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The RELATIONSHIP is my client

January 29, 2013

I’ve been writing this article in my head for about a week now, but all of that derailed today after I had a discussion (on Facebook nonetheless!) with another therapist about the counseling profession’s reluctance to bring parents into the therapy room. Carol Lozier is crafting her own article about this very topic so I don’t want to stray too far down that path (I’ll definitely share the link to her article once it gets published!) but I do have some thoughts that I wanted to put onto paper.

It isn’t uncommon for a family to seek therapy with me after they have already received counseling from another therapist. For most parents, this means that they sat outside in the waiting room while their child was in the therapy room. Some parents get a quick five or ten minute check-in with the therapist. They are the lucky ones. Other parents tell me they went months without talking to the therapist alone. For so many families, seeking therapy is a scary and daunting experience. Even when a parent’s gut tells them they should be more involved with the therapy, they oftentimes just ‘do what the therapist says…she’s the expert.’ I make it very clear on the initial phone call I have with a parent that working with me means that I work with the whole family. In fact, except in a few very select, specific, special circumstances, I almost never see a child alone in my office. Certainly there are instances when the therapeutic goals are best achieved doing individual therapy with a kiddo, but in general I expect to be doing the majority of our work together with the child and parents. Every single parent I have ever talked to is relieved by this. Parents WANT to be more involved!

Relationship is Key Photo

Regardless of the symptoms (explosive behavior, big worries, sensory processing disorder, defiance, etc. etc. etc.) most of the kiddos in my office have experienced some sort of early childhood trauma. This could be a BIG trauma, like abuse, neglect, foster care, or orphanage care. Or, this could be a little trauma, like moving, entering daycare, or losing a favorite babysitter. Sometimes the “trauma” is something the family never considered, such as a traumatic birth or medical procedure. Big, little, or overlooked…sometimes trauma gets stuck and comes out looking like the symptoms I described (explosive behavior, big worries, defiance, etc.). Childhood trauma is best processed with a safe, secure attachment figure. This is YOU, the parent, not ME the therapist!! So there’s reason number one I keep parents in the room.

The second, very important reason? Childhood trauma disrupts attachment! Even if the trauma had nothing to do with the attachment relationship, it can still disrupt attachment as oftentimes children perceive the trauma as a loss of safety and security in the world. And a loss of safety and security is usually erroneously blamed on the parent/attachment figure, as they are the ones (in the child’s eye) who are supposed to provide for the child’s safety and security! Of course, most of my clients have experienced attachment trauma, such as abuse or neglect. In those circumstances it is absolutely crucial that their attachment trauma be processed within the context of a safe, secure attachment figure.

So, when I work with a family, the RELATIONSHIP is my client. Not the child, not the parent. The RELATIONSHIP. Attachment and trauma work is a dance. Heal trauma, heal attachment, heal trauma, heal attachment…back and forth, back and forth. I have yet to figure out how I can heal attachment and facilitate this important dance if the parent sits in the waiting room J

I want to emphasize again that certainly there are times when it is appropriate to see a child without their parent in the room. But when parents and other therapists ask why I almost never, ever see a child without their parent in the room, my primary answer is “The RELATIONSHIP is my client.”


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling.  She is the founder of The Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.  

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Donna permalink
    January 29, 2013 1:35 pm

    that’s wonderful!!

  2. January 29, 2013 4:10 pm

    I learned so much more about my child once I was allowed with her in the therapy room…it ha really helped us both…I have done it the other way and neither one of us liked it at all. She needs to know that we are in it together and that I am not going to count on a stranger alone to help her. She is making wonderful progress and we are really connecting even though we already had a pretty secure attachment!

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