Interview with Janine Roberts

I’m happy to be joined by Dr. Janine Roberts. Dr. Roberts has been a practicing family therapist for forty years. She was the chair of the doctoral and masters program in Family Therapy at UMass Amherst for some twenty years, and has trained and supervised in-home therapists in the US and in Latin America. Dr. Roberts if the author and co-author of four books including one poetry book The Body Altars, as well as some seventy book chapters and articles. She’s researched and written extensively about our social identities and therapeutic work, family stories and rituals, as well as supervision and training, among other topics. Janine is presenting at the in-home therapy workshop “Our Stories and Theirs: Fully Engaging Ourselves and Our Clients in In-Home Therapy” on Friday, April 24th at Brightside in Holyoke. We’re happy to co-sponsor that with the Couple & Family Institute of New England (CFINE) and Brightside for Children & Families.

Jeremiah Gibson: As a younger therapist, a lot of therapists that are within ten years of me are getting trained in agencies who do in-home therapy. And unfortunately, more and more, these newer therapists are kind of being thrown to the wolves, and kind of given a manual and being sent out working with some really challenging families…without the education tools, without the supervision tools that could really help them be successful. So I’m really excited to have your expertise and your presence at the workshop at the end of April.

How did you get interested in in-home family therapy?

 Janine Roberts: My very first practicum when I was in grad school in the late 70s was to go out into homes where teens were on probation and the family had court-mandated family therapy. That was a real lea ring experience for me. I remember one 15-year-old boy—it was actually the first family that I saw—and he had been caught shoplifting several times, and right away in the very first session, he challenged me and he said, “Why should I talk to you?” and “What are you going to tell the courts about me?” and I had to quickly begin to sort out with him the difference between therapeutic work and social control, and when we get called in to do some kinds of social control, so that we could begin to make an alliance around: “What are the things I can do to help you get through this probation or help you understand how you got to this place? I’m here to be a support to you, and I’m not reporting details to the courts.” And those first families that I saw in their homes were really key teachers to me and when I had my next experience working with families which was actually my first job—I was doing family therapy in residential treatment—and I had seen the importance of knowing some things about the culture of the family, the ambiance, what the living situation is actually like…and so I was making home visits. I’ll never forget this one young woman that I worked with who had chosen not to walk or talk for two years, and for me to go to their home as part of the intake process and see how the father had gotten a particular way to walk her, the mother another way to walk her, how they were in competition about what was the best way to walk her…I gained all kinds of information that I could then bring back to the residential treatment center as we began to think about: “How are we going to work with this young person?” with a bunch of other teens who were acting out; it was such a different set of issues that she was struggling with. And I’ll never forget either, once she could start doing home visits after being in the treatment center for a couple months, we had gotten her a parakeet because her parents were convinced that she didn’t know how to talk because her muscles after two years had gotten so tight, and she needed to practice. So she was practicing with this bird so she could do it in private because she didn’t want to do it in front of anybody.

So I really saw from the beginning of my work the ways that it’s important to understand and respect the rhythm, the routines, the ambiance of the household. And I think, doing in-home work, you have a tremendous access to information that in some ways can make the work go more quickly and more profoundly than when you’re just seeing someone in an office where you’re, in some ways, structuring more of the interaction and creating the boundaries. At the same time, you have some unique challenges in how to create a collaborative relationship so you can create therapeutic space within a living space and have a protective time and space to do that, and, at the same time as well, when you can make changes within that environment, they can be very powerful and you can actually see them in a different way than you can ever see them in a more sterile therapeutic treatment room.

Jeremiah: At the in-home therapy workshop, you talk about three different phases to in-home therapy. One is gathering and joining a family. You talk about something called “Multigenerational witnessing, healing, and change,” and then transitioning out of family work. What are some of the biggest challenges to gathering and joining a family?

Janine: That you’re always working to build trust and connection with people of varied backgrounds, varies ages, varied social identities, varied genders; you have to have a dexterity and a fluidity to get down on the floor with the two-year-old, to see the abuela, the grandmother, in the kitchen and invite her in as someone who has sabiduría, wisdom. And at the same time that you’re trying to connect with individuals, you have to know that you’re being watched by others to see: Are you respectful to other people within the family? Are you comfortable with them? Are you respectful of whatever of the rules within the household might be? I remember one African American family in their apartment, the mother saying, “Now this is Miss Janine and you must call her Miss Janine.” Now I actually prefer that people call me just “Janine” but I needed to respect that and follow the lead of the mother there. So how do you join with fluidity and let people know that you’re aware that you need to earn their trust by your behavior and knowing that your behavior is being, like I said, observed. At the same time, sometimes the gathering—which is different than the joining because the gathering is about getting people together—can happen…like for instance, with the fifteen-year-old boy who had been caught shoplifting, I had a couple of rounds of phone calls with the mother and I tried to get an entrance in in terms of how could she help to gather people. You can also do things that will help invite people in: simple and direct activities where people want to come and get together. The goal here is to keep it in the air.

Jeremiah: One of the challenges that I’m thinking about, Janine, particularly for newer therapists just getting out of graduate school, and then also having to meet some of the requirements of agencies, is this internalized pressure to be the expert. 

Janine: One thing is the fluidity of just: “How can I make some small gesture to connect with this person?” “How can I make some small gesture to connect with that person?” It’s not going to be perfect, but I have to be moving, and I have to be aware of that I’m here to support everyone that hopefully we’ve gathering together. Sometimes it takes awhile to gather. So there may be some creative ways that we need to think of doing the gathering.

Jeremiah: Another thing that I’m curious about is what you call “Multigenerational witnessing, healing, and change.” What are some ways that you’ll be describing multigenerational witnessing and healing at the workshop?

Janine: We’re going to be doing different techniques that hopefully can lead to that kind of witnessing and healing, For instance, if you got back to that fifteen-year-old man who had stolen, one of the things that I did with the family in the third session was to gather a timeline of the last ten years: What were things that were working well, what were things that were hard events in the last ten years? So we’ll be working with a bunch of different strategies. So it was interesting, the family made the timeline, and then I said: “Would it be helpful if you each did your own separate timeline of any part of this that was particularly hard for you?” And the fifteen-year-old chose to do the sequencing of when he was stealing. He wrote in on the timeline: “I was looking for something. I was trying to get something.” And he had drawn pictures of some of the things that he had stolen. And it turned out that the father had left abruptly when this young man was thirteen and that had come out in the larger family timeline, and I had also been given that information from the court, and it was a very difficult time for the family. And he started to make some connections between what he was grappling with, what he was looking for, and the loss of his dad. How can that help with witnessing and healing? It can work on multiple levels because he has an internal experience of trying to grapple with what was going on as he’s creating this timeline. But the family also has the experience to witness and support him as he’s working with that. You can give prompts to help to look for the strengths, the resilience, the courage… It’s very different than you working with an individual when you can have this kind of familial hearing, seeing supporting. And there is something to actually manipulation and working with art materials to help people tell this story.

Jeremiah: You’ve written this book Tales & Transformations: Stories ion Families and Family Therapy. I’m curious how that book talks about some of what you’re describing.

 Janine: Well it’s really about: What are the multigenerational experiences that we have with story, and how do we pass those down, and what kind of legacy gets brought forward, and then how do we work with those within our own individual lives and within our family lives. 

Jeremiah: What are other therapeutic skills that you’d like participants to leave with?

Janine: There will definitely be a focus on what’s unique when you’re working with a family or with a family and larger systems, or even in a team meeting, because your listening is being observed at the same time that you’re observing others—listening while you’re trying to deeply listen to one person. It’s a multi-tiered, multilayered process. Someone once said to me, “It’s like being a single mom with three kids under the age of five. And you’re scanning, you’re paying attention, you’re trying to link what’s happening over here with what’s happening over there.” They’re observing you’re listening… Not only taking in one person’s point of view, one person’s story, but helping other people to perhaps shift and change some of their own ways that they respond to that story—that will be a grounding for the whole workshop. Also speaking; sometimes it’s easier to speak when you have other ways to speak. So we’ll do some work with paper-bag puppets. One thing that I think is really important is that we leave families with some tools so that they have things they can do in between sessions. 

Jeremiah: You’ve asked folks to bring 5-7 pictures of themselves throughout their childhood with other members of their families. I’m curious how you’re planning on incorporating these throughout the workshop.

Janine: Well, again, it’ll be something that we’ll do together in small groups. I’m sure people have gotten the sense by now that this is a very experiential workshop. And there are lots of things that you can do with photos: You can look at social identities within the family; you can look at family lifecycles and how the family changes over the family lifecycle. We are always transitioning in our life and so photographs are often taken at key transition points. having our phones and our photography so at our fingertips, if a particular family is having difficulty expressing different emotions and things that are hard to talk about, you can take photos of: “What’s a facial expression you can make to show the difficulty of this? What’s a facial expression to show you broke through that and were able to begin to talk about it?” Photos can be a terrific resource and used in a myriad of ways.

I’m asking people to do some things that they might be asking clients to do. I don’t think it’s really fair to ask clients to do things if we haven’t really gotten inside of them ourselves and experienced them.

Jeremiah: Thank you so much for joining me today, Janine, and sharing your wisdom, your experience. Folks that are coming to the workshop on Friday, April 24th are going to get an absolute treat.

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