Care and Feeding

My Therapist Is Living My Greatest Fear

How can I continue to discuss it with her?

A woman with braids looking very worried.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AaronAmat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently I started therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Since I was a small child I’ve been very anxious, but after having kids, my anxiety reached a whole new level. In the past, I had tried several different therapists, but we never clicked. And then not long ago I met with a phenomenal therapist. After only one session, I felt very connected and comfortable; I made great progress in one short hour. One thing we discussed at length is my near constant fear of losing one of my children.

For our second session, my therapist canceled, citing a death in the family. I just found out that the death was one of the therapist’s children, who passed away tragically. I’ve sent my deepest condolences. But I honestly don’t know how to approach this if or when my therapist resumes practicing. Should I find someone new? How do I discuss this without hurting this therapist’s feelings? I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I feel very sad for them, and I’ve cried a lot over this awful news. I also feel guilty even posing this question to you—I just didn’t know who else to ask.

—Grieving

Dear Grieving,

I hope you can shake off your guilt, because this is a good question to ask. I have some thoughts from the point of view of someone who’s been in therapy herself (several times, during several different difficult periods, in different cities with different therapists), but before doing that, I decided it made sense to put your questions to a therapist I trust and admire to get her point of view.

Nicole Jackson is a psychotherapist—a clinical psychologist—who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder and currently practices in Columbus, Ohio. Unsurprisingly, she offered some wise counsel.

First, Jackson pointed out that your empathy for your therapist is notable—that many people who are suffering themselves are unable to take seriously or even consider other people’s troubles, even when the very thing they themselves most fear befalls someone else. So take a moment to reflect on this. Your response to your therapist’s tragedy is a sign of health.

She also noted that although your condolences were no doubt appreciated, a therapist will not want their patients to try to take care of them: It’s not your job to worry about the effect your anxiety around your children will have on your therapist. And of course, you have no idea how your therapist is coping with what’s happened. Projecting what they need (for example, not talking about your fears anymore, once therapy resumes—or ending this therapeutic relationship for what you believe to be the therapist’s sake) is not helpful, although considering what they might need is thoughtful. It would be appropriate, once therapy resumes, to say, “I can imagine it will be painful to talk about this subject. Should we continue in this therapeutic relationship or would you prefer to make a referral?” Bringing it up in this way will give your therapist the space to decide how to proceed.

Jackson also pointed out that there is every likelihood that your therapist will initiate this conversation. When therapists have patients on their caseload who will be personally challenging for them to treat, they will offer to facilitate referrals, letting such patients know that this is no longer a good therapeutic fit. It’s best, she says, if you avoid assumptions that this will be what happens in your situation: Therapists, after all, are human—and there will be a broad range of ways they will respond to something like this. For all you know, it may be cathartic for your therapist to help you work through this fear. But yes, it might be too painful. Your therapist is the best judge of that.

If what’s (also) worrying you is that you simply won’t feel free to talk about this issue—that this therapist is no longer a good fit for you because of what they’ve been through—that’s another matter. And if this is the case, Jackson had another thought I want to pass on to you: Yes, it’s hard to find a good therapist—“good” meaning many things, including your own level of comfort with them and how well you “click”—“but now you know you can find such a person, and you will do so again. There isn’t only one therapist for you.”

Honestly, all I would add to this—besides my sorrow for your therapist, who is indeed dealing with the worst thing any parent ever has to face—is that you take your time. Unless you find yourself in deep trouble and thus in need of immediate help (in which case you will need to see someone else right away), I would spend some time thinking about whether you would feel able to speak freely to your therapist when (if) their practice resumes. If your honest answer to yourself is no, ask for a referral when you next see them, or start looking for a new therapist now. If you believe, or just hope, you will be able to proceed with this therapist, give them the chance to decide if they can keep working with you.

I’m really glad you asked.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I hate bedtime (I have twin 2½-year-olds who are very different and are both high maintenance). It makes me want to scream at them more than anything else in parenting (I mostly do not). Yes, I know that’s why Go the Fuck to Sleep was written. Yes, we have had a sleep consult (she seemed kind of at a loss as to how we might get them to sleep by themselves in the same room). It does not help that my spouse is way more patient at bedtime (more so than during the day), which has ingrained some terrible (in my opinion) habits. Like, why did we let them think that our staying in the room until they went to sleep was going to be a possibility? It also means that when I am trying to enforce boundaries, they are also sobbing to me that they want their other parent.

A recent post in a Facebook group about this (by someone else) led to a series of comments about how “they’re only this young once” from people who apparently still sit with their preteens until they fall asleep. But I hate it! I need to clean my apartment! And do work! And have some alone time! How do I cultivate some patience in myself here?

—Bedtime Woes

Dear BW,

I am willing to bet that those people on Facebook who so enraged you do not in fact sit with their preteens (many of whom would rather die than have their parents around at bedtime). Look, some people are more patient than others, and some really do feel, about their children, that “they’re only this young once.” There’s no shame in not being one of them (or for that matter in being one of them). The only shame is that parents are so judgmental of each other (they of the likes of you, you of the likes of them).

I don’t think you can cultivate some patience about bedtime. I say this with a loving heart. My husband, back in the day, was you; I was some version of your spouse (although my patience during the day was maddening to him too—and he didn’t call it “patience,” he called it “indulgence,” and we fought about it, just like we fought about my considering him too authoritarian and impatient). Perhaps I can offer you the benefit of my hard-won experience. Instead of being mad at your spouse, be grateful that one of you is better equipped to get through the ludicrously long, drawn-out process of your children’s bedtime and hand bedtime over to your spouse. Seriously. Just give it up. You’re not cut out for headstrong toddler bedtime. Division of labor according to ability and temperament is always a good idea. Go ahead and clean, get some work done, and enjoy your alone time. Take the day shift and hand bedtime over to the parent who isn’t being driven mad by it. It’s what my husband and I should have done. I don’t know why we didn’t.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I met as undergraduates at an Ivy League university and decided to follow the public sector career path: She is a middle school teacher, and I am a state employee. We live in an area of the U.S. with a high cost of living, so for the past 25 years this has meant pinching pennies and having very little, if any, savings. Our son is a senior in high school, acutely aware that we have very little in the way of material possessions compared to his friends’ families, and he has long made comments along the lines of not wanting “to end up like you guys” (complete with teenage eye-roll). But now that he is researching colleges and thinking about the future, he has expressed interest in courses of study that may place him on the same financially insecure career path as his parents. In fact, he has told us that he would be perfectly happy being a high school teacher. When we replied, “I thought you don’t want to end up poor like Mom and Dad?” he laughed and said, “Oh, I’ll marry a rich girl.”

We fear that after taking on considerable debt for a college degree, he’ll end up overeducated and underemployed, just like his parents. And the truth is that, unlike his peers, he doesn’t have us to fall back on to support him. How can we gently and positively encourage him to pursue more financially sound majors in school? We don’t want to crush his dreams.

—Perplexed by Plastics

Dear Perplexed,

How about this? Instead of telling him to focus on majoring in a discipline that (you think) will lead to the big money life (and of course there are no guarantees of this, despite what parents have been telling their college-bound kids since time immemorial), why not focus on his not taking on crushing debt for his education? If you can’t afford to pay for him to go to a private college, he needs to set his sights on an affordable public education—and/or colleges that make sure the students they admit can afford to attend without taking on debt. I was always very frank with my daughter about her options: We had been able to set aside nothing for her education (put one poorly paid English professor together with a full-time artist whose income zigzagged widely, year to year, and that’s what happens), and she knew that the list of schools she would apply to would have to be limited to those that meet the full financial need of every admitted student.

As it turned out, we paid less for her to attend an elite liberal arts college than we would have spent to send her to the public institution where I teach (even with the 50 percent staff discount!). A small student loan each year was part of her financial aid package at the school she chose from among those that admitted her (but she had other offers from schools—all of them expecting an identical “contribution” from us based on our Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and our College Scholarship Service Profile—that had no loans as part of the aid package); the debt she took on has been manageable for her, even though she is not (and never will be) working in a high-paying field. Depending on how much you and your wife earn (or don’t earn) and how good your son’s grades (etc.) are, college can be affordable if your child doesn’t go to a school that costs a fortune and offers very little or nothing in the way of help. And of course one can get an excellent education at a public institution, too. As a proud graduate of Brooklyn College of CUNY and the University of Iowa, I know whence I speak—and although I chose to focus on arts and humanities, I certainly could have studied finance if I’d wanted to and set myself up for a very different kind of life (although I would have needed to get a personality transplant first).

Go ahead and remind your son of his longtime grumbling and disrespect of the choices you made about your lives. Also let him know that counting on marrying for money is stupid (though I think there’s a good chance he’s just yanking your chain). If you never have before, talk to him about why you decided on the careers you did, why you studied what you studied, and why it’s been worth it. (If it hasn’t been—if in fact it’s you two who are resentful about all the stuff others have and you feel as if you both made a mistake … and you’re projecting this disappointment onto your son—that’s a whole different sort of problem. But it’s yours, not his. And I would be honest with him about this, too, even as you help him find his own path without confusing it with yours.)

And then point him in the right direction college-wise (do not rely on the counselors at his high school to do this): Let him take a good look at the public system in your home state and choose a few schools from among them, and also point him to a list like the one I linked to above of private colleges that make sure that the child of a couple in the public sector can afford to attend without taking on a great deal of debt. His final list should include only schools that will be affordable, one way or the other. Then let him be. He should major in what interests him and matters to him. People who don’t—and then pursue a career in something they don’t care about—usually end up miserable. I know this is not what you want for your child.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our otherwise delightful 8-year-old intensely dislikes it—actually gets furious!—when we express our concern over him. If he, say, falls and scrapes a knee and it’s bleeding or he bangs into something or twists his ankle, and one of us says, “Oh, no! Are you OK?” or makes a move to help him, he freaks out. This doesn’t seem normal to us. Is there something we should be doing about it?

—What’s the Deal

Dear WtD,

“Normal” is a moving target. Some kids crave a flurry of attention when they’re hurt; others (I had one myself!) don’t. In my kid’s case, my guess is that I was too attentive, too sympathetic when she was younger—I crowded her. So she was course-correcting. I can’t tell you why your kid doesn’t want your sympathy, but I can tell you what to do about it. Let him be. If he needs help, he’ll let you know.

—Michelle

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