Why Talk Therapy Fails

Oh, the insanity! Numerous therapists tried to engage my children in talk therapy over the years. Even after I raised concerns, they somehow thought the approach would work,.

Don’t allow them to rehash the past. They already have.

Don’t allow them to blame others. They need to focus on accountability.

Don’t allow them to pit me against other adults. They know how to triangulate.

In other words, don’t allow my kids to take over your session. Don’t play into their anxiety. And don’t allow them to create a mess that I will be left to untangle.

Nonetheless, the insanity not only continued during therapy. It soon intensified. 

fathers know nothing

Early on in my parenting journey, a wise friend firmly stated, “Never let your children meet with a mental health professional alone.” Those words proved to be some of the best advice I ever heard – which allowed me to experience the insanity first hand.

On the immediate surface, my kids appeared cognitively and emotionally aware to the therapist. Because they have decent vocabularies. Because they have discussed their diagnoses with me. Because they possess knowledge. Because they desire to self-advocate – after observing me advocate for them.

But talk about a trainload of mis-truths emanating from my children’s mouths on a weekly basis. Note that I didn’t say lies. In their underdeveloped minds (most of the time), they were spewing fact – not fiction.

Disappointing? Yes!

Frustrating? Without question!

Exhausting? Don’t get me started!

Although I knew better than to take my children’s comments personally, the words still cut to the bone. I’m human after all and felt each dagger. That’s when the rationale side of me kicked into full gear – wanting to talk through the issue.


But that’s when I finally saw the reality. Open-ended talking during a therapy session doesn’t work for most clients. It triggers relentless control before erupting into a debate that no one can win.

So why does talk therapy fail so miserably?

With many mental health conditions, the brain short circuits in a variety of ways.

1-Processing language might be hit or miss.

2-Accessing short-term and long-term memories might be difficult.

3-Sequencing events in the right order might be impossible.

With that basic knowledge of the brain, why on earth would mental health professionals actively engage their clients in talk therapy? It’s certainly not “best practice.” And in most cases, the talk causes harm than good.

Enabling through blame never sustains outcomes.

No wonder many parents feel compelled to stop therapy altogether.

The next question is obvious. Can therapy truly work? The answer lies in the approach.

lies and truth

Here are five successful approaches that I’ve witnessed with my own children. And none rely exclusively on talk.

Identification of Strengths – not less than five. Many children regularly hear what they do wrong, not what they right (which doesn’t mean doing something perfectly). Knowing one’s strengths is the basis for improved self-esteem.

Specific skill building – the more hands-on the better, especially when done in the community. Asking questions, interpreting others’ emotions and managing over-stimulation in real time are all possibilities. As social awareness increases, self-confidence does too.

Visualization – in a park, museum or other visually stimulating environment. Everyday images can make powerful connections in the brain. Those connections (or visual maps) enhance positive perception. They also reduce the negative effects from past trauma.

Villages - Rita

Meaningful Projects – from start to completion. Positive coaching is a must with the goal of transferring the same role to the parent. In turn, the child learns to accept feedback – both appropriate praise and constructive redirection.

Future Thinking – not next year but next week. Discussing strategies for upcoming events reduces anxiety and allows problem solving. Role playing before the fact never hurts.

And one more thing. Three simple ground rules are imperative for every session – with the therapist enforcing them to reduce the likelihood of triangulation.

1-NO questioning adult authority, especially the parent or primary caregiver. If necessary, the therapist can discuss matters privately with mom or dad.

2-NO reliving the past. The focus must remain on the present.

3-NO relying on emotions. Rationale thought must be emphasized with the therapist – rather than the client –  guiding the conversation.

Now let’s summarize this simple lesson.

Skip the traditional talk.

Jump into action instead.   

You’ll be glad you did.   DCP


Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s progress in writing a book about raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

To follow Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page. Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold

4 thoughts on “Why Talk Therapy Fails

  1. Wow – you articulated this so well. Have you looked into the Feuerstein Program (from Israel). It is action oriented, “do” instead of more yak. builds cognitive skills that support the social-emotional growth in teen and adults. Very good stuff! More info at mind-cap.org
    Blessings – Jeanne


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