A true story: When my daughter, Amy, was a pre-teen, she became anxious about going to sleep because of fears of dying in the middle of the night. When I tucked her in (I was her preferred tucker-inner), she would tell me, usually tearfully, that she didn’t want to go to sleep for fear of never waking up.
As a good daddy is supposed to do, I would remain in her bedroom, explaining and reassuring, upwards of thirty minutes until she gave the “all clear.” Sometimes, however, my sleep therapy wouldn’t stick, in which case she’d wake me up in the wee hours of the morning to tell me that her anxiety disorder with obsessive-compulsive and phobic features (ADOCPF) was preventing her from sleeping. I eventually figured out that I was spending four to six hours a week trying to talk her out of being sleep-phobic and belatedly realized that my well-chosen words weren’t working. In fact, her fears seemed to be worsening, which strongly implied – horror of horrors –that I wasn’t a parenting expert after all.
Shortly thereafter, I figured out that her condition was worsening not because I had yet to figure out the magic words that would restore her mental health, but because I was talking at all. My talk-talk-talking effectively validated her fears. Why, pray tell, would I be talking at all if her fears didn’t deserve a lot of serious attention?
So, I stopped talking. The next time Amy told me, tearfully, that she was afraid of going to sleep, I said, “Yeah, I know. That sort of fear is not unusual at your age. I’ve said all I have to say, Amos. I don’t have anything to add. You’re going to have to either learn to live with it or put an end to it. I’m not helping, obviously. So, my princess, I love you (kiss, kiss). See you in the morning!” Exit Daddy, stage left.
Amy was none too happy with that turn of events. She continued trying to engage me in her fears for a week or so. She would begin bawling as I left her room, for example. She may have even yelled, “You’ll be sorry if I’m dead in the morning!” Children are, after all, soap opera factories. I, however, stayed the course. It was not an easy thing to do. Had I abandoned my child? Was I a covert sadist, a sociopath even? Parental self-doubt is a deceptive thing.
Several weeks passed before I noticed that Amy’s demons seemed to have released their grip on her. When I tucked her in, she made no attempt to get me to hang around, talking in vain. It occurred to me that the very thing no psychologist-in-good-standing would recommend had been key to Amy’s recovery.
That experience led me to begin recommending to other parents my “no-talking cure” for childhood fears. They had, I would point out, said everything there was to say about the fears in question. They were repeating themselves as if their children were dense. They were on a constant search for magic words that don’t exist. Furthermore, and unwittingly so, their talk-talk-talking was verifying that the child’s fears were serious, deserving therefore of much parental consternation and, therefore, ever more talk-talk-talking. And around and around they went, until they stopped talking.
Every time I’ve recommended my new, amazing, ironic and most peculiar cure for ADOCPF – obsessive fears of all sorts, mind you – it worked. And it continues to work to this day, which is one reason of many why I do not believe – with rare exception – that young children should be allowed to engage in one-on-one (as in, private) conversations with therapists. Having been trained to talk to children, I don’t. In the case of irrational anxieties/fears, said conversations are likely to lend significance to something that is nothing more than a product of a child’s rather overactive and random imagination. Contrary to the standard (and unproven) psychological narrative, the fears in question do not represent “issues” in a child’s life that said child cannot safely express or lacks the words with which to express. They are literally meaning-less. Therefore, the less attention they are given, the better.
Child Talk Therapy Is Largely Unproductive
Q: You seem to be opposed to putting children into any sort of psychological therapy. That’s curious, especially given that you’re a child psychologist. What is your explanation for this and are there any situations in which you would be in favor of therapy for a child?
A: As I said in a recent column, I was trained as a child therapist, to talk to children about problems they were having or were a part of. Rather early on in my career, however, I concluded that such conversations were largely unproductive and potentially counterproductive. Parents never – no exceptions – told me that problems with their children abated after I talked with them. The question then became: Was that due to something about me or was the process itself problematic? I eventually concluded the latter, but before the reader begins laughing out loud, let me explain.
What the average layperson does not know is that no consistent body of research done by people who, as we say in the South, have no dog in the hunt confirms the reliable efficacy of any psychological therapy. Outcome studies consistently find that about as many consumers report dissatisfaction with therapy as report satisfaction. Studies on outcomes with children are lacking (not to mention that they are difficult to measure), but over the years a significant number of parents have reported to me that putting their children in therapy made the problem(s) in question worse rather than better. My personal finding has been that therapy with children is a general waste of not only everyone’s time but also parents’ money. (Before I go any further, I must mention that my thoughts on child therapy are not regarded as mainstream in my profession.)
The problem begins with training and philosophical biases that dispose therapists to talk to children about their feelings. Such conversations are very likely to give children the impression that their feelings concerning certain issues or topics are not only legitimate but should also govern their parents’ behavior.
Children’s emotions are as undisciplined as their thought processes. Just as children think incorrectly, so do their feelings often reflect nothing more than immaturity and an inclination toward self-drama. To this one can add two further truths: children (a) often misinterpret events and (b) are highly susceptible to suggestion. When all is said and done, the rather inescapable conclusion is that a child’s emotions (or opinions of how adults in his life conduct themselves in certain situations) are rarely a valid indication of anything more significant (or presumably obvious) than his need to grow up.
A process – therapy – that involves the risk of confirming a child’s feelings, of assigning credence to them, is potentially counter-productive if not downright harmful. It is, in my estimation, a risk that therapists should undertake with great caution, if they undertake it at all.
I will concede that there may be a small minority of situations involving a small minority of children in which child therapy can be justified for a conservative length of time. But child therapy is not, in my estimation, justified when the problem is primarily the result of the child’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of adult authority, the child’s immaturity (which explains most childhood fears and anxieties), or parents who have not insisted, from a relatively early age, on emotional self-control (frequent tantrums occurring past the third birthday, for example).
During my private practice years, I would sometimes consent to see a child in a private session if the child expressed what I thought was a sincere desire to talk to me. I must add, however, that the kids in question rarely had anything of note to say, and I was not about to ask them how they felt about something. As a result, said conversations turned out to be nothing more than costly one-offs.
Take Smartphone Away from Sassy Teen
Q: When our daughter, an only child, turned thirteen and entered the 8th grade, it was like a switch was flipped. Almost overnight, she went from being a sweet, respectful and obedient child who had never given us any serious problems to being petulant, sassy, and often belligerent. She wants nothing to do with us anymore and makes that perfectly clear in often very hurtful ways. She stays in her room, on her smart phone, most of the time, often refusing to even eat dinner with us. We tried taking her phone away, but she threw such an out-of-control tantrum – shrieking, throwing and breaking things, even – that we became concerned gave it back to her. Her grades are beginning to suffer as well. We just don’t know what to do. Should we perhaps put her in counseling with someone?
A: My finding – obtained over the past forty-five years – has been that professional counseling with young teens frequently makes matters worse. All too often, professional mental health counselors give children your daughter’s general age the impression that not only do their feelings “rule,” but that their rebellious, disrespectful behavior is in some way justified by their parents’ failings. In all fairness, that may not be the intention, but it is the all-too-frequent outcome. For that reason, I rarely recommend professional counseling or therapy for a child or young teen.
As I’ve said before in this column and elsewhere, I am not aware of a body of objective studies that would verify the reliable effectiveness of counseling or therapy with children or teens (or even adults, for that matter). However, studies report averages, not individual outcomes. You might be able to find a counselor for your daughter who would be a good “fit,” but you would be rolling the dice by making the attempt.
My first recommendation is that you take away your daughter’s smart phone and give her an old-fashioned flip phone instead. It’s becoming increasingly clear that smart phones are exerting a highly negative influence over children and teens. To begin with, there is no doubt that they are addictive. The tantrum you witnessed when you made the attempt to take your daughter’s phone away is a strong indicator of exactly that, but the rest of your description also fits the profile. Unfortunately, she has discovered that she is capable – by acting like a lunatic – of intimidating you, even frightening you. The next time you make the attempt, if you are even willing to do so, the storm is likely to be even more intense. If you capitulate to or compromise with her on this issue, then I would predict things going downhill from there.
If that fails to restore the daughter you’ve known for the first thirteen years of her life, then take her door off her room while she’s at school and inform her that to restore her privacy she must act like a normal human being and family member for one straight month. To be perfectly clear: I’m talking about an incident-free thirty days. If there’s an “episode” of some sort during the month – disrespect, belligerence, refusing to join you for dinner, etcetera – then her month without a door begins anew the next day.
Parents who have delivered the one-two “punch” of making a teen’s smart phone disappear (or simply taking it off their account) and removing the door to his/her room usually report that things go from bad to worse for three days to a week and then begin to improve. I don’t make guarantees, but the weight of these testimonials leads me to predict a positive outcome with your daughter. You have going for you the fact that she’s been a good kid for a whole lot longer than she’s been a pill.
Let Kids Run Their Own Sports Programs
Thirty-something years ago in this column, I offered a free (expenses-only) speaking engagement to any community that would abolish all adult-organized-and-run children’s sports programs (excepting those run by high schools) and replace them with programs organized and run by the children themselves.
Each child who signed up to play a certain sport would be assigned a letter of the alphabet. Every week, a designated website would announce where the children in each letter category would be playing. So, for example, one week all the A, M, P, and W children would be playing at High Ridge Field at a certain time on a certain day. The same website would also assign three adult supervisors to each game, none of whom could have a child playing in said game.
The kids would gather at the game site and choose two captains. The captains would “toss the bat” or flip a coin to decide which of them got to choose first from among the available players. Once the two teams were constituted, the kids would decide who would play what position, which team would go first, and so on, and the game would proceed. If a controversy arose, such as whether a certain ball was fair or foul, the children would settle it among themselves. Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, the supervising adults would not interfere in the game unless their involvement became absolutely necessary – a child became injured, for example.
This plan would ensure that the “teams” were different from game to game, every child would participate, every child would play both with and “against” every other child, and most important, the children would manage their own play. People my age – baby boomers – will recognize that my plan recreates, with adult supervision, the “sandlot” games that we played as kids, when our sports were play, not performance – or, to be precise, the only people we were performing for were other children.
It has long been my contention that since adult-organized after-school sports replaced sandlot games (sometime in the 1970s), well-intentioned adults have been robbing children of significant opportunities to develop negotiation, management, and leadership skills. When I was a child, for example, older kids taught the younger kids how to play a sport. Today, adults teach kids how to play. The respective outcomes are as vastly different as the methods and I contend that the benefits to children of the former arrangement are superior, by far.
No one took me up on my offer. Lots of people told me it was a great idea. A handful of folks even made the attempt to establish the plan in their communities, but support was lacking in every instance. The idea died of malnutrition.
But maybe, just maybe, a new book will bring it back to life. In The Self-Driven Child, neuropsychologist William Stixrud and educator/entrepreneur Ned Johnson argue that the child and teen anxiety and depression epidemics are largely due to parental overinvolvement and micromanagement in everything from children’s social lives to their homework. Today’s kids simply do not enjoy enough control over their time and activities. They are so thoroughly managed from waking to bedtime (the authors also point out that today’s teens are not getting enough sleep, a factor that greatly increases their emotional vulnerability) that they don’t even know how to make good decisions when it comes to spare time, which goes a long way toward explaining why so many of them – especially boys – spend so much of what little time they can control playing addictive video games.
Having adequate control over one’s life is essential to feeling competent and developing emotional resilience as well as the sort of coping skills that are essential to dealing functionally with disappointment, frustration and failure – inevitable aspects of life. Stixrud and Johnson have written a book that every parent should read and heed.
If they do, perhaps communities will begin taking me up on my offer. It’s still open.