Ask A Therapist: On Overparenting and Helping a Friend Get Counseling

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer two questions each month for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

This month, readers asked the Emerald about helping a partner or friend get counseling or therapy they may need and about how to tell when we are over-parenting our children.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know.* We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

I hate to see my kid in pain, so I tend to try and fix all the little hurts and smooth out the bumps at school and in relationships. How do I know when to rescue her and when to let her make mistakes and experience the consequences?

Dear reader,

The question of “how much help is too much” is a conundrum that so many parents find themselves in today. I field this query multiple times a week as a therapist and parent coach, and I understand why. Think about how things were when we were growing up. There wasn’t much talk about the “emotional intelligence” of children, or how they can best thrive in social and educational environments.

In this context, we are often racing between school events, play dates and extracurricular activities. That on top of 24/7 work emails, family commitments, the DMV and stocking the pantry to keep the wolves of hangry children at bay. Many of us find ourselves lacking for enough rest and play, and for the adequate dose of positivity and connection that every parent-child relationship requires. When this is insufficient, for whatever reason, it can be felt in an indirect way, such as “I cannot bear to see my child in pain.” Christopher Hitchens once said about raising children, “It’s a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body.” The combination of stress and care required for the job makes us parents incredibly vulnerable, and in our best and worst moments, highly alert to what our kids need.

It is worth remembering that as adults we have fully developed brains, and that it took us a long time to develop whatever strategies we have for coping with life’s knocks. We now know that hardship is part of the package of living, but this is not how children are wired. Their job is to experience such things and look to their loved ones — their attachment figures — for comfort, and to restore the balance. It is not true that they need to be “resilient” to face life stressors yet. That will come in time. Children, even teenagers, are supposed to return home for comfort and restoration. In essence, our relationships are where they get safe harbor from life’s hardships, as well as act as a filling station to fuel up enough to get back out there. The younger they are, the more pure this formula is. There are also different kinds of people in this world, ranging from highly sensitive to extra hardy. The more sensitive a person is, the more they experience turbulence in the regular events of life, and may need this “rebalancing” at home for longer period. So following age guidelines for meeting a child’s needs is not advisable from the perspective of healthy attachment.

It is likely that your child’s needs are, in a word, you (and your family), and the comfort, care and engaged energy you can give -provided you have enough time together. Being privy to a signal that your child needs you is good. And if your signal is one where you have a lot of worry, I would recommend rest, closeness, playfulness (at any age) and connection. Start there, and get back to me if tweaking those things doesn’t help your stress level come down.

—Liz Covey

I want to help my partner get counseling for the sexual and bullying abuse she suffered as a child. She is resistant to seeing a therapist, and — even if I can convince he — we have no money to pay one. Can you help with either problem?

Dear reader,

It’s difficult to see our partner’s in pain, I appreciate your concern and desire to help your partner get support for her childhood experiences. Talking to someone we love about possible getting therapy can be hard. Simply saying, “You should go see a therapist” typically doesn’t go over well.

I’d be curious as to what her reluctance might be. There are several reasons people may be unwilling to go to a therapist. In many communities, going to a therapist means you’re “crazy.” There is also the fear of revisiting the pain and how that might “make things worse.” Additionally, many believe going to a therapist is a sign of weakness.

At its essence, therapy is about a relationship. For the therapeutic relationship to be beneficial, people need to enter it freely. We can’t force, coerce or manipulate people to go. If we do, we risk them having a negative experience with therapy and makes it that much more difficult for them to want to engage in the future. But there is hope and, with encouragement and support, you can help your partner see for themselves how it might be beneficial. Normalizing mental health is a good strategy to reduce stigma.

Recently, we’ve seen an increase in people speaking about their use of mental health services. Several actors, athletes, and musicians have been outspoken about their positive experiences of therapy. We’ve also seen more people speaking up about sexual assault and bullying. Too many times, people believe they are the only one who has experienced this. Knowing they are not alone can be liberating.

Here are some things to consider when talking to you partner:

First, does she really need therapy? While therapy is useful, just because someone has experienced past trauma doesn’t automatically mean they need a therapist. The human mind and body are incredibly resilient. How does her past sexual and bullying abuse show up in her life? Are there examples of her behavior you believe are the result of these past experiences? If so, speak directly and explicitly about your concerns. When we are hesitant to talk about mental health concerns, we reinforce the shame and stigma.

Secondly, it is important when we talk about our concerns we use “I” statements (“You” statements tend to place people on the defensive). An example of a good “I” statement “I am concerned about you. I can see you are in pain (give examples of what you’ve seen) I’m here to support you in whatever ways you’d like me to.” Lastly, I urge patience as your partner goes through the decision-making process.

When your partner is ready, many therapists offer services on a sliding fee scale — don’t be afraid to ask.

—Roy Fisher

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Roy Fisher

Roy Fisher has a BA in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a MA from Pacific Lutheran in Marriage and Family Therapy. With over 10 years of experience in various roles as a clinician, consultant, supervisor, and teacher, Roy has seen the positive impact of engaging others in thoughtful dialogue.

Liz CoveyLiz Covey, LMHC, LMT, is a counselor and parent coach with a private practice in South Seattle working in the specialty area of attachment, adoption, and trauma, with children, families and individual adults. She is also a trainer, presenter, and writer on topics related to the changing face of mental healthcare, disseminating ideas and practices aimed at improving mainline therapeutics so that they are more inclusive, holistic, and effective. Liz is a Rainier Beach resident, and the extremely proud parent of two incredible school-aged kids.

*South Seattle Emerald’s Ask A Therapist advice comes from professionals and are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice and are not a substitute for professional mental health care. By submitting your question, you are agreeing to let South Seattle Emerald use it, in part or in full, and it may be edited for length and/or clarity.

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