There are many exemplary therapists for children and adolescents. I have had such a reputation myself, something I only mention because I still get inquiries whether I can offer therapy to a child or adolescent. However, one thing that is required for any young person in therapy is someone who will consistently be available to them for as long as it takes to acquire the skills and strength that they need. The exigencies of my current professional work make it impossible for me to be sufficiently present in a child or adolescent’s life to be their therapist.
On the other hand, kids, even very troubled kids, often don’t need another therapist. Many children and many youth have been ‘therapized’ up to their eyebrows, and another counselor is not necessarily what they need. Sometimes the problem is the family system within which they live. As paradoxical as it may sound, however, ‘family therapy,’ too, is not always helpful. I wish to be clear that it is often exactly what a family needs, but there are many occasions where people are too angry, too easily provoked, or simply too confused to learn anything productive in family therapy sessions. Sometimes a member of the family, intentionally or unintentionally, sabotages things just when progress might be made. In other cases, the problem facing the family is not really a therapeutic dilemma. The core issue is for the parents to develop a loving powerful presence in their child’s life, with absolutely clear unambiguous rules and consequences, no matter how chaotic, manipulative or angry a response they receive from their child.
It is in situations such as this that I may prove helpful. Rather than meeting the child or youth—the one designated with the problem—I see the parents. I discuss with them how they are parenting their children, and what conflicts they have between them in the process. I then work with them to establish a family with disciplined integrity, where the rules are clear, and the rewards and consequences for positive or negative behavior are as inexorable as gravity.
One of the most damaging thing for parents in situations such as this is the sense of failure they experience when their children reject their best intentions, even their love, making a mockery of their attempts to establish discipline within their home. Remember, too, that discipline is something that children should maintain outside the home, even when their parents are not around. Sometimes the first step is to decide on what is the right way to raise one’s children because a) you’ve never established firm rules, b) have not maintained the rules you have established or c) you are, one way or another, undermining each other as you each attempt to teach and discipline your kids. You must be able to trust your partner so that you come to clear agreements on your values and your discipline, making an absolute resolve to never undermine the other. (Note: this is true in divorced or separated families as well, because despite the alienation you feel from each other, you must still partner to raise your children well).,
Our task together includes learning to act in a way that you are able to both respect yourselves and respect each other. If your child is in difficulty, it may take considerable time for them to do better. They must clearly know clearly what your rules are and what your response will be. They will only begin to comply with these rules if they perceive you, their parents, as people worth respecting.