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WORKING WITH TOXIC FAMILIES WITH DONNA HUNTER


 


In This Podcast

  • The healing power of presence

  • Core elements necessary for working with toxic families

  • How to protect your energy as a therapist

  • When to refer clients out

  • Donna’s advice to private practitioners

The healing power of presence

When we’re talking about toxic families, we are talking about very broken relationships with others and a broken relationship with ourselves. Donna Hunter

In these contexts, Donna thinks of a Carl Jung quote that reminds her that it’s not just about therapeutic tools and techniques, but that at the heart of healing, sometimes you just need to be one person that is witnessing the journey of another.

I think too often in therapy and what I saw in agencies was the focus on, “Well, we have to have this treatment plan done in 90 days, and we have to have a specific diagnosis, and meet all of these requirements …” that we forget that we’re talking to people, and that people just want to be able to connect. Donna Hunter

Clients have to feel the click of interpersonal safety and connection with the therapist as well. They have to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and to reveal themselves, and that often only comes when the therapist is vulnerable too.

Core elements necessary for working with toxic families

One of the first things that Donna wants therapists to know when they work with toxic families is that a dynamic is much more than just a diagnosis.

It’s [about] understanding those family systems, [and] understanding how a healthy family works and at the same time being able to parallel how this particular family is working. Donna Hunter

Secondly, Donna advises therapists to become well-versed in childhood attachment theory and how that can develop and shift relationships into adulthood.

Additionally, Donna teaches her clients that still want to have a relationship with their family, even if they’re toxic, to “put on their hazmat suits” when going to family gatherings.

You didn’t choose to be brought up by the toxic waste dump, but when you become an adult you get the choice as to whether you’re going to leave it … or stay there. If you’re going to leave it and come back and visit, you need to have that suit of armor that allows you to take in the parts that are good … but you don’t let the toxicity continue to affect you. Donna Hunter

How to protect your energy as a therapist

Working with clients that are dealing with volatile emotions, outbursts, or intense issues can be very draining or difficult for a therapist, no matter how experienced you might be.

There are some tips that you can try to keep work in the office and not take client issues home with you:

  • Go for walks: daily walks have been proven to stimulate healthy brain function, allowing you to process thoughts and feelings (even subconsciously)

  • Work in another location: if it’s possible or feasible for you to work elsewhere, then try it. Physically going to and leaving a location helps your mind to associate different places with different activities.

  • Try writing: journaling and writing are great tools for you to use to process your emotions and thoughts. It creates a space for your thoughts and feelings to go so that you don’t feel like you are carrying everything around with you all the time.

  • Create a community: create and be part of an active community of either friends or other therapists that you can talk with.

I think that having friends and people to talk to and call [is helpful], whether it be other therapists to talk through issues … I consistently stay [under] supervision and I’ve been doing this kind of work for almost 40 years! Donna Hunter
  • Have a regular practice: regularly practice something, whether an activity or a hobby, that reminds you that you have a personal life that moves on beyond what happens in the lives of your clients so that you do not get pulled into their orbit.

When to refer clients out

It is completely okay for some clients not to work well with you. You can refer them out, and you do not have to keep working with them if the sessions are harmful either to your mental health or well-being and theirs.

Consider referring clients out when:

  • The topic hits too close to home and triggers you

  • The clients often cross your boundaries

  • Clients discuss very different issues than what was initially discussed in the intake sessions

Honestly, I’ve had the experience of people that I’ve said “no” to have referred people to me because I was honest with them and I got them to where they needed to be. Donna Hunter

Donna’s advice to private practitioners

Offering therapy is a journey. There is always something to be learned, and you can learn a lot from your clients, so be open to what they have to say because it can benefit your growth.



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