Parental cooperation is crucial to the success of treatment. You’ll want to communicate regularly with the therapist to keep abreast of what progress is being made. If you and your youngster are just starting down this road, take heart in the fact that the prognosis is usually bright. As many as 60 to 80 percent of patients with severe disorders such as schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder demonstrate a positive response to treatment.
The most widely practiced one-to-one talk therapies for children are cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy. Both are results-oriented, short-term interventions, consisting of anywhere from ten to thirty-five weekly sessions. Many times the two approaches are merged into cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Briefly, cognitive therapy seeks to free patients from the negative thought patterns that often weigh them down when they’re feeling low, like the tendency to overgeneralize (“I can’t do anything right!”), catastrophize (“My new perm looks gross! I can’t let anybody see me until it grows out!”) or to view each unhappy experience as further proof of a preordained conspiracy to thwart their enjoyment of life (“Nothing good ever happens to me!”). It’s not as simple as exhorting youngsters to “think positive!” In fact, studies show that the power of positive thinking is a rather feeble weapon against depression. Cognitive therapy teaches patients not to dwell in negativity and to exercise mind control over how they perceive situations.
The goal of behavioral therapy is to “unlearn” self-defeating attitudes and behavior. With young children, behavior modification often incorporates a reward system, like gold stars in school. With teenagers and adults, desirable behaviors are reinforced through the general improvement in the patient’s mental outlook.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy may include social-skills training, because youngsters who are anxious or despondent frequently feel awkward in social situations. They’re probably not nearly as inept as they believe themselves to be, but their self-consciousness gets in the way of making eye contact, initiating conversation and so on. Socialization training allows them to practice being more self-assertive, approachable and communicative.
Individual therapy is usually complemented by family counseling and possibly group therapy. Dr. Pratt, director of behavioral and developmental pediatrics at Michigan State University’s Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies, highly recommends a combination of all three.
“The whole family should always be treated along with the child,” she asserts. “The child in therapy obviously is unable to handle what is going on in his or her environment, and that environment includes home and school.” In family therapy, the counselor guides the members in airing their feelings and helps them work toward resolving household conflicts.
Group therapy, attended by five to ten children and led by a trained counselor, provides opportunities to learn with and from one another. Youngsters realize that they are not alone. What’s more, sometimes examining other people’s behavioral patterns can shed light on our own problems. The group doubles as a socialization group, helping kids to refine their social skills.
Making Therapy Work
If you find that you have conflicted feelings about your child’s starting therapy, you’re not alone. But why do mothers and fathers sometimes regard a youngster’s need for counseling as a mark against their competence as parents? You wouldn’t fault yourself for not being able to fix a broken bone! Confronting a serious problem also requires professional help and you should take pride in having the courage to deal with it.