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Psychology Professor Looks Into How Children Rate Their Therapist-Parents

New York-Barry Farber, Professor of Psychology and Education, and Valerie Golden, a recent TC graduate, have found that the children of parents who work in the mental health field hold their parents' profession in high regard and consider their parents empathetic and approachable.

There are a wide-range of myths and even stereotypes about psychotherapists and their children that seem to endure in American society. The most typical are that therapists are unemotional and that their children are psychologically impaired.

But Farber who is Chair of the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, and Dr. Golden, whose dissertation is on the effects of individual psychotherapy on patients' spouses, decided to assess the truth of those stereotypes by going directly to the children. They asked the children of therapists what they know about the nature of their parents' work and they asked them how their parents' work affected them.

Their study, "Therapists as Parents: Is it Good for the Children?," was published in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (Vol.29, No.2 ). The researchers interviewed the children of psychotherapists living and practicing in the New York City metropolitan area. Farber and Golden contacted therapists-parents and their children by networking with colleagues. The sample included 20 children ranging from 10-18 years.

While the impact of psychotherapy on the patient has been the traditional focus of psychotherapy research, the researchers write, "There are only a few anecdotal and clinical reports suggesting the that the practice of psychotherapy has a significant impact on the therapist and, in turn, on the therapist's family."

Farber, who earlier investigated the ways in which one partner in a relationship is affected by the other partner's therapy, says that his current research on children of therapists is a logical extension of his earlier work. In an interview, he said, "Obviously, most of the research in psychotherapy is how the process affects the patient. But I and others have become increasingly aware that the effects of psychotherapy are multi-directional."

Therapists' Children Seem Well-informed About What Goes on in Therapy

Therapists' children, according to the literature, tend to know little about what about what actually occurs in therapy. Nevertheless, the children in this study "were surprisingly well-informed in regard to many therapeutic issues." For example, almost all the children in the sample "understood that the frequency with which the patients see their therapist varies, and that most patients are seen at least once a week. When asked what kinds of problems patients bring to psychotherapy, "most of the children mentioned relationship issues, including parent-child conflicts, sibling rivalries, problems with a boss, romantic breakups, and divorce."

In response to the question of what it takes to be a good psychotherapist, most of the children mentioned "the need to be a good listener, including the knowledge of when to keep quiet and allow the patient to speak. Many also noted the need for technical skill, especially the ability to figure things out."

Farber believes that the children have a heightened sense of what therapy is about probably because psychotherapy has been "destigmatized" in the last couple of decades, due in part from the spread of information through films and television.

According to Farber, however, "The greatest source of ignorance was actually about financial issues. They (the children) have very little idea of what therapy costs."

The Effects of Their Parents' Profession on Them

Farber and Golden maintain that one would expect that therapists' skills, whether in child development or human nature, would be assets in contributing to good parenting. "However," the researchers write, "these connections are not so straightforward…There are clearly therapists who are able to be highly engaged, focused, empathetic, and effective with their patients but are unable to be so with their family members, including children."

The children surveyed maintain that their parents were: "skilled in handling childhood crises and emotionally laden situations;" "available to help the child ‘for free;'" and "could avail themselves of professional judgment, knowledge, objectivity, and restraint that other parents could not."

On the other hand, there were children who cited "their parents tendency to act like a therapist at home" as the worst part of having a parent who is a psychotherapist. They pointed to their parents attempts "to act like a know-it-all or to pry, question intrusively, or to ask too many details."

To emphasize this point Farber recalls a remark by one of the children. "As one of our participants said, ‘Too often my mom asked me: And how does that make you feel?'"
Farber adds, "Most kids growing up don't want to process everything in their lives and certainly don't want to process everything going on in their lives with their parents."

Farber says that the children in the study saw the best of all worlds when their parents used their psychological knowledge to assist the young people when they were in crisis or needed help. "The worst of all worlds was when these parents were stuck in the psychotherapy mode, trying to make sense of everything--which felt overwhelming to some of the kids."

Conclusions Contrast With Commonly Expressed Notions

Typically it is felt that children of psychotherapists are kept in the dark about their parents' work. In contrast with that commonly expressed notion, Farber and Golden believe that, "previous researchers and theorists have underestimated the extent to which children of therapists…acquire knowledge about psychotherapy."

The authors also feel "that much as previous generations of psychotherapists underestimated the extent to which their patients knew certain details of their lives, many psychotherapists parents have inaccurate perceptions of their children's knowledge of their work."

In the interview Farber elaborates on the findings. "For the most part, being a parent whose job is a psychotherapist, is mostly for the good. They are using their skills in an adaptive, helpful fashion that facilitates their parenting."

Nevertheless, he cautions, "But what psychologist or therapist parents need to be aware of is that unless their kids ask for psychological help, providing the help is going to be regarded as overwhelming and non-helpful."

For Farber the findings of the research yielded some unusual results. Most importantly, he says, "The literature from 30 and 40 years ago noted that psychoanalysts were constantly in an interpretative mode with their children and that these young people reacted dysfunctionally when they became their parents' patients."

He says that the study needs to be replicated with a larger, less homogeneous, more geographically diverse sample.

Even so, he says that this small study shows that today's therapists are no longer seen by society as the "grand and mysterious authority figures." The study "contradicts the stereotypic notion that it's awful to be the child of a therapist," Farber adds. "In fact, for the most part, the effects are rather beneficial."
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