Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

The 5 W's of Finding a Counselor. (Life Planning)

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

The 5 W's of Finding a Counselor. (Life Planning)

Article excerpt

From time to time, families of children with special needs may decide to seek professional counseling to assist them the problems of everyday living. Counseling can be a mysterious process. Often practitioners in the field disagree on what counseling is, who should be doing it, and what process or processes unfold in the counseling relationship. As a counselor educator, I am charged with teaching counselors in training who may come into the field with their own assumptions and misconceptions. Part of their journey toward becoming a counselor is learning to articulate their own definition of ways of working with and helping individuals. If the process seems vague to counselors in training, imagine what it feels like for a person seeking counseling.

As a way of clarifying the enigma of the counseling field, let's look at the "5 Ws" of counseling; the why, when, who, where and what.


Families of children with special needs face challenges from a number of fronts and may feel stress from various sources. These can include spouses, family members and the community at large. Some specific scenarios that families with children who have special needs may find themselves in warrant counseling.

Family systems theory is the belief that all members of a family unit are interconnected and dependent on one another. Any change in one member will affect other members. The presence of a child with special needs will affect other siblings within the family unit. Counseling may be needed when siblings begin to have school difficulties, interpersonal problems or express jealousy and anger toward their sibling. In the same vein, marriages may suffer, as the focus of the family may lie in the care, support and advocacy needed for the child with special needs.

Families often experience isolation from the community. Children with special needs may not be included in playgroups, birthday parties and many of the childhood rituals that unite parents in a community. The lack of knowledge about the child's condition and discomfort experienced by some will increase the sense of loneliness and alienation. In addition, the family of a child with special needs expends a great deal advocating for the appropriate medical care, education and socialization necessary for their child's quality of life. This constant up-hill battle can produce stress and burnout. The lack of support from both the smaller community and society at large can result in feelings of sadness, isolation and anger. Counseling can provide a support system to help caregivers with these emotions.

A multitude of emotions surface when parents have a child with special needs, including guilt, anger, fear and anxiety. Many parents may feel guilty about experiencing such emotions and often have no outlet to express them. If social support is lacking, these conflicting emotions can lead to a variety of serious consequences including depression, marital problems, anxiety disorders and difficulties at work.


Among the most confusing aspects in seeking counseling is identifying an appropriate counselor and where to start to look for one. Counselors go by many names and the alphabet soup of initials, certifications, licensure and educational requirements vary from state to state. There are certain restriction concerning the use of the titles, but most consumers of counseling services are not familiar with them and as a result often enter counseling not fully aware of the credentials their counselor possesses. In an era where car buying has become a science and resources abound, the average consumer of counseling, on the other hand, has little knowledge of who and what is out there.

There are no legal restrictions on the use of the title "therapist" or "counselor." The term counselor is so overused that you can call a travel agency or insurance firm and be connected with a "travel counselor" to assist you. …

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