At the end of last year my son’s menahel requested that we set him up with therapy for the upcoming year. My son is 12 years old and has been misbehaving in class, makes all sorts of trouble to get attention, and has been very chutzpahdik to Rabbeim and teachers.
There is a family friend who is a LCSW and we arranged with him to "learn" with my son twice a week but really it would be therapy. My son’s menahel says this is not adequate. I would like to know your opinion on this matter. I think that someone he knows and is comfortable with, who he can develop a shaychus with and who understands therapy would be most beneficial to him. I don't think it is necessary for my son to "officially" go to a therapist which would impact his self-esteem and cause him to think of himself as having issues, when we have this as a possibly better alternative. Can you please share your thoughts on this matter?
You raise a few very good questions. It’s difficult to respond to a general question when referring to a specific situation. Generally speaking, there may be benefits and detriments to “therapy” that is not identified as such.
You mention your concern about your son’s self-esteem and his recognition that he has issues. There are a number of factors that can affect these. I understand your sense that being in therapy might make your son feel badly about himself. However, there’s a good chance that he already feels this way because of incidents with his yeshiva’s teachers and faculty. Often, kids act out specifically because of these kinds of feelings. When they don’t feel good about themselves (either in general or within the social/academic setting of school) this can cause them to act out. This can be for a number of reasons, including a bid for attention, a need for unconditional acceptance, and an attempt to create an alternate sense of self based on negative actions.
In fact, seeing a therapist often helps kids recognize that they do have value and that they are important. This, in and of itself, can help to decrease the unwanted behaviors. Therapy is not magic. It doesn’t work simply because the person providing it is trained and has letters after his name. Although a therapist may be able to apply certain techniques unbeknownst to the client, these will be limited. In addition, important aspects of therapy will be missing. These include the client’s recognition of goals, follow-up, self-feedback, and self-reinforcement. Much of the power of therapy is based on the person working on himself during the time when he’s not with the therapist.
People’s feelings about therapy—and what seeing a therapist says about them—vary greatly. In some circles, therapy is an accepted way of identifying issues, working on them, and becoming happy and well-adjusted. In other circles, therapy is still viewed as a stigma and is avoided at all costs. Children who are unaware of what therapy is will usually pick up on cues, defining therapy in the way that it is portrayed in their immediate circle. The most influential part of this circle is typically his parents.
As parents, we have the tremendous ability (and responsibility) to help our children to view things in the way that will be most beneficial to them. You likely don’t view therapy as something negative. In fact, your son is already “seeing” a therapist. You just don’t want your son to feel badly toward himself due to being in therapy. You have the ability to change his perception of therapy, allowing him to enjoy the full benefits of the experience. This, of course, assumes that he has a preconceived negative perception of therapy. He may possibly feel positively (or neutrally) toward therapy. After all, people talk about therapy all the time (for instance, in this column). Some of his friends may have mentioned being in therapy.
If properly presented, you might be pleasantly surprised at his reaction to the idea of speaking with someone to help him with some issues. If he realizes that you want to help him become happier and better adjusted, and that you view a therapist simply as someone who can help in these areas, he will be less likely to be negatively affected.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317
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