Counselling Dilemma: Child Welfare and Safety
John has been attending counselling sessions for several months seeking help with the difficulties he is finding in dealing with his relationship break-up. He and his partner were together for ten years and have two children, a boy aged 9 and a girl aged 7. John has access to them every other weekend and for part of each school holiday. This arrangement has been operating reasonably well for the past two years.
In John’s sessions with you, you become increasingly aware of building frustrations and stress regarding visitation and access to his children. His heightened display of frustration has raised a number of concerns for you about the stability of his mood and thought processes. Aware of recent reports about parents taking the lives of their children and themselves in similar circumstances, you begin to become apprehensive about the children’s welfare and safety.
As a counsellor, what would you do in this situation?
John has been seeing his children every other weekend and for parts of the school holidays over the last two years. This arrangement has ?been operating reasonably well? over that time frame. John has been attending counselling for several months.
For the purposes of this example, I have made the following assumptions about John?s situation:
1. I (as John?s counsellor) have established a reasonably good rapport with John.
2. There has been no indication (over the last two years) that the children have been at risk of any harm in John?s care.
Considering the above information the steps I would consider are as follows:
Talk with John about my observations and ask for his feedback. (I.e. Ask John if my observations about his ?frustration and stress? are accurate). Depending on John?s response to my enquiry, I would either a) implement a stress management program with John OR b) gently confront John about the changes I have noted in his behaviour that have made me suspect that he is stressed or frustrated.
(During this discussion I would talk with John about his usual way of releasing stress or frustration. Is it constructive or does he take it out on other people? (His children, for example).
If, after much discussion with John, I decide that the children are in some way at risk of harm (although this is not indicated in the scenario), I would tell John of my concerns and offer him the option of a support person for access visits.
If John refused this support and I maintained concern for the safety of the children, I would explain to John that I think it is best we involve a worker from the Department of Child Safety (or equivalent in my State).
I would then proceed to discuss my concerns with a Departmental Officer via my supervisor/manager. Ongoing case work with John would be a collaborative effort between myself, the Departmental Officer & John.
John has been attending counselling sessions for several months seeking help with the difficulties he is finding in dealing with his relationship breakup. In this time the counsellor would have built up quite a strong rapport with John and would have become aware of his building frustration and stress with the situation of weekend access visits every other weekend. Hopefully some relaxation techniques would have been applied in a situation such as this from the start.
Transference of stress energy can also be encouraged in the form of sport or power walks for John when he is feeling particularly aggressive. Because relationship break-ups are a growing trend, there are several support groups around – particularly for supporting parents like John – to access other members of families in similar circumstances.
Being honest with John about how scary life is at the moment with all the advertising regarding abuse in our lives, self disclosure is not harmful if it will encourage communication around this area to be opened up.
Even though there have been a number of media reports about people taking the lives of their children and themselves in similar circumstances, and taking into consideration your apprehension regarding John?s children?s welfare, attending to John?s state of well-being is first and foremost.
Encouraging John in the safety of the counselling room to be able to disclose to you his innermost thoughts and feelings regarding potential safety issues is paramount. Sometimes just saying the words out loud comes as a relief if suppressed feelings have held John captive for some time.
Stating and reinforcing to John that at any time he does feel pressured or in a frantic state, he should phone a friend, relative or member of a support group at that moment to talk things through can make a significant difference to the way in which John reacts to such emotional states.
Perhaps role playing with the counsellor, modelling circumstances that could place John in a situation where he may need to contact somebody outside for help, guidance and support could be of assistance. The counsellor also needs to remind and reinforce John that he is an adult with needs and that his health and well-being need to be taken care of in order for him to meet the needs of his children.
Applying person-centred therapy from the start and encouraging John to feel safe and able to say anything on his mind, so that he can work effectively through his issues with the counsellor. A focus on the future particularly on what John will be doing as soon as he leaves the counselling room can be of tremendous help to getting John on the right track. As John?s counsellor I would assist him set goals just for the day and then extend his goals gradually into the future to assist him regain focus and motivation to achieve what is important to him.
Being totally honest with John and disclosing your concern regarding the safety of children, in general terms, will be helpful with the bond you have with your client. It will show how these issues of potential trauma can be suffocated through the process of counselling.
Regarding client “John” who is expressing distress and frustration regarding his separation and access to children. Just another aspect that hasn’t been mentioned in comments – the content matter regarding his ex-wife and children. One of the things i like to explore in separation situations is the ongoing relationship with the ex – the healthier that can be, the better it is for the children and the adults, and their future relationships. So there is work to do in processing the feelings for the ex, grief work no doubt, the meaning of being a father and coming to terms with the reality that is, rather than what we would have liked it to be.
Regarding John’s changes and increased distress, I feel it is paramount to ascertain from John if his distress is related the the children, the ex-wife (or perhaps a new love interest she may have) or stems from himself and his own inadequacies to deal with his inability to find a stable relationship. It is really only once this core distress is unravelled that a true and effective solution can be gained, remembering that the children are of a main concern here as well.