If your child has a problem like an eating disorder, substance abuse, or other dangerous behavioral or emotional issues, a lot of people will suggest that you, the parent, get therapy.
This can be really annoying. After all, aren’t they the one with the problem? Your only problem is that your kid is a nightmare! Otherwise, everything’s fine! Sound familiar?
We live in family ecosystems
Here’s the thing: our kids don’t operate independently. Societal messages tell us that we are supposed to be independent and emotionally self-contained. But human beings are actually completely driven by social groups, and especially nuclear family groups. In fact, almost nothing is more important to our development than our parents.
So when something goes wrong with a child, it’s very unlikely that it went wrong in a vacuum or independent of the parents and family system. Almost all emotional disruptions in our kids, including eating disorders, substance abuse, shoplifting, self-harm, and other dangerous behaviors are rooted somehow in the family system.
This doesn’t come from a place of blame. It comes from a place of empowerment. You want your child to get better. And, guess what? You can help! A lot!
But you can only help if you reflect on yourself and the family dynamic in which you live. And that’s exactly what therapy can help with.
The conditions to thrive
Think of a plant. You put a plant in your garden and it fails to thrive. It’s your prerogative to blame the plant, but then you’re missing the fact that the plant lives in your garden. You can keep blaming the plant and ignore the conditions, but your plants will keep failing to thrive. This is because plants are not self-contained. They rely on the right water, sunlight, and soil conditions. Without those elements, the plant will struggle.
Emotional caregiving is the equivalent of water, sunlight, and soil conditions for humans. Most of us have not been taught how to optimize emotional caregiving conditions for our kids. But we can learn, and therapy is often the fastest way to do so.
Reasons you need therapy if your child has a problem
You may be sick and tired of having people suggest that you get therapy. It may make you very angry that these so-called experts keep telling you that you need it. I get it. Most people don’t understand the value of therapy because they haven’t encountered it personally. But therapy can be truly transformative for families that are struggling with dangerous behaviors.
Here are the four main reasons parents who have kids who are struggling with dangerous behaviors need therapy:
1. You need support
Having a child who is struggling is really hard. Since we live in an individualistic society, most parents feel isolated and ashamed when something goes wrong at home. A therapist can provide you with compassionate support during this difficult time.
A therapist will also help you find ways to open up to your friends and family members in a way that is supportive for you and respectful for your child. You don’t need to live in silence and pain. You deserve to reach out and get community support during this difficult time.
2. You need to understand what therapy is (and what it isn’t)
Some people have really strong feelings against therapy, and if that’s the case for you, you should look closely at that. If you are thinking, “well, my kid has a problem and now they need therapy and that’s kind of stupid,” ask yourself how much therapy can possibly help your child if they know that you think therapy is stupid, dangerous, or only for people who are weak or broken.
I promise you that if you think that, they know it. And their therapy will be negatively impacted by your beliefs. So one reason to get therapy is to understand what therapy really is and what it isn’t. And to signal to your child that you believe therapy is good and healthy.
3. You need to reflect on your family dynamic
Our children are finely attuned to our needs as parents and their role in the family. This attunement can lead to disordered behavior because it sometimes requires a child to adjust who they are or how they behave in order to meet the needs of the family dynamic.
A family dynamic that remains the same can’t accommodate the recovered, healthy child. This frequently leads to relapse and ongoing problems. A trained therapist can help you notice the ways in which your child’s dangerous behaviors are linked to your family dynamic. Once you can see the purpose behind the behavior, you can adjust and accommodate your healed child.
4. You have the greatest potential for “fixing” your child
Nobody – not a therapist, not a doctor, and not medicine, will have as significant impact on your child’s health as your behavior and beliefs about your child. This is daunting but also empowering. You have the opportunity to approach your child’s disorder in a new, different way. You can make a huge impact on your child’s recovery.
Parents who understand that maladaptive behaviors arise in the context of the family system are able to support a child’s complete recovery. Recovery doesn’t give you back a child you had previously. It gives you a fuller, more present, and more assertive person than you had before. Your consistent and compassionate understanding of your child’s healing process will make the transition to full recovery easier for everyone.
Common assumptions about therapy
Most parents have a strong aversion to therapy. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that therapy is currently the best response we have available for emotional disorders. That means that even if you think it’s stupid, you should probably take some time to learn more about it and consider how it might help you and your family.
Here are the top five incorrect assumptions people make about therapy:
1. I don’t need therapy because I’m not the one with a problem
It can be hard to get on board with therapy for yourself if your perception is that you don’t have a problem. But you do. Your child is having a problem, and that’s a problem for you. Our kids are finely attuned to our needs and wants as their parents, and their dangerous behaviors are often a mirror into our parenting styles. This may feel threatening, but it’s actually the gateway to healing. A parent’s change can transform not only the child who is openly struggling, but the entire family and beyond.
2. I am who I am – therapy isn’t going to change me
It’s true that you are a fully-formed adult human. But the beautiful thing that we’ve learned with neuroscience is the concept of neuroplasticity. That is: the human brain continues to be able to grow, change, and adapt throughout our lives. Just because you have established your interpersonal style and behaviors doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things and make new neural connections. You have tremendous capacity to grow and learn. And therapy can help you re-wire your neurological system so that parenting actually gets easier and less stressful! Therapy will change your life if you commit to the process of change.
3. A therapist is like a friend you pay to listen to you
No. A therapist is not your friend. A therapist is a trained professional who is there to help you untangle implicit (subconscious) assumptions and make discoveries that will improve your parenting behavior. Your friends are wonderful – they are typically there to support you and cheer you on no matter what. But a therapist has been taught to recognize and gently challenge biases and patterns that interfere with your ability to connect with your child. You will never be blamed or shamed, but you will begin to see ways in which you can behave differently.
4. A therapist tells you what to do
No. Therapists are not there to tell you what to do. Your friends, family, and a coach can all do that (with mixed results). A therapist is there to help you tap into your best self and figure out for yourself what you should do. A therapist knows how to ask the right questions and provide you with safe space in which to reflect on your parenting, yourself, and your relationships. In this safe space and with gentle guidance, you will make discoveries on your own. You are already a great parent who loves your child. You just need a therapist who can help you dig deep to find out how you can make a positive impact on your child’s recovery.
5. A therapist will fix your child
No. A therapist cannot fix your child. In fact, your child does not need to be “fixed.” Your child is not a broken dishwasher, they are a complex human being with a rich and detailed personal history and emotional landscape. When a child uses dangerous behaviors like an eating disorder, substance abuse, shoplifting, self-harm, and more, they are signaling that they need emotional support and healing. Something is off. But that doesn’t mean they are broken. A therapist is there to guide them to find their true selves and get their emotional needs met without using dangerous behaviors. True recovery is a return to self, often a larger, more assertive and complex self than the one that used dangerous behaviors to numb emotional needs.
Does this mean my child doesn’t need treatment if I get therapy?
No. Your child still needs treatment and support for what they are going through. But parents who get therapy can make a huge impact.
If your child sees a therapist for two sessions per week, they still have about 124 waking hours when they are not seeing a therapist. You, on the other hand, are likely interacting with your child at least one hour per day. You can make a big difference if you use that hour to connect deeply and heal any relational wounds that are impacting recovery.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.