The therapeutic history and the rule of three

The presence of the therapist as the third party is often significant in giving permission to one or other of the parents to communicate things that may have hitherto been denied or kept secret. Taking a history of the parents takes them back into their childhoods where painful events have been experienced that remain unresolved. The tone and manner of communication provides insight into how these experiences have been lived with, and in many cases not metabolised. For example, a parent may describe a traumatic childhood filled with loss and bereavement as ‘normal’ and the flat tone of their voice suggests the enormity of these experiences that they were not able to make sense of, as they were barely acknowledged by their own parents, or important people in their lives.

How this experience and the way it is communicated can be connected with the presenting problem is often illuminating. For example, the presentation of high levels of anxiety about separation in the child may be the most visible manifestation of a long-standing but denied anxiety in the parent. Where both parents are present, this has the advantage of providing the counterpoint between one parent’s history and the other. One parent may perceive their own history as troubled and volatile, and their partner’s as happy and somewhat idealised. Closer examination through the recounting of the family history may reveal a very different picture in which for example, the idealised family may have maintained itself through denying painful events. Some parents may demonstrate a kind of amnesia about their childhoods and growing up, which may lead the other partner to try to help them fill the gaps.

The most significant function of the telling of the parental history is that by doing so, it inevitably contributes to the commencement of the therapeutic process. The reason for this is that when the presentation of the child or young person’s problem is followed by the taking of a history of the parents, this creates opportunities for important connections to begin to be made that underpin the task of therapy. By so doing, it also encourages a space for reflection, which further contributes to the therapeutic process.

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