Family Psychology: More Than ‘Pimp My Child’

‘Super Nanny’ Sandra Velásquez uses bridges, bare feet and warmth to close the gap between parent and child, and foster better families

Krista Rothschild
Feb 14, 2013
© Photo: Matthias Wurz

In her living-room-style office in Vienna’s 19th District, psychologist Sandra Velásquez greets families with some of her “tools” (Photo: Photo: Matthias Wurz)

Parents matter. And teachers matter. And, for the lucky children, there is a whole community of people around while they are growing up, people who can have a lasting influence.

For me personally, it was a high school counsellor who let me hang out in his office, the English professor who asked "Why aren’t you in the honours programme?" and the History teacher who showed his travel slides and introduced me to the world. As a young adult, these people and my parents helped me sort out my life.

What happens to young people who are surrounded by adults who are suffering? Or to whom a family tragedy has occurred, or parental burn-out is just a step away? Or for whom the relationship, the bridge between parent and child, is weak or wobbly?

"Bridges are built in the natural world: They must withstand mild weather, storms, rain, light or heavy quakes... the structure holds depending on how resilient and resistant the bridge is to change," wrote Sandra Velásquez in her 2011 book, Die Brücke zu dir: Wie Erziehung gelingt und Kinder stark werden (The Bridge to You: How Upbringing Succeeds and Children ­Become Strong).


Teaching to parent

Velásquez became widely known as a family psychologist in 2005 and 2006 when she and colleague Sabine Edinger appeared on Austrian independent television station ATV as the Austrian "Super Nannys" (sic). This highly controversial parental-coaching project, following the British and German reality TV formats, involved the on-air coaching of real families: The Super Nanny would move in with a troubled family for a week and work with parents and children to find solutions and change habits – all on camera. While the show seemed voyeuristic and disrespectful to some, others saw important benefits, including Jürgen Grimm, communications professor at the University of Vienna, whose 2006 three-country study demonstrated that the shows provided an affordable, socially-inclusive setting where families could get help and learn more about raising children.

In another initiative, through the Association for Children, Family and Environment (Verein Kind Familie Umwelt), Velásquez helps organise psychological support for the needy, free of charge, a growing need in the wake of reduced support from national health insurance providers. The Professional Association of Austrian Psychologists (BÖP) has long requested that national insurance pay for psychological treatment and therapy, thus far without success.

Even with this charitable option, few young people will have this kind of an opportunity, where someone like Velásquez will melt through their reserve among the cushions on her sofa. There is an acute shortage of therapy spaces for children in Austria, according to the 2012 report from the Österreichische Liga für Kinder- und Jugendgesundheit (Austrian League for the Health of Children and Young People). Only 50% of the need for in-patient psychiatric and psychological care for those under 18 is covered, and while 2 to 5% of Austria’s children need help, only 0.3 to 0.4% are able to find it.


A safe place

The drive to make life better for a few children and adolescents extends to Velásquez’s colleagues at Safe-Place Döbling, who have built a haven for families at the busy intersection of Döblinger Hauptstraße and the Gürtel.

On a glowing autumn afternoon, Veláquez managed to squeeze in a break between clients. Sitting in her waiting room – the kitchen – I flipped through a magazine while she finished speaking to a family on the other side of the door. In fact, only the mother was still in her office. The teenager had stormed out, only to return 10 minutes later to knock on Velásquez’s office door.

"Office" is actually an odd word for this apartment with its cheery entry full of very colourful paintings and piles of house shoes. Upon entering her consulting space, one automatically heads straight for the sofa billowing with cushions in her spacious, light-filled room. Opposite, a wall of cabinets is packed with hand puppets, dollhouses, stones, art supplies and rin gongs, the Tibetan singing bowls. For her clients, it feels more like a living room, or what ­Americans call a "family room", which describes quite nicely what goes on here: This is where some of Austria’s hardest hit families find a kind of acceptance and support they had forgotten existed – or may have never known.

"Family psychology is not ‘pimp my child’. The whole family needs to participate," Velásquez says. "The children are often only the symptom [of the problem]."

Velásquez’s glowing Latin American face and bare feet make opening up easier for overly anxious newcomers. The warm and positive energy – a Velásquez trademark – is contagious. This woman could melt icebergs, and she often has to, as she is routinely confronted with tension, anger and denial. Parents often arrive looking for help with a son or daughter who is out of control, to have their child "re-educated", repaired: the quick fix and only the kid, please.

But as Velásquez knows, there is much more to it. Returning to the ideas in her book, she emphasised the importance of the bridge. "I found the metaphor to be especially helpful when speaking with parents," she explained while drawing an arc in the air.

Just to the right of the sofa, pen and paper await those ready to sketch their bridge. "The metaphor helps parents understand what parenting is about. Sometimes we only see part of the picture: The bridge pillar at one end represents the child, and the second pillar is the mother/father. Between them is their relationship," Velásquez explained.

What is the right bridge? Or even just a less fragile one that can carry a message across without damage? How do children survive hardship?

"There is no correct recipe; it is still a mystery why some children survive and thrive despite adversity," Velásquez continued. "One thing we do know is that the positive comments given to children and young people can be held on to like a gift of hope, a therapeutic moment."

These can come from anywhere. With or without exceptional adversity, as a professional, family member, neighbour or stranger, we are all capable of giving this support and providing, even unaware, a therapeutic moment that could change a young person’s life.

Krista Rothschild is a clinical and health psychologist practicing in Vienna.

Episodes of "Die Super Nannys" are available for viewing on the ATV website (in Austria only):