Parallel Process In Therapy Supervision

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In the context of therapy, parallel process refers to an approach used in clinical supervision between a therapist and their supervisor. In this approach, the therapist and supervisor recreate a client’s experience in therapy, with the therapist acting as the client and the supervisor acting as the therapist. 

In this article, we’ll explore what the parallel process is, how it works, its benefits and limitations, and a few strategies for success.

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What is parallel process?

In this context, parallel process is the replication of the relationship between a counselor and client in a supervisory setting. In other words, a therapist works with a supervisor to reenact a specific counseling situation. The therapist takes on the client's role, and their supervisor takes on the role of the therapist. This approach can be used to help a therapist find more effective ways to support their client.

For example, a therapist may find that they haven't been making much progress in their recent sessions with a client, and the therapist is not sure how best to move forward. There can be many reasons this could happen, but in this circumstance, the counselor may benefit from some help from a supervisor. As the counselor assumes their client's role and experiences their supervisor's response to the situation, they may gain new insights about the situation that can help them treat their client more effectively.

How parallel process works

Parallel process relies on two key concepts: transference and countertransference. In transference, the counselor identifies with their client and reflects the client’s behaviors and thought processes back to the supervisor during parallel process. Then, countertransference in therapy happens when the supervisor responds to the counselor in the same way the counselor responds to the client. 

There can be a range of dynamics at play within this process. Sometimes, the counselor is simply trying to put themselves into the client's shoes to empathize better. It's also possible that the counselor may be experiencing some of the same concerns that their client is dealing with. In turn, the supervisor models responses or possible solutions.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Benefits of parallel process

There can be both benefits and limitations with parallel process in therapy. Some of the beneficial uses can include:

To move treatment along and make it more effective

There are times in the client-counselor relationship when treatment may be moving very slowly, and the counselor may benefit from a supervisor’s support. For instance, maybe a client has been trying to cope with the challenges that resulted from experiencing a tumultuous family dynamic as a child, which is affecting their parenting and making it hard for them to connect with their children. If the counselor experienced a similar situation with their parents as an adolescent, their past challenges may lead to future struggles addressing their client’s concerns. In cases like this, parallel process may help the counselor uncover hurdles and find new solutions through their collaboration with a supervisor, allowing them to assist their client in developing the tools to better relate to their children.  

To help tease out unhelpful responses 

It is possible to become locked into dysfunctional patterns with your therapist or counselor. They may be reacting too harshly or punitively, or perhaps too passively and hesitantly. There may be a personality conflict or an uncomfortable dynamic between the two of you. Parallel process may help your therapist become aware of this and resolve it to respond more healthily.

To encourage reflection 

Therapy can be an emotional process, and sometimes a little distance and a new perspective can be helpful. Like anyone else, counselors and therapists sometimes need to take a step back and look at their work from a distance to gain perspective and determine what should be done. Parallel process can ensure therapists are growing alongside their clients. 

To help professionals manage stress from work and life experiences

Mental health counseling can be a very stressful occupation. It can be rewarding to help people resolve their deepest inner conflicts, but it can be difficult to absorb that much pain daily. Parallel process can be one way for mental health practitioners to present the load with others and make it more manageable so that they can help their client better.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Potential problems

Parallel process does not always work, and in some cases, it can have problems and limitations.  Here are some potential disadvantages to the parallel process method:

Lack of self-awareness

The transference and countertransference processes can happen without the therapist or the supervisor being fully aware of them. Without this self-awareness, therapy can remain stuck in the same unproductive pattern. It often requires specific reflection on issues as they arise to break these patterns and move forward.

Ineffective therapist-supervisor relationship

The nature of the relationship between the therapist and supervisor can make the therapist feel uncomfortable and defensive. The quality and dynamics of the relationship between therapist and supervisor can impact the effectiveness of this process. If the relationship is unhealthy in some way, therapists may be uncomfortable simulating a counseling relationship with a supervisor, or they may find the mirroring unproductive.

Exhaustion if overused

Parallel process can be meaningful if it is used appropriately within a context that makes sense. But using it excessively or using it at the wrong time could become unnecessary or cause stress. If used too much, any insights gained could be offset by the exhaustion of the strenuous process.

Strategies for success

However, there are a few ways that counselors and supervisors can try to avoid struggling with these common pitfalls. Here are some strategies that can be used to try to get the full benefits of using parallel process:

  • Provide a framework for understanding the process. Especially for beginning counselors, it can be crucial to help them understand the process in simple and specific terms. It may be important to guide counselors to self-awareness in ways that make the process seem manageable.

  • Exercise caution about when parallel process is used. When the decision is made to use parallel process, it may help for the supervisor to be clear about the reasons for using it and the goal that it should accomplish. It should be used with discernment and only when the situation calls for it.

  • Pause when necessary to reflect on what's happening. Because much of what happens during parallel process can be subconscious, participants may be unaware of how they are mirroring the counseling situation. In this circumstance, it can be crucial for the therapist to reflect on the process to tease out what is and isn't working. Otherwise, they may continue to make the same mistakes, because they’ll be unaware of them. A good supervisor can point out obstacles as they come up so that the therapist can observe alternative ways of dealing with them.

  • Keep the client's needs at the forefront. It may feel intimidating or even awkward at times to reenact a session with a supervisor. But if both supervisor and therapist can put the client's needs ahead of their own, the process can work very well. This way, they can focus on how best to help the client rather than how well they are performing.

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How online therapy can help

If you are interested in working with a trained therapist, online therapy may be a good option. Online therapy has been shown to be an effective, viable alternative to in-person therapy for a range of conditions. For instance, one such study conducted a broad overview of the effectiveness of internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Based on the information they reviewed, the researchers concluded, “that ICBT is useful in treating mental health and medical illnesses with psychiatric comorbidities.”

For some people, finding a therapist who is a good match for their needs can be very challenging, and it may require traveling far or meeting at inconvenient times. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you can match with a therapist based on your unique situation, and you can meet wherever is most convenient for you, including your own home.

Continue reading below for reviews of some of our experienced therapists from people working through a variety of concerns.

Therapist reviews

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Parallel process is an approach used in clinical supervision between a therapist and their supervisor in which the therapist and supervisor recreate a client’s experience in therapy, with the therapist acting as the client and the supervisor acting as the therapist. There can be both benefits and drawbacks to this approach, but it may help to consider some of the strategies for success listed above. If you are interested in seeking help from an experienced therapist who can support your unique needs, online therapy may be a good option.
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