I see you over there, avoiding playdates, avoiding Facebook (or staying up late reading Facebook like a punishment, because you think you deserve to feel bad about yourself). I see you at the grocery store with the tantruming 3-year old, trying not to cry or scream or completely lose it yourself. I see you at the high school, hurrying by to meet with the guidance counselor yet again. I know that you dread family gatherings where people will give you advice you didn’t ask for and don’t need.
I know your baby’s birth didn’t go the way you hoped and you think it’s your fault.
I know your child will only eat buttered noodles (straight, not curly) and you think it’s your fault.
I know the teacher keeps calling you for conferences and you think it’s your fault.
I know your teenager is depressed and you think it’s your fault.
You know what? It’s not your fault.
I don’t want you to beat up on yourself anymore.
So much of this parenting thing is out of control, which is one of the scariest things ever. That’s why we give ourselves (and each other) such a hard time over it. It feels safer to say, “This is a direct result of that!” instead of acknowledging that in so many ways kids are exactly who they are no matter what we try to do about it.
One of us follows the book to a T and our 6-month old sleeps through the night. One of us follow that same book the same way and yet we’re going on a year without more than two unbroken hours of sleep a night.
I’ve got a secret for you. Are you ready? This insight comes from decades of working with other people’s kids and reading about child development and having my own kids. It’s hard won wisdom and I’m going to share it with you:
Some children really are easier than others.
Some go to sleep more easily and eat a wider variety of foods. Some handle their emotions better. Some are naturally neat and clean and sweet and even-tempered.
Some parents just get lucky.
Then there’s this other thing, which is that life happens. Bad things happen and hard things happen and sad things happen and parents lose their way sometimes. We all lose our way sometimes.
There’s not a parent alive who hasn’t made mistakes but that’s not the same thing as being a bad mom. Making mistakes doesn’t mean that this is all your fault. Making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job.
You know the best way to handle mistakes? Try again. Get help if you need it and try again. Try it differently. Try it with more support. Try it with better information or better friends or better tools. And you know what’ll be great about that? Your kids will learn that mistakes are inevitable but we can do something about it. They’ll learn that taking responsibility is not the same thing as succumbing to blame and shame.
When we can do that, that’s called resiliency. Really when it comes right down to it the best thing we can do for any of our kids is teach them how to be resilient, teach them to survive the hard stuff, even when the hard stuff is us.
So you’ve decided your child needs counseling. How do you explain to them what counseling is and why they’re going?
1. Tell them that a counselor is a person who helps people who are feeling stuck.
Many children (and adults) who are in therapy believe that they — their inherent selves — are problematic. Lots of children (and adults) have already been through the wringer by the time they come see me and their self-esteem is suffering for it. They may be feeling like they are root of all of their family’s problems. They may think that the people who love them really hate them. They may believe that they are in someway defective and that’s why they’ve got to come and see me. What I emphasize is that counselors help people who are feeling stuck. If your child is anxious you can say, “A counselor helps kids who are feeling stuck in their worrying.” If your teen is depressed you can say, “We’re seeing a counselor who helps people who are feeling stuck in their depression.” If your middle grade child is raging you can say, “The counselor will be able to help us figure out how to help you get better at managing your anger.” After all, your child is NOT her worrying or her depression or her challenging behavior. Your child is a whole, complicated person who is struggling. Counselors help with the struggle; they help people get unstuck from the struggle.
2. Let them know that the counselor will help everyone in the family do a better job with each other.
If I’m working with a child then I’m also working with her parents. As I said, sometimes the children who see me think they are at the root of all of their family’s problems. Kids are naturally self-centered (it’s a developmentally appropriate part of growing up) and so the divorce, the fighting, the tension — they think it all comes back to them. And if it is their behavior driving the decision to get counseling then they’re partially right. But kids don’t exist in a vacuum and if a child is struggling then the parents surely are, too. Counseling is meant to help everybody, which means helping the child be her best self and helping the parent be his best parenting self, too.
3. Explain that they will get to set the pace.
Kids who come to see me don’t always want to talk to me. That’s fine. Being guarded with a new person — particularly a new person who’s been enlisted to help the child over a sensitive topic — is appropriate. We can play Uno, we can play with the kinetic sand, I can watch the child build block towers or create art or otherwise orient herself to our relationship. I do not make children talk to me and even most reluctant teens will come around if we have time and space to learn how to work together. (Note: Once we’ve established rapport I will push when pushing makes sense but at the beginning we take it slow.)
4. Don’t insinuate that therapy is a punishment.
If children get the idea that seeing a counselor is one step away from being sent to juvenile detention it makes it awfully hard to build rapport. It goes back to #1 up there; if people believe that only screwed up people go to counseling then the threat of counseling might get seen as a weapon. “If you don’t get it together I’m taking you to a therapist to get your head on straight!” Or to other people, “He’s gotten so bad that we’ve had to start seeing a counselor!” Ugh. Not a great message. Even if you’re feeling discouraged and even if you feel like counseling is your last ditch effort, please remember that coming to therapy is a really smart and positive move.
5. It’s OK to acknowledge the problems that got you there.
No, you don’t want to make your child feel like the problem. No, you don’t want to put the whole burden of change on her either. But you can be frank about why you’re going. Sometimes parents will say, “Is it all right to talk about his tantrums here? In front of him?” Yes, it is. After all, he’s the one having them and he knows they’re an issue, trust me. There are some topics that aren’t for tender ears (or at least aren’t until we’ve made them age appropriate) but getting the problem out into the open without judgment and in the spirit of moving forward is a good thing.
If you’re still not quite sure how to talk to your child about it, bring it up with the therapist you’ve chosen to work with your child.
We show people we love them by being there for them when they need us. We show up for big events. We drop off casseroles for sad ones. We meet them for coffee and listen. We can also show them that we love them by being vulnerable enough to let them do the same for us.
Many of us have grown up believing that we should do unto others but we don’t always get the message that we should also let them do unto us. Receiving help is hard. Asking for it is even harder. To be helped is to give up power. To be the one who is needy means we are the one who can be hurt.
We all know how good it can feel to be the one who is offering a hand to someone who needs it. To get to be that person — the helping person — is a privilege. That’s why in Judaism, accepting help is a mitzvah — a good deed with the ability to heal the world.
Perhaps then being vulnerable with others is one of the greatest acts of love we can offer.