It’s that time of year. The time where certain clients disengage from therapy in response to the season, holidays, or stress, and the time when others need appointments the most in order to support them through trauma, family conflict, isolation, and loneliness. When working for an agency, the crises seemed to intensify during the holidays. First it was the client diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder experiencing depression symptoms due to the winter weather. Then the client with trauma from sexual assault having to see their perpetrator at the family holiday dinner. Or the single client with no access to family experiencing increased suicidal ideation in response to spending the holidays alone. Or the client with high anxiety becoming stressed about money and gifts for their family, losing sleep and snapping at their kids. And finally, the client sober from alcohol for three months having to navigate holiday parties around family and friends where temptation may lead to relapse. Combine these factors with a client’s distress tolerance and they could engage in therapy fully to receive support, or in some cases, disengage in response to their symptoms. As helping professionals, how do we balance the variety of client needs with consistency, empathy, and grace?
Lack of physical attendance
The more easily measured is a change in physical attendance in your scheduled sessions. Perhaps the client starts to cancel sessions when they’ve been consistent in attending each week in the past. How do you explore their needs when you haven’t been able to see them in the office for several weeks now? Depending on how they are engaging you to cancel the appointments, you may offer a couple of ideas in response to their distress:
- Completing a phone call to gauge what is going on in their world and attempting to re-engage them in sessions to support symptom management.
- Offering a phone session rather than a face-to-face to explore and address present stressors if they are unable to attend.
- Identifying a different appointment time that allows physical attendance such as an early morning or later evening if appropriate.
- Redirecting text messages of distress by offering an appointment to discuss and support them.
- Reviewing their attendance contract with them to determine how they’d like to proceed, including possibly placing scheduled appointments on hold and resuming at a later time if appropriate.
Lack of emotional attendance
The hope is that with ongoing rapport, the conversations above can demonstrate healthy communication, accountability, and boundaries with a client experiencing increased distress. Rapport becomes even more important when engaging a client around a lack of emotional attendance or participation in session. Perhaps you begin to notice that the client arrives late every week, jumping into sessions with surface-level details or changing subjects rapidly throughout the scheduled time. Or maybe they remain at head-level in their processing, not dropping down into emotions and deeper meaning in session with you. With healthy rapport, you as their support can gently name the behaviors you are seeing in the room to encourage a healthy conversation about their avoidance. Here are some examples of how you might approach them in a compassionate way:
- In response to their running late: “I’m noticing how rushed it feels lately coming into our sessions and feeling like we have to fit it all in. Can you tell me more about what that’s like for you?”
- In response to staying in their head: “I’m noticing you are very much in your head today when it comes to describing how you feel, can I ask you to pause a moment and share with me what’s happening in your body right now?”
- To encourage reflection: “I feel like you are very far away in this session even though we are sitting across from one another, what does it feel like for you?”
- To encourage feedback: “I’m hearing that you have a lot on your plate right now. What can I do to help you best in this moment?”
Any of these gentle inquiries can lead to a tenderness and connection to emotion as well as an access point for clients to identify and explore their needs. These sessions can prove to be some of the most impactful and fruitful in not only holding space for emotion and modeling what it looks like to communicate needs, but also supporting vulnerability and self-advocacy in the client as to how they can engage their supports.
I hear you
As a therapeutic support, engaging clients from a place of compassion and empathy can be powerful to their experience. Balancing a neutral curiosity with ongoing optimism that, together we can find relief, can be empowering for the client. By starting with gentle reflection and gaining better understanding of their emotional response to stressors in their life, we can then encourage exploration and practice of positive coping. Whether it be concrete tools for coping or holding space for their emotions, we are creating a safety net to address any fear, guilt, or shame they may be harboring around their functioning in these moments of distress. Like any roadmap, with direction and insight, we can address avoidance and attendance from an authentic, supportive place to best help our clients in navigating their world.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Brene Brown in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.