My dear mother once told me that “children don’t come with a set of instructions; we do the best we can to raise them.” She was incredibly right! Parents do the best they can to raise their children, frequently with the parenting skills that were modelled to them by their own parents. From our family of origin we learn how to communicate, cope with various emotions in ourselves and others (e.g., anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment and fear), socialize, resolve interpersonal problems, and behave in romantic relationships. Our family of origin not only impacts our behavioral manner of responding to life events, but our view of ourselves, the world, and expectations of others (e.g., gender roles). With such a great responsibility, a parent’s job has perhaps never been understood to be so important.
From the time children are born, the choices that parents make in raising their children begin to shape the adults they will become. Either the child is comforted, safe, connected, and his or her needs are met or they are not. If the caretaker is attuned to the child’s needs and able to provide affection and safety, then the child’s feeling of connection and attachment are sustained. If the child’s needs are not met by the caregiver (perhaps due to parents feeling overwhelmed or angry, mental illness, distraction or addiction), then the child may regress back to a primitive way of functioning (e.g., crying for attention) or withdraw from touch from the caretaker, experience anxiety and feel unsafe. These early attachment experiences contribute to our beliefs about the world and relationships, our ability to have our needs met and the manner in which we obtain those needs, as well as our ability to form bonds in adulthood.
So by now most of you are freaking out a bit, thinking back to your parents and judging them, wondering if you met your child’s needs or if you screwed your poor kids up! The truth is, that even if you were a great parent and did everything right, difficulties can develop even in the healthiest families. Some of the common contributors to family problems include: separation and/or divorce, poor parental interpersonal functioning, parental mental health issues, and grief or chronic illness, to name a few. When parents finally make the courageous decision to come to therapy, family problems are manifested in observable tantrum behaviors in their children (e.g., kicking, hitting self and others, spitting, yelling, crying or throwing themselves on the ground) and parents think that therapy will consist of leaving their child with me for 1 hour a week, and that I will return their child back with a little halo and angel wings. It doesn’t quite work that way!
Working with families is an extremely rewarding experience for me as a therapist. The greatest tool I have in helping children, are committed parents. I am referring to parents that are willing to attend therapy sessions, change their parenting styles, understand and truly empathize with their children, and implement new strategies at home between therapy sessions. I can honestly say that my work is perhaps 5% of what impacts change; 95% of the change comes from the work that families do at home. As a man, I am particularly proud when I see fathers attending therapy with their families. I can’t overstate how important and meaningful it is to have both parents present when possible.
During family therapy, my approach is comprehensive, involving all family members at different phases of treatment. Individual sessions with children are perhaps some of the most enjoyable times for me. I recall once having my session interrupted by a coworker who entered the room to find me sweating profusely in a Dora the Explorer tent, while a little girl stuck Barbies through the tent door and laughed loudly. The enjoyment of that day continues to outweigh the embarrassment. During individual sessions with children, I love to be a big kid while creating a warm, fun and nurturing environment for children to learn. This time is used to help children develop the skills needed to manage distressful emotions and self-control techniques through play, art, stories and the unique individual strengths that each child possesses. It does parents no good if children behave perfectly with me, but then regress to maladaptive ways of functioning when they are at home. For this reason, meetings with parents are psychoeducational and focus on further developing parenting skills, empowering parents and transferring skills into the home. Finally, family sessions are a chance to practice skills in session with a little coaching from yours truly and/or to have me model parenting skills that were previously discussed.
I can’t express the excitement and pride that I experience when children are meeting their goals, families are happy and parents report improvement. These are some of the times when I love what I do and when being stuck in a Dora the Explorer tent is worth it!
-Dr. Richard Taborga Psy.D., LMHC, NCC