Raising Neurotic Wrecks

Bad Therapy should shake parents out of the world’s therapeutic parenting ideology. Then, of course, Christians will have to replace the worldly wisdom Shrier debunks with sound Biblical teaching. God is gracious and when we walk by faith and parent according to God’s design, we can be confident that we will raise godly children capable of meeting life’s challenges.

Currently at the top of Amazon’s bestseller booklist, Abigail Shrier’s Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up tackles one of today’s most pressing issues:

[W]ith unprecedented help from mental health experts, we have raised the loneliest, most anxious, depressed, pessimistic, helpless, and fearful generation on record….How did kids raised so gently come to believe that they had experienced debilitating childhood trauma? How did kids who received far more psychotherapy than any previous generation plunge into a bottomless well of despair? (xvii)

This issue affects everyone: parents, teachers, pastors, coaches, and more. Today’s children are tomorrow’s future. Despite the weighty topic, Bad Therapy is easily readable, full of humor and hope, including clever chapter titles like “Trauma Kings” and “Spare the Rod, Drug the Child.” Bad Therapy is also secular validation of the natural order God created for parents and children and is an encouragement to Christian parents.

Shrier outlines the problem: therapy and therapeutic concepts (“mental health”) are ubiquitous today and parents are quick to find therapeutic solutions for everything, including medicating kids with psychotropic drugs and stimulants to treat normal childhood behaviors. Any pain or disappointment is equated with trauma and, in our risk-averse society, must be avoided at all costs, or treated as a problem to be solved with therapy and drugs. This ideology is even common among Christian parents, who readily rely on therapy to address perceived behavioral issues (aka sin) or on medication for normal childhood characteristics like being wiggly or distracted.

Shrier argues that therapy can often introduce iatrogenesis (i.e. treatment itself creates harm). Therapeutic interventions also undermine parental authority, fracturing countless family relationships, and create anxious, needy children who grow to adulthood unable to cope with basic life problems (40). Shrier recounts interviews with psychologists, therapists, school counselors, parents and children, and provides academic studies, school survey results, and more for overwhelming evidentiary support. And the evidence is powerful. Shrier surmises that individual therapy has very little proven benefit for kids, and rather sows self-doubt among parents and an over-reliance on “experts.” Bad Therapy is the slap in the face needed to wake parents up so that they will course correct.

Not surprisingly, therapists tend to think otherwise. Even the most altruistic therapist has bills to pay and needs a steady stream of income:

No industry refuses the prospect of exponential growth, and mental health experts are no exception. By feeding normal kids with normal problems into an unending pipeline, the mental health industry is minting patients faster than it can cure them (xviii).

A therapist, for many, has come to replace traditional friendships and wisdom from older family members or friends (9). Although not mentioned by Shrier, therapy has even replaced traditional pastoral care and advice. Marriage problems? Take it to the therapist, not the pastor or elders. Rebellious or difficult children? A behavioral therapist can help; medication will fix the kid with ADHD. What could the pastor know about a child with sensory processing disorder?

Contrary to the popular wisdom of the day, which encourages eternal introspection and navel gazing, Shrier discusses the different types of mindsets that enable success in life.

There are at least two we can adopt: ‘action orientation’ and ‘state orientation.’ Adopting an action orientation means focusing on the task ahead with no thought to your current emotional or physical state. A state orientation means you’re thinking principally about yourself: how prepared you feel in that moment, the worry you feel over a text left unanswered, the light prickling at the back of your throat, that crick blossoming in your neck. Adopting an action orientation, it turns out, makes it much more likely that you accomplish the task (46-47).

In short, therapy is not necessary, but a stiff upper lip and a can-do attitude are effective at getting one’s life in order. Christians especially should recognize that life is hard (anyone who says differently is selling something, says Westley in The Princess Bride) and that the solution isn’t to avoid difficulties or be quick to medicate for troubles, but rather to learn how to persevere or repent of sinful behavior.

Isn’t therapy good for kids who have gone through trauma: abuse, abandonment by parents, divorce, etc.? Shrier says:

There is no good reason to believe that most kids are traumatized. The best research indicates the opposite: even among victims of heartbreaking circumstances, resilience is the norm. Disturbing events are best understood as ‘potentially traumatic,’ meaning they may leave no lasting psychological imprint at all, and certainly not necessarily a negative one (105).

Unfortunately, the so-called experts often conflate hardship (poverty, death of a parent, a major move) and actual physical or emotional abuse, and thereby fail to serve the students they claim to help. Psychologist and writer Rob Henderson (who, despite spending most of his childhood in the foster care system, graduated with an Ivy League Ph.D.) says, “What [children who have suffered the most abject circumstances] need is also the thing so few adults in their lives are willing to supply: high expectations” (105). This is a theme repeated throughout the book: kids don’t need to be coddled; they need to have the freedom to fail, make mistakes, or do hard things and then to learn from their experiences. Hard times, difficult experiences, and risk, all tend to make people more resilient.

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