I have always found it very interesting how openly parents will talk about their children needing extra support for their learning, music, or sport. Whether they need a Maths or English tutor, extra music lessons, or one to one tennis coaching. Yet when it comes to their children’s emotional health, parents either talk about it in hushed voices to their closest friends, or they keep it within the family, like a dark secret. I am fortunate enough to work with families from all over the world and I can honestly say this issue seems to be much more prevalent in the UK, where the idea that your children’s emotional wellbeing in some way reflects your parenting and therefore you as a person, is most engrained.
Despite royal patronage mental health is still seen as either something which happens to other people’s children, or worst still, is something which we have created societally, as a result of becoming too ‘soft’ in our parenting, and children simply need to toughen up. Whilst I am all for promoting resilience in our children, the reality is our children are growing up in a very different landscape to our own childhood’s, and making light of their genuine struggles is what continues to exacerbate a growing mental health crisis now impacting 1 in 4 children’s lives, and a support system totally unable to cope with demand.
Allow me to dispel the 5 common misconceptions about children who see a therapist and their parents, so we can we have a more open and honest dialogue with our children, other parents, and societally about mental health and the important role therapists play in supporting families:
1. Children who see a therapist are simply too weak to resolve their own issues
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The stark reality is these children and their parents have faced their struggles head on and come to the realisation they don’t have all the resources within them to overcome it. Owning an issue doesn’t always mean you have all the skills you need to ‘fix’ it. We can easily identify we’re not 100% physically fit, but we wouldn’t be able to precisely pinpoint where the issue was and how to best regain our physical fitness until we’d seen a specialist and mental health is no different. You wouldn’t call someone weak for visiting their GP, so why would you think they were weak for seeing a mental health specialist.
2. You must have a diagnosed mental health issue
Contrary to popular belief most of the children I work with have no mental health diagnosis; they and their parents simply recognise the need for help and support now, to avoid issues later. Wanting to eat healthily doesn’t necessarily mean you are overweight, have heart disease, or high cholesterol; you just recognise by adopting some simple strategies now, you can avoid a whole host of problems later.
3. The parents have been too ‘soft’
This is all fuelled by societal pressure to be seen as having a perfect family and if you don’t, then you have somehow failed as a parent. Lots of factors are implicated in children’s mental health and emotional regulation; parenting is just one, amongst genetics, environment, friends, past experiences, learnt expectations, nutrition, brain development, hormone levels and so on. Parents do play a vital role but mental health challenges strike every single family; be they rich, famous, highly educated or living in more modest means, no one is immune from it.
4. You don’t have a good family or friendship network to talk to
Children who see a therapist often have an incredibly loving and extensive support network. Yet it’s usually our loved ones who we find it most difficult to take advice and support from. Hence why a therapist can be so useful. How many times have your children taken the exact same advice you gave them from one of their friends? All the time if they’re a teenager; who struggle to believe their parents were ever their age once, with similar struggles with identity, fitting in, and finding their place in the world.
5. Therapy is all about lying on a couch and a therapist taking notes
Well this is most definitely not how I work with children. I use the floor, rather than the couch, and activities and tools, rather than a notebook and pen. This outdated misconception of a therapist asking abstract questions using word associations and early childhood in order to diagnose an obscure disorder is just not how therapists work with children these days. It’s all play-based, practical tools, role-play and fun.
So next time you find out a friend’s child is having support from a therapist celebrate the bravery of both the child and the family for addressing the issues head-on. They should be applauded as parents and not judged.