My Evolution as a Child and Family Therapist
Maurice Heidish, LCSW has been a practicing therapist for over 30
years. As the Director of Clinical Programs, he has supervised
therapists from all disciplines including clinical social workers,
professional counselors, marriage and family therapists and counseling
psychologists . For many therapists he has also provided license
supervision hours for therapists to become licensed. He can provide
all the supervision hours for the clinical social workers and half the
required supervision hours for those of other clinical disciplines.
Essentially, I created Specialized Family Therapy out of necessity some 20 years ago. I realized through the previous ten years of treating families and children that the dramatic rise in separations and custody related conflicts were negatively impacting children’s ability to cope and develop. The children I treated for a variety of conditions, (e.g., Oppositional Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Depression and ADHD) often needed more than just a relationship with a therapist. They had frequently developed their respective behavioral problems and symptoms while their parents were still together and fighting regularly. The children’s distress only increased when the parents separated and the hostility between them became even more dramatic.
Often the children and adolescents were, or had been, caught in the middle of bitter conflicts between their parents. In many cases, they had witnessed verbal and sometimes physical abuse of one parent or both and the children had serious trust issues relative to adults. Moreover, the children frequently had arrested emotional development because they lived in family turmoil. This arrested development occurred because growing up in a chaotic family, and sometimes in an aggressive or violent neighborhood, prevented them from moving smoothly into a normal Latency Period of Child Development around age 6 or 7 through 11 and then into preadolescence from 11 to 13. At those stages which typically last five to seven years, children seek to bond with peers and incrementally learn to compete fairly, cooperate, and then to collaborate as empathic friends. Children who were very delayed in learning these vital interpersonal skills were often not liked in school and also had begun to act out. This acting out could be aggressive, academic underachievement or early experimenting with drugs, alcohol or sex. By the time someone sent them to me for traditional play, activity or family therapy, the child had often internalized conflicts based on anger, anxiety, and lack of trust. I found that many presented in a defensive and suspicious way and were difficult to engage. When I was able to engage with these children, the engagement was fragile; they could again become closed and non trusting if their parents’ conflicts resurfaced. Essentially, the children had not been able to fully leave the earlier 4 to 6 year old Oedipal stage behind. Even through adolescence many were still seeking their parent’s approval and coping with sibling rivalry; at the same time, the parents unconsciously reinforced the sibling rivalry.
Many of the children I was treating needed an intervention that would resolve co-parenting conflicts and reduce hostility between their parents. There was also frequently a need to reconcile a child with their non- custodial parent from whom they had become estranged. I felt compelled to develop Specialized Family Therapy Court Ordered: Co Parenting and Reconciliation Counseling as an alternative to the parents using the family court as a weapon against each other. An encouraging paradigm shift took place when family courts from two large counties; Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, and Westmoreland County, began sending me referrals for SFT.
I was fortunate that I was part of a training consortium that brought in Solution Based experts such as Insoo Kim Berg, Narrative Therapy creator Michael White, and an excellent Time Sensitive Treatment trainer Simon Budman. All of these experts helped me develop the skills to treat high conflict families. Rather than children only being seen for therapy when referred from their school counselor, school psychologist, or from their parents, the family courts now ordered some families to SFT to help the children cope with the separated parents’ disputes. SFT sessions give children a voice to express to their worries and concerns and be heard by both parents. SFT has enabled and empowered many children and adolescents to ask their parents to be more empathic rather than putting them in the middle of adult conflicts. Empowering children to express their worries and concerns demanded that as the therapist I not be a “potted plant”; instead I needed to assertively, but respectfully, tell the parents they were part of their child’s behavioral health problems. I always framed my remarks pointing out the parents’ many strengths as people and parents, and their child’s strength’s (e.g., intelligence, humor and charm). In this way, I could engage them in getting beyond their conflicts so parents and children could live with much less stress. Likewise, I coached the children on how to express these worries and concerns in a respectful way.
The Specialized Family Therapy Treatment method I created with input from a number of excellent contributors is now on line at Specializedfamilytherapy.com as a training regimen for therapists of all clinical disciplines. Those taking the course have reported that the training is excellent and better prepares them to treat both traditional child and family cases as well as court ordered co parenting conflict cases. We know SFT works as we have treated over 500 hundred families using this method. Many of the children have benefited from their parents rallying and putting their needs first though the SFT interventions. The children ultimately progressed through the normal developmental stages and have increased interpersonal skills to engage with friends and succeed in life.
I hope this description gives those of you considering a career as a professional therapist the appreciation of the determination, patience, flexibility, empathy and creativity it takes to thrive and enjoy your work, Maurice J. Heidish LCSW