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.
If, instead, the therapist begins by recognizing the difficult position the mother is in and those strengths she must possess to have survived until now, the message is different. If the therapist builds on the competencies the mother does have, regardless of their range or magnitude, the therapist is laying the groundwork for the mother to become a stronger, more competent parent. Instead of making calls for the mother, the therapist can give her information on services and then ask her how she would like to proceed. In this way, the therapist is telling the client that she is capable of making decisions for herself and her family. By not doing it for her, the therapist indicates confidence in the client?s own abilities.
The therapist’s approach to the children is similar. In a well-functioning family, it is not the children who hold the power, but their parents. It is the parents who need to be in charge of the family, ensuring the safety of all its members. In the therapy session, therefore, it is not the therapist’s job to parent the children. When this single mother comes in and the therapist takes care of the children, she is proclaiming to the mother and the children that the mother can’t do it alone, that the mother needs the therapist because she is incompetent. If, instead, the therapist asks the mother how she would like to handle the children and backs up the mother’s strategy, the therapist is building the mother’s confidence and declaring her competence.
If the therapist takes over, the client comes to believe that she needs to return to the therapist continually for guidance and support. When the therapist supports the client’s independent growth, the client learns to trust and rely on her own abilities. When this happens, the children actually feel safer.
Therapy as a “Holding Environment”
Rather than “parenting,” the family therapist provides a “holding environment” in which the client or family can safely explore their inner world and the world around them. By emotionally “holding” the client or family, the therapist minimizes the potential for them to be overwhelmed by fear during the exploratory process. Moreover, therapy gives them the opportunity to try on new roles within a nonjudgmental atmosphere.
Support and encouragement are the therapist’s stock-and-trade, but a good therapist knows how to get out of the way of their clients as they learn and grow.