Building a Therapeutic Relationship with Parents: Part II – Using Radical Acceptance

Building a Therapeutic Relationship with Parents: Part II – Using Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance is a central therapeutic attitude held by practitioners who work effectively with parents. Radical acceptance is both an attitude and a clinical technique. This concept was originally articulated by Marsha Linehan (1993) and is a foundational component of dialectical behavior therapy. It involves a particular attitude that builds on Carl Rogers’s core therapeutic condition of unconditional positive regard as well as Eastern (Buddhist) philosophy.

Radical acceptance enables helping professionals to approach each client or parent with an overarching, pervasive dialectic belief, which we translate as, “I completely accept you just as you are and I am committed to helping you change for the better.” When working with parents, consultants strive to simultaneously hold both of these beliefs or attitudes. On the surface, these attitudes may seem contradictory, thus the term dialectic. At a deeper level, in a helping relationship, each attitude is necessary to complete the other.

As a technique, radical acceptance serves two main functions. First, it can help you refrain from expressing negative personal reactions to statements by parents that inadvertently push your buttons (we’ll focus more on button-pushing in Chapter 2). If you hear a statement that pushes an emotional button for you, having a radical acceptance attitude would help remind you that your job is to fully accept the person in the room with you—as is. In this situation, you don’t have to say anything as you simply quiet your roiling reactions. You can just be present and nonreactive.

Second, beyond momentary silence, radical acceptance allows parenting professionals to actively embrace whatever attitudes or beliefs parents bring into the consulting room. As we’ve stated previously (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2007):

The generic version or statement of radical acceptance is to graciously welcome even the most absurd or offensive . . . [parent] . . . statements with a response like, “I’m very glad you brought that [topic] up.” (p. 275)

Radical acceptance is especially warranted when parents say something you find disagreeable. This may include racist, sexist, or insensitive comments. For example:

Parent: I believe in limiting my children’s exposure to gay people. Parents need to keep children away from evil influences.

Consultant: Thanks for sharing your perspective with me. I’m glad you brought up your worries about this. Some parents have similar beliefs but won’t say them in here. So I especially appreciate you being honest with me about your beliefs. [Adapted from Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2007, p. 276.]

Rest assured, radical acceptance does not mean agreeing with the content of whatever parents say. Instead, it means moving beyond feeling threatened, angry, or judgmental about parents’ comments and authentically welcoming whatever comes up during the session. The main purpose of welcoming disagreeable or challenging parent comments is to communicate your commitment to openness. If you don’t communicate and value openness by welcoming all remarks, parents or caregivers may never admit their core underlying beliefs. And if parents cover up their true beliefs—especially disagreeable or embarrassing beliefs—there will be no opportunity for insight or change because the underlying beliefs will never be exposed to the light of personal and professional inspection.

Similar to person-centered therapy, one key to using radical acceptance effectively is genuineness or congruence. This means you should never falsely welcome parents’ racist, sexist, insensitive, or outrageous comments. Instead, you should welcome such comments only if you really believe that hearing them is a good thing that can benefit the counseling or consultation process.

Radical acceptance also involves letting go of the immediate need to teach parents a new and better way. We must confess that we haven’t always maintained an attitude of radical acceptance ourselves. During one memorable session, upon hearing the classic line, “I got spanked and I turned out just fine!” John, being in an impatient and surly mood, barely managed to suppress an extremely destructive impulse (he wanted to say, “Are you really so sure you turned out fine?”). Nevertheless, a judgmental and dismissive comment still slipped out and he said: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents say what you just said.” Not surprisingly, that particular session didn’t proceed with the spirit of empathy, acceptance, and collaboration we generally recommend.

This leads us to some obvious advice: Although you cannot be radically accepting all the time, you should always avoid radical judgment. There’s no need to test the “How about I treat parents in a judgmental, dismissive manner?” technique. Outcomes associated with judgmental and disrespectful counselor behavior are quite undesirable.

Stay Tuned for Part III on Building a Therapeutic Relationship with Parents tomorrow.

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