Does my child need therapy?
There are few things more stressful than an angry or anxious child.
So, if you’re experiencing meltdowns, explosiveness, throwing things, clinginess, fear of leaving the house, refusal to go to school or obsessive negative thinking, I understand how concerned you are.
I understand how much you want to make things better for your child and the whole family, and as fast as possible, too.
You’ve probably found yourself wondering if you should take your child to a therapist, or if there’s something you can do yourself to help your child, bearing in mind that what you’ve tried so far hasn’t worked.
Here is the distinction you need to make:
- Does your child need therapeutic support because of a traumatic experience they’ve had and/or because of a specific difficulty they have?
- Or, is your child’s challenging behaviour rather the expression of unmet needs, that could be met with some adjustments in their day-to-day experience?
Why I naturally can’t comment here and now on the particular child you have in mind, this is my view:
As a very first step, ensure you’re doing everything to meet your child’s needs in the day to day, because this, in my experience, always brings an improvement in behaviour.
Then, if necessary, once their needs are being met and your relationship is really solid, you can seek therapeutic help to support your child with any remaining difficulties - and do it in a collaborative way.
This collaborative bit is important, because it’s vital on the therapeutic journey that a child doesn’t get the message that they are a problem or that there’s something wrong with them.
Aren't I meeting my child’s needs already?
Of course you are, you meet a million of your child’s needs every day!
But unfortunately there’s little information available to parents about how to meet your child’s needs at a deeper level, so that your child is able to relax and cooperate with you.
Why isn’t this information available?
To quote psychologist Ross Greene: “a lot of the resources that are available still for parents of kids with behaviour challenges… still emphasise the old rewards and punishments, and incentive and motivational models.”
I think it’s vital that we move way from from the paradigm that children need to be incentivised and threatened to behave well.
Because children are just like us: when they feel well, they behave well.
So how do we achieve this?
In my work with parents, we address the following three areas of need:
- Connection: Is your child feeling deeply and securely connected to you, the significant adult in their life?
- Control: Does your child have appropriate control over aspects of their lives?
- Containment: Is your child’s behaviour being contained by kind limits, without a hint of punishment?
When a child’s needs in these areas are met, you get a happy child, who behaves well, naturally.
This radically loving approach is what I call the “therapy of the everyday”, to quote one of my wisest and greatest teachers, the Hungarian paediatrician, Dr Emmi Pikler.
It brings astonishing results, to the great surprise and relief of parents.
Meeting your child’s need for connection
You’re probably wondering, “How do I do it?” and so l’d like to help you with number 1, connection.
All three areas are important, but feeling deeply and securely connected to you is likely to have the greatest positive impact on your child’s anxious or angry behaviour.
Now, I’m sure you’re already doing many connecting activities with your child: reading books at bedtime, cosy cuddles on the sofa or lovely days out.
These are vital aspects of a happy childhood.
But if your child is angry or anxious, there is most likely a deeper layer of connectedness that they are asking for.
In fact, I recommend you view anxious or angry behaviours as a means of drawing your attention to this need for greater connection - this need to be seen, heard, loved and understood, at a deeper level.
Challenging behaviour is actually communication.
And so here’s one way that I recommend to help you connect more deeply with your child:
- Firstly, when your child is expressing something difficult, put aside your own point of view and focus your attention on what your child is communicating.
- Secondly, become curious about what need your child is expressing. Ask yourself: "What are they trying to tell me?” For example, maybe they don’t want to go back to school. Even if your child isn’t articulating their need in so many words, you’ll probably have a hunch - you know your child so well.
- Thirdly, express your empathy and understanding for whatever is upsetting your child. The main point here here is not to be Mr or Mrs Fix-It. Instead, stand with your child in their pain, worry, grumpiness or fear - and validate it.
This is the deeper layer of connection that your child is waiting for.
If you’re not quite sure how to validate or empathise, here’s a quick tip.
If your child says “I don’t want to go back to school”, you can repeat their words back to them, “You don’t want to go back to school.”
When you genuinely make space space for that feeling and show you’ve heard and understood, this helps your child connect with you and feel better.
The effect is huge: children are calmer almost instantly.
They’re able to let go of their anxiety or rage - and when this approach becomes a habit, family life starts to settles down.
So my answer to the title question Does my Child need Therapy? is this: “Maybe, but try the above first!”
To test the effectiveness of this approach, think of the next time your child is likely to resist something.
What are they likely to say?
Then using the steps above, think of what you will say to show you’ve heard and understood.
And then, when the time comes, empathise with your child, as authentically as you can - and notice how your child responds!
Guest blog by Oona Alexander, Radically Loving Parenting Specialist.
Oona works with conscious parents for whom a happy home is a top priority, helping them radically love their children to naturally great behaviour, so that adults and children can enjoy a relaxed and happy family life.