I’ve been seeing a client for about six months, and she recently told me about witnessing domestic violence between her parents when she was young. I used to volunteer at a DV family shelter, so I have a lot of information about how she may have been affected by this. Is it appropriate for me to share what I know as part of her therapy?
This is a good question and brings up a common situation in therapy. You have information that may be useful for the client in understanding and resolving the difficulties that led her to seek therapy, and you are wise to think through the decision to take an educational role. I will share some of my thoughts about the factors to consider in deciding how and when to bring educational information into therapy.
First, I would affirm your sense that providing education can be a useful therapeutic intervention. As mental health professionals, we have knowledge about trauma, relationships, communication, human development, family dynamics, and many other topics that are relevant to our clients’ concerns. This particular client has introduced the topic of domestic violence, and it could be empowering for her to gain knowledge that she can apply to her life.
As you consider talking with your client about the impact of witnessing domestic violence as a child, pay particular attention to the timing of her decision to share this with you and to your countertransference feelings in learning this new detail of her history. She chose to wait six months before telling you about this powerful and traumatic experience, so this means she has been waiting to feel a sufficient level of trust before disclosing this to you. Think about what it means for her to have chosen this moment in the therapy to share the domestic violence and reflect on what she wants and needs from you in response. Notice how you felt when she told you and what you feel as you anticipate giving her educational information. There may be an intense emotion you are avoiding or attempting to modify by introducing psychoeducation, especially if it represents a shift from your usual therapeutic style. Consider the possibility that your client will benefit from education about the impact of domestic violence at a later time in the therapy after you and she have talked about the meaning and feelings she has about telling you now.
Another factor to consider in your decision is your client’s culture and what this means for her expectations of you and the therapy. She may view you as an expert who has knowledge that she is lacking, and it may be more therapeutic for you to work on developing a more collaborative alliance before you adopt an educational role. Alternatively, it is possible that conforming to her expectations of your role may help her to feel more safe and trusting. Reflection on the therapeutic process so far and consultation with your supervisor will help you to sort out the cross-cultural implications of sharing your knowledge about this topic. If your client comes from a different cultural community than you, also give thought to her cultural values and norms for family relationships and the presence of physical violence in the home. Providing education requires sensitivity to cultural differences and to her current relationship with the cultural values of her childhood.
Last, I would recommend thinking about your client’s general description of her relationship with her parents and how your use of education may provide a different experience for her. If she experienced her parents as unavailable and preoccupied, you will provide a different experience by being engaged and attuned to her needs and questions. If she experienced her parents as intrusive and acting on their own agenda, it will be helpful to introduce your ideas tentatively and ask for her responses and thoughts about the information you provide.
I hope you found this blog post helpful in considering the use of psychoeducation in therapy. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.