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Seeking professional mental help for a child by sending them to a psychotherapist can be either one of the best decisions you make in your life, or potentially one of the worst. Understanding the potential uses and downsides of different types of psychological therapies for children can determine the difference between a positive experience with psychotherapy and a negative one.

When is psychotherapy necessary for kids?

Therapy is sort of romanticized throughout the media. If your child was sexually abused, our culture says they definitely need therapy. Getting a divorce? Put the kids in therapy. Witnessed a traumatic or frightening event? Go get some therapy. Psychological therapy is often regarded as an absolute necessity for anyone who’s experienced an unfortunate event in life, and this tendency is made worse because it’s often used as a way to divert liability towards the therapist. Saying “talk to a professional” is legaleeze for “don’t blame us, it’s not our fault.” Yet the intricacies of how to chose a therapist – and even whether or not you should – aren’t nearly so simple.

A qualified therapist who focuses on positive principles of psychology using science-backed approaches can always be helpful in dealing with difficult situations. However, simply experiencing family stress or a negative event doesn’t mean that psychotherapy is necessary. Psychotherapy is meant to repair mental-strategies for coping that have broken down. Yet in the face of adversity, many children cope just fine. Parents should seek professional help when it appears as though a child is struggling to cope with events in their life, but it isn’t a necessary step in every adverse situation they may face.

When therapy ISN’T necessary, and why it can sometimes hurt kids more than help

The reality is that rushing your child off to a therapist after a potentially traumatic event can often be the worst thing you could do, especially when it comes to things that are often the most likely to result in therapy being pushed on a child, such as sexual abuse. We’re going to let you in on a little inside secret: not all therapist help. In fact, some can actually hurt. It’s not out of the realm of normality for therapy to be far more hurtful than the original event. “Of the few psychotherapies that have been tested for safety, too many cause harm to at least some patients,” notes psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University. He adds that “the profession hasn’t shown much interest in the problem of treatments that can be harmful.” (Begley, 6-23-2007)

What few people understand is that “just talking” can be dangerous to their child’s mental health. As we discuss in our other materials, the real driving force behind any type of lasting harm from negative events are the messages, not particular actions. When a child experiences physical abuse, the pain of the experience may be unpleasant. But pain is a part of life. The reason physical abuse is more harmful than, say, the pain of falling off your bike and scraping a knee resides in the social messages a child receives from parental aggression. It’s the messages, not the action, which causes psychological injury which can last into the future. (The reason sexual abuse therapy is so often dangerous is because therapists take events that were often quite benign from the child’s standpoint and then reframe them; surrounding the experience with negative messages and stigmatizing beliefs that reinforce adult prejudices about the subject, thus turning an innocuous experience into a life-altering one.)

Therapists are people who create and push messages upon people for a living. Like wizards with their magic, psychotherapists come in both the good and evil variety. Some use their skills to push positive messages that heal while others recklessly push messages that can cause harm or keep patients dwelling on past injustices. A therapist may help your child recover and be an indispensable asset following a traumatic event. But they can also be a mental rapist, bombarding you or your children with false, negative ideas and victimization mentalities that will do far more harm over time than the event you’re worried about.

This information is designed to help you understand the basics of different types of therapeutic approaches, to ensure that your child is steered towards the helpful kind. We hope you find it useful.

The best types of therapy for children

There are many different types of therapy for parents to choose from, each of which have their own merits in different situations. But by far the best type of therapy for children is cognitive therapy. As Scott Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz state “A 2001 review by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Dianne Chambless in Virginia Polytechnic Institute psychologist Thomas Ollendick revealed that behavior therapy and cognitive-behavior therapy are more effective than many and probably most other treatments for anxiety disorders and for childhood and adolescent depression and behavioral problems. In addition, in a 2010 met-analysis psychologist David Tolin of the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut, found that these same two therapy types produce better results than psychodynamic therapy for anxiety and mood disorders.” (Lilienfeld and Arkowitz, 2012)

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