The first few therapy sessions generally go pretty well with most kids and parents. We can usually change problematic behaviors with most children fairly quickly by setting up systems of incentives and penalties.
This is a dramatic departure from traditional therapies. The old way was to engage kids in an endless and useless discussions of their feelings, and hope that their behaviors would improve. It rarely worked.
The new way is to focus on the way kids act, with encouragement for good behaviors and penalties for misbehaviors. The old (and wrong) way of thinking was that kids would behave more appropriately if they felt better about themselves. The new (and correct) approach is that kids feel better about themselves after they start behaving appropriately.
The second stage of therapy is more difficult. You can’t reward and punish kids indefinitely. At some point, children need to develop the self-control to do the right things. This is not about changing behavior or feelings, but rather challenging and correcting kids’ self-defeating and erroneous patterns of thinking.
If I can help children change their internal cognitions, artificial reward and punishment systems can be eliminated.
We are always talking to ourselves, regardless of our level of awareness of these messages. Beginning in early childhood, we develop a set of beliefs that influence the way we act.
Here are the most common mistaken beliefs that kids bring into a therapy session.
- “I can’t control the way I feel.” I work with kids to value their feelings as guideposts. Our feelings don’t control us. We can influence the way we feel by changing the incorrect ways we think about ourselves and other people. Just because a teen feels that their parent hates them doesn’t make that feeling right. Feelings can be misguided, incorrect, and inappropriate.
- “This is just the way I am. I can’t change.” While our personality is set by the preteen years, people can make dramatic changes in their lives. I help kids understand that they are wrong in thinking that change is impossible with them and their families. The key is to set and achieve very small but obtainable goals, and then use those successes as a way to correct mistaken beliefs.
- “My unhappiness is due to others.” Many kids view their discontent as due to bad parents, terrible teachers, mean kids, and everything else except them. Helping kids understand and act upon the belief that they can and must take responsibility for their own behavior and happiness is key to changing their lives.
Once kids start thinking about the world in a positive and empowering way, long-lasting changes occur.