Working Therapeutically with Parents
“I would like someone to help me to help my child?”
Parent consultations can help parents to help their children or adolescents with: heightened sensitivities and phobias; separation anxiety; anxiety; poor emotional regulation; emotional or aggressive outbursts; poor attention; poor executive functioning; poor self-esteem; bullying or social struggles; enhancing emotional connection with your child; and minimising intergenerational transmission of trauma and adversity. Occasionally, it is not necessary for the child to be seen by the psychotherapist and instead the psychotherapist works solely with the parents.
When parents contact a counsellor or therapist regarding a child or adolescent’s social or emotional problems, the treatment process includes a therapist also working with parents to help parents find ways of helping their child. can involve, as required:
Therapist reflecting with parents on the child’s struggles;
Elements of the Circle of Security TM Parenting Program;
Elements of the Marte Meo approach;
Examining parents’ families of origin to minimising intergenerational transmission of trauma and adversity; and
Looking at current stressors impacting the parenting team and the family.
They say that children weren’t born with an instruction manual. However, lots of people have offered advice from before Dr Spock in 1946 to Supernanny in 2011; from the woman in the supermarket queue to the mother-in-law. Today, 60 years of parent-infant research; 30 years of caregiver-child research; 50 years of neurobiological research and 130 years of psychoanalytic research have essentially culminated in answering the question: “What will help children become emotionally healthy individuals?” This knowledge is now being disseminated through a number of avenues to mental health professionals and via mental health professionals to parents.
Reflecting with parents on the child’s struggles
In working with parents with concerns about their child, the therapist is looking to assist the parents to think about the underlying nature of their child's struggle in order to develop a greater understanding of the child. The therapist provides guidance as to how the parents can strengthen the parent-child relationship and to leverage off this relationship to help and guide the child as required. The therapist also assists parents to weather the emotional lows and to delight in the good times. In working with a parent concerned about his/her teenager, the process is again about the therapist and parent trying to work out what is being communicated by the adolescent's behaviour and to think about how best to respond. The goal for the parents is not to negate the adolescent's reality, not to overreact and not to disengage. This can be a fine line to find in the storm of emotion between the parent and the adolescent. Parents are encouraged to ensure they have sufficient support to enable them to withstand the inevitable pull-and-push of adolescence, i.e. the “pull” is the need-for-the-parent and the “push” is the need-to-reject-the-parent. The therapist assisting parents to continue to guide the adolescent along the developmental path, to achieve developmental milestones, can be one of the most important aspects of treatment.
Circle of Security TM Parenting Program
Usually delivered in eight two-hour sessions, the Circle of Security TM Parenting Program is supported by video material and handouts. It covers:
the need for children to separate and take responsibility for themselves and our role in supporting this;
the need for children to be nurtured and loved and supported in all their feelings from anger and shame through to curiosity and happiness and how we do this;
the need for children to be given guidance and boundaries (discipline) and how we do this;
understanding how our child’s behaviour accommodates our parenting style;
understanding our tendency as parents to become angry, frustrated and overwhelmed at times and what to do then; and
understanding how to repair our relationship with our child when we have not been the parents we have wanted to be or when we have responded in a way that we wish we hadn’t.
This Parenting Program can be run over eight sessions, or relevant selected aspects of this program can be delivered to parents as and when required during the treatment process.
The Marte Meo Approach
The Marte Meo Program involves parents bringing in actual footage from home of positive interactions between parent and child. At other times, the filming of parent-child interactions is done in the therapy room. This footage is analysed by the therapist and discussed in session with the parent(s). Through concrete examples taken from the video material, detailed guidance is provided, to help parents understand how to:
build self-esteem in the child;
reduce the risk of the child being bullied;
encourage the child’s expression of his/her ideas;
increase the child’s ability to regulate his/her emotions;
aid the development of the child’s ability to solve problems in life;
help the child develop empathy for others and the desire to co-operate.
Family of Origin influences
We are mostly not conscious of all the subtle messages we give our children every day through our actions and words. It is well know that the way we parent is influenced by the way that we were parented, whether that be that we repeat behaviours of our parents or a determination to do things completely differently. However, one important finding of the research is that the way we parent is strongly influenced by the way we have learnt to think about and process our childhood experiences. Some childhoods are more difficult than others, but it is not how difficult our own childhood was, but our ability to come to understand the nature of our childhood and process the feelings around the experiences that most strongly influences our ability to parent. In this way, we can reduce the intergenerational transmission of issues and trauma.
Looking at Current Stressors
Sometimes the stressors on the family are placing stress on the child which is contributing to the child’s emotional or social problems., Examples of such stressors on the family include: significant tension between the parents; both parent working long hours; financial stress; parents’ overly-high expectations; sibling with special needs; grief and loss impacting the family; mental illness or addiction impacting a parent; insensitive grandparent demands. It is usually helpful, as part of the process, to look at the current family situation to see if current stressors are placing an excessive load on the family system and contributing to symptoms in the child.
Working therapeutically with parents is an important aspect of working with children or adolescents. Sometimes the same therapist works with both parent and child/adolescent, and sometimes it is more effective to have a separate therapists to work with the parents to that whom is working with the child/adolescent.
Working therapeutically with parents is a tailored process to address the specific needs of the particular family and may contain some aspects of the different therapeutic approaches discussed above, as well as psychoeducation around what the child/adolescent is experiencing.