transparency

Engaging Adolescents and Caregivers in Family Therapy

Family.jpg

“Do I have to do family therapy?”

Yep, that's such a common question I get from my adolescent clients at the start of therapy. Here are some other common questions and statements a therapist may receive in regards to parents and caregivers being a part of an adolescent's therapy process:

"So how much are you going to tell my parents?"

"I hate these family things; i just feel so awkward."

"Do I have to be in the room when you talk to my mom/dad/guardian?"

“I’ll talk to you, but I will not talk to my parents about this!”

“Why try, nothing is going to change!”

“They/she/he just doesn’t understand me.”

 

Do any of these sound familiar in your therapeutic work?

When reflecting on these common initial responses and questions about family therapy, it has been my professional experience that I see a clear pattern of fear, lack of trust and shame arise as barriers to adolescents getting their needs met by their caregivers. Additionally, many adolescents seem to have a common misunderstanding (and caregivers too) that family therapy is about pointing fingers and being the “problem” of the family. So with this in mind, I’m excited to share some strategies I use to build rapport, connection and trust with adolescents to empower them in engaging with caregivers in family therapy.

1) Be Transparent! In other words, BE REAL with your client. Adolescents are smart, clever and can read through any BS or tip-toeing going on in the room. I give them the direct and transparent version of confidentiality and expectations of what therapy entails. 

“I know you may or may not be wanting to communicate certain things with parents, but I want you to know what I must report immediately. Any safety concern including suicidal ideation/planning, abuse, neglect, witness to violence, and self-injury must be reported to caregivers or appropriate authorities. With that being said, there may be things that come up that you are not open to sharing but would be beneficial to do so in order to get your needs met from your parents/guardians. When this happens, I want you to know I will challenge but not force you, and together we can figure out the best way to schedule a family session around it when you are ready.”

 

2) Build trust immediately: I know this one is a given, but I start with every first session letting my adolescent client know that I don’t expect them to trust me right away in an effort to ease any tension or pressure someone might feel.

“I want you to know that I don’t expect you to trust me right away. Trust takes time and is earned so that’s exactly what we are going to do. We will take time to get to know each other. You can ask me any questions you need to about myself or the process. I’ll let you know if I can’t answer it for any reason. And I want you to know if I ever ask or discuss something that you are not ready to answer, you say so, and we will use the time for what you are ready for and need. This is your time and space, and I want you to feel safe.”

 

3) Share the responsibility and “workload”. It’s essential to dispel any myth or belief with the adolescent and caregivers that a) they are the problem child and b)your job is to “fix” them in some way. Again, this is where I use transparency in the first session or parent consult (as well as throughout ongoing treatment) to set clear expectations for all involved.

To caregivers: “I want you to know that if i’m working with your child, I’m working with you also.  In many ways, this work can be equal or more for the parent.  My job is not to “fix”. Rather, i’m here to provide assessment, education, skill-building and a safe space to process and build awareness so that you and your child can more effectively communicate, understand one another and connect in a meaningful way to address the barriers.” I always let adolescents know that I’ve had this conversation with the caregiver(s) as well so they know it’s a joint effort.

 

4) Empower the adolescent voice. I like to give my adolescent clients as much choice and opportunity to lead as possible when it comes to parent involvement. Here are a few different ways, I frequently go about this in session:

“Would you like me to check in with mom/dad alone or with you it the room?”

“Is there anything you’d like to share with mom/dad/caregiver from our session today?”

“Is it alright if we bring mom/dad in at the end to share any skills we worked on so they can practice it too?”

“Is it ok if I emailed mom/dad about (a specific one or two things from session) so that they can be more aware and better understand what you are going through or how to support you?”

“Is there anything you want to teach mom/dad today?”

“Would you like me to explain (specific pattern or skill) for you to caregiver with you in the room?”

“Would you want to do a family session with mom/dad on this? If so, when do you think you’d like to do it?”

 

5) Parent Coaching Sessions are a must! Along with letting parents and adolescents know that this is joint work, I let them know that some sessions will be just with the parent(s). I am transparent with the adolescent and parents about the purpose of these sessions from the start.

“These sessions with your mom/dad are NOT to report all that you’ve said or processed in session. Instead, they are an opportunity for you parent to explore their own barriers getting in the way of supporting or connecting with you. I will always let you know when i will be having a session with you parents in case you have any questions or anything you would like me to share or work on with your mom/dad.”

To caregiver: “These are sessions where you can explore challenging emotions, patterns, behaviors that you are struggling with that might be acting as barriers to your relationship with your child. The main goal is to empower you as a caregiver and strengthen your relationship.”

 

6) Provide Outside Resources to Caregivers and Adolescents from the start.

At the end of an initial session or consult, I provide at least one book and internet-based resource that will help parents get a head start on some of the topics and ideas we will be addressing in therapy. Throughout the process, I continue to provide both the caregivers and the adolescent ongoing supports based on what is coming up in therapy and what the family barriers may be.

Some of my favorite resources are:

Ted Talks: Especially for the adolescent and caregiver to watch together at times.

Wellcast videos: Here is one of my favorites, but they have them on all topics! I often show to adolescent in session and send to both caregiver and adolescent after session. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMIU-Uo8cZU

Phone apps: mood meter, calm.com, Headspace are just some of my favorites.

Books: there are so many; here are a few favorites

The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly and Rising Strong by Brene Brown (also has great ted talks to introduce the concept of vulnerability and shame)

Whole-Brain Child, Yes Brain and Brainstorm by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

Emotion Focused Family Therapy resources: This includes caregiver webinars and in-person workshops, book recs, links to articles, etc. All greatly support parent coaching and family work. http://www.emotionfocusedfamilytherapy.org and http://www.mentalhealthfoundations.org are two helpful websites.

Review/summary emails: These I send with adolescent permission to specifically review a skill, idea or new strategy that would be helpful for the caregiver or adolescent from session. This way, they can refer back to it as needed.

 

Engagement with adolescents and parents can be difficult at times, but I have found the more i’m able to focus on empowering families and setting clear expectations of what family work is and isn’t, the more willing adolescents and caregivers are to engage in the process. My goal is never to be the one the adolescents trust or “go to” the most, it’s to help them build that with their parent(s) or caregiver to be able manage their challenges and barriers in life in a sustainable and connected way.


Guest post written by Meaghan Burns Sablich, LCSW

Guest post written by Meaghan Burns Sablich, LCSW

Meaghan Burns Sablich, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Licensed Colorado State School Service Provider and clinical supervisor with 10+ years experience in the field. Meaghan received her Masters Degree in Social Work from the University of Denver with a concentration in Families and Children. Meaghan has worked in a variety of therapeutic settings including inpatient hospital, residential treatment center, day treatment center, schools, non-for profit organization and private practice. Areas of clinical focus include: depression, anxiety, ADHD, eating disorders, family therapy and parent coaching, grief and loss, school/learning concerns and self worth work.

Staying Present: Finding Focus in Session

StayPresent.jpg

In my years in practice, I find building a rapport with the client and being able to stay present during intense moments are of utmost importance. In order to make progress, a foundation must be built where the client feels safe and supported. Below you will find useful techniques in building a rapport and staying present with your client during sessions.

 

Building Rapport

  • Ask the client what specific goals they have for therapy.
  • Make sure the client knows that you are there for them, so if perhaps they deviate from the goals they were working on and/or want to talk about something else during a session, allow them to so.
  • Do not impose your views or beliefs on your client.
  • Be nurturing, empathetic and non-judgmental.
  • Ask how we will know they are making progress or have met a specific goal.
  • Each session, ask what the client may need to explore how the session is productive for them.
  • Encourage the client to voice his/her opinion in the session. If the client does not agree or like something you as the therapist says, make sure you create an atmosphere where they know they can bring that up without negative consequences.
  • Stay present with the client during intense moments, and during all moments.

 

Staying Present

Helpful techniques in doing so include but are not limited to:

  • Ask the client what it was like for them to say that (whatever it is they shared that was painful) out loud.
  • Thank the client for trusting you with the information.
  • Validate the client’s feeling during those moments. “that sounds so painful, sad, terrifying.”
  • Be comfortable with silence.
  • Allow the client to process through at their speed.
  • Tell the client you are there for them, with them, that there is no judgment.
  • Before the session ends, ask the client if there is anything they need to help them transition back into their day.
  • Make sure you (the therapist) know what you need to care for yourself.
  • Yoga, meditation, and exercise may help.
  • In order to stay present, we need to be one hundred percent focused on the client; make sure you seek out your own therapist if needed.

I find these tools useful in my practice and hope you will too.


Guest post written by Trisha Swintom, LPC, LMFT

Guest post written by Trisha Swintom, LPC, LMFT

Trisha Swinton, LPC, LMFT is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Trisha is currently in private practice and has been practicing for about 14 years. She currently works with adults providing individual and couples therapy. Her educational background includes a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, a Master’s degree in Special Education and a Master’s degree in Community Counseling with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy.

http://www.trishaswintoncounseling.com

Avoidance and Attendance: How to Address Each in Therapy

attendance.jpg

It’s that time of year. The time where certain clients disengage from therapy in response to the season, holidays, or stress, and the time when others need appointments the most in order to support them through trauma, family conflict, isolation, and loneliness. When working for an agency, the crises seemed to intensify during the holidays. First it was the client diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder experiencing depression symptoms due to the winter weather. Then the client with trauma from sexual assault having to see their perpetrator at the family holiday dinner. Or the single client with no access to family experiencing increased suicidal ideation in response to spending the holidays alone. Or the client with high anxiety becoming stressed about money and gifts for their family, losing sleep and snapping at their kids. And finally, the client sober from alcohol for three months having to navigate holiday parties around family and friends where temptation may lead to relapse. Combine these factors with a client’s distress tolerance and they could engage in therapy fully to receive support, or in some cases, disengage in response to their symptoms. As helping professionals, how do we balance the variety of client needs with consistency, empathy, and grace?

 

Lack of physical attendance

The more easily measured is a change in physical attendance in your scheduled sessions. Perhaps the client starts to cancel sessions when they’ve been consistent in attending each week in the past. How do you explore their needs when you haven’t been able to see them in the office for several weeks now? Depending on how they are engaging you to cancel the appointments, you may offer a couple of ideas in response to their distress:

  • Completing a phone call to gauge what is going on in their world and attempting to re-engage them in sessions to support symptom management.
  • Offering a phone session rather than a face-to-face to explore and address present stressors if they are unable to attend.
  • Identifying a different appointment time that allows physical attendance such as an early morning or later evening if appropriate.
  • Redirecting text messages of distress by offering an appointment to discuss and support them.
  • Reviewing their attendance contract with them to determine how they’d like to proceed, including possibly placing scheduled appointments on hold and resuming at a later time if appropriate.

 

Lack of emotional attendance

The hope is that with ongoing rapport, the conversations above can demonstrate healthy communication, accountability, and boundaries with a client experiencing increased distress. Rapport becomes even more important when engaging a client around a lack of emotional attendance or participation in session. Perhaps you begin to notice that the client arrives late every week, jumping into sessions with surface-level details or changing subjects rapidly throughout the scheduled time. Or maybe they remain at head-level in their processing, not dropping down into emotions and deeper meaning in session with you. With healthy rapport, you as their support can gently name the behaviors you are seeing in the room to encourage a healthy conversation about their avoidance. Here are some examples of how you might approach them in a compassionate way:

  • In response to their running late: “I’m noticing how rushed it feels lately coming into our sessions and feeling like we have to fit it all in. Can you tell me more about what that’s like for you?”
  • In response to staying in their head: “I’m noticing you are very much in your head today when it comes to describing how you feel, can I ask you to pause a moment and share with me what’s happening in your body right now?”
  • To encourage reflection: “I feel like you are very far away in this session even though we are sitting across from one another, what does it feel like for you?”
  • To encourage feedback: “I’m hearing that you have a lot on your plate right now. What can I do to help you best in this moment?”

Any of these gentle inquiries can lead to a tenderness and connection to emotion as well as an access point for clients to identify and explore their needs. These sessions can prove to be some of the most impactful and fruitful in not only holding space for emotion and modeling what it looks like to communicate needs, but also supporting vulnerability and self-advocacy in the client as to how they can engage their supports.

 

I hear you

As a therapeutic support, engaging clients from a place of compassion and empathy can be powerful to their experience. Balancing a neutral curiosity with ongoing optimism that, together we can find relief, can be empowering for the client. By starting with gentle reflection and gaining better understanding of their emotional response to stressors in their life, we can then encourage exploration and practice of positive coping. Whether it be concrete tools for coping or holding space for their emotions, we are creating a safety net to address any fear, guilt, or shame they may be harboring around their functioning in these moments of distress. Like any roadmap, with direction and insight, we can address avoidance and attendance from an authentic, supportive place to best help our clients in navigating their world.

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Brene Brown in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

Humanity: Transforming Therapy into an Art of Holding Space

transparency

“Do you know what it’s like? Has that ever happened to you? Have you experienced it too?” Your client sits across from you, disclosing some of their most personal experiences in a desire to connect and be seen. In a genuine effort to maintain rapport, you nod your head, agreeing with them. You think to yourself, “Yes, I can connect with just about everyone! This is such meaningful work!”  But then it happens, they’ve sensed something and they begin to pull back, both physically and emotionally as they sit in your office.  They are shutting down and you can feel the energy shift in the room as they begin to disengage, to retreat. What will you do?

What would it cost us as mental health professionals to be transparent and thus more vulnerable in session? Is your client seeking an expert, a confidant, a compassionate ear? Or perhaps they want someone to hold space, to witness their pain. Research tells us that the most important and meaningful indicator for progress and healing is the therapeutic relationship, that the best fit relationship catalyzes positive change. We as mental health professionals desire to help others, to support them in their journey to self-awareness and growth, yet there are times we will witness their story and wonder if what we provide is enough. Our ability to be human and connect can help.

 

Transparency

Back to our scenario. You sense your client is pulling away, disengaging in an attempt to protect themselves. Can you name that in the room, support them in acknowledging what is happening for them in an effort at self-awareness and retained connection? Can you ask them to help you understand what just happened for them in their experience? The client responds by saying, “I just feel like I can’t trust you, that you are judging me.” So, you respond by acknowledging how important trust is and how you want to understand where they are coming from. They share more information, disclosing how they need you to hold space for their processing and truly connect with them. You agree to the importance of connection and ask for feedback on how you can support them in building trust for the work you will do together. You offer a genuine apology for any misunderstanding and resulting hurt. Your client visibly relaxes, feeling seen and heard by you in this moment of vulnerability. You continue the positive momentum, supporting them in exploring other times they’ve felt this way in their community and bear witness to their experience.

 

Vulnerability

Asking a therapist to be vulnerable with a client in session can be intimidating and anxiety provoking. Depending on our own background, experiences, and training, we may feel uncomfortable connecting in this way. There are therapy modalities that deter us from showing emotion or advise against self-disclosure. Yet when you ask therapists in the field about how they use emotion or self-disclosure to connect and support their clients, there are those of us who can recall vulnerability leading to some of the most powerful and meaningful work of our career. As Brene Brown states in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Become Vulnerable Changes How We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” Our vulneratbility and truth can show up in the room with our clients in the following ways:

  • Admitting we can’t fully understand their experience as they know it but want to know more what it was like for them.
  • Admitting we don’t understand slang or other word choice and can they educate us so we can best support them.
  • Acknowledging their pain and the tears that show up in our eyes as we witness it.
  • Apologizing when we misunderstand or unintentionally offend.
  • Accepting responsibility for our actions and showing their concerns are heard and can be addressed in our work together.
  • Self-disclosing with the purpose of connecting to their pain, providing validation or humanity, and not for our own gain.
  • Rescheduling due to illness and letting them know we want to give them our best.
  • Recognizing our own triggers and how they show up in the room.

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” Brene Brown in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Become Vulnerable Changes How We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

 

Holding Space

Transparency and vulnerability interact in developing a human connection. The art of showing up and staying connected can be further defined as the concept of holding space, written in detail by Heather Plett. Heather writes, “holding space means we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.” As therapists, let us support transparency, vulnerability, and holding space to best serve our clients in being their own agents of change, thus engaging in a process of healing we are fortunate to witness.

For more information on vulnerability, visit brenebrown.com. For more information on holding space, please visit heatherplett.com.