Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the Nov. 16 CE webinar "How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children"
The qualities that are manifested by a good parent are the same as those that are characteristic of a good therapist. This is because parents and therapists are involved in a similar pursuit: supporting and encouraging the growth and development of a unique and autonomous human being. Obviously, this task is more formidable in the parenting situation as compared with the therapy session. Nonetheless, there is something to be learned by parents if they examine the traits that good therapists exhibit and the ways that they relate to their clients.
What are the traits of a good therapist?
Research into what makes psychotherapy effective has shown that the most important element that brings about therapeutic progress is a good working relationship between the therapist and client. The personal qualities of the therapist largely set the tone and the emotional impact of the therapy process. The same is true for the family in which the personal characteristics of parents are the primary influence on the emotional climate of the home. A good therapist:
A good therapist is real and authentic
Being open and nondefensive is essential. Not having a judgmental attitude and being compassionate and forthright in communication style is also important. A good therapist does not fit clients into a particular theoretical framework or model but instead, relates to them as real people. The ideal therapist refrains from placing social conformity above the personal interests of a client. Rather than attempting to remove or cover up emotional pain to fit clients into society, it is important to help them learn to cope with the realities of life and maintain their individuality. The good therapist is interested in learning from clients and feeling with them and is willing to experience the painful personal truths clients reveal over the course of treatment. This open attitude and approach to clients, together with the therapist's ability to access and regulate his/her own emotions, permit him/her to be in attunement with the deepest levels of a client's verbal and nonverbal communication.
In a parent/child relationship, the child needs to be related to as a real person by a real person. It is vital to children's early development that they are able to look into the eyes of a real person and see themselves accurately reflected back to them. When parents have made sense of their own childhoods by looking into their past, feeling the pain that is aroused, and finally, by having insight and understanding about what they experienced they are no longer cut off from their child selves. They are then able to relate to their children with true empathy and understanding. Good parents are interested in knowing their children, not shaping them to be like them or to be a particular way to reflect on them. The individuality and uniqueness of the child are more important than a societal norm.
A good therapist relates as a equal and not from a superior role
Effective therapy takes place in the context of a respectful, equal therapeutic alliance between two individuals. A therapist does not operate as an all-knowing doctor to an inferior client. He/she does not assume a posture of omnipotence or condescension. Rather than acting out a role, the therapist is fully conscious that both he/she and the client are human beings deserving the same respect. The equality of psychotherapy is evident in its inherent non-intrusiveness; that is, in the therapist's acknowledgment of a client's basic worth and right to an individual existence.
In the same sense, good parents are not playing out the role of parents. They are relating to their children with respect rather than offering role-determined parental responses. Although a child is obviously not the equal of their mothers or fathers in terms of physical size, power, knowledge, or competence, it is important that parents not utilize these differences to exploit, overpower, and intimidate their offspring. Parental omniscience tends to make the child feel unnecessarily small, weak, or inferior.
A good therapist is consistent
A therapist provides consistency and stability. Ideally the therapist has the ability to be present and is comfortable with the expression of feeling. The therapist must have the maturity to suspend his/her own needs and priorities during the session so that his/her responses to the client's communications can build trust. At times when the therapist is misattuned and responds in a way that disrupts the therapeutic alliance, he/she acknowledges this error and with the client, "talks it through" so as to repair the rupture to their relationship and move forward with therapy. This talking through involves the therapist having a dual focus, one part being on their internal experience and another being the experience of the client. The therapist invites the client to express how he/she experiences the rupture and validates his/ her reality of how he/she experienced the event. The therapist can then reestablish rapport and connection with the client.
In relation to childrearing, parental maturity and consistency are important for establishing trust. Parents need to resist regressive trends in their own personalities in order to foster security in their offspring. And when parents are misattuned to their children and respond in ways that are hurtful, they can acknowledge their mistake, initiate a conversation where their children can talk about their feelings about it and thus reestablish the trust in their relationship with their children.
A good therapist exhibits honesty and integrity
It is important that a therapist conduct his/her personal life with integrity and personal honesty. Because the client is in such a vulnerable position, he/she is impacted by the subtleties of a therapist's interpersonal style of relating when a therapist lacks integrity.
Children are also extremely vulnerable to their parents and are sensitive to variations in their parents' behavior and, when faced with their parents' duplicity and lies, they suffer severe blows to their own sense of being. They often idealize the parent at their own expense. In order to feel safe they alter their own reality and bend themselves out of shape to believe their parents' point of view. Therefore, parents should strive to act responsibly, with integrity, in all their associations and not allow hypocrisy and double standards to compromise their dignity and self-respect.
A good therapist is a role model
In the course of therapy, the therapist is inadvertently acting as a role model for clients. He/she is modeling an interest in self-exploration, an accepting attitude toward feeling, and the ability to regulate feelings and behavior. The therapist is also exhibiting a style of relating to another person that is respectful, compassionate and equal.
In the parent/child relationship, the child eagerly observes every aspect of the parent's personality to learn how to be. Parenthood brings with it the responsibility of knowing that everything that parents do serves as a model for the kind of person their child will become. Parents' feelings about themselves are inadvertently transmitted to the child. The most important thing parents can do for their children is to develop themselves so they genuinely feel good about themselves.
What happens in therapy?
The client is listened to with a sense of inquiry
The therapeutic process is essentially one of inquiry in which the therapist listens with empathy and compassion, in an attempt to get to know and understand the client. The therapist suspends judgment while intuitively searching, wondering, and questioning: "How is this person feeling?" "What is this person experiencing?"
Listening in this way is surprisingly difficult for parents to do. Often parents don't distinguish between themselves and their children, "because this little person came from me then he/she must be like me." Instead of seeing their child as the genetically unique individual he/she really is, they are seeing themselves as they were in their own childhoods. When this is the case, a child does not feel seen. However when parents have a sense of inquiry in relation to their child, they are both fascinated by and alive to the emergence of a unique personality. When this is the case, a child feels validated.
The client is free to say and feel anything in an atmosphere of acceptance and interest.
In psychotherapy, there is a strong emphasis on freedom of speech and expression of feeling. In the therapy setting, clients are able to express themselves unhampered by the rules of logic or censorship. This allows them to think clearly and to gain insight into themselves. The therapist refrains from punishing or rejecting clients for their communications, no matter how distorted or negative. Clients come to understand, on an emotional level, that any thought or feeling is acceptable. Parents often have trouble creating an atmosphere of acceptance with their children. Parents' unresolved issues from their own childhoods make it hard for them to accept the whole range of their child's feelings and to allow their child's emotional reactions.
The client learns to control actions
In conjunction with encouraging clients to freely express and explore their feelings, the therapist teaches clients to confront and examine the consequences of their behavior. Maladaptive responses and acting out behaviors are exposed and evaluated in the nonjudgmental and nonpunitive atmosphere of the therapy session. Clients learn to act in accordance with their personal values and standards, and thereby represent themselves accurately and live with integrity.
The therapist directly and implicitly teaches clients that feelings are not equivalent to actions: that is, while they are accountable for their actions, any and all feelings, thoughts, dreams, or fantasies are morally acceptable and valid subject matter. Similarly, good parents permit and accept all of their children's feelings, thoughts, and opinions uncritically, while teaching them to control undesirable, aggressive, or provoking behavior. They encourage verbal expression of hostile or destructive attitudes while rejecting nasty or abusive behavior. The ideal parent respects the child's inherent right to his/her own freedom of thought and feeling, and at the same time he/she is helping the child to develop a system of values and behavioral standards to live by.
The therapist anticipates the termination phase of therapy by continually encouraging the independent development of healthy autonomy in clients. Excessive dependency or attempts by clients to seek gratification from the therapist are discouraged. In therapy, the issues surrounding termination are dealt with sensitively and compassionately.
Similarly, the ultimate aim of childrearing is to socialize the child, making it possible for him/her to enter adulthood as an independent autonomous person. Good parents are aware that their child is a separate individual who does not belong to them, and that he/she is growing into an adult who will someday be independent of them. Good parents, like good therapists, take pleasure and pride in their child's movement away from dependency toward autonomy and being a capable, competent, independent adult.
Psychotherapy is different from parenting
Of course, there are fundamental differences between therapy and childrearing. While for therapists, this is a brief opportunity to help another person develop themselves, for parents it is a full-time responsibility. The therapist and client's relationship is limited; they meet at scheduled times for sessions that are less than an hour long. Parents, on the other hand, have an ongoing responsibility for their child that spans two decades. They are completely responsible for the health and safety, and the growth and development of another human being.
In some ways therapists have advantages over parents. Parents tend to be more subjective and emotionally involved with their children, making it difficult for them to maintain objectivity as easily as therapists can with clients. The negative attitudes parents have toward themselves are frequently extended to their offspring, and this seriously interferes with their attunement to their children. In addition, the guilt they are often plagued with in relation to their children leaves them feeling constrained in their personal interactions with them.
However, parents can overcome their limitations and, like the good therapist, feel for their children and empathize with them, while at the same time preserving a certain level of objectivity. Although parenthood is a much more challenging enterprise than therapy, it is also much more rewarding. It offers an adult the opportunity to love and care for a child and to participate in the child's evolution from infancy, through childhood, and into adulthood.
To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on parenting visit PsychAlive.org - Alive to Parenting
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the Nov. 16 webinar "How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children"