Building a Therapeutic Relationship with Parents: Part I

Every parent is unique. But as a group, most parents have similar interests and goals. What this means for consultants and counselors and psychotherapists is that parents constitutea unique population and therefore to work effectively with parents requires a specifically tailored treatment approach and training in how to provide educational and therapeutic services for parents.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will listen. For more info, go to:

To work effectively with parents, consultants or practitioners should use an approach that, similar to person-centered therapy, is characterized by three core attitudes: (1) empathic understanding; (2) radical acceptance; and (3) collaboration.

Empathy for Parents and Parenting

As is well-known, empathic understanding is one of the three core conditions for psychotherapy originally identified by Carl Rogers (1942; 1961; 1980). Over the years, research has left no doubt that therapist empathy facilitates positive therapy outcomes (Goldfried, 2007; Greenberg, Watson, Elliot, & Bohart, 2001; Mullis & Edwards, 2001). As applied to parents, empathy involves:

The therapist’s ability and willingness to understand the parent’s thoughts, feelings, and struggles from the parent’s point of view and an ability to see, more or less completely, through the parent’s eyes and adopt the parent’s frame of reference . . . . It means entering the private perceptual world of a parent. (adapted from Rogers, 1980, pp. 85, 142)

When working with parents, counselors, psychologists, and other human services professionals must learn to sensitively enter into the parent’s unique perceptual world. The practitioner needs to demonstrate empathy and sensitivity for specific parenting challenges. A person-centered perspective also implies that professionals who work with parents show empathy for the barrage of criticism, scrutiny, and associated insecurity that parents experience due to their exposure to social and media sources. Brazelton and Sparrow (2006) capture one way in which socially driven parental insecurity can manifest itself:

When Mrs. McCormick held Tim in her lap at the playground, she sat alone on a bench across from the other mothers as if she were ashamed of Tim’s clinging. She knew that if she sat by other mothers, they would all give her advice: “Just put him down and let him cry—he’ll get over it.” “MY little girl was just like that before she finally got used to other kids.” “Get him a play date. He can learn about other children that way.” (p. 8)

This example illustrates how parents anticipate criticism and work hard to avoid it. If you’ve been a parent or you work with parents, you know how easy it is for them to feel defensive about their children’s behaviors and their parenting choices. This is partly because, like Mrs. McCormick, they’re unable to measure up to narrowly defined parenting standards and cannot face the cascade of criticism or advice they’re likely to receive when their child doesn’t behave perfectly in social settings. To provide an optimally empathic environment, practitioners should have and show empathy or attunement with parents’ sensitivity to perceived or actual criticism and counter this sensitivity by amplifying their support and acceptance (we’ll cover therapeutic methods for amplifying support and acceptance in greater detail in Chapter 4).

Similar to the empathic attitude associated with person-centered therapy, it’s crucial for professionals who work with parents to hold the attitude that parenting is naturally difficult and that making mistakes or having a child who publicly misbehaves is nothing to feel shameful about. By maintaining this attitude, practitioners provide a nonjudgmental and empathic space for parents to explore their personal doubts and fears. This is the way the theory works: By being nonjudgmental, compassionate, and openly supportive, parenting professionals provide an environment free from societal conditions of worth, which then stimulates parents to become more open and collaborative when examining their weaknesses with a trusted professional.

Part II of this three part blog post continues tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s