Abigail Shrier’s Bad Therapy – Are the Kids Alright?



Bad Therapy

On the heels of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Anxious Generation, comes another well-researched examination of Gen Z and its difficulties: Abigail Shrier’s (author of 2020’s Irreversible Damage) Bad Therapy – Why The Kids Aren’t Growing Up (although I like my Who reference better for a subtitle!). Like Haidt, Shrier is concerned with the mental health of Gen Z, those born between 1995 – 2012. But where Haidt lays the blame on too much time on smartphones and not enough time in unsupervised play, Shrier takes aim at the enormous and exponentially growing therapy industry.

Bad Therapy is divided into three parts: Healers Can Harm, Therapy Goes Airborne, and Maybe There’s Nothing Wrong With Our Kids. As she asks in the Introduction, “How did the first generation to raise kids without spanking produce the first generation to declare they never wanted kids of their own? How did kids raised so gently come to believe that they had experienced debilitating childhood trauma? How did kids who received far more psycho-therapy than any previous generation plunge into a bottomless well of despair?” (page xvii) Bad Therapy is Shrier’s attempt to provide answers to these questions.

Part I: Healers Can Harm begins with a chapter on iatrogenesis, which refers to “the phenomenon of a healer harming a patient in the course of treatment.” As Shrier points out, therapists have a built-in conflict of interest: since they are their patients’ treatment, any acknowledgment of ineffectiveness is an acknowledgment of personal failure. To make matters worse, the most common treatments really have no track record of success. Treating trauma victims by having them discuss and rehash their trauma is more likely to be counterproductive than helpful.

Also, it is a prevailing belief among many therapists that Gen Z uniquely faces an unprecedented combination of stressors, the main three of which are smartphones, COVID-19 lockdowns, and climate change. Shrier recounts a humorous exchange with Karla Vermeulen, an associate professor of psychology at State University of NY at New Paltz and author of Generation Disaster: Coming of Age Post-9/11:

“I ask Vermeulen if it would ever be appropriate to say to a kid, ‘Listen, you’re really exaggerating the threat of climate change right now. Let’s get through the week.

“Vermeulen looks visibly stricken. ‘I would never tell someone they’re exaggerating. That’s very invalidating and not helpful. That’s going to raise defenses and make them feel unheard.'” (p. 30)

Later in the book, Shrier mentions that of all the children and adolescents she interviewed for the book, not one blamed climate change for his or her emotional issues.

In Chapter 3, Bad Therapy, Shrier goes through ten modes of therapy that can be harmful:

  1. Teach Kids to Pay Close Attention to their Feelings
  2. Induce Rumination
  3. Make “Happiness” a Goal but Reward Emotional Suffering
  4. Affirm and Accommodate Kids’ Worries
  5. Monitor, Monitor, Monitor
  6. Dispense Diagnoses Liberally
  7. Drug ‘Em
  8. Encourage Kids to Share Their “Trauma”
  9. Encourage Young Adults to Break Contact with “Toxic” Family
  10. Create Treatment Dependency

Part II, titled Theory Goes Airborne, the longest and most interesting section, deals with how schools adopted a therapeutic mindset toward their students. Shrier catalogs all kinds of abuses schools inflict in the name of “social-emotional learning,” “restorative justice,” and other trendy educational theories. 

Through prompts and exercises, social-emotional learning (SEL) pushes kids toward a series of personal reflections, aimed at teaching them “self-awareness,” “social awareness,” “relationship skills,” “self-management,” and “responsible decision-making.” (p. 77)

On its face, SEL doesn’t sound harmful, except that psychologists have long understood that the more you ask kids to assess their feelings, the more their minds wander to the negative and narcissistic, and less on actual learning.

Even more troubling is the use of surveys and assignments that undermine a child’s relationship with his or her family. Here’s an example of a seventh-grade assignment, titled Homework: I Spy:

“You are a private investigator,” it prompts. “You have been hired by an unnamed source to ‘spy’ on your family. The source wants to find out all the various feelings that one or more of your family members have while doing activities at home. You won’t be able to talk to your family (you don’t want to blow your cover!) so you’ll have to use your keen skills of observation.” (p. 85)

What educational benefit an assignment like this can possibly have is beyond me. I can, however, think of many ways it could be used to destroy a family’s cohesion.

A lot of what Shrier discovers is counter-intuitive. For example, focusing on empathy to the exclusion of other virtues can lead to students treating each other horribly. How?

Empathy invariably involves a choice of whose feelings to coronate and whose to disregard. Overreliance on empathy as a guide to mediating human affairs leads to precisely the injustices we see today in schools: phony show trials allegedly in defense of marginalized students, alongside breathtaking cruelty to undesirables. Empathy supplies a narrow aperture of intense caring. Those outside it blur into nothing. (p. 160)

What happens when a community is consumed with adhering to the latest ever-changing standard of propriety? Members file away potential violations committed by others as an escape route:

One mom, Ellen, who consults to private school parents, apprised me of a bizarre and chilling trend among the rising generation. Many teens maintain a cache of screenshots to incriminate their friends just in case they should need to retaliate aganist an accuser. (p. 161)

In Chapter 9, The Road Paved By Gentle Parents, Shrier is particularly harsh. Its thesis is that beginning in the 1990s, parents ceded their authority and personal experience to parenting “experts” who all counseled a parenting style that was “gentle” — treating your child as an equal and using reason to modify bad behavior, as opposed to setting rules and boundaries and imposing consequences. The result has been a generation of children who are holy terrors, physically attacking their parents and making ever-increasing demands from them.

Shrier doesn’t pull any punches here:

Want to know why the rising generation of kids doesn’t want to have kids of their own? It’s because we made parenting look so damn miserable. It’s because we listened to all the experts and convinced ourselves that we couldn’t possibly appeal to life experience, judgment, knowledge gleaned over decades – tens of thousands of hours with our kids – or what our parents had done, and figure this thing out for ourselves. It’s because forty-year-old parents – accomplished, brilliant, and blessed with a spouse – treat the raising of kids like a calculus problem that was put to them in the dead of night, gun to the head: Get it right or I pull this trigger.

We played a part with our kids: the therapeutic parent. We let them throw food on the floor and kick us and hit us – and each time extended them more understanding. We offered them an endless array of choices. And we absolutely renounced our own authority.

And it scared them. It scared these kids so badly. Look at them. They know there’s no one running the place. They know they’re far too young to be exercising the amount of power we’ve handed them. They know that if they’ve brought their towering father, an accomplished man in his forties, to his knees, clueless and despairing – then something has gone desperately wrong. (p. 190)

Part III: Maybe There’s Nothing Wrong With Our Kids is a call to parents to reclaim their authority. Shrier’s main point is that no one knows a child better than his or her parent, and when parents show fear and anxiety, kids pick up on it.

This section also overlaps with Haidt’s call to give children the freedom to take risks and grow independent. Shrier uses Japanese and Israeli families as examples — both countries give responsibilities and freedom to children who are very young by our standards. In Israel, it is expected that 8-year-olds get themselves to school.Shrier contends that many children diagnosed with ADHD can be helped if their parents give them specific chores to complete, and hold them responsible if they lose things. This is not unlike Haidt’s conclusion that children will only grow into competent adults if they’re allowed to make mistakes and learn how to play with other children independently—without adult supervision. “When kids miss their “window” of independence — of wanting to hazard a risk and venture something new on their own — they stop asking for it.” (p. 218)

Bad Therapy is a powerful call to parents to resist the diagnoses and therapeutic approach of experts, to remember that their parents raised them without all the meds and therapy, and they turned out okay. Parenting is not a job that requires extensive training and advice. It’s a calling that each of us is capable of doing, as long as we understand that every child is a unique person with his or her quirks and strengths. “In all but the direst circumstances, your child will benefit immeasurably from knowing you are in charge — and that you don’t think there’s something wrong with her.” (p. 247)

Published in Education
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There are 8 comments.

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  1. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    I think I would agree with her outlook except that she is way off base if she thinks this started in 1990.  I was prepared to forgive her for being born yesterday, but her Wikipedia page doesn’t give her birth year or age.  It sounds like a good book, though, and I might want to get a copy to read for myself if I can just get over the annoyance of reading somebody who thinks this is a problem that has come suddenly upon us.   It might be worth the effort.  

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  2. Percival Thatcher

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  3. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O

    I recall reading an account of a kids’ retreat in Israel. This was in The American Enterprise years ago. The kids were all ages 10-12. The first night at campfire, they were all given a sheet of paper and a pencil and encouraged to go off on their own and write down their feelings. The girls did pretty well at this. The boys wandered away from the fire and eventually found each other. They used the pencils and paper to build a fire of their own, no report on the ignition method. The counselors were horrified and promptly chastised the boys.

    Seems to me some ingenuity was involved, not to mention teamwork, but why cultivate those things? 

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  4. iWe Coolidge

    Mrs. iWe loves this book. But I agree about the general lack of historical perspective. 

    It has always been thus.


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  5. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette

    Thank you for another great review. Wasn’t aware of the book, but just purchased it.

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  6. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos

    The book seems very sound.  I read the Haidt book.  I tend to think that the ultimate harm of cell phones and social media is the time lost to more constructive encounters with reality.  Kids need ongoing real experiences with some adult help in interpreting outcomes and judging behaviors.

    The risk-aversion keeps kids at home too much but probably with less time spent with their working parents.  Christopher Lasch in Haven in a Heartless World opined that our development includes a need for a superego, a conscience.  A real father points out the degree of seriousness of failures and adminsters proportional punishments so that over time there is the development of moral perspective, identity, growth and virtue.  In the absence of direct parenting, the child instead imagines a harsh, abstract judgmental figure who is too terrifying to tolerate and must be excluded somehow.  The result is narcissistic amorality.

    Dunno how broadly applicable the Lasch model is but it does seem like Jean-Paul Sartre is Exhibit A:

    For several years longer, I kept up public relations with the Almighty; in private, I stopped associating with Him. Once only I had the feeling that He existed.  I had been playing with matches and burnt a mat; I was busy covering up my crime when suddenly God aw me.  I felt his gaze inside my head and on my hands; I turned round and round in the bathroom, horribly visible, a living target.  I was saved by indignation; I grew angry at such a crude lack of tact and I blasphemed…. He never looked at me again.

    (He was raised by a doting mother and a stern maternal grandfather.)




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  7. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn

    Abigail Shrier is a fine researcher and writer. I’m in the middle of Bad Therapy; lately I’m finding that when a book offers important but discouraging news, I have difficulty getting through it. But I know it will be worth the effort.

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  8. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill

    What a very scary two paragraphs:

    “Even more troubling is the use of surveys and assignments that undermine a child’s relationship with his or her family. Here’s an example of a seventh-grade assignment, titled Homework: I Spy:

    ‘You are a private investigator,” it prompts. “You have been hired by an unnamed source to ‘spy’ on your family. The source wants to find out all the various feelings that one or more of your family members have while doing activities at home. You won’t be able to talk to your family (you don’t want to blow your cover!) so you’ll have to use your keen skills of observation.’ (p. 85)”

    A goodly portion of the rest of the post is frightening as well.

    Add in that around 1995, parents became helicopter parents. So then, many families began to micro manage their children. Germs were bad. The innate immune system apparently did not exist any more, so better get those kids jabbed with 26 different vaxxes before age 6.

    In big cities and bedroom communities surrounding those, the idea that kids could leave their homes and walk down the street to play with other kids was phased out. Play dates became the norm. Everything that was once innately organic and fun now had to be structured very carefully. When I grew up, the kids on my block offered a different world from my Catholic school playground.

    Some kids on that block were Protestants. Others attended a different Catholic school.

    But once play dates were the norm, kids were often playing with the other kids with whom they spent all day at a private school. Plus play date activities often were not the raucous, kick the can, football in the alley kind of experience that toughened kids up. Even now,  I remember the thrill of making a touchdown in the alley behind my home. It was not just that I had  dodged the bigger kids to do it – I had to dodge traffic including a delivery truck  as well.


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