Helping families navigate the choppy waters of partisan politics

Whose lives matter: A middle aged man began a session by stating how his adult son is refusing to talk with him because of an argument over Black Lives Matter. The client detailed how his son had been passionately conveying his support for this movement (the son reportedly has a significant other who is a person of color) and became very angry when his father suggested that all lives matter. The father reported that he was particularly taken aback as he identifies as Hispanic (his descriptor of himself) and stated that since this conversation his son hardly speaks with him. He reported much dismay and talked about how they had always been close. The psychologist who was working with this man focused with him on his desire to repair the relationship and helped the father explore what he valued most (his relationship with his son) and how he could possibly talk with his son about trying to put aside their differences. The client also noted that he and his spouse had been invited to a family get together (by his son’s partner) and questioned whether he should go. The psychologist encouraged him to go as he has had good relationships with the partner and the partner’s family. He agreed and subsequently reported that his son was receptive to their rebuilding their communication and also wanted to avoid letting differences of opinion damage their connection.

While there has been much written recently by clinicians arguing for an anti-racist stance in practice and that clinicians need to address the racist beliefs of their clients, it is our concern that over zealousness in this effort has the potential to cause harm. If clients espouse overtly racist or prejudiced beliefs, it is important to address the negative implications of these stances. Moreover, an awareness of privilege on the part of White clinicians, and an understanding of systemic racism is essential. However, it is our view that seeking to help families build stronger bonds, helping individuals learn to disagree in respectful and thoughtful ways, is essential. Finally, it is our view that we need to maintain our humility and not assume that our values are the highest and most morally advanced and we need to remember that people of good conscience can disagree.

A final example: a mother, who self-identified as Irish American, reported that her adult daughter was going to move back home from out of state after losing her job due to the Pandemic. The mother reported concerns about living with her adult daughter and how to navigate having an adult child (who for the time being would be financially dependent on her and her husband) living in their home. In discussing these concerns the client noted that her spouse and her daughter previously had several heated arguments with her husband over his objections to their daughter dating a person of color. The client reported fears that these conflicts could be reignited even though her daughter’s relationship had ended some time ago. The therapist focused with this client on ways she might talk with her spouse (who was resistant to coming to therapy) about managing their daughter’s return home. The therapist focused with the client on working to listen empathetically to her spouse’s concerns before pressing him to not antagonize their daughter. In addition, the therapist also supported the client in discussing her concerns with her daughter who had valued her relationship with her father, on how she could talk with her dad, appreciate his concern for her welfare, while recognizing that she can disagree with her father without shunning him.

In closing, we can only expect to see more families stressed and challenged by the highly partisan political context we are all living in. If we can help family members reflect on their values and their priorities, we can hopefully help more of them not lose sight of the importance of their bonds with each other. Moreover, if we can help our clients learn to disagree agreeably and respectfully, we are not only doing them a service, we are doing the community we live in a service. When family members remember to value their relationships with each other and put aside their ideological differences, this stance hopefully carries over into relationships with others in their lives and in their communities.