Dear Therapist:

I have heard my friends discussing an idea developed by an author concerning "bad therapy." I presume that means there is bad therapy and good therapy. Would appreciate if the panel would state their opinions on the difference between helpful and unhelpful therapy. What is the best way for someone who is considering therapy to tell the difference? 



I haven’t read Abigail Shrier’s book, but I do have a general idea as to her main points. As I understand it, she essentially makes the argument that therapy itself can be harmful. I will speak to this briefly. In the process, I think that your question will be addressed.

As with anything, certainly therapy can be harmful. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all therapy is unnecessary and problematic. Specifically with regard to therapy, Abigail discusses the fact that modern society has largely bought into the notion that kids’ feelings should be discussed, validated, categorized, and (professionally) addressed. She appears to feel that over-validating fears and anxieties causes kids to be unable to more “naturally” deal with their emotions. It is her assertion that this is causing today’s children to feel helpless.

If parents are uncomfortable with—or afraid of—their children’s negative feelings, they can feel the need to intervene. When parents do this, they are sending a message to their children that they cannot deal with their emotions on their own. Certainly, there are some emotions with which parents should be concerned. There are levels of emotion and patterns that point to issues that require intervention.

However, some people have the tendency to pathologize emotions and behaviors. This can lead to children’s sense that they are abnormal, that they cannot deal with issues, and/or that they will always need to lean on others. Abigail’s contention appears to be that we have created an overall psychological culture that normalizes therapy and the resultant reliance on others.

I have written articles about similar concerns. Overreliance on therapy can certainly cause children (as well as adults) to become “addicted” to it. This “addiction” is really a reinforced sense of incapability. Unfortunately, there are therapists who thrive on this, purposefully or not.

Choosing the proper therapist can be difficult. In most cases (especially with young children) parents are interviewed by the therapist before the child is seen. This interview should not be unidirectional; we should be interviewing the therapist as well. We can ask questions about their specialty, experience, and process. We should ask any questions that we think may be pertinent to our child or situation. We should ask ourselves if we think our child will connect with this therapist.

With respect to the current discussion, it is important to verify that the therapist understands and shares our goals as parents. If I worry that my child will get the wrong message, that they might feel abnormal, or that they will learn to rely too much on others, I should address these concerns with the therapist.

Intervention can take many forms. We can send our children to therapy. We can become helicopter parents. We can overindulge our children. We can involve ourselves in their personal lives. We can intervene with teachers and other school faculty. We can insist on discussing and working through every negative emotion.

When considering intervention of any form, there are a few factors that parents should consider. Am I doing this for my child or to reduce my own anxiety? Am I focusing on the immediate issue at the expense of the long-term goal? Should I be more focused on helping my child become a capable, independent adult? If so, what is the appropriate action?

Self-reliance is a goal that is reached gradually, and is tailored to each child based on their age, maturity, needs, abilities, and other situational factors. There is no guidebook that will describe the precise formula on the basis of which all children will attain the goal of self-reliance. However, if this ultimate goal is borne in mind, we are more likely to adapt our approach to encourage its attainment.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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