I went back to school for a master’s degree in counseling psychology in preparation for the empty nest. I was looking for something significant to do with “the rest of my life” after being a stay-at-home-parent, something I could enjoy while helping others live healthier, happier lives. I wasn’t looking to be a better parent; I thought that part of my life was winding down anyway. But it turns out that even though my kids are young adults now, I’m still a parent, and my therapist training has grown my parenting skills in significant ways. Here are 5 of my favorites.
#1 UNCONDITIONAL POSITIVE REGARD
“I just wanted somebody’s eyes to light up when I came into the room.” I heard that on the Oprah show when my kids were little, and it was an aha-moment for me. Whatever else happened, here was one thing I knew for sure that I could do for my kids: light up when they came in the room.
It wasn’t until years later, while studying the work of Carl Rogers in grad school that I discovered that unconditional positive regard—acceptance and support of the client, no matter what choices they made–was a critical basis for a healthy therapeutic relationship. Turns out that everybody needs somebody to light up when they come into the room.
And it wasn’t until my kids were teenagers, differentiating like crazy, that I realized how much I had needed years and years of practice lighting up while they were little and cute to carry me through the years when “regardless of their choices” was a long, hard slog.
Ironically, I was seeing a lot of adolescent clients by then, extending unconditional positive regard to kids referred out of the court system for all sorts of unhealthy choices. My adolescent clients showed me how unconditional positive regard could support and encourage them into new, healthier choices, and encouraged me as a parent to continue carrying that skill home to my own kids.
#2 TAKING THE POSITION OF A LEARNER
My main job as a therapist is to take the position of the learner in the relationship. I’m not the expert, even though the letters after my name may lead people to think so. The client is the expert, and I need to continually place myself in the position of the learner by listening to understand. My education and experience has given me information and insight that can be helpful to the client in their healing process, but none of that stuff will do any good until I understand the client.
As part of my training, I had to learn phrases like, “Help me understand…” and “Tell me if I’ve understood what you mean…” and “Can you give me an example?”
As my kids have gotten older, it’s become more important for me to bring the role of learner in my relationship with my kids. The more I understand, the more I’m able to support them in the choices that are right for them, in their own lives. I may have experience and insight that can help my kids, but I need to constantly take the position of learner so that anything I offer serves my child, who is the expert in their own life.
#3 THE RIGHT OF SELF-DETERMINATION
This is a basic principle of ethical counseling: the client determines their own goals and makes their own choices without coercion or compulsion from the therapist.
I’ve always wanted my children to grow into independent, self-determining adults who could live their lives in healthy relationship, free from manipulation by others. It took me a while as a parent to realize that in order to help my kids reach that goal, I have to be their relationship guinea pig, to be the first person who does not coerce or manipulate them, but accepts and celebrates their choices as their own.And in order to set my child free for self-determination, I have to be willing to do my own emotional work.
#4 DO YOUR OWN EMOTIONAL WORK
As a therapist, I think of what serves my client’s process, rather than what serves to allay my own anxieties. Similarly, it’s been helpful to think in terms of what serves my child’s process rather than just my own emotional needs as a parent.
If it serves my child’s process, I will say, “I’m afraid that there will be a heavy impact on you if…” or “Here are a couple of things that concern me going forward…”
However, it’s unfair and unhealthy to burden my child with things that are my own emotional work, such as what the extended family will think if my child stops attending church, listens to a certain kind of music, doesn’t attend a Christian college, or comes out as gay.
The processing of my own emotions—sadness, fear, anger, confusion—is my own work, and I must do it for myself, both as a therapist and a parent.
#5 PAY ATTENTION TO THE POWER DIFFERENTIAL
There is an enormous power differential inherent in my relationship with my clients. I have those letters after my name and a license from the state of Texas; people tell me things their closest friends and family don’t know. It’s up to me to take all that and employ it for the good of the client.
Parents have even more power in the lives of their children. It’s up to us to take our power and employ it for the good of our children. As unfundamentalist parents, we never use our power over our children to control or coerce them. Instead, we place our power under our children, to lift them up. We place our power beside our children, to shelter and shade them.
Instead of limiting my children to walk in the paths I’ve followed, I hope that my power under and beside them enables them to go farther and higher than I can even imagine.
But those are just my hopes and dreams; my kids have the right to determine their own paths, and I’m committed to accepting and supporting them, no matter what, and doing my own emotional work along the way.
Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at www.kaybruner.com. She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to: www.kaybruner.com/counseling
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