In my years of working with children, teenagers, parents and families I have found that people come to therapy with many different expectations. Kids under 10 are the easiest – they usually don’t have expectations, they just came because their parents brought them. Teenagers are a bit more complex – sometimes they are on board, and have a problem they want to address. Sometimes they’ve even asked their parents to arrange therapy for them. Often, they are opposed to coming to therapy on the simple grounds that it’s something their parents want them to do.
Of course, it is parents’ expectations that are the most important, both in terms of how I do my job, and in terms of how we can best work together for the benefit of your child. Some parents, familiar with traditional notions of play therapy, or what I call “TV therapy” – you know, where the psychologist nods sagely, and puffs quietly on his pipe while the “patient” talks about his or her dreams – think that I will talk only with their child, and that they may even be able to drop their child off and come back an hour later to pick them up (the “dry cleaning model” of therapy). Some are even surprised when I ask to speak with them at the beginning of the first session. There’s nothing wrong with expecting that. It’s the natural reaction to how psychologists have been portrayed in the media over the years.
It’s just that that’s not what I do. It’s also not what I believe the best available research on therapy with children shows will work.
So what is my job? And how do I do it? Well for starters, I can’t fix your child. I may be able to help them change. But think about something for a moment. Even if all I ever do is talk to your child in therapy alone, at most I would be spending 45 or 50 minutes with them every week or so. You, on the other hand, have spent years with your child, and depending on their age you still have years to spend with them. It’s your job to raise your child. When something isn’t working the way you want it to, it’s my job to help you figure out something that will work.
You know your child far better than I ever will. That’s why the first thing I do is talk to you in great detail about your observations of your child’s adjustment and behavior, about their development, and the history of whatever problems bring you to see me. After I’ve gathered enough information I’ll tell you what I think is going on, and what kind of therapy I think would be most helpful. It’s my job to do that in a way that takes advantage of the most up to date knowledge about how children and families work, and how they change.
After that the real work begins, and unless your child is an older adolescent, and often even then, you will have a role to play. It will often be the most important role in the therapy process. During therapy sessions we will figure out what steps you can take at home to advance toward your goals. My job is to spot opportunities for change, and help you and your child translate those opportunities into an action plan – then you have to go home and do it.
So if I do my job, and you do your job, will that make your child happy? Maybe. But it’s important to remember just what your job as a parent is. Your job isn’t to give your child a happy childhood. Your job is to do the best you can to give your child the opportunity to be a happy adult. That means helping
them learn to believe that they have as much chance as most people have of obtaining some of the good things in life, and that they can cope with life’s inevitable negatives as well as most people can. If, on the way to doing that, you can also make their childhood happy, that’s great. But you also have to allow them to experience life’s ups and downs, so that they can do it on their own when they grow up.
You’ll notice I haven’t talked at all about your child’s job in therapy. That’s a complicated issue that depends on factors such as how old your child is and what kinds of problems bring you to work with me. I’ll discuss my thoughts about it in another blog post, but for now let me just say that they will have a job in therapy. However, it’s important to remember one thing – you and I are the grown-ups, and unless we do our jobs well, theirs won’t matter.
If you have questions about my philosophy on these issues, or would like to hear more about my services, feel free to contact me.