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We recently went to a clinical psychologist to help save our family. We were worried about our daughter, and she asked for counseling. Without going into all the details of her habitual lying and reckless behavior that is out of her norm, the doctor turned to my daughter and told her she was absolutely perfect! Repeatedly. Praising her about all she has accomplished on her own, by herself, because she’s perfect. That the world has changed, and it’s all our fault, and then repeated numerous times with hand gestures that we are strangling her.
I’m not perfect by any means, but this doctor just ruined our family, as my daughter got up and walked out on top of the world and never looked back! Is this normal for a counselor? We are lost and only wanted help for our young adult daughter who right now is a danger to herself.
— Bad Session
Dear Bad Session,
I’m going to have to take you at your word that this is how the appointment went down and that you’re not exaggerating or defining “reckless” in a questionable way—for example, an LGBTQ identity that you don’t approve of? An interest in reading banned books? A desire to take birth control? Sorry, life in 2023 has ruined me, so I have to ask. Assuming and hoping that you’re being a reasonable parent, I wanted to be able to give an informed answer to your core question. So I reached out to Dr. Rolanda Mitchell, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor to ask whether this was normal. Short answer: No.
Here’s what she said:
This is definitely not normal behavior! My first hope in reading this is that there is more to the story, and that the clinician did not present in this way … if she did … YIKES!
First of all, no one is perfect, and when clinicians have clients who are striving for “perfection,” we tend to try and move them away from that concept and towards a healthier way of defining goals. Making statements like “you’re perfect” is counterproductive. Let’s say the daughter in this scenario was claiming to be perfect and saying that all of the blame should be placed on her parents (which is not an unlikely scenario in family counseling). A sound clinician would listen and reflect, but they wouldn’t affirm that belief by saying “you’re perfect.” Instead, they’d likely spend some time unpacking the reason(s) the daughter sees things in that way (I’m perfect, they’re wrong), identifying what’s actually happening at home, and working on new behaviors.
Secondly, it sounds like the clinician has alienated the parents, which is also incredibly counterproductive. When there are challenges in family/relationship dynamics, the best way to address things is to work with all parties. This means building rapport and demonstrating empathy for everyone involved (daughter and parents). Even if the parents are doing things that the clinician feels are “strangling” the child, it’s likely they are doing what they feel is best. Seeking help is a sign that they are open to making changes, but they can’t do that if they feel demonized by the clinician.
When people bring their relationships to counseling, they often feel that they’re right and the other person is wrong, and they want the clinician to choose sides; it’s rarely that cut and dry. And even though we are trained professionals, we’re still human … sometimes WE can think that one person is right and the other person is wrong! But we don’t help folks by choosing sides. In most instances, there are things that everyone could do differently. An effective clinician is one who will provide equal space for all thoughts, feelings, and perspectives (unless there is abuse/neglect/harm involved), identify what’s working and what’s not, and work towards healthy solutions for the relationship/household.
So how do you move forward? I don’t think you should go to your daughter and say “An advice columnist told me that the psychologist who said you were perfect was wrong! We’re finding a new one”—if she’s an adult, she doesn’t have to go with you elsewhere anyway. I also don’t think you should go back to this person, who clearly wasn’t a good fit, at least from your point of view. For now, family counseling is on hold. In the meantime, I think you and your husband should to seek therapy on your own so you can be in the best position possible to engage with your daughter in the future. Make sure to check reviews and ask some people you trust for recommendations this time around.
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I came into my stepdaughters’ lives fairly late, and while our relationship is civil enough, I am very much their father’s wife rather than their stepmother. I recently inherited my late father’s various real estate properties, including two places in Colorado and Florida. I have many fond memories of spending time with my family at them. I do plan to sell or rent them out, but I did offer some free visits to my cousins and their families for old time’s sake.
My husband let it slip to his children, and they all are currently demanding their own free trips—because they are “family” now. This is vexing because we made every attempt to have the girls over for holidays, which they always declined as adults in favor of their mother. Again, they have every right to choose that, but the sheer hypocrisy of it all grates on me.
How should I handle this? My husband suggested this was a golden opportunity to “bond” with the girls. We have been married for 15 years. I feel that ship has sailed but I don’t want to disturb the civility we had going.
— Father’s Wife
Dear Father’s Wife,
If your stepdaughters are “demanding” free trips, there’s not much civility going on anyway, so I don’t think you have a lot to lose here. Without understanding all the logistics and the potential costs to you, I would say let them have the keys for a week—why not? The houses are sitting there empty. But if it would be inconvenient, or if you just really don’t want to let them visit because of the way they’ve treated you, your line is “Sorry, that won’t be possible. I’m only making the properties available to a few close family members who have special memories there.”
It sounds like your husband very much wants to be closer to the girls and would like them to spend time with him on holidays and get to know you better. I can feel that you’re hurt on his behalf. It’s not too late for him to reach out and try to connect, and I’m sure he would appreciate your support in figuring out how to do this in a way that takes into consideration whatever dynamics have made them choose their mother over the years. But whatever that does not require free access to vacation homes.
I am engaged. My fiancé and I both lost our spouses three years ago and have been taking it slowly integrating our family. We are having a small family wedding with no wedding party but our children—they are going to be the only children there since we have a very strict budget.
Here’s the problem: My sister spent years struggling to have a baby. My nephew is now 6 and autistic. My sister treats him as the center of the world and expects everyone else to do the same. He has meltdowns if he is hungry, if he is happy, if he doesn’t immediately get whatever toy he wants. My sister constantly battles the advice from the special education teachers at his school. Every family function has seen a big meltdown; I’d rather not have one at my wedding. A family friend has offered to watch my nephew during the wedding but my sister is offended that her son is being “excluded” and “discriminated against” despite the fact my brother’s children are not attending either. I am tired of this conversation and am tempted to just tell her not to come, but that will cause a nuclear explosion. I can’t see any other way out. Can you?
— Wedding Blues
Dear Wedding Blues
If you’re having a child-free wedding aside from your own kids, why is your whole letter about how terrible you feel your nephew is? It sounds to me like your sister is picking up on the same thing I am: You’re not excluding this kid because he’s under 18, you’re excluding him because you have no empathy for his disability and hate his behavior. I also get the impression that there’s some history here, and that the perception that you’re excluding and discriminating may have begun long before your engagement. Without this baggage—if you were seen as a loving aunt or uncle who always had your nephew’s best interests at heart—I imagine you could have easily expressed concern that the wedding would be overstimulating and unpleasant for him and partnered with your sister to figure out a plan that would make the event work for everyone: a babysitter, a quiet area to retreat to, an appearance for only part of the night.
But she knows the truth: You’re not concerned about this kid. You just don’t want to hear him make any extra noise on your special day. And that’s your prerogative, I guess! Look, the official law is: Your wedding, your rules, you do what you want. If what you want is to put your foot down with your sister, who is struggling as a parent, and her child, who is innocent here and having his own struggles, you get to do that. But I’d encourage you to give some thought to the worst-case scenario if you tell her not to come: You fracture your relationship with her and your nephew permanently. Then compare that to the worst-case scenario if you allow them both to attend: The kid has a meltdown for whatever reason, the guests think “there’s a kid with a disability having a hard time,” and they adjust because it is a celebratory event, not a silent retreat. The festivities continue, and you still end up married. It’s up to you.
Catch up on this week’s Prudie.
More Advice From Slate
My wife lets our 4-year-old son pee on the tree in the yard when he’s outside playing, rather than having to go inside. I think it’s weird. She says that’s what boys do. I certainly was not raised to just pee where I wanted, unless it was an emergency and there wasn’t a bathroom around. I know he’s young, but I’d prefer to not let this become a habit. Is this a battle I should keep fighting?