"Is my child going to be okay?"
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You'd think that after 5+ years as a licensed psychologist, 7+ years as a therapist, and 17+ years of working with children and teens, I would be able to answer this question with plenty of confidence. For better or for worse, the longer I work in this field, the less permission I give myself to answer this question.
Yep…you read that correctly. With more experience comes less certainty when I'm asked to answer big, broad questions like "is my child going to be okay?" Before you decide to close this email and unsubscribe (or fire me if I'm your child's therapist), hear me out! It's not that I don't have a sense of which clients will thrive and which ones won't. What has happened for me as a clinician is simply this: with each year of experience, I've come to fully grasp that there are countless variables that can make or break a person's likelihood of thriving in the world. Time for some vulnerability: When I was a fresh, newbie therapist (picture a mid-twenties, 2nd year grad student Stephanie, freezing her butt off in Wisconsin, so eager to please), I actually had a terrible habit of what my clinical professor described as "over-confidence." Without giving it much thought, I'd tell parents that their kid's behaviors, problems, etc, were nothing to worry about and that they'd be just fine. My professor would see this through the two-way mirror and later put me in the hot seat *cue my traumatic memories!* Over time, I came to realize that while I thought I was doing this to help ease the parents' anxieties, I was actually doing this to ease my own anxiety. Saying "your child is going to be fine!" is WAY easier than sitting with the scary reality that no one–not the parents, not the teachers, not your religious leader, not your relatives, not even your child–can fully predict what will happen several years down the road. So what do I try to say when asked this question? My internal dialogue looks something like this:
What are the protective factors already in place?
How does this child feel about themself?
Is the child's progress in therapy more or less what one could reasonably expect after this much time, given their original presenting problem?
Does this child have enough solid relationships outside their immediate family?
Does school feel like a safe place for them? Has it ever?
Can this child tolerate shared joy with an adult?
And with each year or so of experience, I add more questions to this internal dialogue. So instead of answering this question for you, is it okay if I instead invite you to ask some different questions? Here are some ideas, but I'd love to know yours too!
If my child saw themself through my eyes, what would they see?
Besides providing the basics (food, shelter, clothing, etc), how does my child experience our relationship?
Does my child know what I like about them? (Duh, we get it, you love your child. But liking them is different)
Do I give as much attention to their strengths as I do to their weaknesses?