How to Land Your Kids in Therapy

Updated Jun 30 2017
Emotion Gnomes Kids Therapy Dolls by Zooble

Last week Ariel sent me a link to Lori Gottlieb's recent piece from The Atlantic: How to Land Your Kid in Therapy. I immediately clicked over — of course I want (my two-year-old son) Jasper to avoid therapy! I want him to be happy, happy forever and ever, happy into oblivion… doing the things I want him to do. After all, he's my kid, my friend, "my little masterpiece," a representative of me… right?

… Underlying all this parental angst is the hopeful belief that if we just make the right choices, that if we just do things a certain way, our kids will turn out to be not just happy adults, but adults that make us happy. This is a misguided notion, because while nurture certainly matters, it doesn't completely trump nature, and different kinds of nurture work for different kinds of kids (which explains why siblings can have very different experiences of their childhoods under the same roof). We can expose our kids to art, but we can't teach them creativity. We can try to protect them from nasty classmates and bad grades and all kinds of rejection and their own limitations, but eventually they will bump up against these things anyway. In fact, by trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood, we're just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up. Maybe we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do — and some letting go.

To be totally blunt, I absolutely fucking love this piece of journalism. The behavior of the parents described in it mirror things I've both seen and that I've done — catching my child right after he falls? Yep. Watching with eagle eyes while a kid acts like he's about to snatch my kid's favorite train from him? Totally guilty.

I'm not saying that this behavior is something to avoid or abhor, but that perhaps we, as parents, need to take it back a step or two. The point of the article seems to be something like this: is your kid really blowing your mind every single time he strums his toy guitar — especially when he strums it more or less in the same way as he always does? Probably not, and it's ok to not react as if he is. Let your kid fall down and figure out what happened. Watch as another child takes a toy and see how your kid reacts before stepping in. In short, let your child learn how to interact with other people and cope with stress from actually experiencing it, and not by creating a sugar-coated fairy-tale land in which everything he or she does is always the best, and he or she is always right.

What do you guys think — is this piece on target or way off?

  1. This reminds me a lot of this article ("Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!""): http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/gj.htm

    We try hard to step back a bit and let Evan sort things out for himself. Luckily, we're friends with a pretty cool couple who have a daughter just a bit younger than him. They're both super independent kids, and we have decided amongst all of us that we're going to let them work out their differences, so long as they're not seriously injuring each other.

    It can be hard to let kids work things out for themselves, and it's something that we have to work on constantly, but I think it's definitely a worthwhile philosophy.

    • I can agree with your decision to a certain extent.
      My kid's a biter. Obviously I can't let him work it out on the fingers and arms of other children. I think it's important to engage a child's thought and logic but you must at times help lead them down the path of reasoning. i.e. Have you ever been bitten? Hurts don't it?

      • My little brother had a biting problem. My mom told him to bite his own arm any time he felt like biting someone else. It took less than a week for him to stop. I don't know if your kid is far enough along to get the idea, but it worked on him.

      • Biting is the monkey wrench that gets thrown in to so many of my child-related philosophies! It's especially hard being the parent of a biter. No easy answers.

        I'm a big advocate of the sentiments in the article posted. A lot of it in practice for me seems to come down to playing defense when everyone in the world seems to be telling my child "good job" "good this" "good that" "good baby" with a, "I see you opened the book," "so and so noticed you pick up the fork" etc.

        Another aspect of it using more descriptive language in daily life so we're not always calling other things "good" as well. Instead of, "this is a good dinner" we'll try to say something more descriptive and specific, "this pasta was cooked just long enough to have a nice chewy texture."

      • We step in on biting/hitting/kicking – pushing a bit, stealing toys, etc., we let go and figure they will work it out themselves. Now, if they steal a toy and then SMACK the other kid in the face with it (this has happened), parental involvement is deemed necessary.

        ALTHOUGH, last weekend, his little friend bit him, and he bit her back. She fell down and started crying, but they exchanged some significant looks and haven't had any biting-each-other incidents since then. So… maybe that worked. That having been said, we did step in at that point and both toddlers were reprimanded for biting.

  2. I think the article is spot on. Life has trials and heartache. And while I do try to protect Eli from as much as I can, I also don't want to do him a disservice by shielding him from every unpleasant thing, thereby rendering him emotionally useless as an adult. He has to learn how to deal with pain and disappointment in healthy ways. It's super hard to do it, but kids need to explore their world to learn about it, and how to live in it; even the bad parts.

  3. Bravo, thank you, finally!
    I remember seeing something awhile ago about Japanese schools and how the teachers don't interfere with kids' fights and let them work it out on their own, as well as enlisting older kids to take care of the younger kids. Kind of the reverse of our helicopter parenting movement, here.

    • Let me just say — the "let the kids fight it out" approach sounds great in theory, but it's not so much fun in practice. I live in Switzerland, where teachers and parents take a very hands-off approach to playground behavior. And it is pretty hard to deal with having your *toddler* shoved off the slide or pushed to the ground and not have their parents say peep about it. At a certain age, I dunno – 7, 8, 9 years old this approach to letting kids work stuff out makes a little sense — I mean, bullies excepted — but to have very, very small kids being really horrible and not have their parents step in, even to just say "no hitting/shoving/etc" just makes my blood boil. I teach MY kid to wait in line, to allow other children to share the playground, to not hog the swing/slide/etc. and then she turns and looks at me with this heartbreaking disbelief when the other children do all the things I've reprimanded her for doing, and nothing happens to them. Because there is a language barrier, I usually do not feel comfortable approaching other parents (who would probably just shrug their shoulders anyhow). I just passive-aggressively make a big show of comforting my kid and explaining very loudly how WE don't do those things and that the other child is being naughty and we should just ignore him/her. It breaks my heart to know that once she starts kindergarten there isn't anything I can do to not have my sweet and polite little girl battered and pushed on the playground, and it sucks to know her teacher will just shrug and say "eh, kids." I am NOT a helicopter parent, but I do believe in teaching children to be polite and respectful not just of adults, but of each other. Children are not always going to get along, and they will hit and push and shove, but to me – ignoring the behavior is not the same thing as "letting them work it out" – it's just lazy parenting/educating and it teaches them that might makes right. /end rant 😉

      • I was 4 when my family lived in France for about 6 months. My parents tell a story…
        I would come home from pre-school.
        Mom: How was your day?
        Me: Rotten.
        Mom: Why?
        Me: SoandSo pushed me!
        Mom: What did you do?
        Me: I cried. :'(
        This went on for a while, then one day…
        Mom: How was your day?
        Me: Good!
        Mom: Oh? What happened?
        Me: Soandso pushed me…
        Mom: And what did you do?
        Me: I pushed him BACK! 🙂
        And all was well after that. I didn't get pushed around anymore.

        Silly story, I know. XD But I hope it makes someone smile.

        The whole "let the kids sort it out" only goes so far, of course. Maybe the challenge to parenting is knowing just how far to let it go.

      • I think it can also be a culture difference. Being polite may mean something else in Switzerland… That's not to say that you shouldn't raise your daughter that way you want to raise her, but maybe it helps to realise where those other people are coming from. What do they value that they think it's ok that push other kids around (there's probably something that outweighs the pushing). I'm often amazed by stuff I read on OBM or elsewhere on the webb, partly (I think) because I'm not American.
        For example: I remember coming home from school crying because the teacher had been mean to me. My parents would not call the teacher/school, because they thought that this is something I had to learn to deal with (it was an incident, not every day)…

      • I'd just like to clarify that the little blurb of whatever I was watching about Japanese schools was concerning older kids, in the range of 6-7-8-9-ish, obviously with more developed social skills than toddlers. As specifically as I can remember, two little boys got in a disagreement (not physical) and other members of the class intervened before it got out of hand. The teachers looked on. It was a method of conflict resolution, and as hannah1cestmoi mentioned, there's definitely a cultural divide.

        You're right, though, I have a toddler @ 18 months and I got insane when other kids beat on him! He's really big for his age, but lately we've had a problem with our neighbor's girl (older, but same size) that likes to push him. The parents don't correct her other than a feeble "Oh, don't do that." The best I can do is to get a little theatrical and say, "Are you okay? We don't hit in our house."

  4. I like the article overall, but I think even with telling parents to "take it easy" and "let go" it still comes fairly close to continuing to blame the parent for their kids' adult lives. I mean, maybe the reality is that people tend to wander and experience bouts of depression or feelings of meaninglessness. This article has points where I feel it makes the parent connection tantamount to those feelings when, hello, these people in therapy also had at least a couple of decades of OTHER LIFE STUFF happening, and they could be at a particular life-crossroads thing, too. So it feels like, in one breath it says "Let it go!" and then in the other breath, "You're not doing it right!" In the end, putting so much on the parents feels too Freudian for me.

    • This! Although my mother seems to think otherwise, my upbringing did not cause my needle phobia or my anxiety issues. I'm pretty sure those are genetic, since pretty much every female member of my mom's family has similar problems.

  5. I also think that article is spot-on. I would also very highly recommend Janet Lansbury's website and blog: http://www.janetlansbury.com/ , and, reading anything by Magda Gerber.

    They espouse the same concept: for example, not "intervening" when a toddler snatches a toy from another one if no one is actually in danger, etc. Thx for featuring this article on OBM!

  6. Totally agree with previous commenters. It's also good to keep in mind that most situations aren't completely black and white–you're not stuck with either being a helicopter parent or ignoring all your kid's hurts. Go ahead and swoop in when the kid falls–but give the kid 5 seconds first to figure out whether it actually hurts. (It's actually kind of hilarious doing this–toddlers will actually look around at whatever adult is taking care of them to FIND OUT whether they should be upset. If the adult isn't upset, 9 times out of 10 they'll brush themselves off and move on. And that 10th time, you're right there to pick them up and kiss it better if necessary.)

    • Went through that exact same hing with my husband and stepdaughter… still am to a lesser extent. We only have her every so often curently because of our life situation, and when she's with us, she knows who will come flying in to save every little scratch and who will only ay attention to the actual big deals. It's not hi faul, he wants to be super dad to make up for other people in her life who constantly let her down. I do too, but honestly I stumbled into this philosophy by accident, besically because I get tired of the fit over a bumped knee.

      You're right though, it's interesting at the least to see her (almost 4 btw) fall down and stand up, look at me, and when I say "Ouch. You're ok", she actually nods and shrugs it off, when two hours later with dad around it's ten minutes of crying at least.

      Works with kids who aren't yours either. Recenty we were living with someone who had a three year old boy, nd at one point he was running outside, fell, and rolled around in the grass screaming that his leg was broken. She was inside, so I told him, "oh no, come over here and let auntie see it" and he calmly walked over and showed me his scrape.

      It also sometimes is nice to make something a lot bigger deal than it is. I've found that younger kids tend to stop making a big deal out of something that's not when you make it HUGE. For example, they are crying about a bumped elbow and so you get up and ut on your shoes and get your purse while announcing that you're just going to have to take him/her to the hospital to get the WHOLE ARM CUT OFF. Suddenly it seems like the bump is NOT so bad. 🙂

      I love kids, it's so amazing to see what they react to the most and how it changes future interactions.

    • Boy is this ever true. When my cousin was a toddler her parents were tripping over their feet they ran so fast when she fell. I remember one day she rammed her head into the door. She looked right up at me, and I said "Did the door get in your way when you weren't looking? Tell it to move, you have things to do!" She gave me the most puzzled look, but not two hours later she rammed her head into a corner, and then smacked it and said "Move, wall, I have to go get my toy!" while her parents looked like she had just spoken in French. It was awesome.
      She grew up to be fairly well-adjusted in the long run. A little spoiled and over-praised, but calm and well-mannered.

  7. i agree with you. i know someone who hovers constantly. that kid will go to therapy most likely. after raising six kids, you kinda naturally learn this because you know you can't be every where all the time so you have to give them independence for your sanity!

  8. I love this article. Full disclosure, I don't have kids. I did help raise my baby sister who's 14 years younger than me. Her friends and their families drive me INSANE. They are firmly entrenched in the generation of "My child can do no wrong.", and it terrifies me that when I am old, these are the people who will have control of the country. People who can't solve a simple problem like "The car ran out of gas, what do I do?" or "I want this but it costs too much money, so and so give me the money so I can get it."

    I had a rough childhood. I know without a doubt that things like having to entertain myself with empty boxes or eating welfare mac and cheese every night as a child, and living in my car and going to bed hungry when I was older helped me become self sufficient. A co worker of mine's daughter ran away because her parents disapproved of her grades since it meant she wouldn't be able to get in the college she wanted to get into. Did they make her live with that decision, to come to her senses that it was her OWN choices that put her there? Nope, they called her on the cell phone they pay for, while she was driving the car that they bought her, to tell her to pick a hotel and call them so they can put it on their credit card.

    These children are entering the workforce, aghast that someone dares turn them down for a job they aren't qualified for because their work isn't good enough. I turned down a 20 year old design student last month. His MOTHER called me and gave me the nth degree, asking why we didn't hire her gifted son. I told her that his portfolio was lacking, and suggested if he was seriously considering a graphic design career, he might want to work on expanding it. "He is a GIFTED ARTIST! He has drawn beautiful pictures ever since he was two years old. He is in tears right now, you call him back and you hire him!"

    I know everyone who doesn't have kids is always an expert in how to raise them. All I know is I just hope that when my husband and I do bring kids into the world, that they're someone I'm proud to let loose into society and have an effect on it. I want my legacy to be children who changed the world, not huddled in the corner while it changes around them.

  9. I have always liked the idea that "kids need to fall, so they know how high they can safely climb". Applying that to the broader area of child-rearing, rather than just the literal tree-climbing, suggests that allowing children to learn and make peace with their own limits – by *themselves* – equips them with a more realistic understanding of their place in the world, and maybe that it's okay to not automatically be the best at everything – some things they'll have a talent for, some things they can develop skills for with work and dedication, and some things will just never be their area. And that's okay. One might hypothesize that allowing children to learn and accept that fact would result in less adults with the entitled attitude and fragile self esteem of the above commentor's experience.
    I say this as someone whose parents were both protective and domineering right up until I left home at 21 (and what a drama *that* was), but who also would occasionally, apparently randomly, go too far in the other direction; it took two continuous *years* of gashes and grazes and falls and pain and frustration, trying determinedly to learn to ride a bike, before my parents finally admitted that my epilepsy as a baby had left me with scarring to the part of my brain that includes the balance centre, and that the doctor had actually warned them that I would probably never be able to ride (or walk a balance beam, or walk in a straight line if called on to do so). While I can appreciate they didn't want to tell me what I could and couldn't do, and wanted to give me the chance to try without just assuming limitiation, I still think that maybe two years was a slightly excessive period of time to wait and watch my continuous frustration and injury before stepping in and telling me what the problem was.

    P.

  10. While I agree with the gist of this article, I think it has many flaws. First, who's to say that any issue that requires therapy is due to improper parenting? Sometimes you brain just has an imbalance of a certain chemical, which can be corrected through therapy and/or medication. Sometimes life is just hard and we need help dealing with it. Some would argue that the young adult in the article was well prepared to deal with her problems since she ended up in therapy and not trying to escape from her problems through drugs or alcohol or another addiction.

    Plus I have deep ideological problems with something that puts so much blame solely on the parents.

    However, I do find the "self-esteem at all costs" movement counterproductive. Especially the way it was presented in my elementary school. The takeaway I got from that was "Everyone should have good self-esteem… and if you don't YOU'RE A HORRIBLE PERSON"

    • Henh, I got the "Everyone should have good self-esteem, but you mustn't be conceited," and then the difference was never explained, so whenever I say something like, "Actually, I'm quite a good cook," or, "Thank you; I also think I look pretty, today,", or, "I'm proud of my writing," to someone else, I always get a sudden mental panic over whether that makes me vain or not. ^_^

      P.

  11. I tend to have a relaxed and stepped-back way of parenting, at least relative to a lot of other parents I see… I cheer and clap when my son does something for the first time, but you're right, apart from a "well done!" every now and then, I'm not going to continue going nuts every time he successfully kicks a ball or something. I haven't had to deal with rough behaviour from other kids, but of course there have been plenty of falls and bumps, and many of those times have been because he wasn't paying attention to what he was doing. So unless he's actually been badly hurt, I'm not going to run and smother him and kiss it all better immediately – why would he learn to be more aware when Mummy is always there to cry to?
    That all said, it's not like I feel smug and secure, thinking that I'm somehow saving him years of therapy later in his life. He could, like his mother and grandfather, end up slogging his way out of depression. He could (god forbid) have bad experiences at school that trigger anxiety. I have a myriad of social issues that probably require professional help, and I'm certainly not blaming MY parents for them. I just accept that it's the way my head is.
    I parent the way I feel is right, trying to understand and accommodate my son's nature in the way that I nurture him. I teach him, I make sure he has fun and feels safe and happy and loved, and I don't fret about the fact that he can't count to 10 yet.

  12. The best stuff is in the first half of the paragraph: "or adults that make us happy". Its the very concept that keeps the offbeat movement going, learning to let go of another human's choices. Its theirs.

  13. I actually just read this article last night, and while my husband and I agree with it wholeheartedly, it's very hard to see your kid in tears because someone stole his shovel at the sand box. I totally flunked that test a few weeks ago and swooped my tearful baby up in front of some very disapproving playground mothers. Immediately afterwards I knew I had it wrong, that it was ok to let my kid realize that not everyone shares or even NEEDS to share, but you can't just plop him back in the sand and say, "My bad". The problem is finding other, similar situations to get him into (he's an only child, and there aren't any other kids his age in our neighborhood) so he can learn with his bumps.

  14. The childless person reading this article thought, huh, if I had a kid and they told me they were going to therapy, I'd be glad they had the ability to recognize their emotional currents and try to sail them assisted.

    "Not landing your kid in therapy" as a child rearing goal? totally strange to me.

    • This!

      I think it's a type of parenting success if you can raise a kid that is self-aware and confident enough to actually seek therapy where it's needed. This is the same sort of logic that says divorce is the failure of a marriage, when in some cases it opens the space for a more successful partnership, or allows people to pursue a happier life. Divorce isn't even the worst case scenario for a relationship.

      What I'm trying to say, in a roundabout way, is that therapy and divorce are not ideal, but they're not the problems in themselves. In fact, in many cases, they can be the solution to a problem, or at the least the start of a solution to a problem.

      That said, I think the point of the article is ways to avoid being the cause of your kids' therapy, which is great. I can't fault parents for not wanting their kids to sit on a couch complaining about how they were raised, or for wanting their kids to never have problems so serious that they need to seek help. Just know that if, after all your efforts, your kid needs to see someone to get some outside help and they're willing to step up to the plate and get it – that in itself means you probably did a good job.

  15. This article, I think, explains the major difference between parenting in the 80's and 90's and NOW. Growing up I hated being smothered and sheltered and saved from every scrape. When I turned 18 and went to college, I did certain things to just feel that pain and heartbreak and also joy. But at the same time, had I been allowed to experience these things sooner I may not be in the same place I am now–which would be both bad and good.
    "Maybe we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do — and some letting go." –> THIS is awesome! I read something somewhere that children are not ours, but borrowed gifts from the universe. Looking at it this way, there is SO much we can learn from our children. I know I have already. For one, I'm no longer afraid to ask questions; if I want to know how it works, I'm going to find out!

  16. There are alot of posts for this particular article and chances are very few people are going to read mine (so I'm not going to bother with spellcheck, fair warning) i agree that there is nothing you can do as a parent to sheild your boo from hurt (i wish it wasn't so but eventally they will be a teenager… you have been a teenager, right?) i agree that you should let your kid work out his problems on the playground and not put him in bubble wrap for his whole childhood. the thing i disagree with is not telling your kid, at every turn, that he is awsome. my kid is awsome. even if he is doing "age appropriate" stuff he is still awsome. and i love him like the moon and the sun and i dont think there is anything wrong with him knowing that. will the big cold world cut him down at some point? of course. do i want him to know that his mama thinks he is the bees fucking knees? of course. i dont think there is anything wrong with telling your kids that, to you, they are the best, of the best, of the best. To say anything else to my son would be a lie and I dont want to lie to my son.

  17. As part of my job I periodically work with young people of all different ages – from preschoolers to recent graduates – and a lot of this resonated with me.

    I've seen parents literally take a pen out of their kids hands to colour the edges of the picture so they don't go over the lines (and then grudgingly allow them to do the middle, with regular 'tips' on when they've missed a bit or done enough) then praise the child on the whole drawing as if it's the most amazing thing.

    Then I think that must have been what it was like with the parents who want to come with their kid for the first day (or week) of their work placement or volunteering, or in some cases want to attend the job interview with them. (Pro-tip parents: Don't! Don't even ask. The message it sends is that you don't think your kid is capable of getting the job so you want to do it for them.)

    The ones who don't want their child to climb on anything or run because they might fall down, who step in to complete the puzzle for them if it looks like they're having to think about it, and then a few years later will be wondering why their kid (who they pushed forward to 'volunteer' to help with the demonstration) just stands there waiting to be told what to do and does the bare minimum then waits for someone to finish it for them. I don't doubt that they love animals and would leap at the chance to participate – but you've trained them to wait for you to participate on their behalf and then tell them how great it was, so that is exactly what they are doing.

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