Historically, psychiatry has not been kind to parents, particularly mothers. Early ideas and research on what caused children to display emotional and behavioral difficulties made it easy to blame parents for all childhood conditions. Autism is a classic example. In the 1940s Leo Kanner, one of the most influential child psychiatrists of the time, stated that children with autism were kept in “refrigerators that did not defrost.” By refrigerators, he was referring to mothers, who he believed were emotionally and interpersonally distant. As most of you likely know by now, Kanner was wrong.
Since then, the attack on parents appears to be relentless. Our media outlets are filled with misinterpretations (and sometimes accurate interpretations) of research findings and statements by clinicians that directly or indirectly blame parental behaviours for their kids’ problems. As parents we are constantly bombarded by a wealth of information and advice on our parenting practices.
The consequences of this parental blaming are devastating: parents full of either guilt and shame or anger and defensiveness, and worse, children who don’t get the treatment they actually need.
Supporting Parents: Addressing Concerns about Therapy for Kids
I wanted to share with you what I often tell parents who are either reluctant about therapy or are struggling with making decisions regarding their kids’ treatment.
☑ Does your child need help? Examine your child’s academic, social, family, and emotional functioning to decide whether he needs help. If your kid’s behavioural or emotional difficulties are such that his functioning at home, school, or with peers is impaired, he may need help.
☑ What is getting help means? Getting help does not necessarily mean medication or years of therapy! Getting help may simply involve an evaluation to determine what intervention, if any, may be beneficial to your child.
☑ In many, many, many, cases, what “caused” your child’s condition does not really matter.
☑ We can’t help your child without your help.
☑ When we suggest a different parenting or discipline strategy we are not saying that what you were doing was wrong or that you caused the problem. There are many, many parenting styles that are effective for most kids. In fact, some researchers even use the term “good enough parenting” to refer to the phenomenon that most kids will be fine regardless of what you do as a parent. But we also have extensive research suggesting that in some cases, such as when a child has a specific disorder, some parenting behaviours are more helpful than others.
In sum, I want parents to know that clinicians want first and foremost to help your child, not to find someone to blame for your child’s problems. We ask you to be involved because that is the most effective way to help your child improve. We need you to be our allies because without your help and support there is often little we can do.