[Excerpt from Counselling in Relationships]
Families are always navigating multiple challenges and varying needs across different stages of the life cycle. Each family also has inherent strengths and values that provide a foundation for development and growth. When supporting families, stepping back to see the broader contexts that also support or challenge families further can help us apply our energy in a more effective and culturally sensitive manner.
Raising children is something that many people grow up assuming they will do one day. For many, it’s ingrained from a young age that bearing and raising children are fundamental parts of being an adult, and that these are enjoyable and rewarding experiences.
Regardless of aspirations at the outset, parenthood is rife with moments of asking, “What should I do now?” These take on a particular intensity while parenting during the teen years. Despite lots of opinions about what parents ought to do, many parents feel quite alone in the challenging moments, feeling the weight of responsibility to “get it right.” When there are concerns about the behaviors or development of the child, or when there is too much or too little attention, reinforcement, or role modeling, observers tend to heavily critique the parenting and download all responsibility onto the parent(s). It’s an unbearable weight, too often borne individually.
Parents and their children are not islands, easily making simple choices between right and wrong, good and bad. Societal expectations give shape to our lives; we act in accordance with them and we resist them.
I have worked in various counseling contexts for over 20 years, talking with parents and teens about their experiences with each other, within themselves, and with their surroundings. I am a woman in my 50s, buffered by privileges of whiteness, postsecondary education, heteronormative assumptions, and middle-class membership. The systems and structures of the world, for the most part, work well for me. As a person and as a parent, I am not subject to surveillance that scrutinizes my race, class, identity, or ability. Yet my work has been in contexts where youth and their families face systemic barriers related to identity, culture, poverty, and accessibility, as well as assumptions and stereotypes that build additional barriers around how people are treated.
In writing this chapter, I take the position that counseling approaches that address the levels of both interpersonal dynamics among parents and their teens (the micro) as well as broader systemic dynamics within which they live (the macro) are required for addressing the challenges and conflicts that arise. My counseling practice is rooted in the belief that individual actions and expressions are given shape by our social conditions, therefore analyzing those broader social processes that lay beneath our actions and expressions is required. In short, parents and their children are not islands, easily making simple choices between right and wrong, good and bad. Societal expectations give shape to our lives; we act in accordance with them and we resist them. We need to acknowledge them and bring them into the counseling room, and not reduce our work in counselling to only a matter of individuals making better or different choices.
Raising children is a vast and complicated project, made more complicated when parents bear the scrutiny that comes with differential positioning relative to identity, culture, and systems. Given the weight of societal expectation, I hear uncertainty and fear behind common statements such as “I just have to wait out these years” or “This is that stage when he’s only interested in his peers.” Given the weight of responsibility, I understand the sense of futility that lies beneath the ultimate statement, “There’s nothing I can do.” In both personal and clinical relationships, I see parents shrug and sigh, communicating that they feel helpless and overwhelmed, lacking the capabilities to manage the teen years. This chapter details principles for counselling parents and teens that apply across intersections of identity, culture, and social context, with examples drawn from two families and their particular positionings.
Read the full chapter in our upcoming book, Counselling in Relationships – Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections, available for pre-order on our website.
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