Teddy Bear Therapy Versus the Mental Health Professionals

It’s been a number of years since I wrote a book about a severely emotionally disturbed foster child we accepted into our large family.  And despite the fact that I didn’t tout mental health programs or therapies, I still get the occasional call or e-mail from parents in difficulty with a child asking me to recommend one.

And I don’t.

Because after reading dozens of case files and speaking to literally hundreds of parents I’ve developed a contempt for these “treatments.”  An opinion that is that by and large, they are a con, poison the relationship between parent and child, and so can’t help but do more harm than good.  If there is any good in them at all.

Although there’s no gainsaying their ubiquitous popularity.  Individuals, medicos, public schools and scores of government agencies aggressively push  counseling sessions and “evaluations,” recommended drugs, support groups and other metal health therapies. And as far as I can understand they do so in the smug assurance that what they’re advocating is a modern science.  After all everybody knows we’ve come light years in managing a child’s adjustment to life from the “dark ages” of only a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago when mental professionals and their programs and treatments did not exist.

Really?  Let’s look at a few lives from those years. 

Madame Curie went to pieces at age sixteen with what we’d now diagnose as Clinical Depression (major depressive disorder). George Patton couldn’t read and write until he was nine or ten.  Albert Einstein was a late-talker, Teddy Roosevelt was puny and asthmatic when younger and was treated by inhaling the smoke from strong cigars. The author of perhaps the greatest novel written in English, Middlemarch, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) was so ugly at age five that even though she was a girl her father felt compelled to invest in her education.  But when she died the main reason she was denied a burial in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey was because of her torrid extra-marital love affair with George Lewes.  And then there’s the fact that late in life the ugly duckling also managed to attract a husband twenty years her junior.  Finally we come to Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) who was so bullied in school that today it would have meant the criminal prosecution of school staff, not to mention years of therapy in order to exorcise those demons.

So make no mistake the entire “dark ages” argument is a joke.  Children born in 1800, 1850 or 1900 almost universally faced conditions and dealt with problems today’s child-care mental health “experts” consider debilitating and yet persevered.  Indeed may not have given these conditions much thought because nobody was throwing them in their face week after week year after year asking them how they felt or offering drugs.  Offering them only “treatment,” not a cure for bad memories or physical and emotional problems. Let’s be clear about that because as a psychologist once told me in a rare moment of honesty “we [his profession] no longer talk about cure – only treatment.”

In comparison, the years centered around the nineteenth century were without doubt the greatest period there ever was in terms of the advancement of the material comfort of the human race.  And in the success and happiness of children.

In large part because parents and children had something positive going for them.  They had the amazing cast of characters who invented Santa Claus and Christmas Morning, wrote Wind-In–The-Willows, Winne-The-Pooh. Huckleberry Finn and Alice In Wonderland, they had the nineteenth century “Robber Barons” who eliminated the need for child labor, medical researchers like Louis Pasteur and practitioners like Joseph Lister who rescued their children’s lives from much of the infection and disease which once killed every other son or daughter and let’s not forget Walt Disney got himself born around that time (1901), the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company developed the Red Ryder BB Gun and maybe most important of all, Teddy Bears were created.

Indeed one could consider the difference in self-confidence between children now and in the “dark ages” and convincingly argue that Teddy Bears have done more for children than every child psychologist, child therapist, children’s support group or parenting “expert” who ever opened a case file.

After all no child has ever gone to bed hugging the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

So why do we keep listening to these people?

In large part it’s because parents are reluctant to believe that “normal” behavior or physicality in children extents over such a broad range.  That it includes children reading at either two or ten, the really pretty and well, the pretty.  It includes late-talkers and early bloomers, emotionally strong and the emotional.  In short that children aren’t identical hothouse roses but instead a bouquet of variegated wildflowers.

Indeed that some of them are even lovable pumpkins.

And then there is the ugly fact that in the age of science many parents cannot stop themselves from measuring their child against benchmarks thought up by academics or parenting “experts” whose personal standard of success (if we look), is often how well their one thirty something darling is doing in drug rehab this time around.

Measuring encouraged by “professionals” in state departments of education who make a career telling parents what skills their children should have at one age or another.  And from innumerable “studies” which purport to define normal behavior and skill levels by age and sex but which only provide the tools necessary to bludgeon credulous parents into obtaining “treatment” for their child in any area in which they may not today, assess as well as their peers.  Anger management, sleep deprivation, hyperactivity, over eating, undereating, self-esteem, feelings of loss from divorce, a trace of dyslexia, depression, delayed learning, any number of fears whether morbid or otherwise.  A “treatment” for every human condition imaginable except a “treatment” for too much “treatment” (although I may be wrong in this.)

Moreover most of these “treatments” tend to sucker parents in because they’re so well dressed up in medical or scientific jargon they sound like medicine.

But of course they’re not.  Get your child diagnosed with Whooping Cough (Pertussis) and scientifically developed antibiotics will kill the bacteria, but if they’re diagnosed with the mental disorder called Asperger’s Syndrome (difficulty in social situations) you’re encouraged to raise your awareness about the condition (whatever that means) and then adopt various “strategies for success,” not a cure but again only “treatment.”

How insane is that?

So instead, my recommendation for parents unsure of how to deal with their children is to first ask your own Mom and if you can’t bring yourself to do that to read I Know How The Heather Looks by Joan Bodger.  Or perhaps Gwen Raverat’s Memoirs (A Cambridge Childhood).  Read my book The Things I Want Most, too.  Read something!  Then put some adventure in a child’s life, hug the little wretch no matter how much he or she squirms to get away. Assume some authority in the matter (newsflash: authority can be learned and it isn’t child abuse and it won’t damage their budding self-esteem).  Above all think twice and thrice before you hand over your child’s feelings and self-impression over to “professionals” to manage for you at $150 an hour.

So maybe more confidently, and certainly in more joy, you can go the Teddy Bear route instead.

Richard F. Miniter is the author of The Things I Want Most, Random House, BDD See it Here.  He lives and writes in the colonial era hamlet of Stone Ridge, New York, blogs here and can also be reached at miniterhome@gmail.com