I’m working with a 20-year-old woman who has a bad relationship with her parents. I’ve been encouraging her to use better communication techniques with them but their conversations always end with the parents yelling and my client feeling blamed. She’s asked them to go to family therapy with her but they refuse. How can I help her when her parents won’t change?
As therapists, we focus on the potential for growth and change, and we maintain hope for our clients when they are discouraged. This is an important and effective trait in many clinical situations; however, it is equally important to recognize and help clients deal with circumstances that can’t be changed.
The first step I would recommend for you is to examine your countertransference. Sometimes we develop unrealistic goals with and for our clients because of personal issues and feelings. In this case, I would ask yourself if your relationship with your own parents is related in some way to your feelings about your client’s situation. You may be trying to achieve something that wasn’t possible in your own life or to replicate an aspect of your life that worked well for you. Either way, work to separate your parental relationship from your client’s relationship with her parents.
Another countertransference issue that may be present is related to feeling competent and effective. Therapists in training are often more comfortable when giving advice, teaching a skill, or proving an active intervention. Reflect on how you feel when your client follows your suggestions and reports they don’t work. If it is hard for you to sit with your client’s painful feelings, your definition of therapeutic success may be too restrictive. Talk with your supervisor about what it’s like for you to be less active in session and explore the usefulness of being emotionally attuned and present.
If you are able to sit with your own feelings of discomfort you will be better able to help your client with one of her therapeutic tasks: accepting what cannot be changed. It sounds like you and she have become invested in her parents changing their behavior toward her and that change isn’t possible right now. It will feel painful to both of you to face this, but it seems to be the current reality of her life. Acknowledging this and allowing her to express her anger, fear, helplessness, and loss will be an important therapeutic intervention. It may take time and will be painful but it is in the service of her developmental growth. Accepting the state of her parental relationship will facilitate her ability to focus on other aspects of her life. She is entering adulthood and facing decisions about work, friendships and intimate relationships. If she has put these on hold to resolve things with her parents, it may be time for her to shift her attention and energy.
Paradoxically, you may find that your client reports some improvement in her relationship with her parents as she moves toward acceptance. Sometimes relational conflict is exacerbated by an implicit desire for change that is experienced as an unwanted demand. Your client may have been communicating a more complex message than what you and she worked on with better communication skills. Her acceptance conveys a different message and may lead to a decrease in conflict.
Your question also raises an important issue related to treatment goals. Clients often enter treatment with a goal for change in something that is outside their control. You may have inadvertently agreed to a goal for individual therapy that can’t be achieved in that modality, so consider reviewing your treatment goals with your client. It sounds like a goal related to understanding her feelings about her parents and a goal related to de-escalation and detachment would be more appropriate than a goal about better communication between your client and her parents.
I hope you find this helpful in facing aspects of your clients’ lives that cannot be changed. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.