“They don’t understand me!” is an all too common phrase in counseling. From parents, the comments may sound like, “She never opens up,” or, “all I get from him is anger.” Every family at some point has to overcome obstacles in their communication. When a child is also struggling through behavioral health issues, those obstacles can seem like mountains. Counselors can help children and families identify their current patterns of communication, pinpoint the breakdowns, and help them on the path to a clearer message and understanding of each other.
On the surface, Maria* seemed to get along with her parents. She was polite and they rarely argued. However, Maria felt her parents were dismissive of her anxiety. Every time she tried to talk to her mother about feeling anxious, her mother would brush it off as “normal” or tell Maria a tale of her own anxiety and how she got through it. Maria agreed to invite her mother into a session and explained her concerns. Her mother said she was trying to calm Maria down and relate to her. The counselor explained that while her intentions were good, Maria felt invalidated by those comments. Together, they practiced empathetic responses that reflected Maria’s feelings and perceptions such as, “I hear you are very nervous to take the test, that must be difficult.”
John* was receiving counseling at Outreach for depression. While he was able to open up to his counselor about how he was feeling, his parents were a different story. John often isolated himself in his room and when his parents asked how he was, he tersely replied “fine” and would not talk about what was bothering him. This caused his parents to worry about him even more. They met for a family session to see if they could compromise. John felt unable to put everything he was experiencing into words and wanted to keep some problems he was having with friends to himself. His counselor affirmed his need for privacy but also helped John to understand his parents’ need to have a general sense of how he is doing to determine if they need to intervene or be concerned. The family agreed to a daily check-in conversation wherein John would rate his overall mood on a 1-10 scale and share problems if he chose to. They also agreed to a safety plan in which John would immediately inform them if he felt unsafe or had suicidal thoughts.
*Maria and John, represent typical Outreach clients. Details do not correspond with any specific case in order to protect client anonymity.
Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service.