In the field of marriage and family therapy (MFT), we believe that supervision is a different activity from therapy. Yes, we’re systemic/relational therapists and know about focusing on process over content, but there are some important differences that most supervisors have found to be important to attend to.
I teach the AAMFT online Fundamentals of Supervision and Approved Supervisor (AS) Refresher courses. I have supervised MFTs for nearly 30 years and taught supervision courses for over 20 years. Each time I have taught, I have learned something new or seen a different angle on something that I believe has improved my supervision. You’d have to ask my students and post-graduate trainees about that to be certain, but I know that looking back, I wish I could do some things differently.
The AAMFT AS courses were developed using revised guidelines in 2013. After surveying Approved Supervisors and a few supervisor candidates (those in training to be Approved Supervisors, supervising training therapists under their own supervision or mentoring), we determined a number of things about the AS designation that needed tweaking, including the courses’ content and process. You can find those requirements in the 2014 Approved Supervisor Designation: Standards Handbook. Although daunting, the course requirements help to provide the most recent resources and research to those who wish to achieve and maintain the very high standards that AAMFT has of its designated Approved Supervisors.
I don’t know that this ensures better client care or more competent therapists and therapy, but I believe this is true. Years later, students and training therapists contact me about their appreciation for the supervision provided, and seek to become Approved Supervisors themselves. I don’t claim to be the best supervisor in the field – far from it! – but I do think that what I learned about focusing on trainee development rather than doing therapy through them helped them to develop clarity about their own approaches to therapy and an ability to attend to making their practices better over time.
A number of people have asked why one would want to become an AAMFT Approved Supervisor rather than simply meeting the requirements of the states/provinces in which they practice. The answer is simple: because AAMFT holds designated supervisors to the highest standard of supervision, and trainees will always want quality supervision, even when not required. I live in New Mexico, where supervision by an AAMFT Approved Supervisor is not required, and receive calls from people who want supervision by a designated AS because they believe it will better help them become competent therapists.
Supervision means a number of things that are sometimes challenging: ensuring client care, helping trainees develop confidence and competence, sorting through ethical dilemmas and legal conundrums, and gatekeeping for the field. Some have said in the trainings that they are afraid to continue as supervisors because of the heavy responsibilities and legal liabilities. I believe that AAMFT training as a supervisor helps prevent such liabilities by preparing and providing continuing education and resources, as well as a community of supervisors with whom to interact around common things.
But supervision is more than just challenging and fearing for clients or one’s own license: it’s interesting, keeps us sharp, and contributes greatly to our field. In addition, it’s just plain fun! Some of my best memories as a clinician/supervisor/educator are when working with training therapists and watching them grow, becoming confident and competent colleagues.
Thorana S. Nelson, Ph.D. is emerita professor of family therapy at Utah State University. She enjoys training and supervision in marriage and family therapy and Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, and has taught AAMFT courses on the Fundamentals of Supervision, the Approved Supervisor Refresher course, and A Crash Course in Marriage and Family Therapy. She currently teaches the online supervision courses for AAMFT and is a co-author, with Robert E. Lee, of The Contemporary Relational Supervisor, published by Routledge.