Parent Therapy vs. Child Therapy

When you think, “I need to get my child into therapy, they need help,” in most circumstances do this instead “I can’t handle the stress of being a parent and I need to talk to someone.”  It is difficult being a parent and no one knows that more than a parent.  There are days when you wish you had stayed single or used birth control and there are days when you are just as proud as can be.  It is easy to externalize our feelings by focusing on what we presume is the culprit driving us nuts.  One can assume that the child who is causing problems in school is the reason for our own personal meltdown.  That same child may be arguing with you non-stop at home, so of course it appears to be their problem.  When there is one or more children in your life, it is only natural that one of them will seem to be the problem that needs fixing because children are not grown-ups and they don’t understand how to navigate in the world successfully.

Unless I am dealing with a child who has been abused or neglected (and even then), my instinct is generally that I need to talk to the parent and have them in individual therapy instead of the child.  Within an hour of speaking to the child about their home environment, I generally learn about their parents and what type of family dynamics are going on at home.  Here are some of the things that generally come up when kids are in therapy, about their parents: (the / is meant to be and/or)

– mom/dad are going through a divorce or did divorce already

– mom/dad are indulging in drugs or alcohol

– mom/dad can never stay with one person for a length of time

– mom/dad fight all the time and I hear what their problems are

– mom/dad don’t have a job and we have no money to buy food tomorrow

– mom/dad might lose the house

and so on.

When I hear these situations, the next thing I see is how the child is reacting to them and why? Why? Because the child is not old enough to understand: what is going on, why it is happening and they always think it is their fault.  When a child thinks something is their fault, they will generally start acting out either positively or negatively.  If they have learned that good grades will get your attention, they might continue to persevere as superchild, but often it is the reverse.  When parent (s) are dealing with their own personal issues, they generally get very frustrated and impatient with the other people around them.  In this day and age, we are all split up from our family network, so we don’t generally have many people to support us in dealing with our stress.  So many families have moved far away from where they grew up and now they are in communities they are new to which has provided added stress as well when a crisis arises.

This is why the first step in dealing with family issues is for the parent to come in for therapy and not the children.  As parents, we are responsible for the little ones and it is our attitudes, behaviors and our ability to be a role model that shapes these young people into adults.  If there is a problem, the parent should step up first and define the issue.   The second step is bringing in the family and helping them to resolve the crisis together.

There is another side to this and so for the parents who are dealing with children with known genetic mental illness, this is different.  However, since it is hard to really diagnose a child properly until they have reached puberty, let’s try to stay away from this category if possible.  Also, if you are dealing with children who have an assumed or diagnosed mental illness, this is a very good reason for the parent to be in therapy.  A child who has a mental illness is getting enough attention, but are you the parent?  I have never heard a parent say that dealing with a mentally ill child was easy.  It is a strain on the marriage or on the person should you be on your own.  It is a strain on raising the rest of the children as well.

I am not opposed to doing work with children, I love working with adolescents who are searching for their identity and wondering about their future.  Yet so many times I wonder why I am the one talking to the child and not the parent.


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