1. Therapy as Re-Parenting - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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1. Therapy as Re-Parenting

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out of Dev Chrysalis Intimacy/Relationship

Out of the Developmental Chrysalis in Intimacy and Relationship Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Therapy often goes through its own developmental stages as the individual, couple, or family evolves, matures, or achieves greater functionality.  Facilitating development through such stages may put the therapist in a parental role at different levels.  Ostensibly adult and logical choices and behavior are waylaid and individuals present as immature versions mismatched than their actual ages.  Therapy may thus feel like re-parenting lost children (pre-twenty to sixty plus years old).  This need replicates original caregiver-child relationships.  The human infant enters the world of his or her family with various genetic inheritance but simultaneously, highly sensitive to the machinations of his or her caregivers.  Similar to the caterpillar that enters its chrysalis, the human infant enters the caregivers holding environment for a sustained period.  Unlike the caterpillar in the chrysalis largely shuttered from the external world however, the developmental process of the child is constantly impacted by numerous environmental influences.  Caregivers or parents manage these influences and are themselves the most powerful influences affecting the relative well-being and healthy versus dysfunctional development.  What emerges from childhood has relative strengths and weaknesses, fidelity and distortions, and stability or inconsistency to be in intimate relationships.  For every well-formed butterfly that breaks out of the chrysalis to fly away to hopefully perpetuate its genetic legacy, there are others that may not emerge or come out with compromised strength and abilities to function well.  Children chronologically ascend into adulthood with great variations in attachment, intimacy, and relationship capacity as well often due in significant part to ineffective, misguided, erratic, and otherwise poor parenting no matter how well-intended.  Poorly parented children become adults who may require re-parenting in some form as they attempt mature functioning, especially in the romantic committed couple's relationship or the family.  The tone of this style of therapeutic interventions and strategies may sound too controlling or authoritarian for the therapist who works from a humanistic-existential orientation.  However, if the therapist believes that there may have been a developmental distortion from poor earlier parenting, the individual, couple, or family has asked him/her to be in an essentially re-parenting (perhaps, grand-parenting) role.  Poorly parented children, meaning poorly nurtured and/or having had poor experiences with boundaries grow up to be adults who are sometimes unable to parent themselves well.  They can have difficulty monitoring and regulating their emotional and relationship processes.  Clients may come to therapy consciously, semi-consciously, or unconsciously to empower the therapist as a parental authority figure due to deficits in original parenting.  The subsequent lack of a healthy internalized parent seeks an external parental figure.  Clients immersed in these young developmental styles often very actively recruit the therapist.

In individual therapy, a quasi-parental/child relationship can potentially build from transference and counter-transference processes.  An individual may go through profound metamorphosis during the process of effective successive therapy- metaphorically, entering as a crawling human caterpillar and emerging as a beautiful soaring human butterfly.  In couple or family therapy, the therapist is invited into the metamorphic stage akin to being in the chrysalis as development and behavior has gotten out of kilter.  Perhaps, the family therapy concern is that the teenager emerging from the parental chrysalis is not a beautiful butterfly but some disgusting cockroach!  When entering the system, the issue in couple or family therapy is the therapist not allowing him/herself to be recruited by one partner or family over another but to manage both or all sides.  The therapist risks having a favorite or "golden" child- that is a favored client among the partners or family members in therapy.  Therapy with a couple or a family can make the therapist feel like the parent with one kid or the other telling on the other.  "Daaadeeee! He's being mean to me!"  "Momeeee! Make her stop!"  As opposed to the therapist helping challenge the dysfunctionality in the system, the system may co-opt the therapist to become part of its dysfunctionality.  However, the therapist must often enter the system to take an authoritative somewhat parental role due to the lack of effective parental discipline and/or lack of internalized parental roles (superego, conscience, or morality) in the parent or either or both partners or parents.  The therapist can become a transitional parenting figure to help an individual develop the missing internal parent.  Or, help partners in a couple to develop their respective healthy internal parent.  Or, activate and empower the parent or parents in a family to be effective and appropriate parents for their children.  The therapist becomes somewhat like a parent managing sibling conflicts: setting boundaries, giving recommendations, making judgments, and so forth.  This may be relevant for individual therapy among an individual's intrapsychic personas otherwise in conflict.  Or, structurally necessary between partners or among family members.  To do this, the therapist may need to forgo preferred therapeutic styles: collaborative or cathartic or other styles of therapy to risk a more authoritative style as filling a developmental need on the part of clients.  The challenge to the therapist is how to use and manage immature developmental needs while simultaneously respecting and empowering the adult individuals appropriately.  When the individual(s) have internalized nurturing healthy parents, then therapy can move to a developmentally different phase and approach, or therapy ends, hopefully successfully.

In addition, one of the most challenging in therapy- couple therapy may be well served with the therapist in an authoritative parental role.  Re-parenting is often a highly effective and appropriate model and role especially when the couple come from cultures that have a strong tradition of seeking authoritative paternal or maternal guidance from elders.  As the therapist examines the dynamics of parenting relative to not just the dynamics of therapy, but relative to the developmental needs of children, he or she can gain great insight into the individuals in the couple and the couple's dynamics.  The couple consists of two individuals, each with their own developmental history joining together in a new developmental process.  Good, poor, debilitating, or empowering developmental experiences affect the five A's of the couple's relationship: anger, anxiety, attention, availability, and attachment.  The nature and experiences of family-of-origin development fundamentally affect the quality of the individual's relationship with anyone else, and in particular with an intimate romantic partner.  As such, understanding developmental principles can be critical examining an individual with relationship challenges, the partners of the couple and the couple itself, the members of a family and the family itself, and for the process of therapy.   This discussion started with babies who are crying.  Followed this is the presentation of the basic rules of development and their application, attachment theory relative to adult intimate relationships, and using developmental theories for assessment and therapy with individuals with intimacy and relationship concerns, couples, and families.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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