Why are so many kids in therapy?

A few decades ago it would have been considered madness to send kids off for psychotherapy (or play therapy) unless something was drastically wrong. But people are more psychologically aware now than they were in the past. Parents today realise the value of helping their children to be psychologically healthy. Debbie Kaminer, professor of clinical psychology at UCT, says that parents nowadays are much more concerned about their children’s emotional needs. Kaminer says that in addition to this, there is less stigma associated with psychotherapy than there used to be. Therapy has become more socially acceptable. Children often struggle psychologically. They always have. It is a reality, not a shame. But are children’s lives more stressful today than in years gone by?

Yes and no. Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, author of ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ reminds us that children are far more fortunate to be alive today than they were in years gone by. Children’s rights were non-existent in earlier times and the unlucky ones were subjected to child labour and extreme cruelty, sometimes even leading to their death. Orphaned children were treated with great harshness in work houses. ‘Child abuse’ was not a serious concern for people and there were no public outcries when kids were treated with injustice. Harsh and violent physical punishment was not considered to be wrong. It was unthinkable that in the future, parents and teachers would be forbidden in some countries to spank children – as is the case today. In short, children’s lives have been transformed for the better. Nowadays, many children are lucky enough to have sensitive, conscious parents who are in touch with the stresses and strains of childhood. Our society now is outraged when children are harmed. Generations ago, people viewed children being hurt as an inevitable part of life. Access to mental health services is now seen as every child’s right. From this perspective, we are clearly moving in the right direction.

But today’s world is also rife with family dysfunction. Clinical psychologist, Val Valentini, says that family dysfunction is the primary factor that brings children into psychotherapy. Children are completely reliant on their parents for their mental health. They need their families in order to make them feel secure. The mental health and the physical and emotional presence of caregivers (idieally, the parents) are essential for a child’s psychological well-being. The absence of a parent – because of death, divorce, mental or physical illness or neglect – is likely to bring about some distress in a child. Alcoholism, drug abuse, and other psychological difficulties in the parents are also significant stressors for children nowadays. Nuclear families can be isolated and parents may be more alone and less supported now than they were years ago. Today’s families are often broken up and spread across the country or the globe.

Therapy for children should never happen in isolation. The usefulness of play therapy is limited if the child’s home environment continues to be the real source of the problem. Child therapists are usually in contact with both parents, the school and sometimes extended family members as well. Furthermore, therapy for children should only be attempted in the context of a stable home environment. If a child is being abused or subjected to cruelty, therapy is not going to change that.

Clinical psychologist, Diane Sandler, believes that not enough children are in therapy. There are a great many children who are suffering psychologically and who are not receiving therapy, particularly in low-income and impoverished areas. If your child is distressed, see a child psychotherapist so that you can talk through the problems and decide together on the way forward. Contact Jenny Perkel – jenny@perkel.co.za – if you would like a referral to a therapist in your area.

possible reasons for sending your child to therapy

  • stealing
  • aggressiveness and rudeness
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • school refusal
  • separation anxiety
  • isolation and withdrawal
  • poor school performance
  • low self-esteem/extreme shyness
  • nervousness
  • eating problems (under-eating, over-eating, binge-eating)
  • poor relationship with parent
  • no friends, social problems and difficulties with peers
  • sleep disturbances
  • no energy
  • lack of motivation and enthusiasm
  • irritability
  • depressed mood
  • suicidal thoughts
  • somatic complaints (for example, a sore tummy that is not related to physical condition)
  • temper tantrums