Helping Parents Help Their Children
When parents bring their children to see a therapist, it’s very important that the therapist spend a good deal of time talking to the parents before they meet with the child. After all, it is the parents who are experts about the child who are seeking help from the therapist, who is an expert on helping kids and families with psychological problems! What is often surprising to parents, however, is that that when the therapist wants to learn as much about the parents’ lives as they do the child’s. Why would this be? Consider the following example:
Mrs. Anderson was worried about how her seven year old son was coping with many medical tests he had recently undergone. They were pretty routine tests so the therapist at first wondered what it was that would have affected him. When she saw the little boy in her office by himself, he seemed happy and calm, played with the many toys she kept there and talked freely to her. In fact, he seemed calmer alone than when she saw him with his mother. This raised several questions for the therapist.
When she sat down with Mrs. Anderson to learn more about her life and early experiences, she described how when she was her son’s age, she had spent nearly a year in the hospital for an illness that was very hard to diagnose. She had had many tests and procedures which she recalled as very scary and, to a seven year old girl, mysterious and overwhelming. She never really understood what was happening to her and the doctors were no better at helping her figure it all out. Her parents, kind and concerned, also had little help in knowing how best to help their daughter at the time. It turned out that her son’s very minor procedures triggered very big and traumatic feelings that Mrs. Anderson had never been able to understand.
As parents, we filter our kids’ experiences through our own. If we had run into big problems or trauma when we were kids that remain hard to understand, we tend to see our kids through a lens that sort of distorts how we can see them. As with Mrs. Anderson, she overestimated her son’s anxiety because she saw it colored through her own experience as a child. In fact, she was able to recognize that she always became very anxious when anyone in her family had even minor medical problems.
Parents and therapists are often a team working together to help a child. And sometimes, a child’s problems give a clue to “unfinished business” that the parents may have lingering. By knowing as much as he or she can about everyone in a child’s life, the therapist is best prepared to help both the child AND the family.