Therapeutic Advice: Why Receiving it is a Great Reminder of How to Give it

Daniel Carlisle, FCNI Social Worker and Adoptive/Foster Parent
June, 15, 2015

In full disclosure, by day I am a licensed therapist and work in a therapeutic foster care program; and by night I am an adoptive and foster parent. As a therapist, I have quoted evidence-based practices and suggested all sorts of strength-based and solution-focused interventions to foster parents, adoptive parents, bio-parents and, in moments of desperation, even to my wife. As a parent, I have also given the proverbial eye roll to the same advice when given to me.

Why is it such a challenge to accept professional advice given to us as parents? The simple answer is that we are emotionally invested.  Due to our emotional investment, we are more apt to lose sight of the “big picture” and be emotionally reactive in a crisis. After all, when professional advice of this type is sought, or in some cases required, the children that we love and live with are disrupting our lives—not the lives of the therapist and social workers giving out the advice. The truth is, we are good parents, and it is hard to not see positive results from our “expert” parenting skills.

Why do we feel offended when a parent does not accept our advice as therapists or social workers?  The short answer is because we see things that the parent does not see. We have experience applying our knowledge and have seen the success of therapeutic intervention. We know from experience and years of training that therapeutic interventions work.

This is the clash we often see and feel—the tension between two trained and experienced professionals: the professional parent who knows what to do as a parent and the social worker/therapist who knows what to do therapeutically. The difficult work is being able to distinguish when we should be focused on parenting and when we should be focused on therapeutic parenting.

My failure as a parent comes when I repeatedly expect my children to do something they are unable to do because of their past trauma or mental health challenges. One glaring example is when I expect my daughter to understand and comprehend math. I have spent time being a very creative and supportive parent, singing songs, playing games and using repetition to help her grasp one simple math fact. As my superb math lesson progress, I become increasing frustrated and ultimately give her the answer which is inevitably misunderstood and placed on her homework incorrectly.  My anger and frustration are driven by the sadness that my daughter struggles in ways other children do not—an incorrect perception. My emotions are also driven by the fear that I am not going to be able to give her or find the help that she needs and deserves to have a successful future. I desperately want her to prosper physically, emotionally and spiritually because I love her in a way that no therapist or social worker can or should.

My failure as a therapist and social worker has been to try and force therapeutic intervention where parental love and knowledge were needed most. I often find this when I am coaching a foster or adoptive parent to be more “flexible.” My advice usually takes the form of the following soundbites: “Choose your battles,” “Is this a battle you should be fighting?” or “Are you asking them to do more than they can do?” You get the picture. The therapeutic intention is to “give them a break; there are more important things to focus on.” In short, I am assuming that I know what is most important in this child’s life and at the same time I’m ignoring the fears and heartache of the parent. These conversations never seem to end with the parent feeling supported.

There is an ingredient that will help us all find the needed balance between these two crucial professionals: humility. I am never flawless as a parent, therapist, social worker or person for that matter. However, when I am humble enough to listen to the counsel of others, I have the ability to develop more fully as a parent and as a professional.  

I am reminded daily that it is so much easier to give advice than to follow it.

I have a sign up in my office that reads: “Be Humble”. It is my daily reminder that I have room—lots of room—for growth. This simple mantra may very well be the best professional and parental “advice” we can share with one another. However, as with all great gifts, you cannot give away what you don’t have.