How can we as therapists deal with difficult emotions we are experiencing in our sessions? You can find inspiration in this case study written by Peter Rober, a family therapist.
The case study is a part of Peter’s article published in the Journal of Family Therapy.
Read the whole article
Story of the Janssens family
The Janssens family consisted of a divorced mother and two sons, Arnold (19 years old) and Frank (21 years old).
Mother was depressed and disappointed after she divorced her husband 3 years before.
Her husband was a rich diplomat who was on the one hand very strict with the children, but on the other hand he spoiled them materially. After the divorce he was given a new position in the Belgian embassy in an Asian country. There he had met another woman and, after some time, he had married her and started a new family.
In the first session, mother talked about her worries concerning her sons. She said that, although they were very open and charming towards the outside world, within the family they did whatever they pleased.
They refused to help mother in any way in the house. Taking no responsibility, doing whatever caught their momentary fancy and asking their mother’s financial help whenever they needed something.
And when mother said no, or tried to be stricter with them, they became aggressive and verbally abused her.
Mother did not feel respected by them.
Frank used mother’s car all the time. She had to ask his permission when she wanted to use her own car.
Also, Frank often drove very fast and got a lot of speeding tickets.
But, since it was mother’s car, the speeding tickets were filled out in her name.
In order to protect her son, she did not correct this with the police.
One day she had to go to court because she had been fined with more than three speeding tickets in one month’s time.
The judge reproached her for reckless driving and took away her driving license for several weeks.
As I was listening to these stories, I felt myself protesting
I thought: This was not fair.
While on the surface it seemed that I further explored this issue with mother, implicitly I began to gently push mother into being more assertive and strict towards her sons.
After a while I invited her to speak firmly with her sons here and now in the session about her wanting to be respected by them and that she expected them to help in the household.
Reluctantly, she tried it and spoke to the boys.
The sons reacted smiling and answered her in a charming way that they had all kinds of good reasons not to take any responsibility and to do whatever they pleased. Her sons made some joking remarks and their charms made mother’s heart melt; she gave in, started to make jokes too, and became softer again.
The sons had won.
I talked to the three of them about my observations, and then again invited mother to try once more to be stronger. Indeed, now she sounded a bit more assertive, but then all of a sudden Frank started to reproach her for his father leaving (“Now I understand why my father left you…” and so on).
His voice sounded threatening and hard; it was no joke anymore.
I saw that mother was hurt by Frank’s words.
She reclined in her chair, her shoulders dropping. At once she looked beaten and depressed.
I noticed myself thinking, “how cruel these children are towards their mother,” “these children are spoiled”, and “they don’t care about their mother”. In a flash I also fantasised that I would take the children to see a psychiatrist. They needed to have a diagnostic evaluation and probably medication, I fantasised.
The session ended with the children saying that they would not come to the next session because they had more important things to do.
And after all, Frank added, it all was their mother’s problem “because she is over-sensitive and can’t take a joke.” “She needs therapy,” he concluded, “not us.”
After the session I felt bad about how the session had turned out
I took some time to reflect on what had happened. In my mind’s eye, I reviewed the session, and I was surprised about my pushing mother –gently and implicit as it was- into being more assertive.
I explored my own experiencing and realised that in fact I was outraged about how the children acted towards their mother and that this invited me to be protective towards the mother, and to put pressure on the boys.
At the same time I had been irritated with mother’s resignation and passivity.
This all resulted in my urging mother to act firmly. As this proved useless, I finally felt powerless and beaten.
Gradually I became aware of how pejorative and even rejecting my own thoughts about this family in the process had become. I understood that I had to find a more constructive way to look at this family.
I focused on the mother and realised that mother’s resignation was probably the expression of the impotence she felt as a mother, after all her vain attempts to bring change in her family, and to make her sons respect her.
Luckily, I also realised that my feeling of impotence could be an empathic bridge towards mother.
Mother came alone to the second session
She had tried to convince her sons to join her to come to the session, but they had refused to come.
We talked and I apologized the previous session went as it did. I also explained that I had misinterpreted her passivity as resignation, but that I now understood that it was a wise way to deal with a situation she felt powerless in.
Mother agreed and let out a big sigh. It was as if she was relieved by my words.
I explained that I had not given enough attention to her worries about the children and to all the efforts she had done to get them behave more responsibly and supporting.
I talked about my own feeling of impotence the previous session, and I said, -“In fact we are united here in our impotence”. She agreed.
I invited her to talk about what she had tried to get your family back on the right track.
She started to talk about her commitment to her children and her love for them. She emphasized her worries about their future, if they kept refusing to take any responsibility. She talked about the lack of respect of the children and about her protest that didn’t amount to anything.
I asked her who else in her context might understand her powerlessness.
She said: “My sisters.”
We talked about her sisters. In the previous years they had also tried to help her to be more assertive and stricter so that her sons would respect her.
But to no avail.
At the end of the session I proposed that she would invite her sisters to the next session to talk about this powerlessness. She agreed that it was a good idea to talk with her sisters. She promised to contact them.
The three sisters came next session
I reminded them that we were united in powerlessness, and that at least I –maybe they disagreed- did not see how we could talk some sense into the sons.
Everybody agreed and we talked about the family, their history and their family of origin. The main themes were love and powerlessness.
At the end of the session, I asked the three sisters if this conversation had been helpful for them.
Yes, they said, and mother added that she was very grateful towards her sisters for supporting her.
Then she addressed me and thanked me for giving her the opportunity to talk about her difficulties with her sisters.
I had two more such conversations with the three sisters
We talked about how the boys can sometimes be very threatening, and about how humiliating it is to feel impotent and small in the face of your own kids.
Mother shared her anger towards her ex-husband who had abandoned her, and she said, if it were not for her children, she regretted that she had ever met him.
Interestingly, at a certain moment an unexpected new story emerged.
One of mother’s sisters talked about the sons’ powerlessness.
She told the story that Frank had confided her once in tears that he missed his father and how he had felt abandoned by him.
He told her that, without his mother knowing it, he had phoned his father several times in Asia to try to convince him to return to the family.
At first father had said he would think about it, but a few weeks later father phoned back to announce that he had married again, and that his young wife was expected a baby.
“I will never be weak again,” Frank had confided his aunt, “Nobody will ever hurt me again like that.”
Reflections on the therapist’s experiencing
When we approach the case of the Janssens family using the three concepts we developed above (the therapist’s experiencing, invitation to act, opportunity to dialogue) we can summarize the evolution the therapist’s position in the sessions with the Janssens family as follows.
Focusing on the therapist’s experiencing, it is clear that the stories of the boys outraged the therapist and made him feel protective towards mother.
Focused on the mother’s passivity, he did not acknowledge mother’s attempts to bring change, nor her powerlessness.
Neither was he aware of his own impotence.
Instead, the therapist felt invited to take a strong position in the session, modelling what he expected mother to do. Some might say that the therapist here took the place of the absent father; filling the gap father had left when he went to Asia.
Maybe this is true, but anyway, the therapist pushed mother to act. Thereby he again put her through the depressing experience of being ignored, threatened and humiliated by her sons.
When the therapist after the first session took time to reflect on his experiencing in the session, he realised that he was involved in a destructive scenario with the family; labelling mother as the victim and protecting her, while blaming the sons.
At the same time he realised he felt more and more powerless. He recognized the opportunity his experiencing presented and understood that his feelings of powerlessness could serve as an empathic bridge between himself and mother.
Later, in the second session, he even saw the opportunity to use the feeling of powerlessness as a bridge between mother and her social support system (her sisters).