This odd but telling phrase represents the motto of many family therapists. It encapsulates the notion that a therapist’s job is to encourage the client or family to become healthier, more independent, stronger, and more self-sufficient; that the work of therapy is to help the client or family reach a point at which the therapist’s services are no longer needed.
To achieve this goal, family therapists assume a particular stance in relationship to the client or family. Some people new to the process of therapy may expect the therapist to take on the role of a “good parent.” After all, most of us have missed out on many good parenting experiences in our lives, in part because our own parents have lacked good experiences themselves. It is not the therapist’s job, however, to replace or restore good parenting to a client. Yes, a therapist can provide a safe, encouraging, and nonjudgmental environment for the client along with the modeling of good parenting techniques. She cannot, however, be the client’s parent. Taking on such a role is not only impossible, it is disrespectful to the client.
How Can Parenting Be Disrespectful?
When a therapist “mothers” her client, she is, in essence, declaring the client to be unable to care for her- or himself. Some therapists may view “mothering” (or, more generally, “parenting”) as an “in-between” step on the road to client independence. Unfortunately, in today’s society, there is less time for such in-between steps. Insurance companies have become more and more stringent about the number of sessions allowed to clients. As a result, insurance-reimbursed therapy sessions have become a more precious commodity than ever before.
What Is the Alternative?
Clients need to become more confident in their own abilities, not dependent on the therapist’s nurturing skills. For most people, therapy consumes only a small part of their week’s activities. Every client leaves a session with his or her therapist and goes home alone. No therapist can go home with them, nor should they. Clients need to take care of themselves and find nurturing from within as well as from those closest to them. Clients need to develop their own skills, to learn their own ways of making themselves safe. Clients can learn to heal their own wounds and to parent themselves. A therapist who takes care of clients, rather than helping them to take care of themselves, can stifle their emotional development and leave them ill-equipped to face the challenges of everyday life.
A Familiar Example
Take the case of a single mother who comes into therapy with her two children, feeling overwhelmed and distraught. Her children are misbehaving and she has been unable to control them. When the therapist sees this family, she has options. If the therapist jumps in, settles the kids down (in effect, “mothers” the children), tells the mother where to get help with welfare, calls the agencies for her, and generally takes care of her, the therapist gives the client the message that she is not capable of managing her own life and really needs the therapist to take over.