Yesterday, I took the day off from work. Originally it was scheduled so that I could take my wife to another of her recurrent surgeries for her chronic pain, which thanks to COVID-19, has been cancelled indefinitely. It happened to line up nicely, however, with cabinet install day for our home renovation that is thankfully heading every so much closer to the finish line. It also coincided with a need that I’ve identified lately – that is, a need for rest. What I didn’t expect is to be spending most of the day feeling sad. For a while, I didn’t know why I was feeling this way, until the question loomed in my mind, “How do I respond to racism?”
You see, I’m one of the ones who is, on most given days, gleefully ignorant about racism. It’s not that I am not aware of it, because I am aware because on different parts of the world I’ve lived in, different ethnic groups I’ve worked with, clients I’ve seen, etc. It is, however, because on any given day, I am not personally subjected to it. In fact, it’s been exceedingly absent in my life. While I was pondering this question about how do I respond to racism all day yesterday, I realized that I can only think of one time in my life where I was keenly aware that I was being treated poorly because of my race. The details of the situation aren’t important here I don’t think, and likely wouldn’t spark any sort of helpful conversation, but it does highlight that in 39 years I can only think of one time where I was very aware of being discriminated against based on my race.
This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been aware of being treated differently, because I have been while travelling. While I would suggest that it’s still not okay, it’s normal, in my experience, to be seen as other when you’re in another country, and even hearing words like gringo if you happen to be white. Or, if you’re living in Ukraine and your friend is from Korea, it’s not uncommon for kids to stop dead in their tracks and stare simply because they’ve never seen an Asian person before.
There’s a massive difference, however, in the experiences I’ve had versus those from whom we’ve all been hearing from in the past few days through the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, and the devastating events around the death of George Floyd. In all of my 39 years, I can only recall one instance where I felt unsafe or threatened as a result of my treatment based on my race.
This is in contrast to some who can’t go 39 days, or 39 minutes, or perhaps 39 seconds between experiences that make them feel unsafe, threatened, or less than.
This makes me sad.
It makes me feel a whole lot of other things, including mad, confused, angry, frustrated, scared, and more. But, if I give myself the time to actually sit with the emotions and discern what I’m feeling, the core of it is sadness.
I’m sad because although I do my very best to honour everyone, regardless of race, colour, creed, ethnicity, or otherwise, I know that at some point I have unwittingly made someone feel this way myself.
I’m sad, because a part of my heritage story is related to culture – my family came to Canada in the early 1900’s because they were literally being killed off for being who they were, and coming to Canada saved their lives. And we still have the same problems over 100 years later.
I’m sad because although my wife and I do our best to raise our girls to love and respect everyone they meet, from all races and creeds and backgrounds, they too will struggle to follow through and will make mistakes, and this will inflict further pain even into the next generation.
We come from privilege. We are white, middle-class, and I am male. This carries a privilege that I am becoming more and more aware of. It carries a responsibility to realize this, and understand this, and do better in our actions as we move forward.
Now, some of you may have just cringed at that last paragraph. Some of you may feel that what I’m saying means that those of us who come from privilege need to be sorry for, repentant of, or similar for the fact that we are white, grew up reasonably well off, and may be male.
That’s not at all what I’m saying, and that’s not at all what privilege means. It simply means that we have some advantages in life that others do not, simply by being born into what we’re born into. With that carries a responsibility to be aware of this, and use this privilege to care for others.
It also doesn’t mean we didn’t work hard to get what we have, to do what we do, and that we shouldn’t appreciate it, and enjoy it. It simply means that if we didn’t have the privilege we do, it likely would have been harder for us to have the same successes in life.
How Do I Respond To Racism?
Herein lies the problem. I am by no means an expert on race relations, cultural history, sociology, or otherwise. I don’t have any perfect answers to this, or even particularly qualified ones. Instead, here are some thoughts I’ve had over the past few days that hopefully might be helpful to us all as we wrestle with this issue of racism that I don’t believe is going to go away anytime soon. How do we respond? What do we need right now to make changes?
We Need Grace
Nothing highlights the need for grace more to me right now than writing this article. I know that it is nowhere near perfect, and doesn’t come up with any astounding answers to any of the massive, looming questions many of us have. I know I’ve made mistakes in this article in my own ignorance.
This highlights our need for grace as we navigate this challenging issue, in a challenging time. While this article isn’t authoritative, or perfect, it is honest.
These are simply my honest wrestling with an issue I don’t know enough about. It is the start of an attempt to lend help, even in my own imperfection, with initial thoughts on a complex issue.
I ask for your grace as you read this, and I would ask for grace for us all, from those who are subjected to racism on a daily basis. You don’t deserve this treatment, and we don’t deserve your grace – but, if you can muster some grace for us while we try to change our understanding and our behaviour, we will all hopefully win in the end.
With grace, we can have hope for a different future, one that honours everyone, from all races and cultural backgrounds. A future that holds promise for us all.
We need to feel sad
Understandably, there is a lot of anger right now over the state of race relations, and particularly over the death of George Floyd. And, there should be anger over what happened to Mr. Floyd, and what has happened to far too many people over the years who have been subjected to similar treatment.
In my area of expertise, psychology, we understand generally that anger is a basic emotion (one of the 6 basic emotions according to the Gottman Institute). Anger, however, is often a secondary emotion – based on underlying emotions that aren’t expressed.
One of the most common source emotions for anger that I see, particularly in men, is sadness. I know for myself, I am far more likely to express anger than I am sadness. It’s not particularly socially acceptable in North America for men to express sadness, but it is much more socially acceptable (if only for being more common) to be angry.
The problem is that very few productive conversations happen through anger and the expression of anger. It doesn’t mean it’s not valid, it just isn’t as effective in communication. If someone is angry with us, our back usually goes up and we become defensive. Very rarely is our response to ask something like, “Can you help me understand why you’re angry, please tell me more.” Instead, our fundamental biology kicks in through our limbic system and we go to defensive mode, and most likely, enter into our fight-or-flight stance (or freeze for that matter).
What happens, then, if we embrace the underlying sadness? I’d suggest it instructs us better (I can easily describe right now why I’m so sad about all of this versus if you asked me in the angry moments to describe why I’m angry), and it’s more effective in communication. If someone tells us they’re sad, we’re far more likely to respond in curiosity and kindness wanting to know more, simply because our limbic system isn’t firing.
“Anger is valid and ok, but we shouldn’t gloss over the underlying sadness.”
We need to educate ourselves
This may seem blatantly obvious, but it’s still the truth. We are woefully uneducated as a whole about racism, no matter what our background is. This is where I will plead ignorance regarding resources because I’m at the stage of doing my best to find out what some of the most helpful resources are.
There are two main reasons that we need to educate ourselves: to understand, and to reduce pain.
While I am early on in my journey toward education on this subject, I did come across this article that lists a number of resources that I have seen posted many, many times and seem to be helpful. Our very own Rebecca Farnell posted the book, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor on her Instagram feed and it seems like it would be a good resource for those of us wanting to learn more. I am continuing to look to find resources that are suggested by people who know far more about this than I do. I’ll update this post as I find more resources as I hope it will be helpful to others.
The second reason we need to educate ourselves is because when it comes to pain, the inevitable result of racism, current pain science research shows that it is one of the greatest modifiers of the pain we experience.
Since I do have a particular interest in chronic pain and the psychological management of pain, I was reading The Explain Pain Handbook: Protectometer yesterday to try to find some resources for a client. In this book they explain that in terms of physical pain, embracing bioplasticity and education about pain can adapt the body to reduce pain and disability and increase life satisfaction (p.30). They also state that bioplasticity is based on the research on neuroplasticity which is the research showing that our brain is able to change over time, no matter our age.
What we do know, is that physical pain and emotional pain act the same way in the brain, and hit the same receptors. We have documented data on the effects of traumatic stress on the brain. It seems to me that if education can reduce our physical pain, it should help our emotional pain. If we know what is happening, we can respond differently, and this can change the impact on our neurobiology.
We need to connect
More than ever, we need to connect around this issue. We need to learn together, do better together, change together. I’m convinced that the solution to our problem with racism lies in human connection. It’s going to be a long road, but connection is where we start.
If we connect, we can learn from those who are hurting and change our behaviour. If we connect, those who are hurting can understand the perspective of the perpetrators and what they are trying to do to change, thus reducing their pain. Note well, this is not to excuse the perpetration, it is to understand one another’s positions and the efforts being made to change for the better, and to reduce pain in the meantime.
If we connect, we can reduce pain. I remember a study that Sue Johnson mentioned once (and I’m actively trying to find the study), where subjects participated in a random controlled trial on secure relationships and pain response. From memory, they had three conditions:
- Subject enters the room, is shocked with electricity, and their pain response is measured.
- Subject enters the room, a random person is also sitting in the room, and the subject is shocked with electricity and their pain response is measured.
- Subject enters the room, another person they have a safe, secure relationship with is also in the room, and the subject is shocked with electricity and their pain response is measured.
In that third condition, the study found that they could get the pain response down to almost zero. Let’s remember, the other person in the room did nothing other than sit in the room with them.
This is how powerful safe, secure human connection is. If we can find ways of doing this in the midst of our pain around racism, we stand a chance to weather the storm while we try to make the changes we need to make to do something about it.
Our commitment at Alongside You
I hope it goes without saying that everyone is welcome at Alongside You. We embrace all races, cultures, and backgrounds at our clinic. Our staff and associates come from all backgrounds, as do our clients. Our intent is to welcome anyone and everyone and that they would feel loved, and cared for.
I also understand that we are not perfect, and we too make mistakes. Here is my commitment as the Director of our clinic – if anyone has had, or in future has any concerns about how they are treated by our clinic for any reason, and particularly with regard to race and ethnicity, please contact me directly and I will sit down with you personally to listen, to learn, and to see what if anything needs to change at our clinic.
Safety, security, compassion, and respect are core to our values and I commit to doing anything I can do ensure that these values are communicated to every client by our words, our actions and our policies.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you’re struggling with racism in any way, we’re here with you in the middle of it. Let us know how we can help.
As I sat in church this past Sunday, I was reminded that this time of year is supposed to be about hope.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the Nativity Story, the story of Jesus’ birth, is one about hope. Namely, that God came down in the form of a baby to save the world. What’s even more important to know, however, is that this is said to have happened in quite possibly the most awkward, unexpected, and improbably way possible: a virgin birth. This was beyond counter-cultural (and actually dangerous) in the culture at the time – both Joseph and Mary had some seriously difficult decisions to make and actions to take if this was to come to fruition without either of them losing their communities or quite possibly, their lives.
This got me thinking about mental health (yes, my brain goes there more often than not). It got me thinking about how I don’t often get excited about this time of year and wondering why that is. I think this year it simply crept up on me without notice and here I am, apparently in the Christmas season, and I haven’t even had time to think about it. I’ve written some of my thoughts previously, which you can find here. In short, I don’t get particularly excited about the holidays, presents, or otherwise. Some of it stress-induced, some of it is I’m not a particularly excitable person for these sorts of things, and some of it being I’m already thinking about January and it’s barely even December.
I’m Tired of Things That Don’t Last
I think part of my reticence around Christmas is that it seems to have turned into simply a gift-giving season where we give gifts that disappear shortly thereafter. Now, I actually really like giving gifts. When I have time, I tend to get creative and go all-out. I’ve never been one to get particularly excited about getting stuff. This goes for pretty much any gift, but especially the stuff we all give and get that lasts for a bit and ends up in the closet, only to be thrown out the next time we need to move.
Now, I should add to this, I always appreciate the gifts people give me. I appreciate the time that went into them, I appreciate how they taste (most people know I love chocolate and act accordingly), and most of all, I appreciate the time I spend enjoying them with others. For me, the real enjoyment comes with spending time with the people who gave me the gifts. This is what hits home, and this is what I remember.
All I Want For Christmas Is Hope
I haven’t been asked yet, but invariably I’ll get asked soon by people what it is that I want for Christmas. I honestly cannot think of a single thing I want for Christmas. For better or worse, I have every tangible thing I need – I’m very fortunate that way. This takes the discussion from needs to wants. That list is challenging because it’s very small, and generally, very expensive (i.e. I want to renovate my kitchen, there’s a laptop that could use replacing, etc.), and I would never ask for that for Christmas. And even in those areas, I’m fortunate in that I can usually find ways to get what is wanted, or I simply wait until it’s possible.
But there is one thing I both need and want. It doesn’t need to cost money, and it’s in plentiful supply if we’re all willing to give it.
“This Christmas, I need Hope.”
As I sat there in church thinking about anything but the sermon, tears came to my eyes as I realized what it was that I needed. Hope. It seems so simple, yet so difficult. One of the challenges of being a Registered Clinical Counsellor and running a growing mental health team is I am faced daily with the pain, heartache, and trauma that people experience within our community, and in our world at large. This takes a toll.
Before any of the people reading this who know me freak out, this is not a cry for help or a sign of burnout. I’m fine. I’m simply very aware of the degree to which people are hurting and are in need of hope.
This is simultaneously one of the things I absolutely love about my job, and about what we do at Alongside You – that is, we bring people hope, and often in times where they can’t see any hope for themselves.
Bringing Hope Can Mean Some Difficult Decisions
Part of what struck me about the Christmas story and the decisions and actions that Mary and Joseph had to make was how similar they were to some of the decisions we have to make when we’re recovering from mental health. It’s not an easy road, that’s for sure.
This can be a hard one! Relationships are front and centre in any battle with mental health. Whether it’s depression, anxiety, PTSD, trauma, addiction, or otherwise, relationships are front and centre. Sometimes the difficult decision may be to tell a loved one about our struggles. Sometimes it may be to tell a close relationship that what they are doing is hurting us. Sometimes it may be that we need to end a relationship in order to pursue healing and recovery.
Sometimes, like Mary, it may mean telling someone something so personal, and even unbelievable, while simultaneously being scared that it will end the relationship and have significant negative effects on our lives.
On the flip side, sometimes, like Joseph, we’re the one being told something incredibly difficult to imagine or manage. What if our loved one tells us something so difficult that we have a hard time processing it? Staying present with it? Staying in a relationship with them, knowing this new information?
It’s difficult all around. The choices we sometimes have to make in mental health can be full of anguish, and even despair.
There are plenty of potential consequences to the situation Joseph and Mary found themselves in. What about us? I know in my own journey with mental health, there have been many times where my battles have had very significant negative consequences on me and also those around me.
We don’t always make wise decisions when we struggle with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, addiction, or other areas of mental health. In fact, more often than not, we can’t make wise decisions. It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s actually that we can’t. When we’re in fight or flight mode, our limbic system is in control and our cortex has flipped its lid. Other times, we’re simply human and we make bad decisions just like everyone else; it just means that sometimes the consequences are more dire or significant.
This Holiday Season, Focus On Experiences
I want to be excited about Christmas, I really do. I’m sure that once I’m off work (in theory) after December 20th, I’ll maybe start getting excited. My goal, however, is to get excited before then. I’ve decided I’m going to focus on experiences in my gift-giving this year, in the hopes that my gifts will last beyond the season, and selfishly, in the hopes that it gets me a little more excited even before I take some time off.
Why experiences you might ask? Well, because they don’t go to the landfill, for one. But the main reason is this:
Connection is what gives us Hope when we need it most.
As I sat with a client today, I reminisced a little bit about this, and it reminded me of one thing: In my entire history of working with clients, particularly with addiction, I can’t think of a single case where the connection wasn’t the solution. It doesn’t mean that medications, therapy, exercise, nutrition, and all of these other pieces aren’t important, because they are; what it does mean is that without connection, we don’t have hope. Without hope, we lose the point and the motivation for the other pieces.
Without connection, nothing else matters and nothing else works.
I truly believe this. Without connection, I don’t care if you have the best therapist, the best doctors, the best meds, the best exercise plan, or otherwise, it will not work.
Do you know why? Because without connection, the therapy won’t work, the doctors won’t work, the medicine won’t work, and it will all be for naught. The research shows us this fact.
What To Get Andrew For Christmas
So, this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I’m also serious. All I want for Christmas is hope. This is what I get excited about – people. People and hope are what drives me every day. It’s literally all I can think about in terms of what I want for Christmas.
I want people to have hope.
This is why all of my Christmas gifts are going to be experiential in some way. Not stuff. Things that will help people experience themselves, and the world in a more positive way.
So, if you want to get me something for Christmas, give someone an experience, a chance to connect with you in some way. And while what I’m about to say may sound like hyperbole, it really isn’t – you can change someone’s life simply by giving them this type of a gift. It may not categorically change their life at the moment, but maybe, just maybe they’ll believe that you care about them, that they are worth it, that they have meaning.
If you really want to get me something for Christmas, come to our conference in January called Let’s Talk Hope. This is a chance for all of us to get together and find hope for mental health in our community – through connection. If you’re stuck for a present for someone you care about, bring them too.
This isn’t me schilling another conference for the sake of a conference or selling tickets. Between you and me and the rest of the internet, we aren’t running this for profit. In fact, if we cover our costs we’ll be happy. Anything over and above our costs goes straight back into helping people with mental health struggles.
I’m asking you for this for Christmas because I truly believe it could be the start of something that changes the face of mental health in our community. Not in and of itself, not as a one-stop solution, but as a start to something that points towards hope.
If you are alive and are human, we need your voice in the discussion of mental health. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional, someone who suffers from mental illness, a parent, or otherwise. Your voice matters.
If we sell this thing out, and we come together as a community to bring hope to Delta in the face of some of the most challenging times we’ve ever had, it will be worth it.
If only one person leaves and feels more worthwhile and valued, and loved, it will be worth it.
And I guarantee it will be the best $15-30 you will ever spend.
I believe in this so strongly that if being able to afford the cost of the ticket is keeping you from coming, please contact me directly. I will personally cover the cost of you coming to the conference because I believe it will be more than worth it, and I believe you are worth it. No questions asked.
“If I spend all my Christmas money on giving you hope, it will be the best Christmas ever.”
Christmas Is About Connection
As this is my one and only blog post about the holidays this year, I want to wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas, and happy holidays as you enter this special time of year. It is full of surprises, stresses, and joys. It is my hope that it will be full of connection for you.
The connection is what brings us together, reminds us that we are worth it, and reminds us that there is hope in all things and in all situations.
No matter what this season brings for you, know that we believe in you and your value, and I look forward to seeing you in 2020.
One in five Canadians lives with a mental illness according to statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association. In my experience, the rate at which people struggle with mental health issues of some kind is much higher. Most people suffer in silence. Statistically speaking, we are all connected to someone struggling with mental illness. While you’re reading this, look around you. I guarantee someone you just saw is struggling with mental illness and/or a mental health issue of some sort. It’s guaranteed. Are you surprised?
I remember the first time I knew what it meant to feel sad and not know why; and the time I realized that I felt this way a lot of the time, and still didn’t know why. I was six years old. It confused me deeply. I had loving parents, we had a house to live in and food to eat, I went to a good school, I had a good community of people around me. I still felt sad. A lot.
When I was a kid, nobody talked about mental illness, mental health, or anything in the middle. It simply wasn’t something that was a part of the dialogue. As I contemplated what I was going to write this morning, I realized that actually, I don’t recall any public conversations about mental health growing up, whether it was elementary school years, or high school. And while I like to joke that I’m getting old, it wasn’t that long ago that I was in high school.
It wasn’t for lack of experiences that could lead to a discussion either. I had friends who had very difficult home lives, knew people who lived through tragic accidents, I’ve lost friends to suicide, and more, never mind the statistics we now know about the rate at which mental illness affects the population as a whole. I’m not sure why it was not talked about, it just wasn’t.
Now that I’m older, and in the mental health field, I’m glad that there is more talk about mental illness and mental health management. What I find now, however, is that I can grow tired about simply talking about it and creating awareness, probably to a fault. Awareness is very important. I can only imagine the difference it would have made for me, or friends I now know struggled in childhood, if we could have heard about mental health and had discussions about it. The discussions, however, leave me asking the question, “So now what?” Many of the discussions I hear sound hopeless and don’t offer many solutions. As a professional, I’m also well aware that the solution isn’t simply more professionals and more mental health services.
Let’s Talk Hope
One of the things I’m known for, and is written all over my bios on various websites, is that I don’t believe in hopeless causes. It is one of my fundamental beliefs that there is hope in every situation, even if we can’t always see it when we’re in the middle of it. Last year, I connected with Connie Jakab who formed National Hope Talks and we collaborated on a conference in Calgary this past January. The conference is all about hope.
This time around, in January 2020, the conference will be hosted in Edmonton and Calgary, and together with 140 Sports, we’re bringing it to Delta. It’s time we went beyond talking and start acting like we believe that there’s hope.
What Is Let’s Talk Hope?
Let’s Talk Hope is a conference, or perhaps an unconference where we bring together students, teachers, parents, mental health workers, business people, non-profit leaders, and more to talk about Hope. We’ll have some speakers with lived experience and unique insight into mental health. This will set the tone for the day, and give some valuable information about what some of us are seeing in the community in terms of mental health. We’re also going to have workshops that incorporate different art forms and help build skills to manage mental health in our own lives, the lives of our community, and beyond.
The peak of the experience at Let’s Talk Hope are the incubator sessions. In these sessions, we get into small groups where people are mixed up to have at least one teacher, student, business leader, mental health worker, non-profit leader, etc. Each person gets 2-3 min to share their perspective and what they are noticing about mental health. Each group then writes down what was commonly shared and what could potentially be the solution.
We know we aren’t going to solve mental illness in one day. What we are going to do is create hope, and get creative, and talk solutions. Solutions that will come from every part of our community, not just the professionals.
Join us in Bringing Hope to Delta in January 2020
I can tell you that the first Let’s Talk Hope conference this year was one of the most powerful, encouraging, and hope giving experiences I’ve had in my work in mental health. It helps bring the message of hope in mental health forward, knocks down silos between providers, clients, and the community, and gives us a renewed sense of connection, of togetherness in this fight for mental health in our own back yard.
Does this sound like something you’d like to be a part of? We need to hear your voice and have you as part of the solution to bring hope to our community.
Join us on January 18, 2020 for a day of community, celebration, sharing each other’s stories, and talking solutions.
A couple of weeks ago, we published an article on what to expect at your first counselling appointment. We wrote this article in response to questions we’d been receiving from people who hadn’t been to a counsellor before and we hope it was helpful!
We’ve been receiving more questions about counselling appointments, and particularly appointments for children with a Registered Clinical Counsellor. So, we thought we’d write another article to address some of the things that are unique about counselling appointments for children. I won’t repeat the details of the last article, so you may want to read that one first, and continue here.
Consent and Confidentiality in Counselling for Children
Consent to Counselling
One of the questions we get asked is, “Who can consent to treatment, and can my child consent?” This is a bit of a tricky question in some situations, particularly around parental separation and divorce. I’ll save the intricacies for another article, but in general, one or both parents need to consent for their child to see a Registered Clinical Counsellor. If there are no court orders involved, either parent can consent but we always like to get both parents to consent, and also to provide history and input because we believe it’s in the child’s best interests to operate this way in most situations. The more information we can get and the more support the child can get, the better off everyone is.
In terms of when a child can consent to their own counselling, there is no black and white line drawn in BC in terms of the age at which a child can consent. One of the most commonly-used ages is 14 and is generally accepted by most service providers. If, however, you can make an argument that the child is what is called a mature minor, the child can consent as early as age 12, or possibly earlier as long as they understand what they are consenting to. In most situations, we use the age of 14 as a guideline here at Alongside You.
Confidentiality in Counselling for Children
Many parents find it unnerving to send their child to counselling when they are not in the room to witness what is happening and being said. As a parent, I can easily understand this anxiety – I know I want to know what is happening for my kids all the time! Here’s the challenge – counselling relies on a safe, secure relationship between the client and the counsellor built on trust. If the child thinks the counsellor is going to turn around and tell the parents everything they are saying, what are the chances the relationship of trust will survive? Probably not very high.
Every Registered Clinical Counsellor at Alongside You is responsible for their professional practice and so there may be some variability in how much input from parents is sought. What I would suggest is that most counsellors will seek to collaborate with parents as much as possible, with the best interests of the child in mind. The degree to which information is passed, however, is going to depend on the comfort level of the child and the strength of the therapeutic relationship with the counsellor. It will also depend on the counsellor’s judgement of what information would be helpful to pass on. If there is a suspicion of imminent risk to the child, confidentiality can be breached without consent, but this is a judgement call on the part of the counsellor and up to their professional discretion. I know this involves a great deal of trust on the part of parents, and it is not lost on us as professionals. We want the best for your kids and will hope to strike the greatest balance between these needs to help your child.
Who Comes To The First Appointment?
The answer to this question really depends on the age of the child, or what the child wants. For younger children (i.e. approximately 12 years old or younger), it’s quite common for the first session to be with the parents alone to get some history and background and answer any questions or concerns. This first appointment can also be split between the parents and the child, at the counsellor’s discretion.
For older children, it’s likely going to come down to what the child wants. If the child wants the parents to come into the first session, then that’s likely what will happen. If, however, the child wants to come in alone, it’ll likely be just the child in the session. This is to build trust between the counsellor and the child and allow them to establish boundaries around safety and trust.
How Can I Help My Child While They Are In Counselling?
Encourage Your Child
Going to counselling can be scary for anyone, and it’s a lot to take in for a child. One of the best things you can do is to be encouraging. Let your child know that this is a time for them to have a safe place to talk about what is happening for them. Emphasize that this is an opportunity to work through some of the difficult things in life, it’s not a place to go to get fixed because there’s something wrong with them. They are wonderfully made human beings who sometimes need a little extra help.
It may also be helpful to let your child know that you’ve gone to see a counsellor before and share how it helped you, in as much detail as you’re comfortable with and as is appropriate for the age of your child. Common experience and reassurance can go a long way.
Avoid Interrogating Your Child After The Session
I get it – you want to know what happened. We all do as parents. But, it’s not going to support the process if the child then worries about being interrogated after coming out. Instead, a helpful question can be, “Is there anything you’d like to tell me about your time with the counsellor?” Realize that answer may be, “No,” and this needs to be okay. You want to give your child the opportunity to share their journey with you, not make a demand that they let you in if they’re not ready to do that yet.
Understanding The Reports You Get Back
We all love our children, and we want to believe everything they say. I remember when my parents would ask me what I did at school, invariably, my answer each time was, “I played and had a snack.” I, of course, didn’t do this, and this only every day at school. I was a very forthcoming child apparently. I also know, that what kids report back to parents isn’t always accurate (the same goes for adults), or the full story. This isn’t intentional necessarily, it’s just how our communication patterns work. I remember a client that I was doing EMDR with one time had gone home and told their parents that we had been doing ECT. Yes, that ECT that involves significant electrical charges to the brain in a hospital setting. Thankfully the parents called me to clarify and assumed that something got lost in translation. I’ve also heard clients tell parents, “All we did was talk about boring stuff,” or, “All we did was draw a picture.” While some of this may be true, there’s usually a lot more to the story.
It’s helpful if we all start with the assumption that the counsellor has the best interests of the child in mind and that we may not be getting the whole story when we get it from our child. Be curious, ask general questions, and if you have any concerns, contact the counsellor to clarify.
Trust The Counsellor and Your Child
I know it’s unnerving to trust someone else with the care of your child. I get that on both sides, as a Registered Clinical Counsellor and as a father of two young girls. Again, trust goes a long way and goes both ways in the relationship between parents and therapists. We want what’s best for your child, and we’ll do whatever is possible to help. Sometimes this involves us not divulging information you may want to know, and sometimes that may be unnerving for you.
We want to include you in any way we believe will be helpful for your child and your family. This sometimes takes time to develop, understand, and plan for. Your patience is much appreciated, as is your commitment to a process that may have you feeling like you’re standing on the outside at times.
Thanks for reading to the end! I hope this helps with some of the questions you may have about the first appointment with a Registered Clinical Counsellor for your child, and a bit about the ongoing process. Sending your child to a counsellor for the first time can be nerve-wracking, and challenging at times. Please feel free to ask any questions you like as you’re booking, we’ll answer them as best we can!
I remember my first counselling session. I was pretty freaked out. I didn’t really want to be there. I didn’t know what to expect. I think that last part was what made the situation difficult – I’d never been before, I didn’t know anyone who had seen a counsellor before, so I was completely lost and anxious about it.
I saw a new client yesterday and this reminded me of my own first experience seeing a counsellor. This client had never been to counselling, had no idea what to expect, and I could see that there was definitely some anxiety about the whole situation.
While every counsellor will be different in their approach, I thought I’d write an article about what to expect and how to make your first session as successful as possible when you meet with your Registered Clinical Counsellor for the first time.
Here at Alongside You, your first interaction will be with our front desk staff who will explain much of the administrative details that you’ll need to know, give you recommendations on which of our counsellors might be the best fit, and help to book your first session. After that, they will send you our online intake form to fill out prior to your appointment. This helps us take care of the necessary paperwork ahead of time, and also helps our counsellors get an idea of what you’re coming in for and some details before you arrive.
When you arrive, you’ll enter the waiting room to wait for your appointment. We have a self-serve waiting room, so please feel free to help yourself to water, coffee, or tea and take a seat. We want you to be as comfortable as possible! If you have any questions before your appointment and it’s during our reception hours, feel free to wander toward the back and speak with our office staff, they’ll be happy to speak to you.
Once your appointment time arrives, your counsellor will come greet you in the waiting room, and invariably, probably offer you another drink. Feel free to get a refill, they’re free! Now it’s time for the main event. Your first appointment with a Registered Clinical Counsellor.
Each counsellor will have a bit of a different interview process to start out your work together, but remember, they need to get to know you and also, you need to get to know them for the relationship to work. The first appointment will be about building the relationship and getting to know each other.
Here are some areas that I usually ask clients about at our first session to get to know them and how I might be of help. Again, every counsellor will be different but a lot of these questions are fairly common to ask new clients.
Things A Counsellor Might Ask You At The First Appointment
Personal and Family History
I like to know what life was like growing up, and how clients got to where they are today. This can be a short or lengthy discussion. As a marriage and family therapist by training, I believe that our personal and family history have a strong influence on our development and I like to know how people came to be where they are now. I usually suggest that clients tell me their story – however, they want to tell it – in as much or a little detail as they feel comfortable.
Mental and Physical Health History
I like to know the history of a client’s mental and physical health. What has your health been like throughout their life? Do you deal with any chronic mental or physical health conditions? Does anyone else in your family deal with any of these conditions?
Another question I often ask is, “When is the last time you saw your family doctor? When is the last time you got a checkup and bloodwork done?” This may sound overly-medical for a counsellor to be asking, but it’s important. If you’re coming in because you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or otherwise, I want to make sure that there isn’t a physiological problem at the root of your symptoms. There are many physiological issues that have symptoms that can masquerade as psychological or psychiatric issues. If you are dehydrated, have a thyroid imbalance, your blood sugar is off, iron is low, etc., these can all cause symptoms that look like a mental health issue. The last thing I want for you is to treat something as psychological if there’s a physiological cause.
Now, these areas not mutually exclusive conditions either. You may have a physiological issue and also be struggling with a psychological issue. We want to cover all of our bases.
What Brought You To Counselling
This may seem like an obvious question, but it’s also an important one. We all struggle with various things in life, it’s the joy of being human. I want to know what it is that brought you in today, what are the challenges, how did they start, and my favourite question, “Why now?” What made you decide to come get some help now, particularly if this has been an ongoing thing for a while. This question is important because it clarifies what is the key issue that you are experiencing, and what your motivation level is, and what is specifically motivating you to get help now.
How To Measure Success
I often ask clients, “If this works, what will be different?” I want to know what your goals are and how they’ll gauge if counselling is a success. This both handles the goal setting, and how to find out if the counselling process working. My goals and metrics may not be what my client is going to use. I want to know what your gauge is. This doesn’t mean I don’t have my own tools and metrics for the process (I do), but it gives us a common language to monitor the relationship and the process on an ongoing basis. It helps us answer the question I ask pretty regularly with clients, “How’s this going for you? Is this helpful?”
What Do I Need To Know About You For This To Work
We are all special little snowflakes. We have our idiosyncrasies, oddities, preferences, hot button issues, and more. I’m no different. I want to know what is going to help you in the process, help us build the relationship, and help you feel safe and supported while trying to avoid things that do the opposite. Some people need a very gentle approach, others need a straight shooter. Some are very wary of a particular gender because of past experiences, others aren’t. I want to know these things so I can be the best help I can be for you.
I remember my first appointment with my current counsellor about 7 years ago. As you might imagine, I can be picky about my counsellors, and I’m also pretty headstrong and assertive. I know what I need in a counsellor. So, I sat down in his office and said, “Here’s what you need to know about me if this is going to work. I need someone who isn’t afraid to call me out on my crap. I need that, and I respond well to it. If you can do that we’ll get on famously, and if you can’t, no harm or foul, I’ll give you your money for today and be on my way.” I know myself and know that if I’m matched up with a counsellor who is softer and non-confrontational, I’ll be able to get away with things and manipulate the conversation easily and this won’t help me. I need accountability.
Things To Know About Counselling As A Client
As a Registered Clinical Counsellor, I want your experience to be as positive and helpful as possible and I know I can speak for the whole team here at Alongside You on this one. It’s important to know, however, that counselling is a team effort. Counsellors aren’t magicians with a magic wand that can fix all that ails you. The process works through the development of a safe therapeutic relationship and a joint effort to move forward. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you start your counselling journey.
Your Counsellor Cannot Read Your Mind
Some of you who have been to counselling before may laugh at this, and I know that I’ve had clients who were relatively convinced I had this magical power based on some of my interactions with them. We have intuition, not mind-reading powers. What this means is, it takes two active participants in a counselling session to get to where we’re trying to go. If you’re not an active participant, the process is very difficult if not impossible.
Being Open and Honest Are Important
We know this is a big ask of you. It’s not easy to sit down with a stranger and talk about the difficult parts of life. The counselling process needs this, however. If we can’t be open with each other, we can’t work together and create a safe space to wrestle with life. It’s not all-or-nothing, however. It takes time, and you don’t have to be an open book from the first minute. Build the relationship, and share as you do so. We’re in this together.
Try To Know What It Is You Want From The Session
This is sometimes a difficult one. I know that I often struggle to know what I want out of a session with my counsellor, but part of that is because I have a standing appointment that I go to every month regardless of how I am feeling that day because that’s what works best for me. Some of the questions I’ve outlined above can also be used on an ongoing basis to figure out goals and focus points, but it’s always helpful when clients know what they want to focus on in the session. It helps keep the process on track.
Ask The Counsellor Questions
Sometimes clients are surprised when I turn the tables and ask them if they have questions for me! As I mentioned above, counselling is a two-person endeavour and process. If I need to get to know you, it only stands to reason that you should get to know me as well. Ask away! The fit between a counsellor and client is important and getting to know each other helps us figure out if we’re the right fit. I always encourage clients to ask whatever questions they want, with the caveat that I may choose to decline to answer questions of a personal nature if they go beyond what I choose to reveal to clients about myself or my personal life. Every counsellor is different in this area but feels free to ask. You may want to ask about experience, qualifications, approach, personality, or things like hobbies, etc. It’s up to you and your counsellor to navigate how best to get to know one another.
Give The Counsellor Feedback
I always tell my clients, and then remind them periodically, that I need their feedback. Going back to my inability to read minds, I need feedback to know if we’re on the right track, if I’m focusing on the right things, and if things are helpful. Sometimes clients are afraid to tell the counsellor if they feel the process isn’t going in the direction they want or isn’t working. I absolutely want to know these things. I’d rather find out that something is off than continue believing all is well only to find out after the fact that it wasn’t helpful. I also want to know what is working so we can do more of that!
Counselling Is A Journey
I know that going to see a Registered Clinical Counsellor for the first time can be anxiety-provoking. I promise it’s not as scary, and we’re not as weird as you might think. We’re just regular people too, who have some training and experience to help you through some of life’s challenges. If we keep some of the above in mind and are open with each other, we can find a path through the challenges and help you thrive!
Feel free to give us a call or send us an email through our contact form if you have any more questions. We’re happy to answer them! Have you been thinking about taking the first step in seeing a counsellor? There’s no time like the present – take the first step, that’s the hardest part. It gets easier from there.