Last week there was an invitation to dialogue in the New York Times on this subject. In today's Times there is a fascinating array of responses, but none addresses the issue as it relates to children, for whom there has been an exponential rise in prescribing of psychiatric medication in the last decade. Here is the letter I sent in.
We live in a culture of advice and quick fixes. Increasingly, understanding of human experience is reduced to lists of symptoms, diagnosis and medication. There is less curiosity, less careful listening to one another.
Talk therapy, which perhaps should be called “listening therapy,” offers space and time to create a meaningful narrative, including an opportunity to experience feelings of grief and loss.
This is particularly important in work with children. When symptoms are medicated away, the opportunity to tell stories that give meaning to behavior may be lost. Research has shown that a child’s knowledge of family narrative, both the ups and downs, is highly correlated with self- esteem, resilience and mental health. Giving a parents an opportunity to tell their story to a nonjudgmental listener, to integrate their own narrative, is critical to treatment of childhood “behavior problems.”I am not advocating for talk therapy for children. Rather, in order to help children who are struggling with a range of "behavior problems," it is essential to listen to their parents, to give them an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of behavior. The behavior is a symptom, perhaps even an adaptive response, to the underlying problem. There is extensive evidence, that I describe in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind, that when parents reflect on the meaning of behavior in this way, they have the opportunity to promote healthy development at the level of gene expression and structure and biochemistry of the brain.
In my practice, where I see children under the age of five, parents typically present with concerns like, "he never listens" or "she is defiant." But as we take the time to think about how the problem developed, meaningful shifts in understanding occur. For example, parents may recognize the way a child's behavior pushes their buttons because of their own history of abuse. Or serious marital conflict, that often has zeroed in on the child's behavior, comes to the fore. Or the impact of an easygoing sibling may be recognized. Tantrums and meltdowns at birthday parties may be understood in the context of a child's longstanding difficulty with processing sensory input.
Creating this narrative, this story that makes sense of the problem, may only be the beginning of the treatment. Intensive work with parent and child together, to address the way the child's behavior provokes the parent, is often indicated. Marital counselling, or even working with a couple who are not together, to help them work together to support their child may be necessary. Quality occupational therapy can be invaluable to help a child to feel calm in his body. Parents may benefit from things such as yoga to help them to calm their own reactions.
Here is where the trouble really starts. Quality clinicians who offer these services are in short supply. Insurance is often a huge obstacle. But, creating perhaps an even bigger obstacle, is the cultural norm of the "quick fix" approach of medicating symptoms, even in children as young as 5. Not only must parents overcome these obstacles of finding a provider, making the time, allocating funds, as well as doing the important but often challenging emotional work of addressing these issues. They must go against pressure from teachers, relatives, friends and health care providers.
I will continue to offer parents space and time to be heard, to create meaningful narrative, because I am confident that telling stories, and working through the feelings of grief and loss that often accompany them, is the path to meaningful connection and healthy emotional development. It causes me great heartache when these efforts are thwarted by a system that works in opposition to this approach.