Children often want to protect parents from what they are feeling, says Julia Steele of Dallas. Steele facilitates “A Time for Me,” an American Cancer Society support group for children whose parents have cancer. Steele says many children are hesitant to express fear, sadness, anger or guilt to already troubled parents. A therapist can get this information to parents, either by helping children express it directly or in separate discussions with parents. Then, therapist and parents can figure out how to ease the child’s distress.
Family secrets are the root of many problems
Sometimes, too, children are merely lightning rods for other family troubles. Martha Edwards, a psychologist in private practice and faculty member of the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in New York City, recalls one father and teenage daughter who fought bitterly. Family counseling, including the mother and the new baby, revealed to Edwards that the baby had been fathered by a different man, which turned out to be the real source of conflict. The fighting between father and daughter was merely a distraction from the more painful issue.
With secrets like that at stake, it’s not surprising some parents are reluctant or unwilling to get involved in family therapy.
When Denise first called a therapist for her daughter, “I was just saying fix her. Make her not want to kill her brother anymore,” she recalls.
Denise and the therapist met alone first.”We talked about our family, punishment, discipline,” she said. “I knew things would come out that I probably wouldn’t want to discuss with her. My husband and I, our relationship hasn’t been great for a long time.”
The therapist wanted to consult with Denise’s husband as well. He first refused, then agreed but didn’t follow through. Denise finally gave up fighting for his participation. Brittany started seeing the therapist alone, and Denise went into separate counseling.
The therapist kept Denise apprised of what she and Brittany discussed. Therapists do not promise confidentiality to children under 13. They usually include a parent in the first session with the child, to help put the child at ease. And therapist and parent later discuss each session. “Sometimes we would talk for 45 minutes,” Denise recalled. “I’m surprised she didn’t charge me for that time.”