A week in my . . . family therapy practice
‘There’s a lot of expectations on families and parents to get things right’
Karen Leonard, family therapist: “There’s a lot of pressure on teenagers in terms of social media, the points system, their image and their sexuality.” Photograph: Brian Farrell
I lecture full-time at Athlone Institute of Technology, educating future careworkers to work with families, young people and service users such as people with disabilities. And there’s a focus on educating people to work in the early-years sector.
I also have a private practice as a family therapist in Elphin, Co Roscommon, where I live. And I work in the Boyle Family Life Centre.
I do one night a week in my private practice, Crannóg Family Therapy, and I work Friday evenings in Boyle. I have to keep it to that. I talk to a lot to families and clients about boundaries. I have to have a very clear boundary around my down time. I don’t work at weekends.
I’m very disciplined and I suppose I’m an organised person by nature. I have to keep everything clear and planned out so I have an electronic diary and two phones; one is only for work.
Best of both worldsA few years ago, I was thinking that I’d go more into the clinical and practical work but then I thought that really, I have the best of both worlds. Client work can be very draining. I know therapists who do five or six sessions per day, listening to 30 or 40 cases every week. I see six families a week. Altogether, I work a 47-hour week.
The two jobs really help each other. Recently, I was doing up some notes for next year’s class and I found the research I was doing for that was keeping me up to date for my work with clients.
Also, while working with clients, I get ideas and scenarios from them that I can discuss in class but obviously I don’t breach confidentiality.
When I get feedback from the students at the end of the year, what they really like are the real-life examples I talk about. I give them scenarios and dilemmas that we tease out. It brings the theory more into focus for them. The course, in applied social studies in social care, is very much geared towards practice. When the students graduate, they need to be able to do their job.
Unlike training courses where everybody wants to be there, when you’re lecturing students, they may have other things on their minds.
The challenge is to make the work applicable and to make the environment conducive to discussion.
Family therapyFor my family therapy work, I get referrals from GPs and I sometimes work with psychiatrists. If, for example, a person is at risk of suicide, I’d need a psychiatric assessment.
Sometimes a young person with, for example, an eating disorder, might need to go to hospital for in-patient treatment so I’d have a good working relationship with psychiatrists, doctors and social workers – and sometimes teachers, too.
Young people can show problems at school in terms of non-attendance, or they can be very anxious. My job is to tease out where the anxiety is coming from. I would also bring in the parents because it’s not always just the young person who needs help.
There’s a lot of expectations on families and parents to get things right. With the recession, a lot of families have been under stress with maybe one partner having to be away from home for work in England or farther afield. There’s a lot of pressure on teenagers in terms of social media, the points system, their image and their sexuality.
Rapport with adolescentsWorking with adolescents is not an area that everybody likes because they’re seen as challenging. But I tend to have a good rapport with them.
If you start by talking to them about what they’re interested in rather than broaching the problem straight away, it usually helps. And I sometimes talk to them one-to-one. My main area of work is with teenagers and their families. Most people who come to me want to get on well with their families. So usually, they’re quite motivated to make changes and that in itself makes the work easier.
Compared with other models of therapy, family therapy is rewarding in that you tend to see results quite quickly. My work is usually about trying to change communication patterns or dynamics within the family. After six to 10 weeks, I would see a big difference in a family.
One of the challenges in my private practice is that I would be likely to carry stuff home from there rather than from my work in Boyle, where I have a line manager to talk to if I need to. But when I’m seeing people on my own, I have to work things out myself or go to see my supervisor.
Supervision is ongoing. It happens when you’re engaging with the course and continues after you have qualified. I trained at UCD and at the Mater Hospital. When I was doing my masters in family therapy, it involved group therapy and clinical supervision.
Once I qualified, I registered as a family therapist which means I have to see my own clinical supervisor. I have peer supervision with other therapists in Boyle. We do that every two weeks. It’s necessary for continuing professional development. It’s an opportunity to reflect on cases.
I’d like to think I know myself very well, flaws and all. I suppose I can be a bit hard on myself sometimes. I probably need to be a bit kinder to myself.
Busy scheduleMonday to Friday is very busy. My husband, Graeme Moore, is at home most of the time. He’s a social care worker and works two nights a week with the Brothers of Charity.
When I talk to my students about how gender roles are changing, I realise that Graeme is doing the more traditional maternal role.
We have an eight-year-old daughter, Daisy. Graeme does the school lifts and supervises homework. I have to travel for an hour to get to Athlone, so that adds more time onto my working day.
For my lecturing work, there’s a lot of administration. On the family therapy side, there are case notes to be kept, writing letters, sometimes writing court reports, as well making phone calls to organise appointments. I try to do that in the evening. I don’t mind that side of the work. It fits in with my personality. Writing up case notes puts a bit of closure on the day.
Karen Leonard has an essay on parenting adolescents in Learning on the Job: Parenting in Modern Ireland, which is published by Oak Tree Press.