Family Counselling Support Review document

Psychotherapeutic Counselling and Support Centre for Adults, Young People and Children

Review Document

By Wendy Coad & Donna Curtis

Purpose of this paper -
To document the provision of a three year counselling support service, delivered by 2 counsellors from Being Centre on behalf of a leading, multi-agency funded, Domestic Violence Pilot Project, based in West Sussex.

In June 2004 we were approached by a domestic violence project, to design and implement a Counselling Support Service for children (only) who were currently or had in the past, lived with Domestic Violence.

Client referral route
Clients were given the opportunity for the support service after being referred directly from the Domestic Violence project, by the Independent Domestic Violence Advisors.

Outline of Project Aims, Underpinnings, and Objectives:

• The idea was to compliment existing supportive agencies working alongside the Domestic Violence Project such as, NSPCC, The Freedom Project, and the Webster Stratton programmes. Research included input from leading organisations such as the Respect Project and The Wave Trust, Barnados’, Stella Project, and the Durham Evaluation. These organisations are dedicated to researching alternatives to violence.

• In the year from June 2004 till July 2005, we dedicated our time to researching existing supportive services, and what was considered to be most helpful and beneficial in supporting young people affected by violence and abuse.

• Our objectives included careful thought and planning around policies and procedures, contracting, case management and service delivery.

• We recognised when there has been domestic abuse and / or violence within a family, empathic relating and attunement can be severely compromised.

• One of our fundamental aims was to create a support programme which focused on increasing empathic relating between family members, and to enhance attunement between parents and children.

• Increasing empathic relating underpinned all our service design decisions.

• It was also vital to create a deeply empathic experience for all who attended and to endeavour to remain committed to being attuned to each client as individuals.

• It was important where possible, to offer every child within a family the opportunity to have a therapeutic space, not single out children who had been highlighted as ‘troublesome’.

Programme Structure

• The aim of the programme was to ensure each client was recognised as an individual. This meant careful tailoring of the service for each client who attended, without compromising safe boundaries.

• We also remained open to monitoring what was helpful, to determine what seemed to work against the building of a secure enough relationship, with each client. Using our distinct professional training, helped with this endeavour.

• The structure of the programme differed to the others we had researched, in as much as we had the opportunity to work individually with each client prior to offering group support.

• This then enabled clients to feel safer as part of a group, as they had already built a trusting relationship with their counsellor, who co-facilitated the groups thereafter.

First Phase

• We then launched the first phase of the project in September 2005. Counsellors worked individually with children aged 5 -17 years on a short term basis of 10 weeks.

• These individual sessions focused on helping each client better understand their personal experiences within their family, and to explore the impact that abuse had had on them.

• It was imperative to remain committed to avoiding re-traumatisation during these sessions, by remaining professionally aware and monitoring each client closely.

• We quickly realised that parents needed support along side the children, so that the whole family were therapeutically held.

• With the support and understanding of the Domestic Violence Co-ordinator, the service was then extended to short term one to one counselling for parents in October 2005, in addition to the children, for a maximum of an assessment plus eight sessions.

Second Phase

• In December 2005, the second phase included providing an open ended weekly therapeutic support group for those children and adults who had worked individually with their counsellor.

• Two groups were offered for the children, one for 5-11, and one for 12-17year olds.

• In May 2006, an adult group was offered to all adults who had worked on a one-to-one basis.

• The focus of all the groups was to work with the here and now dynamics that were brought by members each week, and to develop increased empathy and attunement within each family.

• The groups facilitated a space in which to highlight similar experiences between members, and to help identify useful coping strategies and ways of expressing thoughts and feelings, safely.

• The groups also provided provision for identifying personal choices and possibilities regarding employment, employment options or returning to educational studies.

• In addition to the groups, a limited number of one-to-one holding sessions could be provided, by the original counsellor, if a family where facing a particular crisis.

• As part of the continuous support, a mentoring scheme was offered by Volunteer members of West Sussex Police. It was designed to offer the children and young people additional positive and good enough relationships with adults.

• The groups were able to continue to run after funding was secured following a conference to raise awareness in October 2006 at South Lodge Hotel, Lower Beeding, West Sussex.

Third Phase

• The third phase was to run Life Skills groups for the 12 – 17 year olds who had been attending the weekly support groups for a period of time, and who felt they were ready to make the transition into a group focusing on more sophisticated independent life skills.

• These Life Skills groups were run by youth workers, after the young people had a period of transition supported by their original counsellor.
• Provision of a ‘drop- in’ to the original support service was made available for the children throughout the duration of the Life Skills Groups.

• The third phase included researching an appropriate Life Skills group for the 5 – 11 year olds, which would focus on extending the possibilities of attending Community based activities that were of interest to them.

From September 2005 to July 2008, 272 individual people were referred to the service.

Limitations and Reflections for the Future

• The Domestic Violence Project to which we were affiliated, was trail blazing, in as much as it wanted to explore fresh approaches to the support of people experiencing domestic violence.

• Despite a year of planning, a number of difficulties presented themselves. These included how the lines of communication would operate, and how the support service would run along side the existing Domestic Violence project.

• Due to constant staffing reshuffles within the organisation, having clear communication routes proved most difficult. This left a great sense of uncertainty and a lack of clear boundaries.

• Opportunities to forecast precise costing proved difficult.

• The depth of autonomy was divided between the project co-ordinator and ourselves at the start. Whilst this was very productive to begin with, once the co-ordinator had to attend to the main project which was rapidly expanding, it proved difficult to get the time to negotiate and discuss the needs of our growing support service.

• We noticed there was a need to incorporate a more systemic approach for the work with clients, but it proved difficult to secure time for full discussions and the implementation of this.

• An Evaluation procedure was put in place at the beginning, however it soon became inadequate and we did not have the autonomy or the time available to negotiate and implement changes.

• An opportunity for an external method of evaluation would have been useful, establishing a foundation for a sustainable service and to document the validity of the service.

• Securing adequate and suitable premises proved difficult.

• Supervisory arrangements over and beyond the usual recommendations, proved necessary to keep a congruent focus on the work and better understand projective identification issues.

• Drugs and alcohol use was identified, with some, as a contributing factor in either the abusive experiences or as a ‘safety blanket’ in an attempt to cushion the affects of the abuse. So to have had the opportunity to facilitate groups focusing on substance use, would have been complementary and perhaps more holding for certain clients.


This report is about our experience and our findings. Although it is rather a subjective report, the aim of it is to document how we as professionals through careful monitoring of each client, experienced what was helpful and what was lacking in providing the support each client needed. Feedback from clients was varied and genuine

We feel very strongly that to dismiss a client’s own thoughts and feelings concerning their experiences because it may lack quantifiable evidence, is hugely split and disrespectful. Not only to the art of counselling psychotherapy, but more importantly to the unique individuals who shared so courageously their time, energy, deepest thoughts and feelings, during a tremendously difficult period in their lives.

Feeling internally isolated, externally alone, feeling responsible for the abuse and or violence experienced guilt, shame, hopelessness, and deep sadness were often some of the feelings that simmered beneath the rage and anger, or social personas presented to us. To create a space which was genuinely and congruently focused on understanding the tremendous impact living with abuse had had on each client, we feel created a sense of hope, for the future, their future.

One of our aims was not to offer anger management, especially for the children, and young people who had been presenting with difficulties at school and home. We were passionate about creating a supportive relationship, which offered time for anger acknowledgement. This meant providing time to acknowledge swallowed feelings which simmered beneath angry behaviour. In addition to providing time to better understand choices, behaviour, and other ways of expression.

It was imperative the work did not re-traumatise individuals for instance by requesting regurgitation of their experience in brilliant Technicolor. For instance, for some clients to express the unspeakable, the use of art and other creative mediums was both necessary and extremely effective for creating a cathartic experience.
It was often necessary to challenge ‘normalised ideas’ about relationships, which often included dramatic and abusive ways of relating.

We often felt that during the work with individuals or in the groups, we were providing an opportunity for a re-parenting experience. The group’s dynamics provided a powerful cohesive experience which replicated a family unit, complete with appropriate boundaries.

Group members witnessed counsellors whose styles of working were often very different, come together through negotiation and an appreciation of each other as individuals. Part of what needed to be modelled was an example of a good enough relationship, which was based on mutual respect, immediacy, empathic relating and attunement. This needed to be demonstrated, not only in each counsellor’s interaction with the clients, but also between each team of counsellors.

Ultimately, we recognised to benefit fully from this high quality service, both parents and children needed to feel ready to engage with the often painful and sometimes intensive process, that the support service presented. Much physical, cognitive and emotional energy was required as a commitment, from both clients and counsellors.

Many of our clients wanted to share some of their thoughts and feelings concerning their experience of the support service.

In honour of their wish, we have included some below:

“I’m able to understand it’s not all my fault” (Child)

“Nice to have some space just for me.” (Child)

“After five sessions at the time of our split up, has helped her so much” (Parent)

“The programme came for us at the right time” (Parent)

“She’s more confident and sure of herself” (Parent)

“I felt heard”. (Parent)

“Nothing but benefits” (Parent)

“Somehow the spark is back in her, someone switched the light on in her eyes” (Parent)

“Liked the structure…” (Parent)

“Coming here has helped me let out all my feeling and not to keep them inside, so I don’t get confused and worried” (older Child)

“Although she seemed not to be affected, I was worried that later on it may do so” (Parent)

“I did not want my daughter to blame herself” (Parent)

“Fantastic…” (Parent)

“He’s been able to begin to understand what he thinks and feels is important” (Parent)

“I wanted the cycle of violence to stop.” (Parent)

“Able to draw pictures of mum and Dad and show them what I can do…I can talk about missing mum and Dad” (Child)

“My son was showing lots of signs of anxiety. Biting his clothes and hands…he has stopped nearly all of this” (Parent)

“I think it is amazing how much it has helped us in just eight weeks. It is an excellent service for the both of us; we relate much better to each other…” (Parent)

“It was neutral support during the divorce” (Parent)

“A chance to let of steam and better understand the abuse in the family” Older (Child)

“The volunteer helper has been a great support and listening ear whilst my son had his session” (Parent)

“I am able to socialise with friends now, my confidence and concentration have improved” (Older child)

“I was able to take my (Child)ren somewhere safe, where they could talk and play out the struggles at home…and the changes in the family” (Parent)

“It has helped my daughter from becoming withdrawn “(Parent)

“I like the way the counsellor worked with her it was not intimidating” (Parent)

“I liked the jelly people…. making pictures of mum DAD and me” (Child)

“Liked doing things I haven’t done before” (Child)

“Having space and time for me has been a mixed experience” (parent)

“I’ve felt able to express how I feel and talk without being judged” (Parent)

“I realise I am still who I am, not somebody who can be bullied about” (parent)

“Excellent and unique!” (Parent)

“My daughter is not as frightened of the unknown and has excelled in her own self-esteem” (parent)

“R.. is very confused and angry…..but is getting better it will take time but it’s his first step” (parent)

Biographical Notes

Wendy Coad MBACP CCYP Psychotherapeutic Counsellor and Trainer
Donna Curtis MBACP CCST Psychotherapeutic Counsellor and Trainer

Note: The Authors require readers to liaise with them prior to distributing any information from this review report. Respectful thanks.

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