As therapists, we have all been faced with the following situation. You are meeting with a new client, and things start off great. You are making headway with your client, uncovering and resolving issues. As the therapist, you think to yourself, “Wow things are going great! My client is really making a lot of progress. They seem to really want to work on things.” Then one day, something unfortunate happens; your client arrives and you begin the session, and you can tell your client has “checked out.” They no longer seem interested in any ideas you throw out at them, and they don’t look like they want to put in the work anymore. Now you are faced with the tough situation of trying to figure out what happened, and how to get them reengaged in therapy again.
The first step is to determine what happened. What made them lose interest in therapy? There are many reasons why this happens, but here are a few common reasons.
- You confronted or challenged them on something they weren’t ready to face. This has happened to me many times. As therapists, we notice and observe patterns and issues, and we point out what we have been noticing to the client hoping they will want to discuss it and work on it. For some clients, this can be overwhelming to face, and they shut down. They may not be ready to face that aspect or make changes (note: think back to visitors, complainers, and customers). They may begin to participate less in sessions, cancel or not show for sessions, or try to terminate therapy.
- Change in goals. Sometimes goals change as you continue to move forward. Maybe the client has uncovered something else they want to work on, or you uncover a new goal. When one of your changes the focus of therapy unexpectedly, it throws the other person off, and that can cause a person to shut down and disengage from therapy. The same thing can happen if therapist and client are unable to agree upon goals.
- “Things are better! I don’t need to continue.” This happens quite a bit in therapy. As soon as clients begin to make progress and see that things have gotten better, they feel that there is no more work that needs to be done, and say that they do not need to continue with therapy. This can be frustrating for the therapist, since the therapist is able to recognize that there is still work to be done, but no longer have interest from the client.
- Conflict with others. This is especially true with Specialized Family Therapy since joint sessions with the co-parent typically occur. When conflict arises between them, one or both of the clients might shut down and choose to not engage much in sessions. The conflict might spark unresolved issues that they may have about the other person, or shutting down may be their way of coping with the conflict. If you are not doing joint sessions, it is important to remember that life continues outside of sessions, and conflict or stressful situations occur for the client, and that can impact their ability to remain focused in therapy.
As stated before, there are many different reasons that our clients choose to disengage from sessions, and these are just a few of the common reasons. Once you uncover the reason for their disengagement, the next step is try and get them reengaged in sessions. Here are a few ways that may help get your client reengaged.
- Check in with the client. This is something I like to do, even when clients appear to be engaged in sessions. Checking in ensures that everyone remains on the same page. If you check in with the client, you can see where they are at with their own understanding of achieving goals, if they feel new goals should be worked on, and helps you address issues they may be facing before they interfere with the client’s ability to participate in sessions.
- If doing joint sessions, offer individual sessions. This is always helpful when doing co-parenting counseling. One parent may not feel comfortable speaking up about issues they are having in front of their co-parent. Offering an individual session, gives that parent a chance to express how they are feeling, discuss things they are struggling with, and still get that support from the therapist that may help them speak up more in joint sessions. Note: you do need to be cautious about doing this. You don’t want to appear more aligned with one parent than the other. When I have done this, I will offer individual sessions to both to keep things equal.
- Work on what the client wants to work on. Never force or pressure your client to work on goals that they do not want to work on. If a person does not see something as a problem, and the therapist continues to bring it up, it will only push the client away. Meet the client where they are, and work on goals they feel are important, and build off of the progress they make.
- Talk about the progress the client has made. This seems like a no brainer, but I think sometimes as therapists we get so caught up on moving forward and achieving goals, that we do not take the time to talk with our clients about the progress they have made. Sometimes our clients may not feel that they have made progress and this may cause them to shut down during sessions. This is also a good time to check in with our clients and see what is working for them and what they feel may need to change in order for them to keep making progress.
- Validate their feelings. Going to a therapist can be quite scary and overwhelming for some people. Validating how someone feels can really help the person open up more and feel more comfortable talking to the therapist about issues.
Just like there are many different reasons as to why our clients choose to disengage from therapy there are many different ways to approach that and try to get the client reengaged in sessions. The important thing as the therapist is to recognize early on when your client is no longer engaging in sessions, and try to fix it then. Sometimes we may think it was a one-time thing, and not address it. From there, it turns into something that happens in more sessions. That becomes more overwhelming for the therapist and the client, and can be much harder to address. When in doubt, reach out to your supervisor and get a different perspective on how to address it!