‘Modern Family’ Is Messy (It May Take a Village to Get a Kid to Therapy)
In today’s typical family there is no ‘typical’. Individuals with perhaps non-traditional relationships to a child (i.e., not just Mother and Father) may have good access and sensitivity to a child’s struggles or troubles. These people may include close friends, step-parents, mentors, girlfriends, boyfriends, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches.
As is depicted in the sitcom “Modern Family,” personal and relationship break-throughs are made through access to truth and love–coming from various sources, including family members and friends of all different varieties. Good data about a child can come from many sources and if you find yourself in the role of one of those “sources”, it becomes important to present your input in a constructive and credible way—whether speaking to a parent or guardian about considering therapy for their child or in speaking to a child about therapy.
In this post I’ll address these two very similar topics: 1. Approaching a friend with concerns about his/her child, and 2. As a parent or parent figure, getting a child to therapy.
DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER!
Telling a friend you think their child needs therapy is a touchy subject. You run the risk of offending your friend and compromising the relationship with both parent and child, thus eliminating the opportunity to help in the future. You run the risk of being wrong: suppose the child is fine, just not your definition of fine? Suppose you are right and the child does receive therapy and benefit from it. Guess what? You still run the risk of losing the relationship with parent and child. We’ve all heard and likely been affected by the term, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” right? Lastly, if you deliver your message in a way that puts a friend already in denial further on the defensive, the child about whom you are concerned may be pushed even further away from getting help.
For these reasons, it is important to approach the topic with care. And yes, there is a “right” way–or at least predictively a way that is more likely to turn out “right”. Overall, let the parent express his or her concerns first, then express yours. Don’t use labels or jargon, and don’t make black/white statements. Here are some specifics:
- Tone: Unassuming, non-judgmental, open-ended and love-based. Examples:
- I’m wondering if you have noticed any differences in Archie compared to other kids. [Pending parent response you might say something like:] I have noticed some things about Archie I thought I should share with you because I care about both of you. I don’t know if there is a problem but to me something seems different from what I’ve seen in other kids.
- I don’t know if it’s just me but I wanted to share something I’ve noticed about Archie in the event you have maybe noticed it as well but weren’t sure if it was just your perception. He seems really angry [sad, lost, lonely, frustrated] a lot of the time.
- Content: Share concern, observations; share examples of child’s strengths and parent’s strengths. Examples:
- I noticed Archie has gone from being interested and engaging to being withdrawn and sullen. You are so loving and such a good parent to him. I wonder if you’ve noticed this.
- I have noticed Archie’s anger for a while and it seems he is struggling to manage day-to-day situations.
- Recommendations: Love-based, help-based. Examples:
- I hate to see you and Archie struggling. I know there are good therapists out there who can identify a problem, help to normalize and then solve for it. I don’t want to see people I love suffering when I know there is help available. If nothing else, trying a therapist seems like a good opportunity to rule out anything out of the ordinary.
- I hope you’ll consider seeing a therapist with Archie to figure this out. So many children benefit from exposure to ideas and resources that help them with improving life skills and necessary coping behaviors.
- Whatever you decide, I want to be part of your and Archie’s life for a long time to come. I trust your judgment.
NO SHAME IN LEARNING
A related issue centers on the parent/guardian who wants their son/daughter to feel comfortable with the idea of seeing a therapist. Again, approaching this the right way with your child can mean a strong, positive relationship with a professional whose goal is to help your child. In general, it is important to be loving, open, express the private nature of therapy, and to communicate that the therapist may help others in the family who need help—that it is not just the one child who has a problem. Following are some guidelines for speaking with your child about psychological therapy:
- Tone: Helpful, compassionate, empathetic. Examples:
- I’ve struggled with [sadness, frustration, anger] and many other people have too. I think I know someone who can help us both because she/he has helped many other people with these same kinds of issues.
- You have seemed quite [sad, frustrated, angry, lonely] lately and I think there is a way for us to get some help and that doesn’t involve having to tell people outside our family.
- Content: Position therapist as expert. Position therapy as education. No one is broken, nothing needs fixing. Examples:
- Just like your math teacher teaches you how to add and subtract so you can feel confident when you have money and pay for something at a store, a therapist teaches us how about feelings so we can be comfortable with our feelings when they come up and when we deal with other people. Just like once we learn math, we will know the correct answer to a math problem, once we learn about our feelings, we will know the correct answer for solving problems inside ourselves.
- We go to school to learn things that help us understand how the world works. We go to a therapist to understand how our feelings work. When we learn to read we can find out about anything by opening a book. When we learn to ‘read’ our feelings we can understand what is happening to us inside.
- We all learn different things at different times based upon what is happening in our lives. If you lived in China for a year you would want to learn Chinese and understand the customs. A Chinese teacher could help with that. In the same way, if something big happens that affects our feelings [death, divorce, new school, bullying] we can learn how to understand those feelings. Once we understand them, we will know what is right for us. A therapist teaches us how to do this.
- Each of us has different challenges at different times. We all have them, but we tend not to share them too much so if we are having a big feeling we may think we are the only one having it. Some of us struggle with anger, some with shyness, some with bad habits, some with sadness, some with learning differences. Just as we get help with spelling if we are having trouble, we get help from a feelings teacher if we are having trouble with feelings, or help with a friendship teacher if we are having trouble with friendship. Some therapists teach about friendship, some teach about feelings, some teach about speaking and reading. But all of us need teachers.
- Recommendations: Be open, exploratory, empowering. Examples:
- As your [parent/guardian] it is my job to help you learn the things you need to know to be happy now and when you grow up–to have lots of choices when you’re a grown-up about what you want to be, where you want to live, what kind of friends you want to have. So I take you to school where the teachers teach you lots of different things and now is a good time to go to a teacher of feelings—a therapist—to learn about feelings.
- Just like you like some teachers more than others, you may like one therapist more than another. The good thing about a therapist is that YOU get to choose. You know you can’t usually switch your third-grade teacher for another just because you don’t like him/her, she is too strict, he gives too much homework? Well, if you like your therapist then you learn more from her and if you don’t, you find a different therapist—one who makes you feel good. And everything you speak about with your therapist is private between the two of you.
Lastly, please know that as a concerned friend or a concerned parent, saying something is ALWAYS better than saying nothing. If you’d like help talking to a friend about his/her child or if you’d like help talking to your child about therapy, I can help. In the “Modern Family” there are many options. There is ALWAYS hope and there is ALWAYS a way. I help my clients find THEIRS.