Monday, March 18, 2013

How Therapists Screw Up their Children

You’re a psychologist. You have studied childhood development. You have learned how to make people feel better.

Why wouldn’t you use your knowledge to bring up your children? If it works so well in the office, why wouldn’t it work in the nursery? Wouldn’t it be derelict to refrain from using your psycho-wisdom to raise your children to be the healthiest, happiest kids on the block?

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, reality tells a different story.

Therapist Lisa Damour explains it in the New York Times. When Damour was expecting her first child a senior therapist took her aside to explain how therapists screw up their children.

The answer will not surprise readers of this blog. The senior therapist explained:

“They [therapists] talk about feelings way too much,” she said.

The image was fully formed in my mind by the time she finished the sentence, the psychologist mother standing over the tantruming 4-year-old saying: “Oh my! You are having a mad feeling. Sometimes children have feelings that get very, very big.”

Of course, if this kind of intervention is as idiotic as it sounds, whatever would make anyone thing that a more adult version would be more effective in session?

Damour explains cogently why an obsession with feelings cannot help children:

When parents talk about feelings too much, they risk giving children the impression that feelings are all-powerful. Parents who regularly defer to a toddler’s tantrums, ask that their school-age child be seated only near children she likes, or excuse a teenager from basic responsibilities because “he’s not in the mood” leave children at the mercy of their own emotions. Life requires that we deal with not getting our way, work with people we don’t enjoy and attend to tasks we dislike. Good parenting requires that we help children cope with these realities.

When children are expected to manage discomfort in order to meet the demands of the outside world, they usually do. In the process, they develop crucial internal resources that can be drawn upon throughout their lives. Children — and adults — who learn to manage negative emotions enjoy more pleasures and many more options than those who don’t.

This implies that when therapists place too much emphasis on feelings they give their patients the impression that feelings are all-powerful. Thus, they relieve their patients of the responsibility to deal with their problems and to negotiate the demands of the real world.

Clearly, feelings have a place. Damour explains how she, as a mother deals with her children’s feelings:

As a mother, I work to keep feelings in their proper place: they provide useful feedback about our lives and the choices we’re making, but they are not in charge. Managing discomfort is not the same as denying it; children are often able to wrangle and contain their large and unruly emotions when parents compassionately name feelings and help find constructive ways to address them.

As I have often had occasion to remark, emotions can help guide you in life… but only if you know how to read them. If you make them the be-all and end-all of life you will get lost in your mind.

Without quite saying it Damour suggests that an excessive and wrong-minded emphasis on feelings undermines confidence and makes it more difficult for people to deal with their real-life problems:

However, as parents it is not our job to put emotional subtitles to our children’s lives. It is our job to help children use language to bring feelings down to size and to instill confidence that most of life’s challenges can be handled.

So much for the therapy culture’s mania about feelings.


Anonymous said...

An obscure line in the Old Testament: "The sins of the fathers (and mothers) will be visited upon the children down to the third and fourth generation."

As I recall from "If you meet the Buddha on the road: kill him," by Sheldon Kopp, the author regards therapy as the effort of to his patients to turn him into a substitute parent, and his efforts to resist their efforts.

By contrast, in "The Drama of the Gifted Child," Alice Miller says a therapist is typically a poorly parented former child who is always in danger of seeking a substitute parent among his or her patients.

Mark said...

There are 4 social workers within a stone's throw, all female. The 3 who aren't my wife all have children on psychotropic drugs. The kids seem normal to me apart from a certain lifelessness.

Webutante said...

I couldn't agree more with this post. A feelings-centric worldview begets stuckness, immaturity and in the end----as Murray Bowen would say---a societial regression.

Feelings are a guide to readjusting our individual barometers and located in the lower limbic brain. Higher functioning of thinking about dilemmas always trumps lower choices.

Went last evening to see Silver Linings Playbook...and almost left due to the out-of-control screaming, drug taking---at least the main characters decried how horrible they felt. It is a sign of the times, I suppose, but incredibly unappealing even with Robert DeNiro etc.

Living At Choice said...

Really interesting post, thanks for sharing it.

bs king said...

I liked this post quite a bit..."mania about feelings" sums it up rather nicely.

My favorite advice I got about having a child was something along the lines of "think about how many people you know who have truly low self esteem. Now think about how many people you know who are narcissistic asshats who believe the world revolves around them. Which one causes you more trouble? Which one do you think you should really really make sure your child avoids becoming?"

Modest mom said...

Narcissism is prevalent at my teenager's high school. Modesty is out. Everyone wants to be a star. At a concert last year, a Momager jumped out of her seat to give her daughter, I mean the chorus, a standing ovation. The rest of the audience reluctantly rose out of their seats. I blame parents--our generation was taught healthy self-esteem is so important. However, our family tries to moderate this constant need for attention, and we are really swimming against the tide. I feel our kids have self esteem, but not as much as the rest of the crowd. My husband and I have taught them how to cope with losing out to a peer. We just keep telling our children (and ourselves) that this is what happens in "the real world". I worry though, that with this generation, narcissism will be rewarded. I also find the trait in my peers. There aren't many good listeners anymore. And if you happen to be one, watch out! The narcissists will always find you as they enjoy a good audience. It's all enough to make you want to hide. Yet I am a social being, so I keep trying to find good conversationalists, who know how to balance a good talk with a good listen. And I keep teaching my kids it's ok not to brag. It's good to take turns while talking. It's not all about them. Find friends who don't need a cheerleader. Watch out for people who gather others around to admire them. Yet I also know the attraction of hanging around someone with healthy self-esteem. I married him. I think we balance each other out. Hopefully, our kids will turn out ok. Maybe they'll teach their kids to be humble.