You are not a rational actor (why I don’t work with children)

Why therapy, part 2

A couple of recent conversations with colleagues have been really impactful. Some aspects of what Seth Godin calls ‘practical empathy’ had escaped me.

I had forgotten that the people I work with and the people I serve don’t know what I know or think what I think. I had taken my expertise for granted much to the detriment of both myself and my clients.

This is part two of a five part series where I’m exploring my personal, practical knowledge and why it enables me to help people build more resilient businesses, relationships, and lives by connecting better with themselves and the world around them. My hope is that from reading these, you might see yourself in some of my stories. Perhaps you’ll find the courage and humility to get help and become more resilient in all aspects of your life.


Healing through connection

Therapy can take a long time. Our deepest wounds get created in our most intimate relationships. It’s only through intimacy that we can heal them. Contact leads to connection which leads to intimacy. When intimacy has hurt, it’s only logical that it takes a while to build the trust required to heal.

And the wounds? A lot of the time, they come unintentionally. Or worse, they come from the good intentions of those closest to us. 

My parents are good people. My father is a retired firefighter. My mom, a retired teacher. They’re good people who did the best they could with me. 

And like every person I’ve ever met, their families growing up were dysfunctional somehow.

You might think that you were raised in a perfect, harmonious house. Even that has its own kind of dysfunction.

Hang with me a bit, this next part might get a bit screwy. Read it a couple of times. If you still don’t get it, send me a message.

Everyone is crazy somehow. Everyone is fucked up. Everyone makes bad choices. Why? We are all dealing with the best information we can at any given time. Even the best information is incomplete, broken and fractured. This is due to the fact that the information we get from the world is all taken in through our senses. And our senses don’t give us all of the data.

My dogs can hear things that I cannot hear. My cats can see things at night that I cannot see. Given that, how is our version of how the world unfolds ‘true’? How can we be certain about anything, really?

As such, we’ve lived our lives making decisions based on incomplete data. What’s worse, we’ve been raised in a system that values rational thought first and foremost. 

Unfortunate reality?

Huge swathes of our brains that are not rational at all develop first and fire more quickly than the rational parts. Our reflexes are impulsive responses to stimulus -  no cognition there. Our emotions colour all of our experiences and intertwine with our reflexive and decision making selves. And our fight, flight, and freeze impulses? They are the children of our emotions and reflexes. These things happen preverbally. 

Neurologists tell us that our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for what little rational thought we possess, isn't even developed until we are around the age of twenty five. It’s irrational to expect children to be rational.

My parents' generation? They were led to believe that being emotional was a problem. They believed they were rational actors. And they expect this of their children

I encounter parents these days who think the same thing.

I’m rational. I’m fully awake. I’m fine. Us parents? We’re not crazy.

They don’t know what they don’t know. They can’t see themselves. When their kids struggle? They ship them off to a therapist to ‘fix them’. The kids get a diagnosis and get to talk about having anxiety.

The children become what is known as the designated patient.

Rather than addressing economic uncertainty, existential doubts, or a tumultuous relationship, a child’s ‘anxiety’ becomes the external problem for the family to label, vilify, and other.

Anxiety is not something that you have. Anxiety is an experience. It is a state of being. And states of being are impermanent.

Much of the time, anxious children are not ill. They don’t need a diagnosis. They need parents to help them feel secure. 

This is why when a parent comes to me with concerns about their children's anxiety, I propose I work with the parent themselves. 

Because the children's struggles are usually adaptations to their environment, and they don't have the power to change their situations,  I don’t work with children. To me they are simply a sign that something else is wrong with their family.

I could be ‘that kind adult’ in their life - the one who sees them and helps them through their family life.

And?

I’d rather concentrate on helping parents.

I’m a parent. I get it. Life is really difficult. Our schools and jobs are constantly holding us accountable. Accountability is done to you. Responsibility is something we choose. It's easier to get someone else to be responsible for the mental health of our children. It's really difficult to admit that we don't know what to do and make the choice to learn about ourselves in order to help our children.

In order to help children, parents need to heal their own wounds caused by their early intimate relationships. In therapy this is done by becoming more aware of how we come into and resist contact, connection and intimacy within the therapeutic encounter. Typically this involves going through painful territory. In order to do this, you need to learn to trust yourself, the therapist and the process. All of this takes time. 

In therapy, we develop the ability to experience our uncomfortable, irrational impulses in order to develop rational tools to help us respond rather than react. This is the heart of resilience. Children are not developmentally ready to do this. It’s the parents job to get these tools in order to coach them through. 

One final note: there are circumstances where a child psychologist can be helpful.

And? I urge people to dig deep before labeling familial problems and parenting issues as an indication that a child is somehow broken and needs to be fixed.

A therapist will not help you make your child compliant to your will not see the world how you want them to.