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Our Kids' Stress and How Therapy Can Help

Our Kids' Stress and How Therapy Can Help

By Dr. Lisa McCray Cassidy, Ph.D.

Does my child really need to be in psychotherapy? This is a very difficult question to answer, especially since parents today are being bombarded with childhood diagnoses that were unheard of 10 or 20 years ago. Both the diagnoses and the options for "remedies" can be overwhelming and bewildering.

In truth, the stressors that our children are experiencing are exponentially greater than in any previous generation. In my work over the past two decades, I have seen childhood problems increase more than I ever thought I would. Children today are experiencing anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, family issues--such as divorce and parents who have been absent due to military service--not to mention autism, developmental delays, and an additional list that has become endless.

Children and their parents also are feeling academic pressure; for example, there is pressure for kids to learn to read by the middle of kindergarten. I remember my own son (who is now a teenager) coming home in tears from his public school-based pre-k because the children were told that they "had too much work to do" and therefore, would no longer have playground time. Pre-k and kindergarten had previously been focused on learning to socialize with peers (i.e. learning social skills), playing with blocks (i.e. developing an attention span and perseverance, among other traits), and playing in the dress-up corner (i.e. imaginative play and cooperation with peers).

Some of the demands that schools are placing on today’s children, through no fault of the schools, is simply developmentally inappropriate. It reminds me of my neighbor, when I was in graduate school, who "decided" that his second daughter would learn to walk at an earlier age than his first. I tried to explain to him that she was going to walk when her entire little nervous system said she was ready, and not a minute sooner. That baby did not walk until she was 16 months old, and I was convinced that she would sit on the floor watching her father "demonstrate" walking, while thinking, "What on earth is this man doing?!?" Every child achieves milestones--walking, reading--at his or her own pace but we, as a society, have become obsessed with our children’s early success. As my grandmother used to say, "Can't children just be children anymore?"

As a result, many children as young as 3 are now in need of therapy. How do parents determine if their child needs help? The easiest clue is if you notice a change in your child's behavior—for example, a happy child now grows anxious in many situations. Children process information and life events differently than adults. Younger children may feel responsible for their parents’ divorce or the death of a family pet because they were at camp when it happened.

Even if a parent and child have a great relationship, the child may feel uncomfortable, guilty, or too embarrassed to tell the parent what is bothering them. Often, the child is not even aware of what is causing the problem. Speaking to an outside, objective person may enable them to clarify the issue and move on. Parents often feel guilty that their child did not tell them what was going on, because they have such a close relationship with the child. I had a mother say to me once, "But he has always told me everything, why not this?" In this case, the 4-year-old boy thought he was protecting his mother, when in fact the problem was neither a big issue for the mother nor did she need to be protected from that knowledge.

Finding a psychotherapist for your child can be very difficult. In my years as a school psychologist (I resigned after more than two decades to truly advocate for children in my private practice), I would tell parents who asked my advice in finding an "outside" therapist: Meet with the therapist first without your child and decide if you feel that therapist is an approachable person with whom you would want to talk.

Once you select a therapist, you might also want to facilitate contact between the therapist and your child’s school, which can be very beneficial. For example, if the school staff does not know that the child is acting out because his or her parents are going through a difficult divorce, they may see the child's behavior as "defiant" rather than what it really is, an attempt to regain some control over his or her life.

As parents we want to feel that we are giving our children the support and the tools that they need to succeed in life. For a lot of children in today’s stressful world, those tools may include sessions with a therapist. 

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