I was contacted recently by the mother of a 10-year-old girl who has been showing symptoms of anxiety. The mom said her father died two months ago and the whole family has been affected by his death. She asked if I can see her 10-year-old daughter weekly and also see the family (including mom, dad, and older brother) every few weeks to help them through their period of grieving. I’m not sure how to respond to her request.
This situation illustrates one of the first questions we face in beginning with a new case: “who is my client?” or “what is the unit of treatment?”. You need to define the unit of treatment in order to decide who will participate in therapy sessions and how you define your therapeutic relationship with one or more members of the family. Chapter 9 of my book is devoted to the topic of treatment planning, which includes decisions about the therapeutic frame and structure, the client’s goals for change, and the therapeutic interventions that will facilitate that change.
When a child is involved in the initial request for therapy, your client may be the individual child with the parents participating in collateral sessions or may be the family. Your decision about the unit of treatment will affect how you structure the sessions, in terms of who participates and how frequently, but more importantly it will affect your treatment goals and interventions. Let’s look at how you might make this decision, assuming that you have experience in conducting both individual child and family therapy.
The first step is to recognize that you can take time to reach a decision about how to approach this case. You can respond to mom’s request by telling her that you would be open to seeing both her daughter alone and the family together, but that you would need to learn more about them in order to recommend the best way to work with them. All cases begin with an initial assessment, but the complexity of this situation make it preferable to explicitly begin with several sessions of assessment. This would give you a chance to meet with the family in different combinations, gaining information and making observations about them individually, as a unit, and in different subgroups. I would recommend one or two individual sessions with the daughter, one or two sessions with the parents individually and/or together, one family session, and possibly an individual session with the older brother. At that point, you would be able to determine the best way to proceed.
As I mentioned above, answering the question “who is my client?” primarily refers to how you define your relationship with the family. If you decide that the 10-year-old daughter is your client, your treatment goals and interventions will be focused on her symptoms and you will hold sessions with her parents and possibly the whole family in order to facilitate her progress. If you decide that the family is your client, you will develop treatment goals for the family as a whole and any individual sessions with the daughter or other family members would be in the service of helping the family grieve and reach some resolution of their loss. Your interventions would be oriented toward strengthening and improving the communication patterns and relational dynamics within the family rather than being targeted toward the symptoms or behaviors of any individual in the family.
Answering the question “who is my client” is an important step at the beginning of treatment. It deserves time and attention in order to make sure you will be successful in addressing the presenting symptoms and issues. If you’re interested in reading more about this and related issues, click here to order from Amazon or here to order from Routledge.