make the therapeutic relationship possible and so here I am! Writing about it!

The first time I really got the value of those boundaries was when I was driving away from a particularly tough session with a particularly tough client who also happened to be one of my very first clients. Without going into specifics that would compromise confidentiality, I will tell you that this was a client who seemed to have a black cloud of gloom and disaster following her. It always seemed like if a rotten thing could happen to her, it would. Some of this was of her own making but some of it was simply bad luck.

It made me miss being a case manager because as a case manager I’d have clear directives for her. We would be working a program together and I’d be bossing her around a little bit. I’d also have bus tickets and other program directors on speed dial to hook her up with other agencies (there’s an insider thing to case management that doesn’t seem to exist in community mental health agency work unless there’s a case management program there, too; like I can’t get a client free furniture but as a case manager in Portland I had access to those kinds of programs).

But I wasn’t her case manager (she had case managers), I was her counselor. And as her counselor I felt so helpless because I’d see her and she had so many challenges and I couldn’t do much but listen. I would meet with her and pay attention and help her make decisions and help her consider her options and help her process her emotions and I gave her all the unconditional positive regard I had at my disposal but it didn’t always feel like enough. I sure missed being able to hand over those bus tickets.

Unconditional positive regard is at the heart of counseling. When I am with a client, I am with them. I’m listening hard. I’m loving their humanity no matter what they’re saying. I’m seeing the human being that they are and I am accepting who they are even as I’m trying to help them to be their better selves.

So back to my tough session with my tough client.

I was driving away and I was thinking about something she’d said to me. We were talking about a pretty big barrier she was facing and I was itching to be the person in her life to be able to give her bus tickets and referrals and feeling pretty damn helpless to be just sitting there listening. I was having to work hard to not get lost in my feelings and instead stay there with her, present in her struggle, remembering that it was her struggle and not mine to fix. And she said, “This hour when we meet, it’s special to me because it’s the only time that’s all mine, all about me. It makes it so I can get through the rest of the week.”

That really brought home to me the value in “just” listening.

As I drove away I was thinking about how having nothing but my therapeutic self to give her — because counselors ethically can’t do the things case managers do. Ethically, counselors need to be very very very careful about handing out transportation or free furniture. Sure, we can give referrals to programs that do these things and there are times that stretching beyond ethical guidelines on gift giving is appropriate. But with this particular client, it was clear to me that any impetus I had to go beyond those limits would be about me and my fervent wish that her life be better and my feelings of helplessness in the face of her struggle.

I realized, too, that unlike the other helping people in her life (of which there were many), I was the only one who wasn’t asking her to do things. Well, that’s not entirely true — I did ask her to keep her appointments or at least call to cancel. And I did ask her talk to me. But these things happened more or less on her terms. She made the appointments at her convenience (within the bounds of my schedule). She talked about the things she most needed and wanted to talk about. We had a dialogue; I didn’t lecture and I didn’t make demands. She wrote her own treatment goals and we worked towards the things that mattered most to her with the context of her beliefs and values.

Because the boundaries of counseling dictated our relationship — that I not give her bus tickets, that I see her at this prescribed time in this prescribed way — I was able to fully be there with her.

If I had been her case manager I couldn’t have been with her as freely. Case management is all about moving someone through a case plan.  I also would have had to answer to the limits of our funding sources, which dictate which people a program can serve and how that program may serve them.

If I’d been her friend, I surely would have become fed up with the way her own decisions made her bad luck worse.

But as her counselor, I only had to be with her.

Our counseling relationship ended sooner than either of us would have liked due to some practicalities in her own situation but in the time we saw each other I did see real change in her attitude toward herself and towards her circumstances. Which is what cemented my faith in the value of the therapeutic relationship. Even if it doesn’t come with bus tickets.

Remaining constant

Portrait of PiaThis is from A Portrait of Pia, a young adult book by Marisabina Russo about a 13-year old girl who goes looking for her — and finds — her long-lost father.

Pia could see herself standing in front of the class holding the [self-portrait] upside down. How foolish she had felt! Then she remembered Mrs. Lavelle pointing out the negative space behind her hair. It made her think of her father, the part of her life that was not here, but still defined her.

I was pleased to see that she wrote The Line-Up Book, too, because this was one of son’s favorites when he was little.

I’m always looking for books that aren’t just about adoption but also about kids finding themselves in unusual family circumstances. In this one, Pia’s mom’s boyfriend tells her that he was adopted. He tells her about finding his birth mother while he’s sitting with her at the airport before she gets on a plane with her mom to go meet her father. He tells her:

“In that instant I realized that although I’d found her, the woman who had given birth to me, I was still Greg Finer … I remember feeling really relieved because you know …” Here Greg finally took a deep breath. “I didn’t want to change. I liked who I was.”

Our children — most especially our children separated by birth parents for whatever reason — need to know that while they become better everyday, they are who they are. They are right and strong and true and they are exactly who they should be.

This is a great long review of the book and I encourage you to check it out.

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