Parenting in the 21st century

By Laurie Meyers

 

Remember when receipt of a coffee mug emblazoned with  “Best Mom Ever” or a T-shirt proclaiming “Best Dad Ever” was enough to  validate someone’s skills and aptitude as a parent? In the 21st century,  it seems that the ante has been raised. In the eyes of society, parents  barely qualify as competent — much less “perfect” — unless they can  check off all of the following qualifications:

  • Not only attend to, but anticipate, their child’s every need
  • Orchestrate their child’s academic success
  • Provide their child with all the best experiences and most useful activities
  • Make home an oasis of peace and harmony for the family (while simultaneously prospering in their own careers)


Attendance to one’s children at all times is mandatory. No  exceptions will be made for parents working two jobs just to get by,  single parents or parents of children with special needs. No foolproof  instruction manual will be provided.


These extreme expectations, paired with the rapidly  accelerating pace of modern life, present significant obstacles and  pressures for parents who genuinely want to make their children feel  cared for without driving themselves crazy. Many counselors are  routinely helping clients respond to these and other challenges of  modern-day parenting.


Parenting, problems and pride

“Always on” parenting requires a lot of problem-solving,  which leaves parents focused on all the things that are going wrong,  says American Counseling Association member Laura Meyer, a licensed  clinical mental health counselor in Bedford, New Hampshire, who  specializes in parenting issues and women’s concerns. In particular,  working parents often have a difficult time attending every school  function that is offered because they typically take place during the  workday. This can feel like a failure, particularly for mothers, says  Meyer, who is currently researching women’s parenting experiences.


As a kind of antidote, Meyer encourages clients to look  for instances when they did something that made them proud of their  parenting: “Maybe I wasn’t able to be there for this one particular  event, but I made the costume that my kid wore in the play.”


It’s easy for parents to become trapped in the problems  that they face, so Meyer encourages a solution-focused approach. For  example, she has a client who is struggling with parenting a son who has  intermittent explosive disorder. “She was at her wit’s end,” Meyer  says. “He was kicking her [and] she was dragging him out of public  venues.”

Meyer asked the woman to tell her what went well that  week. At first, the client couldn’t think of anything. Then she  remembered putting up a Christmas tree with her son. They had enjoyed  decorating it together, and the mother took a photo. Meyer asked the  client what might happen if every time that she and her son had a good  moment together, she took a photo and included it in a chatbook — a  social media app that allows users to generate photo books from uploaded  pictures. Then they could sit down and look at the photos together each  week.


The client burst into tears, saying it would make a huge  difference to look at and remember some of the little victories rather  than always thinking exclusively about the failures. Meyer suggested  that the client could also use the photos to talk with her son about why  that particular experience or day had been so good and then ask him how  he had been able to remain calm.


Meyer encourages clients to use their counseling sessions  as a time to stop and reflect on the quality of their relationship with  their child rather than continually reacting to crises. Parents are  often susceptible to getting caught up in the everyday duties of being a  parent and missing out on the joy, love and upside of parenting, she  says.


Helping prevent sexual abuse

Over the course of seven days in January, 156 young women  and teenagers gathered in a courtroom in Michigan to recount how  Lawrence Nassar, former physician for the USA Gymnastics team and  Michigan State University, sexually violated them. Their stories  detailed the widespread damage an unchecked predator with access to  children and teenagers can wreak. Some of those who came to speak were  accompanied by their parents, who were left to ask — in the words of one  mother who testified — “How could I have missed the red flags?”


Most parents don’t have much accurate information about  sexual predators, says ACA member Jennifer Foster, an assistant  professor of counselor education and counseling psychology at Western  Michigan University. Her research focuses on child sexual abuse.

In the past, most sexual abuse prevention  efforts were aimed at children in the school system, she says. “This  helped to create awareness, but the efforts had a major flaw in that  they put the burden of stopping abuse on kids,” Foster observes. 


As a former licensed mental health counselor and school  counselor in Florida, Foster worked with many children who had been  abused. “They would say to me, ‘I did say stop. I did say no,’”  she recalls. Unfortunately, it is easy for children to be outmaneuvered  and overpowered by adults and older children, so prevention efforts  should focus on parents and other adults, Foster asserts.

Foster now helps educate parents about sexual predators.  “I want parents to know all the scary info,” she says. This includes  working to break down conventional myths. When asked to think about the  profile of a “typical” predator, most people picture an adult male with a  criminal record who is a stranger, or at least not someone the family  knows well. Foster tells parents to picture instead the people they  might invite to Thanksgiving dinner, because 90 to 96 percent of sexual  predators are either family members or someone who is close to the  family (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network puts this number  at 93 percent). According to the Crimes Against Children Research  Center, 36 percent are other children.


Parents don’t typically picture a female offender either,  and although the reported incidence of sexual abuse by women is low,  experts think that the actual rate is higher, Foster says.  Unfortunately, parents are much more likely to hand over the care of  their children to a woman — in a day care setting, for instance —  without really knowing the person’s background, she continues.

Research also indicates a high rate of  sibling-on-sibling sexual abuse, often with the use of force, Foster  says. Many parents like to assume that this is something that happens  only in families with lower socioeconomic status, but the truth is that  it can take place in any family. Foster adds that research indicates  that if child or juvenile offenders get treatment, they are likely to  recover and not go on to commit the same offense again. 


Foster teaches parents about some of the behavioral red  flags of possible sexual predators, including spending more time with  children than with peers, lacking adult friends, having numerous  child-friendly hobbies and making inappropriate sexual comments about  children. Foster reported a local teacher who regularly made sexually  suggestive comments to his female students, such as, “If you were my  daughter, I wouldn’t let you out the door in those pants because I know  what I would be thinking.”


“That is such a great example of covert abuse, which was  allegedly ignored by school staff when girls repeatedly complained about  the teacher. That was one of multiple comments he made. They were told,  ‘You’re taking it the wrong way. You misheard. You don’t know how to  take a compliment.’ Then, when he had an opportunity and a student in  isolation, the abuse moved to overt, with him putting his hand up her  shirt.”


That student happened to be a member of a  youth group Foster helps lead at her church. She believes the girl felt  encouraged to disclose to her because of a pen that Foster often uses  that says, “Rape. Talk about it.” Another girl in the group asked why  Foster had that pen, and that gave Foster an opening to talk about the  work she has done with sexual trauma survivors. After the group, the  girl who had been violated told Foster about her experience. Foster  contacted the school, which she says took no official action, instead  simply allowing the teacher to resign.

Parents should also be wary of adults who are always  putting their hands on kids or giving kids hugs, Foster says. These  behaviors will often take place in front of other people because  predators are testing to see if anyone notices and is alarmed by their  actions. Predators also try to spend time alone with children and may  give them gifts. Foster says that giving gifts can be an entirely  benevolent act, but she also warns that it can be a part of the grooming  process. Foster’s family has established a rule that her children won’t  take gifts from anyone without first asking Foster or their father.

Foster also teaches her children that no  secrets should be kept in their family (although she does distinguish  between secrets and surprises). Part of the reasoning for this practice  is that sexual predators often try to get children to keep small  secrets. For example, “Don’t tell your mom I gave you ice cream before  dinner. She’ll be mad at me!” Small secrets are a test of sorts, Foster  explains. The predator is trying to gauge what a child will and will not  tell his or her parents.

Predators are opportunistic — always looking for ways to  be “helpful,” Foster says. They often try to come to the rescue,  particularly with families in vulnerable situations, such as a family  with a chronically ill child, a family that is new to town or a family  headed by a single parent, she says. Becoming the family savior is part  of the end goal so that they can get time alone with the children,  Foster explains.

Although Foster believes that the burden  of spotting and stopping child sexual abuse must be placed on adults,  she says that it is still important for children to know that it is not  OK for someone to touch them inappropriately. Foster likes to teach  parents the language that Feather Berkower, a child sexual abuse  prevention expert, uses about “body safety.” The concept is simple  enough that even little children can learn it. 


Body safety means that no one can look at, touch or take  pictures of the child’s private parts, and children should not look at  or touch another person’s body parts, Foster explains. She believes that  children who aren’t taught about body safety are more vulnerable  because they don’t have the language to talk about something that has  made them feel uncomfortable, including actual abuse. Children should  also learn the anatomically correct names for body parts, Foster says.


Foster’s son knows that everyone has to follow body safety  rules. If he goes to a friend’s house, Foster also makes sure that the  friend’s parents are aware that Foster’s family follows body safety  rules. In addition, because of the prevalence of child-on-child sexual  abuse, Foster does not allow closed doors when friends come over to play  at her family’s house. She also intermittently checks in with her son  about his interactions with the adults in his life by asking if he had  fun with the person, what they did together and whether the person  followed the body safety rules.


Most parents are also in the dark about how to keep their  children safe online, Foster says, but they need to be aware that sexual  predators often use online means to target children. Perpetrators often  develop social media accounts and profiles, posing as someone who is  the same age as the child or adolescent they are targeting and then  revealing their true age later. After earning the young person’s trust,  the predator may attempt to entice the child or adolescent to meet in  person and move their encounters offline.

Foster recommends that families confine technology use to  open spaces such as the TV room or kitchen. Parents can make use of  tracking tools, but they should also have an open dialogue with their  children about their online activity, Foster says. She also advises that  parents find out what kind of technology rules other parents have  before allowing children to go to their friends’ houses.

As a whole, Foster says, a higher level of vigilance  against sexual abuse is required. She notes that most parents are good  about discussing safety with their children when it comes to looking  both ways before crossing the street, using a helmet when riding a bike  or always wearing a seatbelt in the car. But more children are sexually  abused each year than are hit by cars, and relatively few families take  active steps to prevent that from happening.

“When it comes to child sexual abuse, adults need to take  on the responsibility to create safe homes and communities,” Foster  says. “Counselors [can] give them the tools they need.”

No longer partners but still parents

“Divorce changes kids’ lives [and] usually not in good  ways,” says Kristin Little, a licensed mental health counselor whose  Seattle-area practice includes a focus on counseling families that are  navigating divorce or separation. “However, kids can manage even  difficult divorce changes if well-supported and protected from the most  harmful effects of conflict [such as] loss of confidence in their  parents’ ability to lead, loss of stability in home/school life and loss  of relationship with either or both parents.”

Little says the most essential thing that mental health  professionals can do when counseling parents who are separated, divorced  or in the process of divorcing is to introduce the idea of the  separation of “adult mind” and “parent mind.”

“Parents can be experiencing a high level of anger or  sadness while their marriage is ending. This is normal and expected and  may be important for them to explore individually,” she says. “However,  they continue to be parents and need to separate their own adult  experience and reactions from their parenting roles. Giving parents the  permission to feel, yet reminding them that they have the responsibility  to attend to parenting needs, make important decisions, [and] see and  respond to their children’s needs and feelings as separate from their  own, is vitally important.”

ACA member Kimberly Mason, a licensed professional  counselor (LPC) in Madisonville, Louisiana, who specializes in family  and relationship issues, says that many parents have difficulty managing  their anger, guilt and shame, and setting aside their conflict while  parenting. To better shield their children from strife, she gives the  following recommendations to parents:

1) Have ground rules for communication.  Parents should not berate each other or argue in front of their  children. If necessary, they should go to a private area to work out  their conflict. 

2) Each parent should seek individual counseling to work  through his or her own issues. This can help limit the level of  animosity and frequency of arguments that may occur in the home.

3) Model mutual respect for each other in front of the  children. Each partner should also talk to family members and friends  and ask them to refrain from saying negative things about the other  partner in front of the children.


Parents who are facing divorce or separation are often  terrified, which can override their ability to collaborate and make  decisions, Little says. They may seek safety by sticking to past  patterns of interacting and relying on assumptions about roles or  capabilities that they held during the marriage or relationship, she  explains. They often have difficulty envisioning change.

“This can result in one parent insisting that they are  more experienced than the other and thus deserving of more time, which  inevitably triggers fear and anger in the other parent and results in  what we often see as a tug of war that rarely serves the kids’ or  parents’ needs,” Little says.


Counselors can be a neutral “referee” of sorts for  parents, steering the conversation away from who is wrong or right and  instead toward developing a working co-parenting relationship that  focuses on the future, she says.

ACA member Monika Logan, an LPC in Frisco, Texas, has a  practice that focuses on divorce and parenting issues. She says that  parents need to learn to form a more businesslike relationship by  setting aside their emotions toward each other. Parents can begin to do  this by “working on their own feelings related to the separation or  divorce and developing a support network,” she says.

Little agrees with encouraging that approach. “[It] allows  them to get the important job of parenting done,” she says. “It is  essentially undoing the patterns, dynamics and practices of the marriage  to allow for a renegotiation of how they will interact [and] the tasks  they will agree to in the new co-parenting relationship.”


Each partner must agree to the new “business” guidelines  or they won’t work, says Mason, who is also a core faculty member at  Walden University. They must commit to putting their children’s needs  above their own and making joint decisions. Compromise and consistency  are also essential. The parents must be willing to back each other up  when making decisions so that the children will still view them as a  team, she emphasizes.


“Contrary to what some people describe,  healthy co-parenting can be anywhere along the spectrum from parallel  parenting — having little contact and overlap between homes and parents —  to how co-parenting is usually thought of — frequent collaboration and  interaction,” Little says. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to co-parenting,  she says. A counselor’s job is to help parents craft a plan that works  for each partner, minimizes conflict and, most important, meets the  needs of their children.


Coming to terms with coming out


As the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and  questioning or queer) community has gained greater acceptance during the  past 10 to 20 years, it has become more common for young people to come  out to their parents, says ACA member Misty Ginicola, an LPC in West  Haven, Connecticut, whose practice specialties include LGBTQ issues. She  adds that those who come out are also often taking that step at younger  ages than in the past — for instance, as middle schoolers rather than  as teenagers.


How parents react to that decision is incredibly important  to the mental health of the child. Ginicola, the lead editor of the  ACA-published book Affirmative Counseling With LGBTQI+ People,  has witnessed parent reactions in her practice that ran the gamut from  accepting yet concerned to completely opposed and voicing a desire to  “fix” their child. She tells parents looking to “cure” a child that  counselors cannot, either from an ethical or a practical standpoint,  change someone’s sexual/affectional orientation. However, Ginicola does  try to address the concerns of all parents who come to her for help,  whether they are “affirming” parents (who are supportive of their  child’s orientation) or “disaffirming” (those who reject LGBTQ status).

Even parents who are supportive of the LGBTQ community may  have problems adjusting to their own child coming out, she says. They  may ask if the child is “sure” or, if a child comes out as gay or  lesbian and then subsequently shows interest in someone who is other  gendered, they may say, “Oh, so you’re really not [gay or lesbian],”  Ginicola reports. These kinds of reactions often spring from parents’  fears that their child will be bullied or belittled or face other  hurtful consequences, she says.


However, Ginicola explains to parents  that when they ask those kinds of questions or make those kinds of  statements, what their children actually hear is that something is wrong  with them. Children are very vulnerable when coming out. In fact, the  risk of suicide is highest during the coming-out process, but research  shows that having supportive parents reduces this risk by half. So, it  is crucial for parents to strive to always communicate support and to be  willing to admit and apologize when they have said the wrong thing,  Ginicola emphasizes.

Ginicola also teaches parents that although they cannot  keep their children from being bullied, they can help them cope by  building and reinforcing their self-esteem, teaching them good social  and emotional skills, and ensuring that they have allies such as  friends, teachers and school counselors in place.

One of the ways parents can help build their children’s  self-esteem is by helping them find places where they will be accepted  through whatever interests and activities they enjoy, Ginicola says. She  cautions, however, that parents must take it upon themselves to ensure  that these places are safe and not an environment in which their child  will be rejected or targeted.

Parents should also talk to their child’s school to  confirm that it has sound anti-bullying policies in place, Ginicola  says. Most important, parents must make sure their children understand  that there is nothing wrong with them and that they are not the problem,  she emphasizes.

Unfortunately, the reality is that although acceptance for  those who identify as LGBTQ has grown tremendously, they are still at  increased risk for experiencing violence, meaning that parents need to  talk to children who have come out about safety, Ginicola says.  Specifically, children should be careful about who their friends are and  make sure that they attend parties and other social events with people  who are affirming, she says. Parents should also caution children who  are not fully out to be very careful about whom they tell, not because  there is anything wrong about telling but because sometimes it can be  unsafe, 

Ginicola says.


Open communication is also essential. Children need to  know and trust that they can tell their parents anything, Ginicola says.  It is particularly critical that children understand the necessity of  informing their parents about any instances of bullying, violence or  other actions that threaten a child’s safety, she says.


Counselors must also prepare parents for the rejection that they  will experience, Ginicola points out. For example, it is possible that  family members might say hurtful things about a child who has come out  and question how the parents are raising the child, she says. Community  members may also weigh in with their own judgments, which Ginicola has  experienced personally, including when a neighbor called child  protective services because Ginicola lets her nongender-conforming son  wear pink shoes to school. Nothing came of the neighbor’s call, but  “it’s scary to realize that while I am getting the rejection for him  now, someday he will receive that,” she says. 


In some cases, parents may lose a whole community in which  they previously felt secure and safe, Ginicola says. For example, in  the African-American community, the church often serves as the main safe  space for its congregants, but many churches are not affirming of LGBTQ  individuals. By choosing to support their children who identify as  LGBTQ, the parents may lose an essential source of support.

In cases such as these, Ginicola helps  her clients process their grief and encourages them to seek alternative  sources of support, such as other parents who have gone through similar  experiences. She is also able to recommend online and local groups to  which parents can turn. Ginicola also provides validation for the  parents, emphasizing that it is the culture that is the problem, not the  parents themselves. Another part of the service that counselors can  provide these clients is to make sure they are practicing good  self-care, she adds.


Ginicola also sees parents who are totally unsupportive of  their child’s LGBTQ status. She acknowledges walking a fine line with  these clients. Although she doesn’t want to support their beliefs, she  tries to identify a way to reach them so that they don’t instead go find  a therapist who is willing to attempt to “change” their child.

“[It requires] the same principles that underlie work with  any parent that is potentially destructive to a child,” Ginicola says.  “[It’s] a delicate balance of keeping them feeling validated without  promoting harming their child.”


She starts by probing for what is at the root of the  parents’ nonaffirming stance. “Let’s say it’s religious beliefs. You [as  the counselor] can’t start quoting Bible verses,” Ginicola says.  “That’s not our place, and they’re not going to listen to us anyway  because we’re not within their religious group.”


Ginicola validates parents by saying she can see that it  might be difficult to feel caught between two conflicting forces — the  instinct to love and support their child versus their belief in a  religious tradition that rejects their child. Rather than attempting to  challenge their religious beliefs, she looks for inconsistencies and  discrepancies that she can point out.


“I might say, ‘I’m hearing you say that  in your faith you are supposed to love and support your child but also  hearing that this [coming out] is something you can’t support. How do  you feel about that conflict?’” 

Ginicola tries to get these clients to a  point at which they are willing to join local or online support groups  and talk to other parents who have gone through the same experience. She  reasons that these parents will be the best source of support and  advice on coping with the conflict of belonging to a faith tradition  that does not affirm LGBTQ identity and culture, yet wanting to support a  child who is LGBTQ. 

Sometimes parents are unwilling to let go of whatever  beliefs are informing their anti-LGBTQ stance. In these situations,  Ginicola lets them know that they are choosing a dangerous path. When  families utterly reject children who come out as LGBTQ, the risk of  suicide is exponentially increased.


“At some point,” Ginicola observes, “they have to ask themselves, do they want a gay son or a dead son?”

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article,  take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American  Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm by Joshua M. Gold
  • Casebook for Counseling Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons and Their Families edited by Sari H. Dworkin and Mark Pope
  • Youth at Risk, sixth edition, edited by David Capuzzi and Douglas R. Gross

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Divorce and Children” by Elizabeth A. Mellin and Lindsey M. Nichols
  • “Parenting Education” by Carl J. Sheperis and Belinda Lopez

ACA divisions

  • Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling (acachild.org)
  • International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (iamfconline.org)

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org