Counsellors Working with Parents

Parents can play the key role in initiating and generating behaviour change in their children. Parents have the potential to inspire their children directly (by applying reinforcers and other behaviour modification strategies) and indirectly (by providing a safe, supportive and encouraging environment). As counsellors, working with parents can enhance our potential to promote successful outcomes for our child clients.

Respect for the client (parent and child) is essential for encouraging positive relationships. Experienced counsellors will include parents (as appropriate) in child focused counselling so that the parents’ skills and experience can be incorporated into interventions, and counselling strategies can be smoothly transferred to the home environment. If counsellors are unable to work with parents they may find that their work with the child is undermined or sabotaged by a parent who feels neglected or uninvolved. In addition, parents could remove their child from counselling if they believe their child is becoming too close to the counsellor, and perceive this closeness as a threat to them.

When parents (who are clients) approach the counselling environment their experience will largely depend upon whether they are voluntary or involuntary clients. The counsellor must be prepared for the different reactions that parents can present with.

For example:

Parents may be defensive, scared, suspicious, guilty, shameful or angry. They may also be anxious and confused. As identified in the Bristol Inquiry on Support and Counselling for Parents in Acute Health Care Settings, (1999, p 7-10), conducted in the UK, for parents a lack of familiarity, not understanding the system, and not knowing who to ask questions of can be stressful. Isolation from their usual social network, external family and other resources will also increase their stress levels.

If the parents are involuntary clients, and have lost their role as a parent; this could alter the parents’ view of themselves as protectors and nurturers; hence the relinquishment of their parental responsibilities to an outsider could have a profound effect on how they now perceive themselves and this will directly affect their behaviour towards the counsellor.

Waiting has been identified as one of the most stressful parts of the process for parents who are waiting to hear news regarding decisions relating to their children. Families can often feel forgotten or neglected by the system. Manifestations (Bristol Inquiry 1999) of waiting when an outcome is not known can include fear, fatigue, anxiety, lack of concentration, restlessness, inability to eat or drink, anger and frustration.

Therefore it is vital that the counsellor has the necessary skills (clarification, paraphrasing, reflection of feelings, reflection of content, summarising and normalising to name a few), to assist the parent client/s to feel at ease in discussing the issues that have come about in their family.

To do this, the counsellor can begin to dispel the mystery of the counselling session by explanation of the counselling process. To take away the “unknown fear” is imperative to honest communication and building trust. This does not have to be a detailed version, but simply an explanation as to why they have attended counselling.

Remember, if the parents are voluntary clients they will know the reason why they have chosen to seek the assistance of a counsellor, but still may not be sure of the process. If the parents are involuntary clients, they also may not be exactly sure why they have to attend a counselling session, or what is expected of them and they may also not be aware of the counselling process.

Of a high priority to many clients are the boundaries of confidentiality. Clients must be aware at all times of the counsellor’s legal and ethical obligations to the community, the law and him or herself. Full disclosure of who could be privy to the counselling session is necessary to respect the rights of the client.

A discussion of expectations should also be included in the initial stages. Many individuals who are not familiar with counsellors or the allied health industry have a skewed perception of what the counsellor can do. Some individuals accept no responsibility for their behavioural change and expect that the counsellor with his/her intimate knowledge of the human mind will enable the client’s issues to magically vanish by simply “chatting” and without any effort at all from the client.

Many counsellors will draw up a counselling contract with their clients. This is sometimes called a psychological contract, or an action plan. The importance of this document is to illustrate to the client that a verbal agreement which is then put in writing brings about clarification of what is expected from both the client (parents) and the counsellor; it adds accountability to the process and encourages motivated commitment from all parties to attempt to bring about some change in the situation or in a specific behaviour.

Sometimes the formality of the counselling session can increase the levels of anxiety for already anxious parents. When individuals are anxious they tend to breathe faster and take smaller shallower breaths. This reduces oxygen to the system; anxiety begins to rise, so we tend to breathe still faster to counteract the rising anxiety, so forms the vicious cycle of stress. Taking deep measured breaths activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which then triggers the brain to release dopamine to bring about a sense of relaxation and calm.

If parents seem to be anxious or overly stressed suggest a short break or a few minutes of deep breathing exercises. This can help to quickly reduce anxiety and build rapport between parent and counsellor through empathy. How counsellors behave towards parents and their style of interaction contributes to the effectiveness of the counselling sessions and is important for promoting positive outcomes.

Counsellors who are enthusiastic, self-confident, flexible, show ability for analytical thinking, are honest and compassionate, without being judgemental and with a sense of humour have been found to be the most effective (Ollier et al., 2001).

The first meeting with the parent is of the utmost importance to creating a positive first impression and ensuring they will return. Regardless of whether the first appointment is made via phone or letter, it is vital that details are given to the parents as to how to get to the clinic or office. If possible the parking arrangements and public transport details could not only benefit the parents, but also be the foundation of a positive interaction at the first appointment.

Details of payment are also useful to ensure clients have a means of payment or if they are unable to make the payment at the appointment, to make other arrangements and not feel “caught out” on the day. To give a pamphlet or information sheet about the services that your or your organisation provides, some information about the organisation and information about the counselling process could minimise stress for parents and assist to put them at ease.

Creating a warm and welcoming office conveys a supportive atmosphere, compared to the infamous stark sterilization of hospital wards in days gone by. Ensure your desk is tidy and all client files are locked away. If younger children come with their parents, a box of soft cuddly toys or puzzles, books and games are a good combination to distract the young child while the parents can relax and talk to you.

Reduce distractions when you are with your clients. Divert phone calls so that you can give your client uninterrupted attention. This indicates respect and commitment to the parent. If you must take a phone call while with a client, keep it as short as possible.

Encouraging Parents to Talk

Parenting and parenting styles can be a contentious issue. Sometimes a counsellor’s values and beliefs will be similar to the parent/client, but often they will be vastly different (Geldard & Geldard, 2005). If a counsellor is to be able to assist a client whose parenting styles and values are different from their own, then it is imperative that the counsellor understand the client’s world in the context of the client and not themselves.

It is not unusual for some parents to smack their children and use forms of corporal punishment. Many professionals especially in the counselling field prefer to use Time Out (a negative punishment) or reinforcements for positive behaviours. But it must be remembered that clients often have varying backgrounds, values and experiences, all of which contribute to their view of discipline. This of course does not mean that the parent client is right or that their parenting styles and values must not be challenged, but that challenge must come from a counsellor who is empathic to the parent and not judgemental.

When an individual feels or senses that they are being judged (Geldard & Geldard, 2005), they become inhibited, less trusting and less honest. Only when an individual feels accepted for who they are and not what they do can behavioural changes take place.
Parenting styles

There are four recognised parenting styles, (Bukatko and Daehler, 2001): Indulgent (sometimes also called Permissive), Authoritarian, Authoritative and Uninvolved (sometimes called Neglectful).

Briefly, Indulgent parenting consists of setting few boundaries for children and low to moderate nurturing. The Authoritarian parent style includes harsh and controlling boundaries with strict obedience to rules. A demand for respect with little flexibility, there is little to no nurturing.

The Authoritative parenting style uses positive reinforcement rather than punishment; these parents tend to behave in a mature fashion towards their children encouraging dialogue with their children while being supportive and nurturing.

The Uninvolved parent is emotionally detached from the child and focuses on their own needs as opposed to the child’s. Few boundaries exist with little to no nurturance in the parent and child relationship.

When parents first present to the counsellor, part of the assessment a counsellor must take into account is whether the incident or reason that the parents are seeking advice is an isolated “one off” occurrence that has caused them concern or if the issue needing to be addressed is on-going or has a history.


All individuals will experience anxiety in a new or unknown environment, regardless of how confident they may be in their lives. Therefore, what might be considered a minor concern to the experienced counsellor, can be quite traumatic for the parent.

The process of normalisation (Geldard & Geldard, 2005) could be most useful to the confused or anxious parent. The counsellor can give the parent information that assists them to understand that their reactions to their particular situation is understandable and acceptable: quite normal under their particular circumstances. Normalisation can assist the parent to accept that they are not being judged by the counsellor.

Counsellors my find it challenging to motivate parents to change their perspective in order to change behaviours. Many parents are not aware that their parenting styles (Barber, 1996) need to correspond with the child’s age. Some parents will treat their teenagers similarly to the way they treat their two year olds, by not allowing them to take responsibility or accountability for their actions around the home. Yet others will load their toddlers up with all the problems of the world.

It is often helpful to introduce parents to Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development to assist parents to understand the necessity of changing parental styles in accordance with the child’s age (Carlson, Heth, Miller, Donahoe, Buskist & Martin, 2007).


Empathic communication especially with parents is vitally important. Counsellors will be aware of the advantages of open questions which encourage clients to explain and expand with their responses (Pelling, Bowers & Armstrong, 2007). When combined with active listening and empathic responses, open questions can assist parents in expressing their feelings and concerns. Empathic responses also encourage the client to share more information because they feel understood and accepted.

It must be remembered that all the other counselling skills such as attending, observation, closed questions, encouraging, paraphrasing and summarising (to name a few) are equally as important and have their strategic place when counsellors are assisting parents to share information and gain insight into their behaviour.

Client types

Many parents who have come to the counselling session are prepared to speak with the counsellor to gain some insight into an issue or problem. But some parents do not understand why they need to be involved in the counselling sessions, and others know why, but do not want to be involved.

Some parents are silent, (Ollier, and Hobday, 2001). Maybe their anxiety is due to their fear of being blamed for their child’s behaviour. It is important for the counsellor to explain that if a child does partake in negative behaviour, it is not always because something is happening at home, sometimes the cause can be associated with school or friends and acquaintances. Encourage the parents to work with you to find a solution.

Dependent parents can believe that the counsellor will “fix the problem” or they can become dependent upon meeting with the counsellor because they leave the counsellor feeling positive. Encourage the parent to take responsibility for their decisions, encourage autonomy.

Aggressive parents need a different strategy altogether. Never see these clients late in the afternoon or when you could be in the office alone. Always ensure you have an “emergency exit” plan in place if you find you need to quickly leave the room. If children are present, remove the children saying: “I’ll just take the children out to the play area so we can discuss this matter ourselves”, or something similar.

In separated families, the division of loyalties can be difficult for children to manage. This can often raise issues as to which parent should be involved in the counselling session. Remember, with the use of open questions, empathic responses and the use of solution-focused therapy, the counsellor must always encourage the parents, to move toward working together to promote the best outcome for the child.

Foster carers and adoptive parents will probably never know the full extent of a particular child’s past experiences (Ollier, et. al. 2001). As a significant number of foster care children and adopted children have been abused or neglected, they often suffer emotional disturbances that can cause behavioural problems. Gaining trust with these children is a common problem as many children will spend a lot of energy “testing the waters” to find how their new (foster or adoptive) parents will respond to provocation. This can cause the parents to have feelings of inadequacy.


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