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:
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,
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?”
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)
Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com