Q. What are some of the signs that a child needs therapy?
I separated from my husband two years ago and am now divorced from him and the children understand the logistics of it and why it was so necessary, but my parents keep telling me that they need therapy. I don’t think I need it however, but I’m juggling so many balls at this moment that I may not be able to see the truth for myself.
A. At some point, we all need a little psychotherapy. The road of life is peppered with potholes and when we fall into one of them, we need some help — and sometimes a lot of help — to get out of the mess that we’ve made for ourselves.
Our stumbles may be brought on by something as obvious as a separation, a divorce or a death, but they can also occur if someone in the family develops a serious illness or an addiction; if the main breadwinner loses his job; if the parents bring home a new baby or if the family simply moves across town. Although a move isn’t supposed to be all that difficult, it can devastate a child who is too young to visit his best friend and too shy to make a new one.
Your children may not need therapy if they still get along with each other and if they’ve hung on to their old friends, but most divorces usually cause trouble for the children and sometimes quite a lot of it.
Neither you nor your children may realize that you need help, however, or that you should get it now rather than later. Another divorce — or another death or another move — 20 years from now could make the pain feel twice as great next time.
You’ll know that your children need therapy if he or she becomes withdrawn, angry, anxious or depressed or your quiet child turns giddy, distracted or acts in ways that he has never acted before because odd behavior is often a reaction to a trauma. Children, you see, are as authentic as apple pie. When all is right with their world — or even fairly right — they prefer to be true to themselves and when it’s not, they fall apart.
You’ll also know that your children need therapy if they have gotten too critical of their friends and their sibs, which would tell you that they don’t think too well of themselves. If your children are teenagers, you might decide that they need therapy because their friends are the litmus test of adolescence. The worse a child thinks of himself, the worse his friends will be. This could get them into real trouble since teenagers like to imitate their friends whenever they can.
And while you’re considering therapy for your children, please consider it for yourself, too. You’ve been holding the family together while your marriage fell apart and that had to have been a huge stress as well as an exhausting effort. Now that it’s over, wouldn’t you rather spend six to 12 months sorting out your life with a therapist than take a lifetime to do it alone? Think of it as a shortcut to happiness as well as an investment in your future.
Even if you can’t find a good psychotherapist, the trouble you take to get your children to these sessions and the money you spend to pay for them will subliminally let them know how much you love them and how much you want to protect them from the pain of your divorce.
Getting therapy is important, but getting the right kind of therapy is even more important.
If your children are in pre-K or kindergarten, they’ll probably respond best to music therapy, art therapy or play therapy, which will let them express themselves indirectly, but if they are older, they could try cognitive therapy or you could see a family therapist with them. Here you can examine the past together, throw away the bad stuff and plan some brighter tomorrows.
There are a plethora of books to help you choose the kind of psychotherapy you need, but Dr. Stephen V. Faraone, the noted psychologist and Harvard professor, gives some of the best jargon-free advice you can find in “Straight Talk about Your Child’s Mental Health” (Guilford; $17). You should find it really helpful.
Questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.