Handling Parent-Child Sessions in New Ways for Families®

© 2018 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Print Article

New Ways for Families teaches parents the Four Big Skills for life: Flexible Thinking, Managed Emotions, Moderate Behavior and Checking Yourself. When possible, parents then teach their children the same skills in three parent-child sessions each with the Parent-Child Counselor (PCC). This article explains the importance of having these sessions, some of the mechanics of how this works and an example.

Importance of these Sessions

The New Ways for Families method was primarily designed to help the children, indirectly and directly. In many ways, the six Individual Parent Counseling sessions are preparation for success in the three Parent-Child Counseling sessions. This is especially important in cases where the child has not seen a parent for a long time, perhaps because of abuse or alienation, in order to help with reunification. Often, when parents without New Ways skills are thrust into family counseling situations, they are quickly defensive and it often blows up right away. With the flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behavior taught in New Ways, most parents are able to have productive discussions, and sometimes break-through discussions, with their children in the Parent-Child Sessions.

Basic Content

The three sessions are guided by the New Ways Parent Workbook. The second half covers the Parent-Child Counseling sessions with the PCC. Here are the three sessions, typically 90 minutes each, with focused discussions and writing exercises for each:

1)    Teaching Your Child Skills for Resiliency (the Four Big Skills)

2)    Hearing Your Child’s Concerns (and responding calmly using your skills)

3)    Discussing New Ways the Family will be Operating (supporting each other, doing new things)

For a demonstration of excerpts from the first and second sessions, see the New Ways 1-hour video available for free on YouTube (click here).

Timing of Sessions

Ideally, the parents will alternate weekly sessions, with Parent A teaching the skills in their session 1, then Parent B teaching the skills in their session 1. Then Parent A hears the child’s concerns in their session 2, and so on. This way, the parents are on the same page, reinforcing the same skills at approximately the same time. The child experiences the parents taking a positive educational role and reinforcing each other, even though the sessions are separate (the parents never need to be together in this method). However, in some cases, both parents agree to meet together for the final (third) Parent-Child Session (see below: Joint Final Session).

Before either parent starts the Parent-Child Counseling, both parents should have received 6 Individual Parent Counseling sessions (or New Ways collaborative coaching sessions or the New Ways online program “Parenting Without Conflict”). The reason for this is that both parents should really know the skills and should teach them at approximately the same time to their children, to build collaboration between the parents rather than competing to get ahead of the other. 

Therefore, we don’t start the Parent-Child Counseling sessions until both parents have finished their six Individual Parent Counseling sessions. In some cases when one parent has not done the individual sessions at all, the parents have returned to court and the judge has firmly told the other parent that he or she needs to participate, and that what they learn may impact the judge’s future decisions. The parents then usually comply. If they are not involved with the court, then their lawyers or counselors may emphasize the importance of both parents attending the six individual counseling sessions first to learn the New Ways method. No other parenting class or method can replace learning the New Ways approach, since that is the method the parents will teach the children.

Following the Parent Workbook

Before the first session, the Parent-Child Counselor (PCC) talks briefly (10-15 minutes) on the phone with each parent to set up their appointment(s). The PCC points out that the first session will start off with the New Ways for Families Parent-Child Talk in the Parent Workbook Appendix, which sets the tone and expectations for the new ways the family is going to operate.

Then, the PCC basically follows the Workbook exercises and guides the discussions around those. Of course, the PCC can build somewhat on positive parent-child interactions beyond the Workbook, so long as the Workbook tasks get completed. When negative interactions start occurring, the PCC can simply bring them back to the Workbook. With three parent-child sessions, there will be opportunities to reinforce skills that the parent may be struggling to learn and demonstrate in front of the children. The New Ways method is designed to be simple and repetitive, so that these very fundamental skills will be learned in a short period of time.   

Paradigm Shifts from Ordinary Counseling

In New Ways, the PCC really guides the parent to do the Workbook exercises with the child. Ideally, the parent is the lead actor and the PCC is the supporting actor, helping the parent along and getting them back on track if they get off-track from the exercises. Since the focus in New Ways is teaching the skills, the PCC avoids traditional counseling methods of asking probing questions and asking how parents or children feel. The focus in these three sessions is solely on teaching and learning and discussing the skills. “Now, mom/dad, let’s go to the next exercise in the Workbook.” While it’s an adjustment at first for the PCCs to learn to avoid probing questions and asking how they feel, it is an important shift and they learn to keep the focus on learning the skills.

With this skills focus, the PCC does not develop an individual relationship with either parent or the child: the parent-child relationship is the focus of the counseling. This means that the PCC does not meet separately with the child before the Parent-Child Counseling sessions, so that the child does not feel empowered to take big risks in discussing past issues with a parent. The focus is on the skills in the present. (If necessary, the PCC can always stop the session.)

If this goes well, it may help form a foundation for future, deeper discussions after the three Workbook-based sessions. If both parents agree, the PCC can keep working with the family, or they may make a referral to a child therapist or another family therapist for ongoing work. From our experience, most parents just use the three sessions with the PCC and then stop. However, some of them continue on with their Individual Parent Counselor beyond the six Workbook-based sessions.

Reunification with a Parent

When a child has not seen a parent for a long time, or is somewhat resistant to seeing a parent, the PCC prepares the child during the sessions with the favored parent and child. This way the PCC becomes somewhat familiar with the child before the reunification session, while helping the favored parent prepare the child in a positive way for the next meeting with the rejected or feared parent. Part of this is using the Workbook exercises and discussions to emphasize the importance of each parent supporting the child’s relationship with the other parent, even if the other parent may have supervised access or very limited time. The focus is on having a relationship with positive interactions, rather than any specific schedule or structure. Those are decisions the parents will make with each other and/or their professionals, using their skills.

Not an Evaluation Process

Every so often, counselors are asked to comment on which parent learned more or whether they learned at all. This is NOT to be done in New Ways for Families. As soon as an evaluative element is brought into counseling, the counseling will become overwhelmed by the adversarial process. Most counselors and many lawyers know this. Parents make progress because New Ways is kept separate from judgments made by the counselors. If they know they are being judged, they will become highly adversarial and try to draw the counselor to their side as a negative advocate in the litigation process.

With this in mind, PCCs are allowed to speak with the lawyers, mediators, etc. (so long as releases are signed by both parents) solely for the purpose of encouraging the use of the parents’ skills in their negotiations and decision-making. The PCCs are not to form an opinion about each parent and should not propose a parenting plan. Instead, the PCC can only describe observations of each parents’ interactions with the children, such as:  “Dad started to raise his voice and get angry at the son, but then calmed himself and gave him some encouraging words.” “Mom started complaining about Dad to the daughter, then stopped herself and said “’But we’re here to talk about us.’” “They each could use practice with their BIFF Response®.”

Children under Age 5

There are two approaches to Parent-Child Counseling when the child is under age 5, which is occurring more and more. The first is to have the child participate in the sessions, but not try to have full Workbook-based discussions with the child. Instead, focus on activities, such as playing with toys, playing a game, drawing pictures and just talking about the very basic skills and arrangements between Mom’s house and Dad’s house, without expecting much of a discussion. Then, the parent can write the exercises in the Workbook afterward, writing what the parent thinks the child would have said if he or she was older.

The other approach, that some of our counselors have preferred, is not to have the child present at all during the parent-child sessions. Instead, the counselor does all of the Workbook activities with the parent imagining what their child would say when he or she is older. This allows more time for discussion, but no opportunity for the PCC to observe how the parent is teaching the skills at home and to give guidance on the spot.

Joint Final Session

The Workbook gives instructions for inquiring about whether both parents would like to have a joint final session. This doesn’t occur often, but there have been some parents who have done this. The feedback has been mixed. Some parents find it helpful for getting on the same page. However, others found that it was too brief (just the one session) to be beneficial and they would have preferred, in retrospect, to have done all three sessions with the child without the other parent present. Others found that it was actually a negative experience, as they hadn’t been together before in the counseling without the children and there was still too much negativity with too little time to deal with it. In a couple cases, the parents felt that the PCC had taken sides in their disputes, which made things worse, not better.

For these reasons, a joint final parent-child session may not be a good idea in some cases, to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

An Example

This was a case from a while back that ended well. Alexandra (not her real name) was 15 years old. When her parents were ordered to take New Ways by the family court judge, she had been estranged from her father, without seeing him for about one year. In the first Parent-Child Counseling session with her mother and the PCC, Alexandra complained about her father but with pressure from her mother during that first session, she agreed to meet with her father the next week. The mother said she wanted her daughter to have a good relationship with her father, but doubted that was possible. However, the mother said she expected her daughter to follow through with New Ways, since it was only three sessions she was required to do with him. If she didn’t go, her mother said it would hurt her mother in the eyes of the family court judge, and the daughter didn’t want that. The mother agreed to bring Alexandra to the PCC’s office for the next session with her father.

During that first session with her father, Alexandra blasted him with a long list of things that she thought he had done wrong over the years. He thanked her for telling her those concerns. She was apparently surprised and said: “You’re not angry with me for telling you all of that?” He said: “No, I’m glad that we’re talking. Tell me more.”

Apparently, she was so surprised that he was able to stay calm and listen to her, that she agreed to have dinner with him the next week. That went well. She attended the next two sessions and agreed to have dinner with him once a week going forward. While it wasn’t a 50-50 parenting schedule, which he would have preferred, at least he had a relationship with her again and they were communicating well.

Conclusion

The result of this case fits within the goals of New Ways for Families: to help parents co-parent as well as possible, to be able to make reasonable decisions together, and to have good communication and relationships with their children. The parenting schedule and other arrangements will follow from the use of their communication and negotiation skills, and also from their experiences in talking with their children during the Parent-Child Counseling sessions.

Their decisions will be based on all the circumstances of their family, including domestic violence, substance abuse, child abuse, alienation, etc., which may mean supervised contact, limited time, etc. But at least both parents are helped to have the most positive relationship realistically possible with their children, like the father above. And the children learn skills that will help them for a lifetime: flexible thinking, managed emotions, moderate behaviors and checking themselves.

__________________________

Bill Eddy is a family lawyer, therapist and mediator, and the author of several books, including the latest book for everyone: 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life: Identifying and Dealing with Narcissists, Sociopaths and Other High-Conflict Personalities (February, 2018). He is the developer of the New Ways for Families® method. He is also the Training Director for High Conflict Institute, which provides training in all the models of the New Ways for Families® method. www.NewWays4Families.com.