Counselling children and young people means thinking about their parents and carers too.
In my recently published book ‘Counselling Children and Young People in Private Practice: A Practical Guide’, I use a quote from Anna Freud to illustrate how complex the relationship can be between therapist and parents in therapeutic work with children and young people;
‘The child analysts’ techniques of dealing with the parents vary widely from the extreme at one end of excluding them from the intimacy of the treatment altogether, to keeping them informed, permitting them to participate in sessions (with the very young), treating or analyzing them simultaneously but separately, to the opposite extreme of treating them for the child’s disturbance in preference to analyzing the child himself’ (Anna Freud, Normality and Pathology in Childhood. IUP 1965)
Most therapists working with this group in private practice need to find ways of managing a relationship with parents while maintaining the important therapeutic boundaries for their clients. This is an area covered in some depth in my book, shown above.
The question I am inviting us to consider here is how does it feel from a parent’s point of view to bring their child for counselling, and what effect might it have on the therapy if those feelings are overlooked or dismissed? After all, in private practice much of the time parents are responsible for ensuring their child gets to their sessions and also for paying for the therapy so it is important that they are feeling as supportive of the counselling as possible from the beginning.
So what is happening in the mind of the parent bringing their child for therapy?
The reality is that they are likely to be experiencing a mix of thoughts and feelings. These might include the fear that they have failed as a parents, anxiety, fear of being blamed as well as sadness that their child is struggling with things that they are unable to help them with on their own. Many parents, either consciously or unconsciously hope to raise a ‘perfect’ child; one who is ‘better’ than they or who at least has a happier childhood. It can feel devastating them to discover that their child needs professional help with their difficulties.
There may be a fear for some parents who perhaps feel guilty regarding their child’s issues that the perceptive therapist may uncover more of their failings and inadequacies during the course of counselling. This can leave them feeling anxious and vulnerable. If these fears are not explored and contained, then the therapy itself may begin to feel too exposing or overwhelming for the parent to allow to continue. This can potentially lead to a premature termination of sessions. Parents may also feel envy of the therapist in being able to help their child where they have struggled.
Practitioners need also to be aware that sometimes the blame or guilt can also be projected outwards by the parent, onto the other, possibly absent parent, school and teachers or even their child’s overuse of digital technology. These parents may find it very difficult to look constructively at how they might change their behaviour or the home environment to help their child.
Left unexamined, there is the potential for these feelings to have a negative impact on the therapy itself.
In my practice I have found the initial contact with a parent to be fundamental to helping in this respect. While it is important that parents understand that their child’s therapy is confidential I believe it is also important to explore with the parents how this will feel for them. How will they manage their natural curiosity about the sessions without trying to intrude? Can they cope with the possible feelings of being excluded from their child’s private thoughts and fears that the therapy might bring up for them? They might need to understand fully the importance of the therapy being a private space in order to be able to respect this boundary.
This kind of conversation with a parent can also be used to consider what kind of support the parents have and whether they need or would like to think about therapy or some other support for themselves.
It can be useful to explore with parents before the therapy begins what their hopes and expectations are. Many parents become frustrated when change does not happen as quickly as they had hoped or if things seem to worsen before improving for their child. There may also be concerns for parents around how long the therapy will take and what the financial burden will be. It is important to discuss these areas fully and realistically with parents and carers at the outset to avoid these issues arising later in a way which can be damaging to the progress of therapy.
Taking parents and carers’ feelings into consideration and showing them respect can go a long way to building a good foundation for the tricky work of counselling children and young people in private practice to grow from.