Gail Palmer on EFFT & The Art of Parenting

The German translation can be found here.


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Gail Palmer interviewed by Dr. Sharon Brehm

Sharon Brehm: Gail, I’m so happy, I’m so honored, that you’re taking your time for this interview.

Gail Palmer: I want to help, and I love talking about family work, so that’s easy.

Sharon Brehm: Perfect. Well, I read that you have experience in EFT and EFFT for such a long time, I think 30 years. And I’ve seen 40 years in other articles. What are for you defining moments of decision-making to become a therapist?

Gail Palmer: Well, I started very young, and trained in social work, initially. So, my experience right from the very beginning was working with families – high-risk families, where there were child protection issues. My thought, when in my first job, was, that I was going to help people and talk to each other. And it was a lot more complicated, than I realized. And the job, that I had, didn’t really… You know, when you approach families from a position of power, it certainly doesn’t open anyone up to new conversations. I think, just experiencing family struggling, the way they were, very early in my life. And then just being in a social work role, when I moved into a hospital setting. It was oftentimes a social worker, that would be looking after the family. So, my early jobs pointed me in that direction.
And I also come from a family of five children, and the eldest child. And I valued our family life, and our family life wasn’t always easy. I think that was the other inspiration, just seeing our family go through some crises, and troubles, and also having failures around communication. And probably being the eldest and kind of being pulled into some of those mediating roles very early in life. So yes, it’s kind of been what I’ve always done.

Sharon Brehm: Wow, I can’t understand, where the experience is coming from, and that there’s so much knowledge, and so much the wish to help people. If you could like turn back in time, what would you love to tell you younger self, about what you’ve learned through being a therapist?

Gail Palmer: That change takes time. And that as human beings we are vulnerable, and when we’re vulnerable, we protect ourselves in ways that may look, and are, hurtful to others. And to try to understand, that the majority of us come from a place of good intention, and the desire to be loving, and accepting, and all the things that we wish for. But these oftentimes don’t show up, because of our own vulnerabilities.

Sharon Brehm: I find it so interesting, because it means that when everyone is vulnerable, it doesn’t matter if they come from a place of power, or if they are parents or children, it means, that the way we have to connect or talk with them, should always be loving and warm-hearted.

Gail Palmer: Right, but it’s oftentimes not that way. And I see my job today as to try to understand, what leads people to show up in ways, that is the opposite of their intention.

Sharon Brehm: So, what have you learned so far about acting differently than intentions?

Gail Palmer: That, exactly what you’re saying, that parents are in a position of power, but they don’t necessarily have all the answers. Right? And that parents can lose their emotional balance, and in their good intentions actually end up creating more difficulties. Say, a parent sees their child struggling, and see their child in difficulty or having a problem, their sort of desire then to protect, and take care of the child may actually end up making matters worse. That the solution can lead the child to feel like they’re not being heard, or they’re not understood, or accepted. And the child doesn’t trust the way the parent is reacting, and then the parent ups the ante and tries harder. I mean, that’s one version of where things can get off-track. We can interrupt that pattern, and that cycle that families get trapped in by being able to help parents become aware of their own blocks to care giving. And help them process those blocks. So, that they can show up to their kids in a way that is emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaged. Which is what we do in EFT.

Sharon Brehm: I strongly agree with you on that, and I think that’s so important. I think so many parents have that feeling: „I want to protect my child, my children“ – and then they are so failing. Do you have any recommendation how it might look like in a secure attachment style family? What can parents actually do?

Gail Palmer: I think, Dan Siegel says: „Connect before correct.“ Right? Or: „Validate before educate.“ And so having that secure attachment, having that strong bond, then allows parents to have influence, and it allows parents to move in and away like the stronger wiser, the other, that their children need. Because, they are stronger wiser. But without that bond, and if they’re caught in a negative communication pattern, then they’re not going to be able to create that safe secure relationship.
And what a safe secure relationship looks like, is that parents are visible to their kids – kids can see them, they’re transparent. Parents aren’t perfect, but they’re available. And that children see that their parents are interested in them, and in their goals and in their interests. And that they can reach for their parents, for what they need. And have a fair level of confidence that their parents will respond. Not all the time, not perfectly – no way. But there’s just a basic level of confidence that their parents are there for them.

Sharon Brehm: I love what you’re saying, because it actually gives parents hope, that they don’t have to be perfect all the time. But they „simply“ have to be engaged, and open, and trustworthy.

Gail Palmer: I think parents – we all – get into this thing, that we should do something. „I’m the mom – or I’m the dad – and I need to do something here.“ Or: „If I feel like I don’t know what to do, then I just better keep quiet.“ That pressure on the parent to have it all figured out. That is the whole thing: it is a hierarchical relationship, but it is also a reciprocal relationship. Meaning that the parents learn from the child. Right? There are lessons to be learned, and to tune in, and listen to where our child is. But if we think, we’ve got it all figured out, and we have the solution, and that we should have the solution, because we’re a mom, it is up to me to fix this. Then the danger is, that the child doesn’t actually get seen for what they need.

Sharon Brehm: And that brings me right to the question of how EFT, emotionally focused therapy, and EFFT, emotionally focused therapy for families, what are the biggest differences in your role as therapist?

Gail Palmer: Now, that is a really good question, because there are elements of EFT and EFFT that are the same, like doing the tango and the moves of the tango. We still do those therapeutic interventions regardless of which modality you’re working in. But [in EFFT] we’re not working with equal relationships. Now, we’re not tracking a pattern, where both people have equal responsibility. When you’re talking about a romantic partnership, you’re talking about two adults that are equal. And with parents and kids, it’s not the same. The pattern may help them kind of see how they’re stuck, but it doesn’t help them change.
Who is supposed to change? The parent needs to change first. The parent needs to be accessible and responsive to the child, because of the hierarchy, it’s a one-way street, it’s not a two-way street. And we know that parents intention is to do that, so we lean on the parental intent, and we help them become more aware of their own block, what stands between them and their good intention to care. And the more they are aware, the less tripped up they’re going to be – the less they’re going to trip over that block, and end up overreacting or under reacting to their child, and the more transparent they will be to their children. A sign for resilience in children is, when they can see the difference between „what’s them“ and „what’s their parent“.
If a parent is not visible, the kid is gonna automatically think, it’s their fault, it’s their problem. „It must be me. I’m doing something wrong. I’m a disappointment. There’s something defective in me.“ Rather than my parents reaction has to do with them, it has to do with their own history, their own emotions.
That kind of transparency actually is stabilizing for kids. It is so important, it is so helpful to point it out, that children need to make a distinction between „that’s me“ and „that’s what the parents are doing, or feeling“.
The whole key here – and this is the tricky part with family – it’s not so, that kids take care of their parents. I think, that’s a fear for parents and for therapists, that if we help parents become more transparent, that somehow the child will then feel guilty and move in, and try to take care of their parents‘ feelings. And we as therapists don’t let that happen. The kid may naturally say: „Oh I feel guilty. I’m sorry, mom, you don’t have to…, mums can make mistakes.“ And move in, and start reassuring the parent. We can actually catch that in the moment, and help validate the child. Of course, they want and take care, because they love their parent, but that’s not their job.

Sharon Brehm: So, what would we actually do as a therapist? Would we validate the child, and then we would say: „But it’s not your job.“ Or what are we supposed to do?

Gail Palmer: Well, I’m thinking of a session, that I did with a mom and a daughter, and the daughter was about 17. And mom said: „I’m sorry, that I missed you in the past. I’m sorry, that I wasn’t there for you, when you needed me.“ And the daughter said: „You don’t have to be sorry mom. Mom make mistakes, and that’s okay.“ And what I did was, I validated the daughter. I said: „I hear you, you wanted to reassure your mom, because you care about her.“ Right? „You care about her, and you are caring about her feelings, right now. But your mom said, she was sorry to you. She was saying, that she was sorry about you, and your feelings. What is it like right now, that your mom is seeing you in this moment? That she actually sees, that she missed you in the past? Can you hear that?
So what I’m doing is: I’m validating the daughter. And I’m redirecting the conversation back to: this about mom taking care of daughter, not daughter taking care of mom

Sharon Brehm: I love the way how you actually do it, because it’s not about shifting blame, or telling that’s too much. but actually about being present, and slowing down, and actually going back to the emotion, that’s so powerful.

Gail Palmer: Yes, that’s what we do in EFT. Right?

Sharon Brehm: What were other helpful thoughts or strategies you have, when you are counseling families?

Gail Palmer: Well, I think, that family is such a strong bond. With romantic relationships, the bond is different.
I think that it’s just different. When we use in the attachment channel with families, we’re working with something very powerful. And very strong. And that can move the pattern and get them really stuck, but it also moves families pretty quickly into change.
Whereas, a romantic relationship can stay stock for decades. And you can be in therapy with a couple therapists for a long period of time, because the ability to defend and protect yourself is more intact. Whereas with families, because that desire to care giving, and the desire of children to be cared for, is so ingrained in who we are as human animals. That, it’s a powerful place to work. We can really make that change happen.

Sharon Brehm: It’s so interesting, so basically the difference between a romantic relationship, and a parental relationships is the difference of caring?

Gail Palmer: Yes, it’s more about survival. I mean, little children don’t survive without parents, but we can survive without a romantic partner. So, I think that’s really, what the difference is.

Sharon Brehm: Okay, the difference is also about survival, and it’s so true. Another question I had was… I have a lot of parents struggling on how to have a level of romance and sexual desire, and also a level of being a mother and father. How can these two levels of bonding be fruitful to each other?

Gail Palmer: Yes, it can become like a conflict – a place of „It is either – or.“ Either we’re gonna be romantic and our relationship takes priority, or the kids take over the life, and we don’t have romance anymore as a couple. And I think, what we call the caregiving alliance, or the parenting alliance, is as important as the romantic, loving, couple relationship. And both are important – it’s an AND, it’s not an OR. And I think, where couples get stuck is, when it feels like it’s an OR. That the children are in the bed, and there’s no time, or no privacy, and no space for the couple. And then the couples start getting into their own negative dance about that, which then separates some more. And then you’ve got mom and the kids, and dads are off by themselves. Whichever, it could happen with a same-sex couple too, the same kind of dynamic. The way I’ve started to think about couple romantic relationships is, that we can also talk about their parenting alliance. Because sometimes couples come in, and say we’re only here because of the kids, we’re only here because we value our family, and we’re not sure, that we’re even in love with each other anymore.
And before I used to think, well then maybe this relationship isn’t gonna work, but now it’s like, well, let’s talk about how you are parents together, let’s start there. That is motivation, and I don’t know where this will lead us, well, let’s talk about how you are parents together, and what happens between. And then it can then open the door to talking about the couple relationship. I think you just have to start with where your couple is.

Sharon Brehm: I think that’s so important, because it happens so often that people are coming to therapy, mainly for the children.

Gail Palmer: If they don’t function as a couple, sometimes they exclude their romantic life out of their family. But if they start feeling like they are partners in parenting, that could soften some of the blocks to being in a romantic partnership.

Sharon Brehm: What do you do as a therapist, if the couple comes in and says: „We argue about the parenting style“?

Gail Palmer: Yes, of course, that’s to be expected. Individuals are going to parent differently and have different styles, people can get stuck around the right way or the wrong way to be a parent. I would deal with that by trying to put it into their pattern, and then insert, how it gets in the way of them showing up for their kids. Because if they get locked in a negative pattern around „who’s right – who’s wrong“, around how to parent, who gets dismissed?

Sharon Brehm: Children get dismissed.

Gail Palmer: Yes, exactly. And because they want to be parents because they have that parental intent, it is motivation to unlock themselves from the „right-wrong“ dynamic. The kids need them both.

Sharon Brehm: I find it so interesting that children can be both a source of challenge for parents, but also a huge motivation to work on themselves and to bond again.

Gail Palmer: I’m working with a family right now. The parents are in their 60s with adult children. They’re looking at revising on how they parent at this stage in their life. And that’s also impacting how they are as a couple. I think that John Bowlby said that our attachment strategies can be revised in every stage of life. And we believe that we will do this work.

Sharon Brehm: But it’s so important, that people no matter how old they are, they can still find bonding and find save space for attachment.

Gail Palmer: Yes, and that is after decades of being locked in different ways of interacting.

Sharon Brehm: Something I found so strongly associated to your name was healing, healing relationships. How do you provide that as a therapist, as an EFT and EFFT therapist?

Gail Palmer: In having new conversations, that are intimate, and then are vulnerable. And the power of emotion to shift people’s perceptions, and the way they interact. And that creates a deeper shift, that’s what heals the wound is to feel the emotional presence. And when we help people do that, they start to take it in, and they start to carry that around inside themselves. And we do it all, more than once. It is so beautiful, feeling the emotional presence. And it’s not magic. Sue has written about it in her books, and we talk about it in our family text, that it is a process, it’s structured, and we follow a map that helps us move through. And we have specific goals, that aren’t necessarily about solving problems, that families come in with. But more about equipping families, helping them feel equipped and confident about their ability to face problems together. So, that’s really what we’re doing, is resourcing the family.

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