Finding a therapist who understands my child-raising practices

Hi Dr. Laura,
I am in need of a therapist. How do I go about finding one with similar beliefs/ideas as yours? You have helped me a great deal with my parenting and I would like my therapist to be on the same page (my current one is not). Any help would be greatly appreciated! Thanks! -- Laura

Laura,
I hear this question a lot from parents. Unfortunately, therapists who treat adults usually have little or no ongoing education in child development, so they aren't necessarily up to date on brain development (for instance, why letting kids cry without us there holding them is a bad idea), attachment, etc. In fact, the training I had while getting my PhD was pretty old-fashioned regarding child development, and that was at an Ivy League school only twenty years ago. So I would say that most therapists who treat adults probably do not share my ideas and have not really thought about these issues. If they are parents, this can either make the situation worse or better, depending on what they have done with their own kids and how they feel about their relationships with their children.

I think the best way to proceed is probably to screen potential therapists just as you would screen a pediatrician.

For instance, before my first child was born I had a brief appointment with three pediatricians and asked them how long the moms in their practices usually breast-fed, what they thought about sleep-training, whether they always prescribed antibiotics for ear infections and whether they were flexible about spacing out the vaccination schedule.

You could do something similar with a therapist. I would bet that most therapists would be willing to spend ten minutes on the phone with you answering questions. It's usual to ask about their approach, fees, etc, so why not also ask a few additional questions.

1. What's your training? Obviously you want someone with credentials, but you also want someone experienced, because therapists get better the longer they practice -- within reason, of course. And if they have training in working with kids, that's great. Unfortunately, family therapists really vary in their understanding of child development, in my experience, so family therapy training is usually but not always helpful.

2. Do you work with children also, or only adults? If they work with children as well as adults, they will definitely have an articulated view re parenting, which may or may not jibe with yours, but at least they will have one.

3. Introduce your concern:

I'm a mother, so there will be times when I will be talking about issues with my kids. I've had experiences with therapists who had a very different approach to child-raising than I have, and I found that not to be helpful. I realize you are a therapist, not a parenting coach, but I'd like the support of a therapist who can help me to live up to my own parenting ideals. What would be your approach when I talk about what's happening with my kids?

4. What parenting books do you read and recommend? You're looking for names like Margot Sunderland, Alfie Kohn, Dan Seigel, any of the new wave of Attachment researchers. Less well-known but terrific would be Heather Forbes, Gordon Neufeld. Also good are the first-wave folks like Faber and Mazlish and Nancy Samalin, both of whom took off from Haim Ginott's work. Jane Nelsen's early work still recommended consequences, but her later work is very good and she has made it into the mainstream as the Positive Discipline lady, so lots of folks know of her.

4. What's your philosophy of discipline?
What do you recommend for a basic discipline approach for the age kids I have? No reputable therapist would recommend spanking, and all therapists would say the most important thing is the relationship between the parent and child. However, all mainstream folks who have not thought this through still recommend timeouts and especially consequences. That's the signal of someone who really has not researched or reflected on these issues and therefore has not realized that these are still punishments, which always create worse behavior. You're looking for someone who does not recommend either timeouts or consequences (meaning something imposed by the parent), but instead talks about setting limits with empathy.

You also want someone who voluntarily mentions how the real work is in regulating our own emotions as the parent, because we always have the capacity to lessen or increase the negativity when our kids are upset. And, of course, someone who voluntarily mentions how important it is to cultivate a good relationship with our child.

I hope this is helpful in screening potential therapists. Let me know how it works out, ok?
warm regards,
Dr. Laura

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