Parents: You are Your Child’s Best Therapist

I had been seeing a pre-teen girl in therapy for a couple of months and recently saw the girl and her father for a review of the therapy goals. We discussed if her behaviors were improving, what was working about therapy, and what wasn’t. Although she and her father didn’t state it this way, I considered the underlying reason she was brought to therapy was for a lack of accountability. She did not claim to see the connection between not studying or doing homework and her poor grades. She had lots of excuses for why homework didn’t get done or didn’t need to be turned in. She had excuses for her bad grades on tests. She lied needlessly to present herself well. She had great difficulty being responsible for her choices and had difficulty apologizing.

These were all issues that bothered her father, who wanted her to learn to be responsible and honest — admirable parenting goals.

Accountability is a key character and behavior trait I identify in “Pack Leader Psychology” that distinguishes between emotionally healthy individuals (“Pack Leaders”) and unhealthy personalities of “Dominators,” “Submissives,” and “Avoiders.”

The good news with my client was things were getting better for her: her grades were improving, and the lying had gotten better. So I asked if there was anything that she wanted to work on regarding her relationship with her father, as they had a tendency to argue quite a bit. She quickly stated: “I want him to quit smoking.” Apparently he had agreed to quit smoking as a New Year’s resolution, but less than a month into the year he had relapsed.

Well, I was supportive of this healthy goal with the father and we talked neutrally about this for a minute. Then suddenly the father stood up, stated they were leaving and left. I was a bit stunned, as the conversation had been so positive to that point. Therapy for his daughter was going well, her behaviors were improving and I assumed he would be happy about that.

It took me a second to realize that the reason he left had nothing to do with his daughter. It had everything to do with HIS lack of accountability. He did not like being called out for his lack of ability to quit smoking. Just a short, supportive conversation about the very obvious health value of quitting was too much for him. He was hypersensitive to criticism and shame and reacted by bolting from the therapy room. I’m sure this behavior plays out in his life in many ways, but as he is not my identified patient, I do not have evidence of this.

This is where I part company with many child therapy theories. I believe therapy with children usually fails unless it addresses and changes the behaviors of the parents. How could I expect a child to learn to be accountable with 1 hour of therapy a week when 167 hours a week she lives with a parent who so clearly lacks the ability to step up and own his own choices and behaviors? His levels of self-criticism and shame were so high he could not handle any external criticism.

Parents: Get your own emotional and behavioral house in order. If not, don’t expect your children to grow up to make healthy emotional, behavioral or moral choices.