I’ve been seeing a client for three months, but she has only come to 7 sessions. Sometimes she calls to cancel, but often she just doesn’t show up. I don’t know whether I should stop seeing her or if there is another way to help her understand the importance of coming in regularly.
This is a common dilemma, especially for clinicians in training or agency settings. It is difficult to make therapeutic progress when clients miss one or more sessions each month, and it is often challenging to engage the client in examining the reasons for irregular attendance. I will describe two approaches to this issue, and you may find either or both of these approaches helpful with this client and similar situations.
The first approach involves having a standard policy regarding attendance, setting a limit on the number of missed appointments or late cancellations. Your agency may have such a policy or you may develop one if you are working in a private practice setting. This policy should be part of your informed consent process, and I recommend that you remind the client about this each time she misses an appointment without notice or with late notice. A common standard is to allow three missed appointments or late cancellations (usually less than 24 hours’ notice) in a four month period before ending treatment. You may decide to make exceptions for illness or unavoidable emergencies, but be sure to discuss this with the client and let her know the reason for making an exception. The purpose of this type of policy is to insure that there is discussion about the issue of attendance and that the client is able to make progress on the issues she wants to address.
The second approach, which can be used instead of or in addition to an attendance policy, is to handle the client’s sporadic attendance as a clinical issue. The basis for this approach is an assumption that the client is repeating a traumatic or maladaptive interpersonal relationship and that you can provide the client with a different experience that will have a therapeutic outcome. I will outline a three step process for making such a clinical decision.
The first step in understanding the meaning of the client’s missed sessions is to reflect on her developmental history, especially regarding attachment and loss, and her descriptions of current relationships with intimate partners. Identify one or two themes that are present in these early and recent relationships. One common theme is an unpredictable attachment figure which leaves the client with feelings of longing and inadequacy. Another is an intrusive or abusive attachment figure leading the client to sacrifice safety to meet her need for connection. Think about the implications of these interpersonal experiences for the client’s view of herself and expectations of others.
The second step is to examine your countertransference and identify the interpersonal experience that the client is repeating with you. Be honest and thorough in reflecting on all of the thoughts, emotions, and images that are present when you wait for your client or when you pick up a message cancelling a few hours before the appointment. Notice any attributions you make about the reasons for the client missing the appointment and about the value of the therapy or your value as the therapist. Think about parallels between your thoughts and emotions and the client’s interpersonal themes. The client may be placing you in the position of the attachment figure or in the more vulnerable position she was in as a child.
Once you have identified the relevant experience and the roles being enacted by you and the client, you are ready to decide on a response that will allow the client to experience this interaction differently. This third and final step usually begins with shifting your countertransference state so that you are in touch with your therapeutic intentions and skills. You can then talk with the client in a different way than is possible when you are in the grip of the client’s enactment. In the best of circumstances, your response allows the client to become more engaged in the therapy whether or not she gains insight into the nature of the repetition. At other times, the client continues her side of the repetition, and you will need to decide whether to introduce limits as discussed above. Even in these situations, however, there is an opportunity for your learning and you can end the therapy, if necessary, knowing that you provided every opportunity for a therapeutic outcome.
I hope you are able to use these suggestions when working with clients whose attendance is irregular. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.