How to Start Family Work

From a talk by Patty Wipfler at the July 1993 North American Continental Conference

Starting family work in a Co-Counseling Community involves a number of related kinds of counseling work and skills. First of all, people leading family work have to be very firmly grounded in Co-Counseling policies and practice. They have to have fully internalized the theory.

In addition, the skills that family work leaders need to develop are:

  • Explaining theory well. For people to understand what they are asked to do in family work, someone has to be able to flexibly explain basic RC theory and how it applies to family work. A leader will need to know how to help people integrate family work into their general picture of Co-Counseling.
  • Building excellent counseling relationships. The leader must be able to consistently discharge on distresses that make it difficult for her or him to think about particular people or situations in the course of leading family work.
  • Counseling children. This takes years for most adults to learn to do well because we are so thoroughly conditioned by our own experiences of being mistreated and oppressed as children.
  • Understanding young people's oppression and liberation.
  • Counseling parents.
  • Understanding parents' oppression and parents' liberation.
  • Recruiting and counseling allies. When you work with parents and children together, allies play a crucial role.
  • Developing good judgment about safety. You should know safety and basic first aid and be aware enough and able to move in an instant if an unsafe situation occurs.


Family work rests on a foundation of strong counseling within a Community.

It's not the first kind of work that should be done when building a new Re-evaluation Counseling Community. Adults need to learn the discharge process well, need to be able to identify their own restimulations, and need to have built the support to work dependably on these restimulations in sessions and in groups.

People in the general Community should be comfortable with each other's heavy discharge and become skilled counselors for each other on early hurts. We strongly encourage people who want to do family work to work consistently on their early childhoods. In particular, people need to work on their feelings around physical closeness, around showing caring, and around play. To counsel children (and each other) well, we need to recover our ability to be relaxedly close to each other and our ability to show affection and warmth with our faces, our voices, our touch, and our words. We need to recover our ability to work lightly on distress, in particular, on embarrassment, which stops us from making open-hearted, flexible contact with young people.


Parent Support Groups

Parent support groups are an excellent starting point for family work in any Community. The parents' liberation work, when done well, helps parents think about how to take care of themselves, how to be strong problem-solvers and counselors, and how to connect with each other to build support. In the parent support group, theory about parents' liberation and about assisting children to discharge can be given, and parents can learn from each other's experiences in building support and thinking well about their families. Real community among parents begins to be built when members of the parent support group counsel consistently with each other.

A parent support group is a good place to give people the written information available in Re-evaluation Counseling about counseling children. Tim Jackins' book, How Parents Can Counsel Their Children, is an excellent resource, as is the journal for parents, The Caring Parent.

One of the results of parents' oppression is parents' deep feelings of desperation. There never seems to be enough help with the work or enough support or information to do the work well. This desperation yields to discharge, with strong directions given to parents to build friendships and support around themselves and their families. Every Community in which family work is done will need to do ongoing work to keep parents discharging their desperation, rather than expecting the RC Community to relieve them of their bad feelings by doing "enough" family work.

"Special Time" Classes

Many Communities have had good success in setting up "special time" classes as a next step toward building family work. Both parents and allies (people who want to learn to counsel children, but who don't have children of their own) can participate in a special time class.

"Special time" is basically a one-way session an adult can offer to a child. The adult begins the session by saying, "I want to spend some special time with you. I'll do anything you want to do. What would you like to do?" The adult lets the child know how much time is available and sets other necessary limits, on transportation and money, for instance. But beyond these necessary limits, the time is the child's to shape and command. The adult brings his or her permission, interest, approval, and enthusiasm to whatever the child chooses to do. It's the first step toward building a counseling relationship with a young person.

A special time class is built on a commitment on the part of each member that he or she will do at least one special time with a child each week and will return to class to report back about it and about any other work he or she has done as counselor with that child. If parents have more than one child, they alternate the special time between their children as they think is appropriate. Allies choose a child, niece, nephew, or neighbor, for example, with whom they want to build a counseling relationship.

When class convenes, people exchange some discharge time and "what's going well" to begin with, then each person reports back about what happened during special time, what he or she noticed about the child and about his or her own attention, what went well, and what could have gone better.

Parents and allies learn a lot from each other's special time report-backs about what works well with children and about what patterns get in adults' way of really playing with and approving of children. When the report-backs are over, the distress in the way of each adult making loving contact with his or her chosen young person is usually very apparent. The beauty of this kind of class is that people are working on their chronic distress with a specific goal in mind, the goal of being able to think well as counselor about a child they love. This sharp focus tends to make the counseling lively and highly productive. People get to use the positive force of love and commitment to pry open important early hurts, and people make visible progress week by week.

Parents having time to discharge and getting to work on being counselors to their own children is very important. When parents have the information about allowing and encouraging discharge, they do five or ten brilliant things with their children almost every day. But they tend to forget that they've done anything good at all because of the heavy guilt that comes with parents' oppression. Once you help parents dig out their successes from under their bad feelings, they will learn rapidly from each other's successes. They will also be more able to learn from each other's mistakes.

As adults in the class gain clarity, the children will begin to reveal distresses that are more and more challenging to the adults. With any adult they have spent much time with, children know exactly where that adult's chronic distress lies. They are unwilling to let that distress go unchallenged, so they do things that crash right into it. For instance, a parent who has been verbally mistreated as a child will have at least one child who says all kinds of terrible things to him or her every day. Once the adult/child counseling relationship has been solidly established with special time, children tend to push hard, so the adults are able to go straight to the core of where they need to discharge.

Special Time Gatherings and Exchanges

Once a special time class is going well, and the adults are in the groove of giving children time and progressing in their ability to listen to children cry and tantrum and laugh extensively, the adults in the group can be encouraged to support each other during special time. For example, one parent might arrange care for his children, go to the home of another adult in the class, and support that person while she and a child have special time. Then, at some other time, she will return the attention toward him and the child he's chosen to spend special time with. This can help the adults begin to gain experience counseling different children and counseling each other, and begin to get to know each other in a play situation.



A playday is a period of time when parents, children, and allies come together in a safe place and play actively. Parents and allies have an opportunity to go to a support group at some time during the playday, and we structure a playday so that there are enough adults to give the young people one-on-one attention if necessary, even when some of the adults are away in groups. We very strongly recommend that every playday include a separate meeting for the adults, either before or after the playday time, so that people can think and discharge without distraction.

Before a playday can happen well in a Community, much preparation must be done. When children work on their distresses, it is deeply restimulating for almost everybody. Children don't moderate their discharge to "take care of" the counselor like most adults do, and they tend to have no trouble continuing their sessions for long periods of time. Children also hang their feelings on a pretext in the present and tend to target the safest adult they can find in order to continue to have a pretext for discharging. This makes many children's sessions initially confusing to adults. For instance, when a child feels desperate for her mother, who is going to do a ten-minute mini-session in the next room, counselors may have a hard time remembering that the child is perfectly safe and sound in the arms of a counselor one room away from her mother. In addition, our own experience of oppression as young people can make us too rigid in how we offer counseling attention so that the child finds herself discharging with someone who has no feel for how to give reassurance well or how to flex with what the child needs from the counselor at each moment. So, much work on early hurts and on people's childhoods is necessary to have the counseling of children go well.

Helping Adults Re-Learn to Play

To get people ready to play with children will also take thought and effort. Some Communities have tried adult-only play-gatherings.

There hasn't been very much work done on adult playdays and helping adults reclaim playing, but here is our best thinking so far.

The most effective element of these "adult-only" playdays is giving each person a chance to play using another person's attention. This allows attempts to play to alternate with discharge of fear, grief, and embarrassment. Many adults have pushed themselves so much to put their feelings aside in order to play with children that it can be hard at first for them to really make the playtime be for themselves. Pretense and "trying" to have a "good time" can easily take over. The leader has to set a good, real tone. People should be put in pairs or trios and time designated for each person to have "special time," with the other person or persons being willing, thoughtful playmates and counselors. This will be similar to what we know as "special time" for young people in that the person whose time it is gets to do whatever she or he chooses, and the role of the other person(s) is to pay attention, be counselor, and "follow" that person's lead and also keep thinking and be actively involved in the play. What has worked well is not to pre-plan what the adults will do (e.g., a pillow fight, water fight, or food fight), but rather to let each person structure this "play/session" in the way that will be most useful to him or her. Remind people that the goal is uninhibited but aware ability to joyfully play and learn. If that's not reachable yet, discharging on whatever gets in the way is the goal. Three guiding questions that have worked well for people in deciding on an activity are:

  • What is something you've never gotten the chance to try? (climb a tree, roller blade)
  • What is something that you would have gotten in trouble for as a child but you'd still love to do? (make a mess; be wild, messy, loud; be mean to someone; break something)
  • What's something that young people do that drives you crazy? (spit, make paper dolls, poke all over your face and head)

People have found that having someone paying warm attention while they try something, having someone to tell over and over again, "Look at me, look at me, look what I did," allows many feelings to come up and many insights about their childhoods to surface.

Having an eager playmate to make a mess with or "on," who will also be counselor or do whatever is necessary to encourage or dare when the person freezes on remembering his or her father's voice saying, "Don't you dare do that or I'll . . . ." is an excellent situation. Adults get to try as hard as they can to push themselves towards full play or work on whatever gets in their way, with someone there to pay attention and keep thinking about what the next step might be when they get stuck.

As in playdays with young people, the pairs are to start off separate from each other, but if two or three people decide that water fights or messes are what they want to do, they can join forces and "get" their counselors together. If people are thinking and able to do uninhibited play, each second of play is new and creative and engaging for the people involved. Usually lots of laughter and shifts in the direction of play occur with each person flexibly adjusting to it all.

Starting Playdays

It's usually good to start playdays small, with a limited range of ages. If you try to do a playday with three twelve-year-olds and two four-year-olds, for instance, you'll actually have two entirely different sets of counseling and play that you'll have to do. This is a very complicated situation for a beginning effort. We also often recommend that a Community begin playdays with the youngest children. The play and contact between adults and children is a little easier with younger young people because they tend to be closer to the discharge process. When children of eight, nine, or ten years old work on heavy distresses, it takes a confident and flexible counselor to handle the feelings that come up. It takes a few years to have enough trust in the process of discharge and to have discharged enough on your own issues to be able to handle the ways in which the older children invite sessions and the ways they need to work in the sessions.

Because the counseling of children isn't easy to learn, we ask that no one lead a playday until they've been to one, two, or three family workshops themselves so that they have had some exposure to the theory in practice. We also ask that anyone proposing to lead a playday get approval from one of the people who have much experience leading family work. The people we ask you to talk with are Gill Turner, Terry Day, S¯ren Holm, Reit Schaaper, Wendy Prestney, Lorenzo Garcia, Chuck Esser, Tim Jackins, or Patty Wipfler.

We recommend that people not lead playdays alone. There is much to keep track of and a strong tendency for a lone leader to go home by herself after a playday and not discharge and re-evaluate on the wealth of interesting, confusing, and perhaps upsetting things that happened with both children and adults in a short span of time. We also ask that parents not lead playdays with their own children in attendance because it creates a strong double-bind for the parent. In many Communities, two parents will trade leadership and assistanceship of a playday so that each can bring their children on alternate playdays.

Many Communities struggle around the issue of gathering enough allies to make a playday work. Usually you need at least half as many allies as children in attendance. We've found that adults without children of their own are attracted to family work when they hear something about what the work involves, how deeply satisfying it is to be trying as fully as you are able on someone else's behalf, and how life-changing it is to be so connected with other human beings the way you are when you get to play with and counsel children. They are attracted by hearing about the kinds of changes it makes for children and the wonderful perspectives and information grown-ups can learn from children when we become their counselors. One thing that has helped is to encourage parents in fundamentals classes to begin talking about the changes they see in their children because of using the discharge process. It also helps to have them talk about the changes they are making in their own clienting or counseling because they've noticed how effectively their children work on distress.

For several years in one Community, every teacher of RC was encouraged to enrich her or his understanding of RC by coming to playdays. These teachers went back to their classes and talked with enthusiasm and knowledge about working with parents and children and were good "scouts" for counselors who would enjoy this work with young people.

Many Communities have sent parents out to each find one ally for themselves and their child to bring to the playdays. Asking the parents to make individual efforts to find an ally for a playday is very restimulating of parents' isolation and desperation to find help with the work of parenting. In general, parents don't recruit allies well one-to-one because their undischarged distresses operate on the parent/ally relationship. It works much better for the leaders of a playday to think with the general leaders in the Community about how to get counseling information about family work out widely to members of the Community. The places to do this are at gather-ins, one-day workshops, adult playdays, or in classes as part of liberation theory.

What happens at a playday is really exciting, and the allies tend to love it once they get there. They may have feelings beforehand of not knowing what to do, being afraid of what the children will do, or dozens of other feelings that combine to initially make it hard to look forward, before the playday, to being with children. This is similar to how parents have many feelings about giving special time to their children. However, these are just feelings, just the drag of the past on the present. For all the adults involved, having time to discharge and ask questions will take care of much of this. For the allies, the leaders' taking time to tell them how much they are appreciated and how important their role at the playdays is, not from a place of desperately needing them but from appreciating the efforts they make and the things they do, will go a long way towards overcoming the heavy feelings of not having a place with children that plague many allies.

Once they get there and are counseling a child or playing with a child, the allies often feel deeply excited about the contact that's possible. They understand that they are influencing this child in a significant way. The effort to play well and to make meaningful contact with children begins to pull the ally's re-emergence forward. When these kinds of things happen, allies tend to become solid, enthusiastic members of the playday "crew."

Family Classes

Family classes are done quite differently in different Communities. Generally, a family class is a committed group of parents, children, and allies who've promised to meet once or twice a month. The structure and length of time they meet are similar to that of a playday, but there is one significant difference. While playdays are generally open to parents and allies from the Community, who can sign up to attend only one time, in a family class people commit to attending class over a given period of time so that consistent counseling of the same parents, children, and allies can occur. Some family classes keep going over several years, providing the children and adults with long-term counseling relationships and the opportunity to tackle oppression issues which only rise to top priority when the many immediate restimulations within the group have been discharged away.

Family Workshops

Family workshops are whole weekends with children, their parents, and allies, in which play is the main focus for children and in which adults take turns alternately playing and being counselor for the young people, and having sessions and groups for themselves. Sometimes family workshops are used as a next step toward family work in a Community which has only done parent support groups and special time classes. More often, they are held periodically to consolidate and move forward the family work that is ongoing in the Community. They are wonderful opportunities to contradict the isolation of parents, allies, and young people, and great places for everyone to be faced with the distresses they have avoided facing for years. The challenge of playing all weekend is one which children relish and adults gain from, even if they can't yet enjoy it.

Challenges Once Family Work Is Established

In bigger, more organized Regions, where playdays and family classes happen often, we find that parents can tend to slide away from doing special time and from taking primary responsibility for counseling their children. They wait for the playdays or family classes to get good counseling for their children or for themselves. We need to understand that parents' oppression restimulates exhaustion over time, pushing parents towards this kind of dependency, and to remember that periodic attention toward liberation issues for parents is going to be helpful.

The main challenge once family work is solidly established in a Community is keeping the relationships of the adults from getting snagged. This is true in general in Co-Counseling, but there is a heightened need around family work, because there will be unstructured times when adults are together and times when they are required to do things together that they don't do in their "regular" sessions, such as making meals, playing group games, driving somewhere together, or mediating a fight between their two children. There will be many unexpected events and requirements, and the children will regularly be pushing the adults to the edge of where they can think. All of these make for a fertile place for old feelings to become connected with people or situations in the present. There is a need for someone or a few people to be willing to play the role of counselor when people have hard times with each other, want to pull away, or act out their upset in some other way.

Starting family work in a Community is rich, rewarding, challenging work. It will take some of your best thought and effort as a leader to do well and to make sure correct policy and practice are followed. But when led well and done right, it will enrich the lives of every member of your Community. It will provide the clarity and wide access to work on early hurts. It will give people joy and enthusiasm about counseling and about being with young people. It generates tremendous hope because it allows adults to work on the places they got hurt as young people. It provides a dependable way for young people to have the discharge process remain open to them their entire lives. This is hopeful to almost everyone who gets a chance to see and understand it. Doing family work in your Community will be part of something very large and significant: changing forever how young humans have found it necessary to manage their hurts. Think of the differences it could make to have an entire generation of people grow up discharging significant portions of their hurts as they happen.

Patty Wipfler
Palo Alto, California, USA

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00