This week I met with two parents concerned with how they could get their son to come see me for counselling. We spoke briefly about what problems they were experiencing at home and some of the things they had tried before, such as previous psychologists, a change of school and many of the normal things that occur when a teenager is struggling with depression and anxiety. As we spent this time together we started brainstorming some ideas for possible solutions. The couple began to disagree.
As this continued it began to grow. In the bush it takes just a small spark to start a fire and I could sense that this conversation, centred around the goal of helping their son, was flaming itself into a larger problem.
I was able to interrupt briefly reminding the parents that one thing was definitely for sure: “The two of you are both interested and invested with the same goal. That is finding help for your son and your family. But sometimes we disagree about how to get there.”
As a psychotherapist, I want people to leave each session with ideas for what they can do to feel better and achieve better results. So as our session winded down I provided an experiment for these parents to try: The Parental Business Meeting.
I explained that the meeting must be scheduled a few days in advance and with one specific aim in regards to helping their child. It needs to be very specific. Ideas such as bedtimes, getting him to school, what to do during the next argument or getting him to a therapist were all options on the table. Improving behaviour would have been too broad of a choice. The parents chose to plan a time where they could meet in order to prepare the best idea for helping get their teenager to see me.
When we feel stuck or at a loss on how to help one of our family members it is obviously very normal to feel a whole range of emotions. This is probably more ok than not (remind yourself of this). One of the issues that can occur is that when we sit to try and find solutions the emotions can get in the way like wearing a blindfold while trying to solve a maze.
While studying in Maryland, I was trained as a firefighter and to run an ambulance (seems like a past life now!). There was a great metaphor that I was taught during this time that has stuck with me when working with families, groups of teens in the bush and in managing my own relationships. Don’t Create a Second Victim.
I was the member of a few firehouses and one that was in a particularly dangerous part of town just outside Washington DC. For me, it felt like what would be the normal ambulance run or call to a car accident was always concealed with something to make it a much more complicated scenario. No matter what happened we had to think on our toes and not let any situation get worse than it already was.
I had to assess any physical risks before stepping into these potentially unsafe situations but also needed to check in with my emotional wellbeing. If I was injured or acted out in a way that put my team at risk then I would have become that second victim that I was trained to avoid. If this were the case, the group would need to not only work on fixing the difficult situation and save an injured person’s life but then worry about one of their team members who had increased the stress of the situation.
The Parental Business Meeting is a good technique for making sure that we are planning actual time for solving problems with our children. Here is how to do it:
It is important to have each other’s back during this time, similar to a group of fire fighters entering a burning building. This time is surely to be stressful for you both and you may have different opinions about parenting. This is ok and very normal.
Honour their opinion and your own. Listen actively to what they are saying and think about what aspects of their solution may be worth trying.
If this meeting does not work or gets too stressful, it may be a good idea to have a therapist or mediator present to help facilitate the meeting.
See you on the trail...
Will Dobud MSW
Since returning from leave visiting family and friends in US, I have spent the last two weeks catching up with the young people and families I missed working with while away. Hearing about what happens while I away is always intriguing, as there is no doubt that change is constantly occurring and a natural part of our lives.
Last week I met with a University aged man who had been on one of our 14-day expeditions late last year and was still working on transitioning his goals into life at home. Since coming home things had been getting better and we had previously decided to slow down the frequency of our sessions. Before I left for my trip he called and asked for a session at my Adelaide office and we got together. He spoke of some difficult times at home with his family and was hoping that he could move out, as this would definitely make things better. We spoke about many of the other concerns he had as he said he felt better after talking things through. He decided that setting any practical goals would not be helpful for him at this time.
I returned from my trip after a month away and he was eager for another session. “I’m not sure where we left off last time, there was a lot going on,” he said. I told him I could pull out some of my notes and we could look at what he said. I went through and revealed his desires to move out in order to become more independent and that he would need a job near the house he was hoping to live in. He had said that he wanted to switch his degree to neuroscience but wasn’t sure if that would go ahead. He let me know that there was a girl he was interested in but worried about its timing and their relationship. This was surely a lot going on before I left for leave.
As I went through the list I thought that it would seem like a bombardment if he had not settled any of these “goals”. He laughed as I read them, smiled and said, “All of them happened.” I asked him how he managed to make them happen to which he said, “They just kind of happened organically. I never thought anything therapy-like was going to help but it must of without me knowing it.”
This opened an incredible conversation about how change occurs and what the role therapy plays in it. As I see it, psychotherapy can be incredibly effective but the drama will truly never unfold without the story of its key agent: the participant. By always taking his feedback about goals and talking things through we were able to have a stronger relationship based on the outcomes he desired. As mentioned earlier, change is always occurring and a great skill to obtain is keeping a keen eye on what is improving and what we may need to work on.
Research suggests that the role of the participant is a way bigger contributor to change than anything a therapist does or says. I knew we had a good relationship, saw eye to eye on many things from worldly views to science and spirituality, which I know, is a great start in predicting how effective we would be in getting the outcome he wanted. But I also knew that I did not have the power to affect his life the same way antibiotics act on an illness. The power of change is within him and the truth is that this is way it should be.
As we spoke about change and being able to notice all the amazing things working for him we paid special attention to what he was doing that could be helping. He was eating healthily, practicing yoga and participated in a lot more social events than before. These are all great parts of the SEEDS acronym, which is convenient but nothing that we had talked about previously. He had found them on his own.
I called this participant to ask if I could share his story and he said that he would love to. “I’m proud of myself,” he said.
Whenever I speak about psychotherapy or the programs we run I end with a metaphor given to me by a mentor I had while studying in the States. He always said that “The best therapists never get any thank you notes because the client did it on their own.”
Will Dobud MSW