How Your Triggers Could Sabotage Your Child's Therapy

Why do parents sabotage therapy for their children?

Unfortunately, most parents do not even know they are doing it!  When parents make the decision to bring a child in for counseling, it is possible that throughout the therapeutic process, the parents themselves can shift the focus of therapy and discuss their own issues, which can negatively impact or sabotage the counseling process for the child, until these issues are resolved.  In family counseling, when a child is presented in therapy as the "identified patient," parents often do not recognize that they are also part of the problem...and the solution.

Triggers and Emotional Response

Parents are often unaware that some of their own personal issues can become 'triggered' in the counseling process.  Strong emotions related to the recognition of their own inadequacy or incompetence as parents, as well as fear, guilt and shame, are often uncovered in the counseling process when children are seen by a therapist.  These emotions are sometimes so strong, it shifts the focus from the child's issues to themselves, in order to work through these triggers and the emotions that are connected to them.  The emotional response can also cause kids to feel invalidated and unheard, often leaving the child to believe that their perspective or experience regarding their issues aren't important or that they are at fault.  


A few years ago, I read a case study about a mother's desperate need for help regarding her teenage son's depression and behavioral issues.  Her complaint was about the fact that her son was failing school and they, as parents, were at their last straw with knowing what to do to help him.  She reported that she and her husband were becoming increasingly angry and frustrated at his lack of motivation and resistance to make changes to improve his grades.  She also admitted that out of desperation, she ended up threatening him, if he didn't stop being "lazy" they would make him quit the two things he loved the most: sports and music.  Eventually, the son's choices resulted in him having to quit these activities, which exacerbated his negative behaviors and depression.

What became apparent in therapy was that the son was undiagnosed and untreated with ADHD and the mother's fear and anxiety about his future was getting triggered, causing her distress.  This new discovery required that the therapy shift towards the parents in educating them about ADHD so that they could make changes in their individual responses and parental approach to their son's behavior.  In addition, it was also necessary to help them cope with the guilt and shame they felt for choices they had made, that were contributing to his depression.

Awareness is Key

I encourage parents to be aware of their own "stuff" throughout the therapeutic experience. Simply knowing that families are like dominos...if one falls, everyone is impacted, can help parents understand why their own issues can get triggered, often resulting in sabotaging therapy for their children.  Taking the time to reflect on the issues with their children, asking themselves the  question, "What am I doing to contribute to the problem?", and being accountable for what they can do to change, are effect ways to approach family therapy and reduce the possibility of sabotaging therapy for their children.

Written by guest author Emily Freeze, MPH, MA, LMFT

Emily Freeze, MPH, MA, LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist at New Beginnings Family Counseling in Provo, Utah. Emily enjoys doing individual counseling, couples counseling and family counseling. Emily specializes in women's issues, specifically maternal mental health and reproductive mental health.