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Therapy that discourages

BOOKS | How children become “emotional hypochondriacs”

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Therapy that discourages
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WHAT WOULD have happened if Abigail Shrier’s grandmother, born in 1927, had arrived in the 2000s instead? Shrier imagines that little undernourished kid—who was passed among relatives for rearing, who had gray teeth because she didn’t get enough milk, and who even spent a year in an iron lung—walking into school as a Gen Z teen. “Today, school counselors and psychologists would invite a motherless girl like my grandmother into their offices, inquire about her family life and ensure that all of her teachers knew she’d been through something very hard.”

Instead of growing through hardship into optimism like other members of the Greatest Generation, she’d be at the mercy of what Shrier calls bad therapy. “They would hunt for minute signs that she wasn’t coping, and because she was a bright girl, she would catch their meaning: she was damaged.” Shrier imagines that adults today wouldn’t punish her grandmother for bad behavior or dock her grades for missed assignments. They’d reason: “Hadn’t she been through enough?”

Here lies the most powerful point of Shrier’s Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up (Sentinel 2024). Kids require adversity to grow. They’re made that way. Shrier argues that the widespread talk therapy provided to kids raised by gentle parents carries profound risk of iatrogenesis—practitioners harming rather than healing their patients.

For Shrier, bad therapy teaches kids to navel-gaze, encourages them to ruminate, affirms and accommodates their worries, and dispenses diagnoses liberally. Finally, bad therapy shepherds kids not toward healthy life patterns of discipline, challenge, and friendship but toward unneeded psychotropics. Kids get dulled with meds at any first glimmer of trouble. (Or as she puts it, “Spare the rod, drug the child.”) Bad therapy’s result? “Emotional hypochondriacs” who think mainly about themselves, the most depressing state of all.

Though a lively and engaging read, Bad Therapy’s tone sometimes suits itself more to invective than to serious inquiry. For that reason, a parent reading this book would benefit from also reading a perspective from the other side. Throughout Bad Therapy, the reader feels a phantom pain: Where is the other side of the story? Where in Shrier’s argument is the kid who really did have a need for therapy and even medication? The therapist who really did help?

Still, Shrier’s book can help parents stop assuming all therapy is benign—especially in the power-imbalanced relationship between therapist and child. The book can move parents toward expecting more of their kids and hovering less—a freeing gift indeed.

Chelsea Boes

Chelsea is editor of World Kids.



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