Book Excerpt: Emotion Focused Skills Training for Parents - A Guide for Clinicians

Book Excerpt: Emotion Focused Skills Training for Parents - A Guide for Clinicians

This is a textbook, written by psychologists Joanne Dolhanty, Vanja Hjelmseth, Bente Austbø and Anne Hilde Vassbø Hagen, that gives the reader an educational and thorough introduction to the parent guidance method - Emotion Focused Skills Training (EFST).

The method aims to help parents, so that they can help their children with challenging relationships, emotional difficulties, or challenging behaviour. Central elements within EFST is validation, boundary setting, repair, and working with one`s own feelings as a parent. The book is written towards family therapists, parent counselors, or others working with children, adolescent and young adults. It can also be useful for many parents. Below you can read an excerpt, about the parental role and EFST.

It’s a battle to get my son to school. He just wants to sleep all day . . . and then game all night. He doesn’t go out or see friends . . . or if he does, it’s just to get high. When I do actually see him, and I try to say a casual, “Hey, bud,” I’m met with a cold, silent wall. I die a bit inside every time. I feel completely powerless. I can’t reach him at all, and it actually feels like . . . kind of like I’ve just given up. I’m so ashamed that I’ve failed him. I’ve failed as a father. And I think I like him a bit less each time he rejects me. And I don’t like myself either.

Being the parent of a child with challenging behaviors is extremely hard. In fact, being a parent in any circumstances is a challenge. But when our children’s struggles and refusals and moods and meltdowns stir up our own strong painful emotions, the challenge just increases. Those emotions can get the better of us. We get worn down. Frustrated. Resentful. Hopeless. At the same time, there’s this pressure to get it right and be a “good parent.” Our kids should do well at school. Be into sports. Have the right number of friends. The right kind of friends. Socialize but not too much. Be industrious and obedient . . . but also independent and adventurous. Have good manners and be polite, sensible, good-natured, helpful, thoughtful, and kind. And happy. Our kids are supposed to be happy. Where do the unpleasant emotions fit in all of that? How do we cope when our child is unkind to their siblings, rude to their parents, self-centered and ungrateful, or just plain miserable? How do we cope when our kids are deeply unhappy? It’s our worst nightmare. And what does it say about us as parents? That we’ve failed. And worse, that our children are going to fail. It’s like we have a voice in our head that fills us with fear and self-blame. An inner critic ready to tell us that we aren’t good parents after all. That we’re ineffective. Impatient. Getting it all wrong. This kind of internal messaging creates and reinforces more painful emotions in parents. And it is precisely that fear and self-blame, along with the shame and other painful emotions that come with them, that get in the way of parents being able to show up emotionally for their child.

Those of you reading this book were once children, and the experiences you’ve gathered through your life journey influence how you behave as a parent and how you practice your profession in your role as a therapist. Think back to a situation that was difficult or troubling when you were a child, when you were feeling scared, sad, angry, ashamed, or some other emotion. See if you can bring to mind a very specific situation when you struggled as a child. Try to feel, deeply, what it was like to be you in that situation. What was happening inside you? What did you need from the adults in the situation? How were you treated by the adults around you? Were your emotional needs met? Was someone there for you? Or were you alone with no one to turn to? Were you met with kindness, interest, and understanding, or were you shouted at, dismissed, or maybe ridiculed? Did the adults hear what you were feeling in a way that validated those feelings? Did you feel taken care of? Or were you met in a way that made you feel ashamed, scared, lonely, or invisible?

If you’re able to answer these questions, then you already have a good understanding of how to respond – or not – to a child’s feelings when they are struggling with a difficult situation. All of us carry a great deal of inner wisdom if we can just take the time, and the emotional energy, to remember and feel our own experiences. Parents have a special and very valuable expertise when it comes to their children. The problem is, it’s not always easy for them to get access to that expertise and knowledge when they need it the most. If you, the reader, have your own children, think now of a situation where your child was having a challenging time. Maybe they were being bullied, or they were afraid, disappointed, angry, or suffering from a broken heart. Choose a concrete example of a time when your child was not doing well, and picture the child’s situation from your standpoint as the parent. What is the first feeling you sense that your child is experiencing? What do they show outwardly? Now put yourself in your child’s shoes. Try to imagine, as if you were your child, what’s going on internally at this moment. Is the feeling the same as what you perceived? Or are there other emotions going on? Maybe you sense something that is vulnerable or painful? What did your child need in this situation? How were you able to respond to your child in this moment? Were you able to do so in a way that made it clear to your child that you understood how they were feeling inside? Did you meet your child’s emotional needs? Or did you say or do something that might have made them feel misunderstood, alone, wrong, or scared?

Are you thinking, “I handled that pretty well!” or are you thinking, “I cringe a bit when I think about how that went.” The important thing isn’t whether you “got it” in the moment, but that you know your child so well, you do know how they’re feeling. If you can see that it’s normal not to get it right every time, that it’s not the end of the world, that you can listen to and learn about your child’s feelings and maybe get it right next time – then you have the chance to tap into your inherent parenting skills, and use your feelings as guides. For example, feeling remorse about a past situation is a signal telling us that we may want to apologize. The trouble is, it’s easy to lose access to that internal wisdom when it comes to our own children. Their feelings stir up our feelings, making it very challenging for us to see theirs clearly. It’s hard to be accepting and understanding when their difficult emotions and annoying or disrespectful behaviors push our buttons and our limits. We can get rattled by the violence of their strong feelings, or anxious and worried when we think they lack certain emotions.

The way we deal with emotions in our kids is related to how we deal with our own emotions, which we learned from the way we ourselves were treated when we were sad, afraid, angry, or ashamed. In EFST, we have parents explore their relationship with their own emotions in order to gain access to the innate expertise they have to help their children with theirs. Which emotions are we comfortable with and which do we avoid? What happens to us inside when we say something dumb to our kids, or when we don’t handle something as well as we could have? And how do we deal with those things afterwards? Why do we make the same foolish mistakes over and over again when we know so well that they don’t work? Is it even possible to change old, ingrained patterns and counterproductive strategies?

In EFST, we have two main goals: enhanced knowledge of emotions, and training in new skills. Given that it is parents who know their children best, we believe that parents are the best at helping their children to face challenges. But when we, as parents, feel angry, tired, useless, scared, or despairing, it becomes even more difficult to be a good parent. The father in the example at the beginning of this introduction is an illustration of this. He feels helpless and ashamed, while also feeling worried for his son, and angry and sad about the distance between them. How can we help this father to regain the belief that he can help his son? How can we help him to feel that he is still one of the most important people in his son’s life – even if his son is rejecting him? How can he handle his own emotions and meet his son with kindness, understanding, and clear boundaries? How can he meet his son’s emotional needs? How can he repair the painful chasm between the two of them? How can he get his son to go to school?

As a therapist, it’s easy to understand parents’ despair, and the desperate feeling that someone else should “fix” their child. It can be easier to agree that the child needs therapy rather than insist on counseling for the parents, because the latter would give the parents more responsibility, more obligations, and, potentially, more defeats. Perhaps the therapist has previous experience in counseling parents where the process did not help the child’s struggles, or there was the thought that “these parents are not good for the child, and so it’s better that I step in.” As a counselor and therapist, it can be extremely overwhelming to feel that you are responsible for the future of a child. Self-criticism can also come creeping in - “I’m not a good enough therapist.” This can make the situation even more challenging, and make us rely even more heavily on mastering methodological skills to do an effective job, rather than take the risk of relying on a parent who may not have shown the competence needed to address their child’s difficulties.

Principles – We know you want to, and we believe you can!

Emotion focused skills training for parents is grounded in a fundamental belief that parents want the best for their children. A cornerstone of the approach is the therapist’s trust in parents’ inherent resources and competence. As EFST therapists, we work to make parents aware of what skills and knowledge they already possess in regard to their child’s feelings and needs, and what can get in the way of making the best use of this knowledge. We train parents to use specific, and concrete, caregiving skills. The main goal is to strengthen the parent’s belief in their own abilities to deal with the child’s difficult feelings and demanding behavior, so that they can see themselves as a part of the solution in helping their child.

Book excerpt from Emotion Focused Skills Training for Parents - A Guide for Clinicians.

Order the book here!


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