There is no youth psychotherapy without including parents’, is one of my main principles. I include parents in my therapies through either parent-child or family sessions, or through parental guidance sessions. Parental guidance sessions are sessions without children where parenthood is the main focus of the conversation. 

Choosing to become a youth psychologist generally comes from feeling a strong connection with children or a desire to help them. However, parents are in the picture too! Parental guidance is important, yet not necessarily easy. The impact on children’s development or the parent-child relationship can be immense. Some of us love working with parents, while others feel insecure or reluctant to work with them. Let me guide you through it step by step in order to make you more confident in working with parents, and who knows…you might start to really love it! 

This first parental article will search for a non-judgemental attitude towards parents.

[NOTE: when I refer to ‘parents’ I do not necessarily always mean biological parents. Next to biological parents, the term can also include foster or adoptive parents, other family members or caregivers that take up a big part of children’s upbringing or teams of pedagogues in child care facilities.] 

Don’t blame the parents

Children or adolescents entering our practices are in distress, in fact families as a whole are in distress. Youth psychologists try to understand children’s struggles by taking into account the child’s personality, and how it interacts with the way in which they were brought up. Thereby, the parents come into the picture immediately. We need them to try and give meaning about their children getting stuck and stressed. Together we reflect on how to understand their children’s difficulties: when did they start? Was it sudden or going on for long and recently escalated? What triggered it? How do their children cope with a little bit of stress? And what about with big stressors? What kind of dynamics does that bring in the family? The big risk here, however, is narrowing our understanding about the child’s symptoms, and blaming the parents for them.

Maybe you are now thinking: “how crude of therapists to blame parents, I would never do that”. Well, to be honest, I am quite sure we all have had some ‘parent blaming thoughts’. Moreover, society as a whole tends to blame parents for children’s behavior that differs from the societal norm. Though this can be short-sighted and unhelpful, it is correct that children are unavoidably dependent on their caregivers. An unborn baby nearly fully depends on them. Therefor, they are biologically programmed to elicit care from their caregivers, e.g. with their proportionally big and thus cute eyes. They need adults who interprete their signals of distress (often crying) to find appropriate solutions to it. Hence, when we start our life, our stress is co-regulated by our caregivers. Step by step children grow in their ability to regulate stress themselves – beginning with caregivers present in the background, slowly growing towards more independence. When stress gets really big, however, children and adolescents (and even adults) tend to go back to their primary caregivers to seek for help in regulating their overwhelming emotions or challenges. 

When stress feels too big to handle, children enter with symptoms into mental health care facilities. Mental health care workers tend to mildly observe how children are not able to handle their difficulties anymore. The first ones to look at – most of the time less mildly – to be responsible for this disregulation are the parents. Parents are ought to be able to handle their children’s stress. They always attempted to help their children in various ways, yet this was insufficient to decrease or eliminate the symptoms. It is easy to blame them for not trying enough, or not being creative enough to help resolve their children’s stress. In conclusion, blaming the parents can be an automatic thought that does not need to be shamefully hidden but rather acknowledged and explored. 

Let us look at it from the parental perspective. Children are often one of the most precious ‘belongings’ to parents. Inevitably, parents are most vulnerable in regards to their children. Parents coming into mental healthcare facilities always experience an ambivalent mixture of feelings like exhaustion, guilt, shame, anxiety and hope. Parents blaming themselves for the difficulties of their children is commonplace. To find blame in their therapist too, might increase the fear of not being a good parent, which in turn might lead to shutting off from the therapist or attacking the therapist. 

Parenthood was never learned in school. Parent’s biggest reference for the upbringing of their children is their own upbringing. Often, parents combine elements of their own upbringing with things they want to do differently. When stress gets higher, people tend to lose this balance and want to either fully imitate their own upbringing, or do it in a totally opposite way. These extremes make parenthood less stable. To recognize something of their own upbringing that they tried to eliminate by all means can be disruptive. When parents’ own childhood was characterized by severe stress, deficit or violence – shaping their parenthood can be extra challenging. These parents often describe to lack ‘a reference point’.  In addition, “it takes a village to raise a child” (African proverb). The network around a family also greatly influences one’s parenting. When that network is very little or mostly negative towards one’s parenting, this can be destabilizing and increases self-blame.


After becoming increasingly in touch with the fragility of parenthood, it is evident that a debt-inducing attitude towards parents can hinder the therapeutic trajectory with both the child(ren) and their parents. Talking with parents about their parenthood, their challenges and qualities, and the above themes from a mild, non-judgemental and explorative stance potentially increases their confidence as a parent. Why aren’t we approaching parents with the same positive and forgiving attitude that we have towards children? What is wrong with telling parents that we love how they try to adapt to their children’s needs? Why not pause the conversation to enlarge beautiful parent-child moments to increase their parental inner compass? Furthermore, moving away from blaming parties creates more space in the parental guidance sessions. Externalising problems from belonging either to the child or the parent towards difficulties between them tends to release pressure. 

However, when you see parents doing things that can be characterized as violence or cross-limit behavior, we as therapists have a duty the speak up about it and to involve specialized services when necessary. However once again, do not forget that – disliking certain parental behaviors is not the same as condemning parental intentions, or parents as a whole!

Written by An Molenberghs.

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