Our 21-year-old son has been struggling for a while and would like to begin therapy. He is pretty insistent that he wants to only see a non-frum [religious] or not Jewish therapist. It is hard to get a straight answer from him as to why he is so insistent on this. It's a shame that he is so adamant about this at a time when there are so many qualified therapists that are...[religious]. Being that he is 21 he can pretty much go to whoever he wants but since we would be paying, we could have some influence on his decision. Can share your perspective and opinion on this question. Why do you think this is so important to him and how might we be able to change his mind? In your experience is this something that can work out? What are the pitfalls and danger signs to such an arrangement? Is there sometimes actually a benefit to this? Ultimately this is a... [question]...that will be decided together with our...[rabbi]...but we would appreciate you giving us a better understanding of the issues. Thank you.
Without knowing the reason for your son’s insistence on a therapist from outside the frum community, any response referring to reasons for this insistence can be based only on conjecture. He may feel embarrassed discussing certain issues with someone whom he feels may judge him. He may believe that he has already obtained the frum perspective on his particular struggles, and he now wants to explore an outside perspective. He may feel that a religious therapist will come to the table with preconceived notions about certain issues and about the therapeutic process.
Regardless of the reason for your son’s preference, two things are clear. Firstly, he has made up his mind as to the type of therapist that he would like to see. Secondly, any influence that you would have on his decision would be essentially compelled. This means that in addition to your general questions as to the advantages and disadvantages to seeing an irreligious therapist, there would then be an added component: in what way this compulsion might affect your son’s ability to bond with the therapist, and his commitment to the therapy process.
There are scant few things in life that are wholly good or bad. Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. You mention that you will consult with your rov. At any point, do you mean to include your son in this discussion? If he in uncomfortable discussing his feelings with you alone, including your rabbi in the conversation will likely not feel make him feel any more comfortable. Perhaps your son would feel more having a private discussion with your rov, with the understanding that any conversation would be confidential. If not, perhaps another rov with whom your son feels comfortable can be chosen.
If I were directing my comments to your son, I would caution him not to put all his emotional eggs in one basket. He may be overgeneralizing by assuming that all religious therapists are the same, and that, conversely, all irreligious therapists are the same. If his notions of therapist personality, preconceived notions and therapeutic process are largely based on therapist background, he can easily be disappointed. Just as no two people are alike, no two therapists are alike. If a specific type of therapist becomes symbolic of the “right” therapist, a client can become disenchanted with the therapy process as a whole instead of simply with that particular therapist.
The initial goal in therapy is to create a rapport. This is the all-important process of helping the client to become comfortable enough with the therapist to open up about feelings, issues, and insecurities that they may never have done with anyone else. This is something that can occur between people of similar or vastly different backgrounds. With whom your son will connect will be based on many factors. He shouldn’t necessarily limit himself to specific “types” of therapists. However, my response in this column is basically directed toward you as his parent. If he has limited himself to an irreligious therapist, you need to ask yourself whether forcing the issue is apt to do more harm than good.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200