I have never been a big fan of sending little children to therapy, as I believe they value their parents’ input more than a stranger’s. Most kids are slow to trust people they don’t know, which is why I typically suggest the parents come in so I can teach them different ways of interacting with their child. I have found this is far more direct and cost-effective, and it avoids pathologizing the child for what he is going through. By normalizing his reactions to whatever challenge he’s facing, and having the parent(s) intervene and lend support, the child heals faster and develops a stronger bond with the parent(s). Not only is this efficient, but most people generally prefer their child bonding more deeply to them than to a therapist.
Sometimes, parents feel guilty about certain situations, like divorce, for example, and its effects on their children. There is a vast difference between guilt and responsibility. You may be responsible, or partly responsible, but you do not have to feel guilty. Guilt is self-punishment. In my experience, divorce is punishing enough without adding to the pain. The truth is, in most instances, you, not a professional, are best suited to help your child; and, your child will receive that help more easily than if it had come from a stranger. This is especially true if he is under age seven, the age of reason.
Sticking with the divorce example, your little one is already going through enough adjustments, whether cognitive, emotional, physical, changes in their home environment, shifting family alliances, religious worship routines, sibling issues, step-parents, and dealing with school. The last thing he needs is to have to adapt to another adult, no matter how caring and competent the therapist may be. The time it would take for a counselor to earn his trust could be far better utilized helping you, the parent, learn some helpful techniques. In addition, your child will see you as more capable. Yes, it’s one more thing for you to do in the whirlpool of activity that is modern life. You could think of it as another brick on your load, or you could view it as an investment.
The biggest positive impact you can have on a child, besides being loving, is providing consistency. By working with a therapist yourself, you maintain your place as the expert in your child’s universe. He will feel more secure knowing Mom or Dad is capable of guiding the way through this new, scary landscape.
There are certainly some times (usually of extreme abuse or trauma) that taking a young child to a therapist is warranted, but in most cases, and for less severe issues, the parents’ reassurance, patience, acceptance, and attention will best soothe, guide, and support the child’s healing.
The situation is different when it comes to teens and pre-teens. They often welcome the opportunity to talk with someone more objective, as confidentially speaking with an adult who is neither parent, coach, nor relative affords them the opportunity to thoroughly vent. This unbridled expression of anger, grief, and (sometimes) self-blame is crucial to letting go of what they wanted and accepting what is often quite challenging: a new reality.
Teens and pre-teens are often extraordinarily adept at fooling adults into thinking they are OK when they aren’t. They see the parents are stressed out and don’t want to be a burden. In some cases, they may even think being high maintenance leads to abandonment. This can often lead to their putting on a mask of higher functioning for the parent’s benefit. If your pre-teen or teen seems to be just peachy in the aftermath of a divorce, or any other life-changing experience, trying spending some time with him. A good trick is to take a long drive or walk, where you can talk without having to literally face each other. Young people are far more likely to confide in you if they don’t feel judged. Just looking at them straight-on can trigger their tendency to keep secrets.
In therapy, the teen is assured of confidentiality (unless he is a danger to himself or others), which gives him a safe haven. Conversely, little children naturally feel safest with a parent, so the same dynamic, with its healing potential, doesn’t apply to all age groups.
In this day and age, it would be remiss not to talk about psychotropic medication for children and teens. My first impulse is to avoid meds whenever there is a workable alternative. As a holistic psychotherapist, I gravitate towards empowering people of all ages without the use of pharmaceuticals; however, there are times when medication is appropriate. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before embarking on a mainstream, drug-oriented approach:
Is there an unusual amount of change going on in our household?
Could my child’s reaction be appropriate for the transitioning family situation? (Transitions may include moving, changing schools, divorce, blending into a new family, medical issues, pressure from a sports team, or “normal” age-stage adjustments.)
Could this behavior be coming from normal hormonal shifts?
Is there bullying at school?
Is there emotional or physical abuse on the home front?
Is my child eating a healthy, balanced diet?
Is he sleeping enough? Most children do not get enough sleep and this contributes to moodiness, short tempers, poor concentration at school, and acting out.
Is my teen going through a break-up? Don’t minimize the effect this can have. You may think it’s puppy love, but for your teen it’s the end of the world as they know it.
Is my child isolated socially?
Could my pre-teen or teen be doing drugs?
Is my child outside enough? Vitamin D levels affect mood.
Does my child get enough exercise and fresh air?
Is my child challenged to her ability at school, or bored?
Does my child have enough extracurricular activities to stimulate him, or so many that he is stressed?
As you can see, there are plenty of times when a therapist’s intervention with your child is warranted, and many others when improving your own skills will make all the difference. Support and techniques from a therapist build your confidence, enabling you to help your child navigate rough seas. This empowers you, keeps a natural adjustment period from morphing into something pathological, and helps you forge a deeper relationship with your child. All good.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang