Six Children and No Theories

Covering parenting and child development issues

Goldilocks, Chemistry and Therapy - Oh, my!

Written by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, Community Blogger | Mar 15, 2013 10:08 AM

"Words of comfort, skillfully administered, are the oldest therapy known to man." (Louis Nizer)

Last week, I wrote about worriers. I touched on a couple of ideas that parents can use when their kids worry, and shared some resources that I had recommended to parents whose kids were struggling with overwhelming worry.

But what do you do when you're not enough? As parents, that's one of the most painful things we can face. Although logic tells us we can't do it all, we want to be everything to our kids. As they outgrow their night lights and move on to fears that aren't as easily chased away, we long to possess the same power we had when we kissed boo-boos and made them go away.  

Asking for help can be one of the most intimidating things a parent has to do. Yet, when it comes to our children, we’re usually willing to do whatever it takes (within reason) to help them develop into happy, healthy adults.

Sometimes, that means seeking outpatient counseling. What many families don’t realize, however, is that all therapists are not created equal. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors and pastors all fall under the “therapist” category. In addition, there are counseling psychologists, clinical psychologists, family therapists, play therapists, art therapists…the list is overwhelming. And, unfortunately, the framed degrees on the wall don’t offer any guarantee that a mental health professional, no matter how well-trained, will have chemistry with your child or your family.

Assuming the appropriate qualifications are in place, that chemistry is the key ingredient in choosing your right person. As a school counselor, I often told parents that therapy is a lot like dating. Both people can be truly wonderful in every way, but if there's no chemistry, the relationship doesn't work.

As a parent, the key ingredient in your chemistry with the therapist is trust. You need to regard the therapist who is advising your family with the same level of trust you feel for the physician who sees your child when he or she is sick. It's important that you trust the advice the therapist is offering and be willing to follow through.

While trust is a major ingredient in your child's chemistry with the therapist, other lesser ingredients matter almost as much. Your child needs to like the therapist and to be able to make a connection with him or her. If your child thinks the therapist is cool, so much the better.

Needless to say, these relationships don't develop overnight. At first, you'll need to trust your instincts, as well as your child's. Though it may take some time for changes to occur, it shouldn't take more than a few sessions for you (and your child) to know if you're in the right place. Still, change takes time, no matter how good your rapport with your counselor.

Sometimes, you won't have the luxury of seeking out the perfect situation. If your child needs medical intervention or emergency psychiatric treatment, you're likely to find yourself in the hands of the first professional who is available. Typically, psychiatrists oversee this sort of treatment, and they are often spread thin across a caseload which is larger than they might like. Psychiatrists differ from other mental health professionals in one significant way: they are medical doctors as well as being mental health practitioners. As such, they can write prescriptions and monitor medications - something a psychologist or licensed social worker cannot do - but because of the size of their caseloads, they often refer families to other professionals for counseling services.

As a school counselor, I've seen the benefits of outpatient therapy first hand, watching vulnerable kids gain their footing when all the adults worked together. Unfortunately, I've also talked with families who gave up when the counselor was willing but the chemistry was weak, because they assumed that all therapy looked the same. It doesn't. The confusing list of practitioners at the beginning of this post exists for a reason - when it comes to therapy, one size does not fit all.

In fact, when it comes to therapy, maybe we should all follow the Goldilocks path: take time to find the fit that is "just right."

The opinions expressed here are my own and are not meant to be taken as medical advice.

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