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Why Your Child's Therapist Wants to Talk All About You

The real work of child therapy can be too painful to talk about.

Key points

  • Acknowledging that a young child needs psychotherapy can be difficult for parents.
  • The way emotional issues were handled by the parent’s parents can lead to conflicts for the parent.
  • When parents have the courage to understand their own histories, their relationship with their child and their child’s behavior can improve.

There are multiple contemporary horrors that children are facing right now, for which I hope therapy becomes one of many salves on their way to healing. This piece addresses ongoing issues with parents in an everyday situation. I will address emotional complications that may affect parents and children as a result of the current social situation in a forthcoming post.

Acknowledging that your young child needs psychotherapy is a special kind of heartache. This heartache is often accompanied by feelings of inadequacy, self-blame, blaming others, rage, and helplessness. The courage it takes for a parent to reach out to a professional whom they have never met and say, “I’m having a hard time with my child and I need help” is the culmination of many months—and oftentimes years—of trying to help their child while feeling helpless, hopeless, and enraged. The parent who does seek out help, instead of hiding, minimizing, or denying the various emotional and behavioral struggles they and their child are experiencing, is the parent who deserves the utmost respect, recognition, and reward.

So why do parents oftentimes feel so bad after their first session with their child’s therapist? This is because the work of child therapy seems unclear. Just as it is the job of every parent to speak to their child in a way that reflects the truth, it is also the job of every child therapist to speak to the child’s parent in a way that reflects the truth.

Many parents enter the first session with their child’s therapist assuming that they will be a passive participant in the session with their child, or that they will be able to leave their child in the consultation room to be helped or, as is often wished, fixed. Parents realize very quickly that this is not how child therapy works with many therapists. These therapists may reveal with urgency that they are far more interested in the parents’ emotional struggles than their child’s. “Why?” my patients ask me after returning from their initial consultation with their child’s therapist. “My kid needs help, so why am I being interrogated about my childhood?”

The truth that child therapists are not telling parents is the same truth that parents are oftentimes not ready to tell their child’s therapist: The relationship between the parent and child isn’t working.

Young children are not able to process their feelings on their own. Until they are able to understand, make sense of, and put their big feelings into words, they need help from a parent or caregiver to hold, share, and make sense of their feelings for them, and with them. This is called co-regulation which, when repeated over the course of a young child’s life, leads to self-regulation in adulthood. It is also another way of describing the process of feeling comforted, listened to, and understood, which, when offered continually and reliably over time by a parent or caregiver, builds emotional resilience.

This process can be undermined when a parent sees their child at a certain age struggling with a certain issue. It can awaken in the parent a memory of being the same age as their child, struggling with similar issues. How those issues were handled by the parent’s parents can lead to all sorts of conflicts for the parent when they try to help their child through those similar emotional challenges.

This may result in a parent unable to help their child co-regulate.

It is likely they weren’t comforted, listened to, and understood while having the very same feelings their child is struggling with. Instead, the parent—as a child—was perhaps ignored, yelled at, met with shock, punished, or not taken seriously, having those feelings denied. This can become confusing to parents when their child is exhibiting behaviors in response to those very same feelings that are unfamiliar to them. “Why is my child’s therapist so interested in how my parents reacted to me when I got angry as a child?” my patients ask with frustration. “I never hit anyone, my parents were never called to school because of my bad behavior. It’s ridiculous.”

Let’s look more deeply into this confusion.

My patient Anna took her 9-year-old son to a child therapist to seek help for his behaviors at school. The young boy was showing increasing signs of anger that were escalating in the classroom. His school’s administration threatened that if his behaviors didn’t improve, he would need to find an alternative option for school.

In the first session with Anna’s son’s therapist, the therapist suggested that Anna be less strict with him. Anna reacted to this by feeling wrongfully shamed and criticized. She was hoping her son’s therapist would provide her and her son with some skills that could cool him down when something activated his anger. Instead, she left feeling even more hopeless about her child than before—and as she was relaying the story to me, she was angry.

When I asked her about her own anger as a child, she said, “I was never angry. I should’ve been, considering my circumstances, but I wasn’t. I guess I wasn’t allowed to be angry. I liked things to be a certain way and it made me happy to keep to my routine.” It became clear that her need to control the environment—that now included her son—was a way of controlling her anger, which she was forbidden to feel for fear of punishment by her mother. She was soon able to understand that her son was likely feeling that she was taking her anger out on him by being excessively strict and controlling with him. Anna was able to make the connection between her needing to control him and his inability to control his anger when children in his classroom didn’t do what he asked of them. As Anna learned to talk with me about her anger and her discomfort with not being in control, she was able to become more relaxed around her son, and more patient with him as she helped him to process his feelings around not being in control of others. Anna soon had a second realization that she had been feeling envious of her son who was allowed to express his anger in a way that her mother never allowed her to. That envy had been intensifying her anger towards him—most notably when he showed anger—and had been exacerbating her need to control her situation and her feelings.

Before long there was clear improvement in her son’s behavior at school, and Anna was soon able to enjoy being with him—and herself—in a new way. She still comments to me from time to time about how much happier and more relaxed he’s become, which gives me the opportunity to remind her of the courage it took for her to work on herself so that she could help her son feel better about himself and his relationships.

Anna’s experience shows us that when parents have the courage to understand their own histories, their relationship with their child and their child’s behavior improves significantly.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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