Raising Neurotic Wrecks

A Review of Abigail Shrier’s Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up

Currently at the top of Amazon’s bestseller booklist, Abigail Shrier’s Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up tackles one of today’s most pressing issues:

[W]ith unprecedented help from mental health experts, we have raised the loneliest, most anxious, depressed, pessimistic, helpless, and fearful generation on record….How did kids raised so gently come to believe that they had experienced debilitating childhood trauma? How did kids who received far more psychotherapy than any previous generation plunge into a bottomless well of despair? (xvii) 

This issue affects everyone: parents, teachers, pastors, coaches, and more. Today’s children are tomorrow’s future. Despite the weighty topic, Bad Therapy is easily readable, full of humor and hope, including clever chapter titles like “Trauma Kings” and “Spare the Rod, Drug the Child.” Bad Therapy is also secular validation of the natural order God created for parents and children and is an encouragement to Christian parents.

Shrier outlines the problem: therapy and therapeutic concepts (“mental health”) are ubiquitous today and parents are quick to find therapeutic solutions for everything, including medicating kids with psychotropic drugs and stimulants to treat normal childhood behaviors. Any pain or disappointment is equated with trauma and, in our risk-averse society, must be avoided at all costs, or treated as a problem to be solved with therapy and drugs. This ideology is even common among Christian parents, who readily rely on therapy to address perceived behavioral issues (aka sin) or on medication for normal childhood characteristics like being wiggly or distracted.

Shrier argues that therapy can often introduce iatrogenesis (i.e. treatment itself creates harm). Therapeutic interventions also undermine parental authority, fracturing countless family relationships, and create anxious, needy children who grow to adulthood unable to cope with basic life problems (40). Shrier recounts interviews with psychologists, therapists, school counselors, parents and children, and provides academic studies, school survey results, and more for overwhelming evidentiary support. And the evidence is powerful. Shrier surmises that individual therapy has very little proven benefit for kids, and rather sows self-doubt among parents and an over-reliance on “experts.” Bad Therapy is the slap in the face needed to wake parents up so that they will course correct.

Not surprisingly, therapists tend to think otherwise. Even the most altruistic therapist has bills to pay and needs a steady stream of income:

No industry refuses the prospect of exponential growth, and mental health experts are no exception. By feeding normal kids with normal problems into an unending pipeline, the mental health industry is minting patients faster than it can cure them (xviii).

A therapist, for many, has come to replace traditional friendships and wisdom from older family members or friends (9). Although not mentioned by Shrier, therapy has even replaced traditional pastoral care and advice. Marriage problems? Take it to the therapist, not the pastor or elders. Rebellious or difficult children? A behavioral therapist can help; medication will fix the kid with ADHD. What could the pastor know about a child with sensory processing disorder?

Contrary to the popular wisdom of the day, which encourages eternal introspection and navel gazing, Shrier discusses the different types of mindsets that enable success in life.

There are at least two we can adopt: ‘action orientation’ and ‘state orientation.’ Adopting an action orientation means focusing on the task ahead with no thought to your current emotional or physical state. A state orientation means you’re thinking principally about yourself: how prepared you feel in that moment, the worry you feel over a text left unanswered, the light prickling at the back of your throat, that crick blossoming in your neck. Adopting an action orientation, it turns out, makes it much more likely that you accomplish the task (46-47).

In short, therapy is not necessary, but a stiff upper lip and a can-do attitude are effective at getting one’s life in order. Christians especially should recognize that life is hard (anyone who says differently is selling something, says Westley in The Princess Bride) and that the solution isn’t to avoid difficulties or be quick to medicate for troubles, but rather to learn how to persevere or repent of sinful behavior.

Isn’t therapy good for kids who have gone through trauma: abuse, abandonment by parents, divorce, etc.? Shrier says:

There is no good reason to believe that most kids are traumatized. The best research indicates the opposite: even among victims of heartbreaking circumstances, resilience is the norm. Disturbing events are best understood as ‘potentially traumatic,’ meaning they may leave no lasting psychological imprint at all, and certainly not necessarily a negative one (105).

Unfortunately, the so-called experts often conflate hardship (poverty, death of a parent, a major move) and actual physical or emotional abuse, and thereby fail to serve the students they claim to help. Psychologist and writer Rob Henderson (who, despite spending most of his childhood in the foster care system, graduated with an Ivy League Ph.D.) says, “What [children who have suffered the most abject circumstances] need is also the thing so few adults in their lives are willing to supply: high expectations” (105). This is a theme repeated throughout the book: kids don’t need to be coddled; they need to have the freedom to fail, make mistakes, or do hard things and then to learn from their experiences. Hard times, difficult experiences, and risk, all tend to make people more resilient. We live in a risk-averse society, and the consequences are anxious children and young adults who need mommy to run interference with their college professors.

What about severe depression? Can therapy help there? No. Under the subtitle Hell is Thinking About Yourself, Jordan Peterson, the acclaimed psychologist is quoted as saying, “Insofar as you’re thinking about yourself, you’re depressed and anxious…There’s no difference between thinking about yourself and being depressed and anxious. They are the same thing,” (152). This is a wonderful example of God’s common grace and natural revelation at work: the Biblical call to love others and self-denial can actually be an aid against depression. When one’s eyes are turned from personal troubles and focused on the Heavenly Father (who teaches his children not to be anxious but to trust in him) and one’s thoughts turned to those in need nearby, personal troubles, worries, and depression tend to diminish or vanish altogether. If a man or woman is busy thinking of the things of God and how to serve others, he or she has less time to wallow in his or her own problems, which will inevitably shrink or disappear altogether in the light of self-denial.

One of the most damning issues Shrier tackles is the bad therapy prevalent in public schools, describing the all-pervasive reach in the public system through social-emotional learning (SEL): therapists and school counselors, paraprofessionals shadowing school children, over-medication for childhood wiggles, and mental health surveys. Typically, a school psychologist provides individual therapy sessions to students and “runs interference with kids’ teachers on kids’ behalf” (73). Although this sounds beneficial, in-school counseling leads to complex ethical problems. The school psychologist who has likely heard about the student’s deepest secrets or troubles also knows all the student’s peers, teachers, friends, and coaches and therefore has undue influence over the student and his life, often encouraging children to “try on a variant gender identity” or a name change without notifying parents (73-75). Shrier warns that in many states, schools are not required to notify parents if the child has been to the counselor. Parents must be proactive in finding out what is exactly going on at school. Although not all counselors are bad, much of a school counselor’s influence is at best meddlesome and, in the worst cases, malicious.

SEL is bad therapy’s cousin and it assumes every kid is broken and needs to be fixed, with an emphasis on how the child is feeling, not factual evidence. SEL tends to assume that emotional regulation, friendship, and dealing with disappointment can be learned from a lecture (85), and presumes that it is the school’s responsibility to teach children these social values. These teachers have no life-long responsibility for the well-being and upbringing of the child, no skin in the game, and undermine natural parental authority. This can lead to the breakdown of the parent-child relationship, thereby leaving a young child or teenager vulnerable and susceptible to anyone who may take advantage of the situation. SEL, despite its benign-sounding name, in practice encourages children to be anxious, neurotic wrecks.

The chapters The Road Paved by Gentle Parenting and Spare the Rod, Drug the Child address two sides of the same coin: the rise of “gentle parenting” and endless disorders: ADHD, sensory processing issues, anger management issues, etc. Shrier addresses the shift in parenting philosophies from the mid-20th century to the early 1980s with the acceptability of punishing children, leaving kids home alone, or (shockingly) expecting kids to do their homework, to today’s gentle parents who use soft voices and constantly adjust their life to how a child feels about something, catering to a toddler’s every whim and even allowing a child to regularly hit his parents or others with impunity.

All parents became amateur shrinks, and every shrink—even a childless one—was a parenting expert. Parents began to sound less like parents—in the traditional, American vein—and more like therapists. “Sammy, I see that you’re feeling frustrated. Is there a way you could express your frustration without biting your sister?” (166-167)

This way of parenting cedes too much authority to the child, relies on the unstable feelings of a child, and assumes parents are idiots and couldn’t possibly know what’s best without consulting their three-year-old or their therapist. Check any parenting chat group and you will see countless examples of children running the show and both they and their parents are completely miserable. Instead of reinstituting parental authority and guidance, parents rely on medication to dope their children into passive behavior. This is a short-term “gain”, but a long-term loss. Christians especially should be very slow to introduce medication to treat troubling behaviors. We know that our children are born in sin and that foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. God gave Christian parents the responsibility and the authority to train and discipline their children. By God’s grace that training and discipline will produce good fruit.

In her “final session” conclusion, Shrier encourages parents to allow their children to mature by getting out of the way of their natural development:

They thrive with independence, a certain level of responsibility and autonomy and, yes, failure. They never learn to do for themselves if we do everything for them….Somewhere along the line, we forgot all this. We abjured authority and lost all perspective. Any evidence of a mental health “symptom” became a command that we immediately hand the kid over to an expert (216, 217).

Kids need structure, especially when young, and are often overwhelmed with too many choices. It’s ok for parents to dictate when snack time is, what a child will eat for dinner, and (gasp) even what a child will wear on any given day. As the child matures in this kind of environment, with clear guardrails and loving guidance, he or she will grow in resilience and the capability to make good personal decisions.

In times past, parents relied on common sense and family tradition to guide them as they raised their children. Christian parents also used Biblical wisdom to undergird common sense and tradition. Modern psychology has successfully dismantled all of that and filled the void with psychobabble and harmful therapeutic solutions. Sadly, Christian parents too have “been swimming in therapeutic concepts so long [they] no longer note the presence of the water,” (19). Christian parents are quick to resort to therapy to solve behavioral (sin) issues, abdicating authority to the therapist. Popular Christian parenting authors create a false dichotomy between law and gospel by teaching that high expectations will lead our children into rebellion, legalism, or apostasy. This is the triumph of the therapeutic, teaching that what God requires of his children will in fact harm their fragile, anxiety-filled lives.

Rather, Christian parents can stand on the word of God and believe his promises. Joel Beeke, in his Parenting by God’s Promises, encourages parents to have confidence in God’s ways of shepherding our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. His wife, Mary Beeke authored Teach Them to Work, a book stressing the importance of training children to have a positive work ethic, which would fit in well with Shrier’s conclusions in Bad Therapy about structure and high expectations being beneficial for children. Christian parents also have a huge resource in the book of Proverbs, which begins with this timeless parental advice: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (Proverbs 1:8-9, ESV). Strong Christian child-rearing guidance is increasingly a lost skill, but there is hope for Christian parents. We should reject the world’s therapy-driven solutions that take no account of our sin nature and reduce sinful behavior to amoral medical problems (anxiety, sensitivities, ADHD, etc). 

Bad Therapy should shake parents out of the world’s therapeutic parenting ideology. Then, of course, Christians will have to replace the worldly wisdom Shrier debunks with sound Biblical teaching. God is gracious and when we walk by faith and parent according to God’s design, we can be confident that we will raise godly children capable of meeting life’s challenges.

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Martha Dunson

Martha Dunson is a wife and homeschooling mom to four boys. When not taxiing, cleaning, or cooking, she's fighting the Texas climate to create a backyard English country garden.

7 thoughts on “Raising Neurotic Wrecks

  1. The above is a Christian layman’s negative view of therapy. Dunson broad brushes the flaws in today’s approaches to therapy in order to replace it with a, not the, biblical model. Of course, where does that leave parents and children who are unbelievers? And why are there quite a number of mentally healthy unbelievers while there is a disturbing number of mentally unhealthy believers? We see plenty of examples of the latter case in those who have replaced science with conspiracy theories and have loyally, rather than reluctantly, supported people like Donald Trump and have even, at times, desired to have a leader like Vlad Putin?

    What is the biggest fault in today’s practice of therapy? It simply is when the therapist makes the client’s personal happiness the canon for what is good for them. Therapists have some wonderful tools for understanding maladaptive thinking patterns and the effects that one’s past can have on one. One of the most common maladaptive and unhealthy thinking patterns consist of the various forms of all-or-nothing thinking that exist. Though a belief in absolutes will necessitate some all-or-nothing thinking, there is still too much all-or-nothing thinking involved in how people view reality. In fact, the overeagerness to diagnose and medically treat ADHD can be traced to such thinking amongst other causes.

    Perhaps two factors that have made people, especially young people, more anxious today than before is that we’ve been continually increasing the intensity of a consumer mindset that comes from our consumer society and the fact that there are more things to worry about in the world than before.

    The problem with having a stronger and stronger consumer mindset is that it teaches people to get their sense of significance in what they consume and how they consume it. And when one adds to that an all-or-nothing approach, not only does one become overly materialistic, personal relationships become less and less important as one sees others as objects whose purpose is to provide one with things to consume. My generation was perhaps the first generation to be raised in a consumer society. The generation before us tended to compensate what they didn’t have during the Great Depression with buying us things. That is one of the ways by which they proved their love for us. And as each generation after us has started raising their children, they have double-downed on how their parents proved their love for them by buying their own children more material things.

    We also see with each generation of parents a doubling-down on protecting their children from pain and unpleasantness. As they employ different forms of all-or-nothing thinking, parents become unable to distinguish the pain and unpleasantness that comes with normal living from the pain and unpleasantness that should be avoided if possible. Here, as with how consumer society has taught parents to overindulge their children with material goods, parents are proving their love for their kids by not just protecting them, but by overprotecting them.

    Why am I focusing on parents instead of therapists here? As someone who has both worked as a social worker and taught kids in college for close to 20 years as well as having friends who are raising their kids today, I have been observing much of what I read in the above article in parents more than in therapists. Each generation of parents have been becoming increasingly unable to draw the line on how much material goods they give to their children and how protective they are of their children. In fact, some parents have reduced childrearing to giving their kids material goods and protecting them. And how parents are raising their kids has more influence on other sources of influence on children such as on the schools, sports teams, and peers.

    Yes, today’s approach to therapy needs some adjusting, though it is not in as sad a condition that the above article claims it to be. Today’s parenting needs even more fixing than today’s approach to therapy. And much of the reason that both groups need to change is because we are all losing our ability to make distinctions. And that is because of some of the kinds of thinking we employ.

      1. Ryan,
        So what did you think of the article? Do you think that the writer was correct about therapists? Do you see what she said about therapists in how many parent their children today? Do you care about the issues raised here?

        1. Do I care about the issues raised in the article? Yes.
          I just don’t care to discuss them with you, and as always, I hope no one else does either. Waste of time.

          1. Ryan,
            So I am a waste of time and you aren’t? Are you better than me that you want people to discuss the issues with you but not with me?

            And yet, rather than show me the error of my ways, you prefer to be insulting or, in your words, to ‘destroy’ me. Again, are you better than me?

  2. Kook Day needs to kick rocks.

    John Rosemond has been saying this stuff for decades. I’m not a fan of Beeke, but Rosemond is great.

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