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The Bad Session – 3 Mistakes and How to Correct Them

family photoI have been doing family therapy for 30 years.  I really enjoy my work. But recently there have been some difficult cases that left me upset and troubled for days. Let’s try to reflect on what’s going on.

The first case was that of a family with young kids in the throws of a separation. While they had already done the work of one partner moving out and adjusting the kids’ schedules, (and boy were they cute kids, one with special needs), what they had not done was sort out the complex feelings around the change.

By the end of the session they were all crying.  Normally, this might be a good thing, a sign that I struck a nerve and that they had the courage to stick with it.  However, in this case, it was a train wreck.


The mom had been anxious to explain to the children that they were no longer a couple.

Of course, the mom and dad told the kids that they would ALWAYS be their parents.  But then mom said, “Daddy is no longer my HUSBAND.”  That’s when the little girl lost it. For the rest of the session the child sobbed in her father’s arms.

Then mom and dad started crying.

I actually got out of my chair to try to comfort the little girl; to no avail. Mom felt horrible and dad picked up the blame game from some past season.

Lesson #1. YOU CAN’T FIX EVERYTHING.  I let them cry, hug and yell. I thought I had lost control of the session but I think what happened is that I unearthed something I didn’t know about.  That the father had an affair and then tried to reconcile (I knew – but didn’t realize it was ongoing). And that the mother was still distraught about it.

More for further exploration, perhaps without the kids next time.  After I slept on it, I realized that there was nothing more I could have done in that session.  The words had somehow broken her.  And as I heard the words, they had broken me too .  That primitive feeling when you know your family is no more [See Brene Brown – on Shame].  While it happened to me at a much older age, the rawness doesn’t change.  It’s a FUNDAMENTAL reality shift that splits you open for a while.  That kid’s cry broke my heart.  I apologized to her.


Lesson #2. KNOW WHEN TO CUT LOOSE.  I was working on a complicated divorce/visitation case where there were allegations of abuse. The courts and attorneys were involved.  For some reason I have done many of these cases, although they are notorious for being a no-win for therapists.

Nevertheless, somebody has to handle these.  So, as we were moving toward a reconciliation between father and daughter, the father began to act erratically.  I saw him behave in ways that were unequivocally provoking his teenaged daughter into suicidal despair.  She nearly landed in the hospital from his aggressive approach.  It was time to stop.

Fortunately the school was involved too and they were incredibly supportive of me and the family.  As the father began to turn hostile toward me and his own child, I quickly ended the court-mandated sessions.  Luckily, I was able to continue with the child outside of that framework where she and I weren’t subject to more abuse.


I was working with a young girl for two years of a divorce litigation battle when suddenly her father lost custody.

This had been a long fight, and someone was going to be the winner and someone the loser.  The therapy would end and the child would be with the less-desirable parent for years to come.

Lesson #3.  YOU WIN SOME YOU LOSE SOME.  She was a talented, intelligent child who had a profound bond with her father, while her mother was mentally ill.  One can only hope that some day when she grows up she can advocate for herself, which she surely seems capable of doing.  It’s a reminder of “The Drama of the Gifted Child.”  Some kids have to fend for themselves so early on, you hope they develop certain fantastical self-awareness that can lead them through trauma and loss to resilience and bravery.  Never easy to let go (or as one of my clients recently said, it was the “worst of both worlds”).  I will miss her and her big vocabulary.

Family therapy at its best sorts out power-struggles, triangulations** and scapegoating.  However, it is ultimately back to the process of communication; a moving target of pain and avoidance.  At least all three families tried, while I was busy learning my lessons…

**Triangulation is a family therapy concept discussed most famously by multigenerational family systems theorist Murray Bowen. Bowen described dyads as being inherently unstable under stress, much like a two-legged stool. When in balance, the dyad is capable of functioning well and meeting the needs of both people in it. However, when thrown out of balance by conflict, stress, or transitions, the dyad will often pull in a third person, or “leg” of the stool, to help them stabilize the relationship.

The Bad Session – 3 Mistakes and How to Correct Them

Donna C. Moss

You can learn more about Donna's work at her personal website.

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APA Reference
Moss, D. (2019). The Bad Session – 3 Mistakes and How to Correct Them. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 25, 2019, from


Last updated: 10 Jan 2019
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