fbpx Empathy Is Essential in Residential Treatment
Authored by Nexus Family Healing on November 5, 2020

Seldom, if ever, in the history of raising children has a parent said to themselves, “Today is the day I mess up my child!” In our society, we hear a lot of stories that make it easy to forget this. We are quick to judge parents, even when we don’t know the backstory. Is someone in the family struggling with drugs or alcohol? Is a mental illness going untreated? How long have they been trying to find help?

When you work in mental health services, especially residential treatment where we see some of the most difficult behaviors, you must look past the “problems” and find a place of understanding. No matter how it looks from an outside perspective, all parents have one thing in common - they love their children to the best of their ability. 

Understanding and Working with Parents

It is easy to become frustrated with parents who seem very hard to reach – they don’t answer or return phone calls, don’t show up for meetings and/or therapy, or simply will not work to schedule visits. When they do attend, they seem angry or distant.

In reality, many of these parents are just plain exhausted. They have struggled with their child, county workers, school staff, neighbors, law enforcement, and sometimes even their spouse. And, by the time these families find the help they need, they are simply too tired to fight any more. 

Often, parents feel helpless as they have seen their child’s behaviors get progressively worse. Some parents spend a good deal of time trying to keep their other kids safe, while some are fighting to help their struggling child from destructive behaviors. At this point, they have heard repeatedly that they need to parent better, be stricter, be more lenient, pay more attention, or need to try a different method.

Too many people put all the blame on the parent. Sometimes, parents have asked for help, but didn’t receive it. They’ve jumped through hoops, sought resources, and struggled to find the right kind of care for their child. In some cases, they have pleaded on their child’s behalf for months or even years. 

Helping Families in Residential Treatment

In residential treatment, we work hard to recognize the parent’s effort in trying to find help for their child, no matter how they show up throughout the treatment process. We must allow these parents time to breathe and rest. Allow them to talk, to vent, to “give up.” Let them grieve the loss of their expectations and what they hoped their parenting experience would look like.

It is our job as mental health professionals to help parents let down their guard and reassure them that we are fighting alongside them. Trust will not happen overnight. This relationship (just like the one we form with their child) will take both time and effort to grow. It will take time for parents to trust that you are going to listen – do not take this distrust personally. In parents’ eyes, we are just another part of a system that they may have clashed with in the past. The same system that blamed their parenting and made them fight for assistance.

Remember that parents need time to heal, too. It is not that they don’t want to be there for their child, but they may simply not have the strength to do it at this moment. Give them permission to start breathing again and give them a chance to recuperate. They will come back ready to work side-by-side with you to restore their family.

This blog article was contributed by Chrissie Veerkamp, Parent Partner for Nexus-Mille Lacs Family Healing.

Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health servicesfoster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 45 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.