If it takes a village–then you better build a hut for the therapist
April 8, 2010
By RACHEL LYNN SCHERZ
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:
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.