If it takes a village–then you better build a hut for the therapist

April 8, 2010


Children need therapy.  Teenagers need therapy.

There I said it.  For so long, I’ve shied away from such bold and finite statements.

But after years of working in elementary, middle, and high schools, being a nanny,  counseling individual kids, and running youth support groups, my diplomacy and energy for treading parental pride has worn thin. These days, all I’ve got left is, “You, yes you, your kid really needs to see someone.”

Therapy is for Crazies?

Now I’m not sure to what extent a therapy taboo remains or remnants of its roots linger. I do know how dramatically this varies across generations, ethnic groups, and communities.  Some folks believe that what happens within a family should stay within a family. Other folks believe that what happens inside a head should stay there as well.  The desire or need for external support can be seen as signs of instability or character deficiencies. Parents fear their children might be labeled.

So if there is one opinion I do like to share with whomever will listen, it is that
therapy is normal, therapy is necessary, therapy is often quite enjoyable,  and therapy is truly only a symbol of an individual’s interest and commitment to their own personal development.

And it is no different for our kids. Children and teens who work with a counselor do not have to have special needs or issues.  For three years, I ran a “wellness lounge” in a neat little middle school in the heart of one of the ghettos of San Francisco.  Inside we put punching bags and drums in the expression station, clay and paints in the creation station, mats and pillows and positive affirmations in the meditation station, ….. you get the idea. The kids knew my program as the one for “heart health.”

In the youth wellness community, therapy is understood as the mentorship and facilitation of a young person’s development.

But if you’re not convinced it’s worth the effort or money, the following are reasons to change your mind.

IQ vs EQ

Well-known psychologist Daniel Goleman popularized the notion of emotional intelligence.  He identifies five categories that form this concept:
1. Self-Awareness
2. Self-Management
3. Self-Motivation
4. Social Awareness
5. Relationship Management

After many years of research on the subject, Goleman declared his findings:
80% of one’s success in life is determined by your EQ rather than your IQ.  If there were five categories to delineate what really goes on during a therapy session, I would say activities of self-awareness, self-management, self-motivation, social awareness, and relationship management.

Life Skills are not Taught in School

The most important lessons kids need to learn are not taught during school hours.   Although there are exceptions to every rule, if a child’s behavior calls for a lesson in emotional intelligence, the teacher will send him/her from the classroom to the office, as this need is distracting and detracting from the material that is being taught.  Once in the office, the school counselor (if the school has one) is most likely bogged down with scheduling, credit monitoring, and other administrative demands to do ‘counseling.’  And within those schools with the funds to support a school psychologist, he or she is busy with testing and special education determinations.

During the time I ran that school district wellness programs, I met with hundreds, if not thousands, of children.  In 99 percent of the circumstances, when provided with a succinct and thorough EQ lesson that expanded their emotional and social behavior repertoire, the young person was able to quell whatever angst had risen from within, and rejoin their class and mass lesson.

Knowing how to effectively communicate and negotiate with others are not automatic skills.  They are actually quite sophisticated abilities that are acquired by repeated witnessing and doing.

One of the most common complaints I have heard from both children and teens is when they find themselves in a challenging moment and are at a loss for words. Or, more specifically, the emotional vocabulary needed for problem solving. Hence, one of my favorite activities inside the counseling room are ‘rehearsals.’  What do you do when … a teachers yells at you?  A friend betrays you?  You are accused of something you did or didn’t do?  You are suddenly hated or loved?

Therapy provides internal and external space for young people to try on new ways of thinking and doing. Within a safe and neutral area, a kid can explore who and how they want to be. And when the challenge comes ‘round again, they have new tools and the confidence to use them.

The Raging Teen Brain

Just to focus momentarily on adolescents in particular, we often accept the idea that raging hormones are the first and foremost explanation for the baffling choices teens often make. I certainly agree that hormonal fluctuations can make the emotional side of puberty a wild ride. However, it is a misconception that this imbalance is the culprit behind much of the questionable behavior we see. In actuality, it is the raging teen brain that brings us reckless driving/drug & alcohol experimentation, staying out past curfews, forgetting to call home, ending up without a ride, and waiting until the night before to address a school responsibility.

The area of the brain in charge of all these activities is the frontal lobe. Home of the cerebral cortex and our “executive functions,” the frontal lobes are involved in foresight, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgment, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior.  Some of the executive functions include the ability to recognize future consequences resulting from current actions and choosing between good, bad, better, and best actions.

This area of the brain is not fully formed until you are approximately 27 years old.

Teens typically respond very well to counseling as it is like exercising a muscle; the more you use these parts of your brain, the more sets of repetitions, the faster they will grow.

You are Driving Me Crazy!

Stress gets passed around a family like a resistant germ.  Your teen barking at you pushes a button and elicits a snarled response. A stressed out or acting out child on the street can make life painful for everyone within a thousand yards.  Inside a household, tension easily passes between bodies.

Of course, we all overhear the word stress to a point where it has lost meaning and impact. Folks may view parental stress as just an inevitable part of their everyday. But the physiological experience of every offspring argument is the rushing of cortisol throughout the body. And it is this hormone, as a matter of fact, that has been found to be at the basis of most disease. Improve your physical and mental health by getting your kid some counseling.

The Unbiased Observer

It is more difficult to be a kid than it has ever been. The lucky have a strong social network of positive peers and a close, open relationship with his/her loving family.   However, I propose that even this pre-teen, tween, or teen is likely not getting the level and intensity of support necessary to navigate this rocky stage of life.

You may be the most progressive, forward-thinking, liberal-acting parent in town.  You may be vey close with your children. They are still not telling you approximately 70 percent of their thoughts, feelings, and problems.

This is normal and not necessarily a cause for concern.

Sometimes, children do not want to pull parents along on their roller coaster.
Other times, your kids are trying to figure out what they think, and need not to hear what you think in order to do so. Pre and post pubescence is described in the child & adolescent psychology literature as the time period where identity is in a constant state of motion. To determine what you believe, who, and how you want to be requires the process of individuation and family separation.

In addition, youth are being observed, judged, and evaluated every day all day through expectations, grades, rules, and instructions.

In the field, a therapist is sometimes referred to as an unbiased observer. They do not hold a personal investment in their client’s choices; they do not have a stake in their client’s decisions.  Their lives are not personally affected by most of their client’s behavior. (I say most because I hate to write in a black/white way that does not allow for differences.  Certainly a therapist might argue that the suicide of a client deeply affected them…. )

Nonetheless, a therapist’s job is to offer unconditional acceptance. Support no matter what.  Remove the fear of losing unconditional love, acceptance, and support, youth can truly be free to be honest.  No potential of disappointing or making mad, or the wide variety of judgments and reactions that can come from friends, teachers, and parents, the therapist the one person you want to tell.  I believe that for every young person it is essential to have an individual that is not part of their social circles, their families, their schools or their communities to consult with on their struggles with those same friends, classmates, family members, and communities.

Emotional Support is a Gift

A counselor is a sounding board, a second opinion, a source of unconditional acceptance. A therapy room is a “neutral space”, a place to vent and leave stress, and an opportunity to examine oneself and practice strategies for self-improvement.

It is doesn’t have to be for long. It is not a sign of weakness and it is not an indicator of parental failure. And it is not just isn’t just for ‘problems’ already in existence.   Therapeutic support is a powerful tool for prevention in the areas of addiction, violence, and juvenile crime and a reliable indicator of success in the areas of career and family. We must be proactively and actively committed to mental health in the same way we are to our physical health.

It’s OK to need extra help!

Stress and hurt are extra weight all people carry around. If we visualize it as a suit of football padding, we can imagine how such extra bulk could interfere with everyday mobility and accomplishment.

Principals across the country are increasingly noticing and addressing the connection between youth mental health and academic success. Freeing up space in the brain and giving the emotional control center a break, kids can put that frontal lobe to work.

Emotional distress and anxiety are best combat by human connection, empathy, and support. In an age where more and more young people are being prescribed psychotropic medication in order to deal with the stress that comes with the modern kid’s life, therapy is still the old fashioned way. We do not yet know the impact of such neurological interventions on a developing brain and should therefore make counseling our first course of action.

An ongoing relationship with a mental health practitioner keeps young and old steady on a track of self-awareness and personal growth.  And by investing in your child’s sense inner peace and self-acceptance, you will be providing them the one gift they will never outgrow.

Rachel Lynn Scherz, M.A. holds her Masters Degree in Child and Adolescent Psychology.   She is the Director of FEMINISTA! mind, body and soul services for women and girls, an organization that provides individual support and group counseling services to tween and teenage girls in North San Diego County.

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Children don’t need therapists… they need concerned adults, mentors… and yes, dare I say it, parents.

Please don’t be advocating for services that add to the list of so many that show no affect, or more often than not… harm.


Rachel: Thank you for the well written and logical essay. I agree. Some children need therapists. However, as a long time dog trainer, I have found that it is necessary to first train the owners, and then the dogs. The same principal should be applied to the parents and then the children.

I also fully understand that children are resistant to the advice of parents and would be more receptive to an outsider with no row to hoe. However, why do home schooled children excel? The variable is love and supervision, with teaching the “will to learn”. This is a indictment of our educational system, which I call “the numbing of America’s children”.

I would never want to see therapists removed from the educational system. In fact, I feel that teacher pay should double with a therapist degree. Of course, with proper parental interaction with the school system and existing teachers, this might not be necessary.

The real problem is that most parents are too busy making ends meet, to spend the necessary time with their children. Years ago, one parent could support a family, but with our tax rate, and the with the job market, this is very difficult. Today, with MTV and other distractions, the answers are not doable.

Spectator, I agree with 90% of everything that you have shared. It is interesting how home schooled children excel. My neighbor home schooled both her girls and they are far above average in all their test scores, her oldest girl is 15 and attending Cuesta College for math and science because she has surpassed anything that the public high school system has to offer. They are also very happy children who seen to excel in areas of music and art as well as general academics. I also agree that it would serve our education system well if all teachers had a psychology degree in fact I believe that it should be a necessary credential. What I don’t agree with is that we should pay teachers more for obtaining that credential. They are paid extremely well for the hours that they serve. They also have benefits including early retirement plans that many of us tax payers can only dream of. The truth is that mothers can do a better job than teachers and most mothers would be happy to do that job if they didn’t have to pay someone else to do it for them.

Interesting, Unlike Booty and mkaney I think therapy can be helpful for children who are disruptive, can’t get along with others, constantly act out, etc. All these are symptoms of a larger problem. Likewise I think having classes that address every day problems that confront teens is a good idea to. I don’t agree that children and teens all require one on one therapy . Educating young adults about the science of psychology and behavior certainly can provide valuable insight. Replacing a gym class one or two days a week with a health class that encourages students to share their concerns, difficulties and learn about themselves is probably something that would serve us all well.

Thank You I enjoyed the article.

Well, gym classes should be for all four years in high school… not as they are now. The rigors of sport are helpful to all and this is missing in the current education of most young people.

It is too often true and sad that many in our local school systems are not effective in counseling… regardless of the title they carry. I have often wondered how anyone can accept advice from someone whose own personal track history is so troubled. I am reminded of a famous marriage counselor who has been married four times, guess he’ll get it right someday! ;)

Schools should stick to the basics… they do that poor enough already.

Yes it’s quite shocking to read that a FEMINISTA! psychologist is concluding that virtually all of humanity requires “An ongoing relationship with a mental health practitioner”.

I’m sorry, but I definitely do not agree with this view on the need for therapy. I could get into all the instances I’ve seen where people started doing therapy for minor neurosis and wound up with chemical imbalances similar to schizonphrenia after the drug regiment they eventually were put on, but I think that this video pretty much sums up my view on effective therapy:


(Video is a Bob Newhart sketch from MAD TV.. Trust me, it’s hilarious and well worth the 5-minute watch)

Thank you for writing this…I think it is a very important aspect of our society that is often under-emphasized. Part of the problem lies with the stigma of seeing a therapist…as if something is wrong with you and you need fixing…this is absolutely not the case. I myself held this view until meeting with a family therapist. I now think visiting a therapist is extremely beneficial for everybody…especially when it comes to learning to communicate…such a basic life skill that seems to be deficient in so many people. I agree a neutral figure would allow children to more freely discuss their thoughts and feelings, helping them learn how to respond rather than react…likely leading to less confrontation and development of better problem solving skills.