Years ago, I was a young buck out of therapy school, eager to cut his teeth on tough cases and prove something.
You can see where this is going, but there are a few twists in the story I never expected…
This article is a confession to all the parents I ever worked with and a dare to fellow helping professionals who work with families.
If you are a parent reading this, I imagine you’ve looked far and wide for the silver bullet to help your family. You’ve also likely invested the countless hours of reading and perhaps hundreds — if not thousands of dollars — with some kind of specialist or expert, in search of the holy grail: the “right” approach for your family.
Maybe — just maybe — you’ve found an expert who resonates with how you feel about parenting and so you swaddle yourself in that blanket for comfort each night. You hold on tight, reassuring yourself with it often.
Or perhaps, being more of a skeptical type who is fed up with the contradictions between each parenting approach and the gurus who tout them, you threw the dirty bathwater and the baby out a while ago. All the while, cackling to yourself the famous words of an ancient Zen master popularized by Sheldon B. Kopp…
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”
If you don’t get that phrase (as my wife suggested you might not), I take it to say,
“Don’t stop to listen to the experts. Keep walking on your path…”
Both reactions make sense to me.
Looking back at 25 years of working with kids and teens (12 of them as a family therapist in the mental health world) I’ve seen a lot of trends in parenting be touted as THE answer, only to be dismissed as outdated, a few years later.
Despite many popular articles, the science (shared further below) really does not prove one way being better than another.
And yet, there are millions of people online arguing about spanking, co-sleeping, vaccinations, tech addiction (choose your parenting dilemma) jumping in with dogmatic certainty, bad advice and religious fervour to defend their tribes more “conscious” or “effective” way of parenting.
The Day I Fired The Parenting Expert
So, let me offer you a cautionary tale. One that radically changed how I see parenting and how I try my best these days to not play the expert and maybe (just maybe) actually help parents find the best path forward through their own wilderness.
Here I was, the green therapist, used to working with kids but not inside a mental health clinic seeing complex families in deep crisis. To my surprise, many of my cases ended up being with intensely explosive and at times violent boys. Lovely chaps if you saw them alone and let them run the show, but as soon as anyone asserted their presence, they would bristle. The room would quickly heat up with fury.
The parents were often a heroic mess. Dad would gesticulate about how unacceptable, disrespectful and in need of discipline his boy was — to deaf ears or defiant retorts. He’d point fingers, puff his chest and boom his voice in a dominance display while rolling his eyes at his “too soft” of a wife.
Mom was often tightly wound up and ready to blow herself. Her furrowed brow and bitten nails showed her to be wracked with guilt and terrible anxiety. Like many moms, she’d stay up late at night trying to un-hack her sleep deprivation while studying self-defence moves to prepare for when her physically threatening son would certainly come at her again!
My description may seem a tad exaggerated and grossly stereotypical, but when pushed to our limits and in a constant state of agitated stress, we all tend to devolve into caricatures of our selves — like these graceful birds going for one another’s jugular!
So, how what did I do when they came to see me, reeking with desperation?
Having trained in several methods, with 13 years experience in helping kids, I gulped and went through my checklists.
One issue led to the next and spiralled us down a wormhole of family trauma and a sticky web of many failed attempts by many a well intentioned helper.
In response, I decided to role up my sleeves and work harder, extending my sessions from the usual 50 minute therapy hour to sometimes going over two and a half hours.
I remember my toughest case — a family who shattered all my notions of therapy and parenting for good. They fit the description above, yet on steroids. Dad was a big executive in charge of thousands of people unable to get his son’s respect or compliance at home. Mom was on four kinds of medications with her hair falling out. They came in ready to send him to boarding school— which refused to take him — hoping I knew of some other places which might fix him.
We tried — for months — to follow the most obvious pathways to change faithfully. When those didn’t take well, we experimented with more alternative and cutting edge approaches. The problem wasn’t the what. My trap was really in leaning forward too far, taking the bait of giving prescriptive advice by reaching to grab the hands that were drowning.
The breaking point came when they arrived one day, ready to fire me. United in their disdain and resentment for my valiant attempts over two years, I knew the game was over when even mom jumped in to mock my latest suggestion.
Rather than being their saviour (a delusion I still had back then) I realized the totality of my failure and sunk into deep despair. Ready to be dismissed, something in me died while I collapsed into a puddle of shame, somehow managing to stay upright on my chair and listen to what they had decided (the first time they agreed on anything). I surrendered to a feeling of utter helplessness and inadequacy. The mask of being an imposter as the one who knows how to help and trying to project certainty and hope as an expert cracked and crumbled into dust, like ancient plaster.
What happened next still blows my mind. Somehow, with my guard down, I was able to take in their deep sense of rage, despair and disappointment. I mumbled and blubbered my response which sounded something akin to,
“I’m sorry for failing you. You feel rightly like you’ve been let down and…
I released my illusion of control then.
“I don’t know what to do next. What do you suggest?”
There was a long silence between us.
A lot of sighing and softening of expressions.
Finally, the boy broke the ice and pulled out a list of his own demands.
For the next 6 months — to my utter astonishment and with very little input or effort from me — every member of the family developed goals which they pursued and accomplished.
The Aftermath: rebuilding my ego and learning to help better
Since that fateful day, two lessons rest in the foundation of what I believe it means to actually help families to make productive changes.
Never work harder than the people you are trying to help.
It’s not my place to lead others anywhere — especially when they’re digging their heels in and no matter how strongly I believe the place I am trying to drag them is where they need to get to!
I discovered that I am more helpful when I stand in the storm with the families who’ve chosen me as their trusted confidant, listening to them, trying to better grasp the terrain and gently supporting them to find their own bearings, supporting their will and wisdom to discover the best way forward.
The other course correction I made back then was also quite obvious in hindsight.
If you want to be helpful, ask the people you are trying to help if you are being actually helpful!!
There is a huge industry in mental health (as I imagine in other fields) to focus on the latest (yet always narrow and limited) research studies and to fight like cats over which approach is the most effective against others. The reality of what actually helps has little if nothing to do with all that.
What the science says…
Massive meta analysis (a look at the many studies that exist together over decades) has shown that the act of asking for feedback and being “responsive” as a therapist is actually one of the only reliable ways to sniff out whether real changes are happening in the lives of those we try to help.
Responsiveness is "Job One" in Becoming a More Effective Therapist
In no time at all, most report a large face with deep set eyes and slight frown. Actually, once seen, it's difficult…
I still remember the surprise and head shaking I experienced when I first started using the simple and quick measures recommended to suss out if I was actually helping the families on my case load.
A couple of double takes!
First, there was the family who was painfully hard for me to work with. A year of meetings and I was ready to throw in the towel! And yet, the measures revealed very gradual (too gradual for my impatient eyes) and steady growth over time that was needing continued support. I stuck with it. They were glad.
Meanwhile, there was another family whom I adored and loved working with. They came in every week with beautiful stories. We laughed and cried together, often. This time, the measures revealed — despite our mutual affection for one another — that they has been coasting and not making any progress, for 6 months!
Of course, knowing all of this and adjusting how I worked was not a straight line. I fell back a few times in the early years.
But then, there was a second event in my professional life which acted as the nail in the coffin, reminding me to let the expert role rest in peace for good.
A case of my second hand embarrassment…
I remember sitting at a case conference — imagine a dozen therapists and a few experts racking over a pressing case which seems stuck, in great detail.
Half way through a perplexing case, the talk shifted to discussing the impact of an expert who is famous in our circle for diagnosing 99% of kids they see with ADHD and doling out the same meds to each one.
A smart and irreverent colleague made a very wise and astute joke, evoking what wikipedia cites as the law of the instrument, otherwise known as the The Golden Hammer, paraphrasing Abraham Maslow,
“If all you have is a hammer,
you treat every client as if they were a nail.”
I was no doctor with time pressures, charged with diagnosing people and medicating them (thank goodness) but it still stung to consider the number of times I felt certain about what a family needed to do to fix their situation.
The consequences sunk in more so when it became clear that the family in question was dealing with a negative reaction from the drug they were prescribed. The reality was more complex — there were actually other more pressing and impactful factors (like severe anxiety, trauma, a recent loss, and bullying at school) which likely messed with this boys ability to listen to adults and do his homework quickly.
In response, my colleague followed up with this second zinger I will never forget,
“When you’ve seen a hundred families with complex mental health issues, you’ve seen a hundred different families with complex mental health issues.”
It is an odd and dangerous phenomenon that our experts — just human beings trying to be helpful, yet with more privilege and power— fall all too easily into believing with more certainty in their advice even when the science shows they are on average, they are no more accurate nor effective than a beginner might be.
My favorite is this Scandinavian study which concluded cheekily, by giving helpers the following advice:
Love Yourself as a Person.
Doubt Yourself as a Therapist.
Since that day, I made a commitment to myself to never become that “expert” blindly harming certain families and having newer therapists laughing at me.
And this third tenant solidified its foothold in how I approach helping families.
Every parent and child is the most qualified expert on their own lives.
Sure, you could argue that we all have blind spots and some of us do seem pretty clueless about ourselves or how we impact others, but the art of helping involves helping one another to light the spark of awareness within us and to find and learn to use our own inner compass.
As much as there are experts selling their messages to desperate parents — who perhaps need to be taken down from their pedestals — I see another trend recently, which is to reject any and all professional or established wisdom.
As a helper and a parent, I can grasp that impulse. It’s tempting to conclude there is no need for professional expertise — or value in the experience of those of us who have been around for while and have seen and wrestled with similar challenges that parents face alone.
I am thinking also about those moments we have when we are new as parents and one of our own parents (often the excited new grandmother) comes to offer their sagely advice.
Accepting help and wisdom is a vulnerability many of us reject — especially around the intimate art of parenting — choosing to feel isolated and proud instead.
How I Reconciled the “expert” and the one who empowers expertise…
For many years, I have felt the gap at times between having extensive training and experience which is valuable to share in some way while also trying to empower my clients (and all of the parents I know as friends and family).
I feel the tension most in the places where my wisdom (or opinion) does not meet with what they think they should do.
My way of reconciling and holding the paradox of expertise and empowerment is two fold.
First, as a therapist, I hold to the boundaries and ethics of my profession, primarily empowering and supporting my families in crisis, while at times when it is needed and/or asked for, offering my experience and discernment as just another voice at the table. In the end, the parents and kids I serve decide what they will do and I support them to learn from the choices they make.
Second, after so many years of seeing a gap that mental health services do not fill — that of ongoing learning and mutual support in real-life community— I’ve decided to spend the rest of my life building what is missing in my life.
It is a parenting community of practice steeped in the culture of martial arts where our personal motto is…
My family is my “dojo”.
“Dojo” meaning a place of enlightenment which comes from constant and often humbling training, understanding that…
Parenting is my martial art.
Here I am below with my daughter, Sofia, practicing the martial art of AIKIDO in an actual dojo.
As she threw me, I felt a swell of enormous joy and pride.
I tried to push into her space and she was able to hold her boundaries, while exerting her “center” of power to take me off my balance.
She is only 7! It took my decades to even begin learning to do that!
Looking at our families and parenting in this way, has made me more passionate and humble. It is also a way to empower parents and kids together which I could not do within the box of mental health treatment as fully.
A dare to helping pro‘s…
As you are deeply committed to helping and also know all this, I’ll keep this part brief.
Because I cannot say it better, I repeat the summary of the research concluded above,
“Love yourself as a person. Doubt yourself as a therapist.”
I hope you take that in and apply it practically by asking for, trusting and learning from the feedback of your clients.
My five humble suggestions for parents…
Rather than reacting to the limits and blind spots of singular experts, why don’t we encourage ourselves as parents to grow the “expertise” of our families and within our communities.
I believe that we can do that in five significant ways.
First, by knowing ourselves and our family members better we develop a more fertile soil in which to plant and nurture the seeds of change together. Self-awareness can often bring about shame and guilt — enter tubs of ice cream (I’m talking about myself here). That’s why I’ve been working on an assessment tool (The Parenting Compass) to help myself and fellow parents to look at ourselves and our strategies more clarity, humour and compassion.
By experimenting with and testing the hypothesis of different approaches in different contexts, we refine our tactics and strategies and accumulate more wisdom. This means becoming the explorer and the scientist our families need us to be in order to continue to navigate through constantly changing terrain.
It’s easy to come to false conclusions. Better that we pause and reflect to learn from our first hand experience. When we make mistakes, let’s analyze the errors. Instead of assuming we are flawed, we can search for more data and realize the complexity of causes perhaps. When we have successes, let’s learn to notice the factors that enabled them (not assume it speaks only to our own virtues or luck).
By understanding and taking response-ability for the impacts of our actions (how the rest of our family and friends experience us) we gain deeper understanding of our own power and whether we are influencing others in ways that truly work, or not. This part is often humbling.
Last, but far from least, we can reach out to mobilize the wisdom of the hive. More heads, hearts and hands are always better than one. In this modern world of selfies, instagram parenting and shoulds about having it all (work, life, fame, etc.) — cough… perfectionist consumerist bullshit… cough — as parents, our greatest barrier to feeling sane and effective is often self-imposed isolation borne from the notion that we should and can ever do it alone.
Beyond ways to listen and work together as a family team, there is also great power and promise in mobilizing other allies, whether friends or professionals, as a community of care.
It takes a village to help our families thrive!
Of course, there is always more to learn as a helper and especially as a parent, and I am a slow learner myself. That’s why I created a community of endless learning together. : )
My last words for now…
I’ve come to believe that it’s natural and good to doubt ourselves. Parenting and life itself is complex, dynamic and ever-evolving. The pain of uncertainty and doubt can drive us to either fall into despair and inadequacy or to seek solace in experts and overly simplified one-sided approaches.
I hope this article has instead encouraged you to be more willing to face the darkness of the unknown, reaching out for help while trusting yourself more as a parent.
I leave you with this — a quote I inscribed deep within my mind and on my beating heart — meant for those of us who claim to be teachers. It applies to us helpers and to parents as well…
“I am going to be your last teacher. Not because I’ll be the greatest teacher you may ever encounter, but because from me you will learn how to learn. When you learn how to learn, you will realize that there are no teachers, that there are only people learning and people learning how to facilitate learning.”
— Moshe Feldenkrais.