My daughter was encouraged by her principal to see a therapist. She has been misbehaving in school recently, nothing serious really, but the principal suggested it. She has gone through a lot as my wife...[passed away]...4 years ago, though she says she is fine and doesn't really seem different than the other girls in her class. They are all a tough bunch. I mean she is a teenage girl so who can really tell what standard teenage angst is and what's more than that. Does the fact that she lost a parent in and of itself mean that she needs therapy? What makes it trickier is that she really doesn't like going at all. She has a long day in school, and she sees the therapist in the evening, and she just really isn't in the mood. Nothing against the therapist per se, but she insists that there is no reason for her to go. The principal is still insisting that it’s important. So, I guess the question is that even if she needs therapy, if she is so against it is there really any point to go? I feel like I am just giving her an unpleasant association with the entire process that will prevent her from ever going down the road. On the other hand, the principal is worried that there are some deep emotions that are not being properly dealt with and I am concerned where that might lead. I would appreciate you sharing your opinion and advice on the matter. Thank you.
There is no specific experience that necessitates therapy. It is not an experience in and of itself that causes emotional or behavioral issues; it’s the reaction to the experience that does this. However, it can be very difficult for us to identify emotional reactions and to accurately associate them with their causes.
Sometimes, we react in predictable ways to stressors and traumatic events. When we do this, it is usually easier for those in our support system to help us. They are able to recognize that we are feeling, thinking, or acting in certain ways due to our reaction to a particular incident. They can relate to our feelings, which allows them to help us to deal with our emotional needs. More importantly, we ourselves can usually acknowledge our pain and the ways in which we are reacting to it. This allows us to properly process our emotions, and to accept the help of others.
There are times, however, that our emotional and behavioral reactions are not clearly tied to their sources. Sometimes, our defense mechanisms kick in, preventing us from recognizing our needs and emotions. When someone loses a loved one, their unconscious (child mind) may tell them, ”You can’t handle this.” It then steps in, using denial, repression, intellectualization, or another defense to “protect” them from having to deal with the problem.
In early childhood, before the brain, personality, maturity, and understanding are fully developed, defense mechanisms can protect the child from fears and stressors that they are unprepared to handle. As we grow older, however, and our ability to appropriately deal with these issues increases, we should theoretically begin divesting ourselves of these primitive defenses. Realistically, however, no one completely eliminates their childhood defenses from their repertoire.
In their teenage years, adolescents are in a transition period. They are beginning to learn how to deal with their emotions, but their defenses are still very prominent. Your daughter may have little conscious understanding of the emotional effect of her mother’s death. Though she may be aware of some emotions, others may be repressed or intellectualized. Even the emotions that she does acknowledge may not be connected—in her mind—to their original source.
A good therapist can help your daughter to recognize that she can acknowledge and deal with her emotions in a more mature and effective way. She can learn to rely less heavily on her defenses, and to develop her ability to feel and deal through pain rather than to hide from it.
Have you discussed your concerns with your daughter’s therapist? Assuming that you have confidence in them, the therapist is the person who can best help you and your daughter to determine the best course.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317