Profile of a Marriage and Family Counselor
Read a marriage and family counselor’s expert advice for new counseling students.
K. Alexandra Onno, MA, LMHC
Self-employed Marriage and Family Counselor
Over 15 years in practice
How did you become a family and marriage counselor?
I always had a curiosity about people as individuals and how they act in relationships. Becoming a marriage and family counselor seemed like the logical place to bring those together. I was interested in the individual psyche in context of the relationship.
When I was training as a professional actor, I wanted to do something creative and thought that I would enjoy working with people to develop their creativity. I also had a desire to be of service. So I started working with at-risk youth, using both theater and therapy.
After that I worked at a halfway house for teenagers in crisis. I realized how difficult it was to help these kids outside the context of their families. You could work with them, but when it came down to it, their primary ongoing relationships were with their family members.
This helped me decide to apply to a master’s program in family and marriage counseling.
What did you learn in your first counseling job?
While I was in the MA program I did an internship in a private practice, working with families. I did my externship there, too, and eventually joined the staff. I also had another job working with at-risk youth and their families.
I worked a lot with children in my first few years of practice and found that what I had been taught was true: that you could only do so much for kids individually. I’m a believer in seeing children in context of the family, provided it is safe to do so.
What do you most enjoy about your work?
When a family comes in, it’s usually because something is wrong with the kids. It’s satisfying to help adults see how they can influence their kids and how they can use the power of that influence to make a difference. Taking responsibility for their relationships changes their lives. I try to shift away from the symptoms of the children and focus on the parents’ responsibility for the relationship.
In my work in marriage counseling, I enjoy the integrity, the intimacy and the challenge of authentic encounters. Conscious relationships are a crucible for transformation. I really love helping couples choose intimacy and teaching them that what they have is good.
What is most challenging about family and marriage counseling work?
With children, it’s painful to see the consequences of parental power that has been violated or abused, when it should be used to enhance their children’s lives. It’s heartbreaking for two reasons: first, for the immediate pain caused; then, because of its unavoidable long-term affects.
It’s difficult for me to stay detached from that. I’m often too sympathetic, which at times can be fairly unsettling for me.
How do you stay detached from your counseling work?
I create strong boundaries and try to keep my personal life in check. I have a lot of outside interests: dancing, walking the dogs, gardening. I limit the hours I deal with traumatic cases and have moved away from crisis work.
Now I work with people who are genuinely interested in healing and recovery. One of the ways I take care of myself is that I have really high standards for clients—if they are not interested in change, I send them away.
What do students coming into the profession need to learn?
Students can often underestimate the power of a counselor’s position. They can underestimate the business aspects too—how long it takes to work on this stuff before you can make a living at it.
Contemporary family therapy focuses on wellness, so students come into counseling degree programs unprepared for the extent of actual illnesses. They concentrate on the person’s strengths, which is good, but their dysfunctional aspects also have to be dealt with.
People are full of anguish and suffering. We need to empower them, but also be able to help them recognize and change their dysfunctional behavior.
What experiences are most useful for people becoming counselors?
Exposure, in-the-room practice and superb supervision. The thing I worry about is people practicing without enough supervision. We need the input of our peers. This is not work to do in isolation.
Get experience. Talk to other marriage counselors and practitioners. Attend introductory presentations for counseling schools. Talk to people in the trenches. Get experience before jumping in. Volunteer.