As a child, adolescent, and family therapist in Washington, DC, I am constantly trying to perfect my craft and learn more about what I do. One of the ways I try to stay abreast of the latest trends and topics is by listening to podcasts. One of my favorite all-time podcast episodes is, “The Problem with the Solution” which is on Season 2 of the NPR podcast, Invisibilia. In a nutshell, this episode of the podcast talks about how we are continuing to struggle in appropriately responding to mental health because we are trying to solve it. The problem is in trying to fix people. I highly recommend listening to it as it offers an interesting perspective not often broadcast in our culture.
The move away from “fixing things” is in effect what we are trying to accomplish in the mental health field. For example, Steven Hayes, the creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy on the podcast episode, “ACT and Process-Based CBT with Dr. Steven Hayes” on the podcast, Psychologists off the Clock talks about how the fields of psychology and psychotherapy are moving away from a disease or diagnosis model of mental health where manualized treatments are the recommended protocol to one which is made of evidence-based processes which are effective across diagnosis and psychological theory. Acceptance and Commitment therapy is the psychotherapy du jour right now, being heavily researched and rooted in a solid scientific theory called Relational Frame Theory which is an outgrowth of behaviorism.
ACT outlines 6 core processes for change (acceptance, cognitive defusion, being present, self as context, values, and committed action) or what ACT calls, “psychological flexibility.” ACT overlooks and important strategy– the process of listening and not trying to fix things, which is perhaps folded into the core process of “acceptance” and/or “being present”.
I agree with the psychologist William Stixrud, who in his book, “The Self-Driven Child: The science and sense of giving your kids more control over their lives” says,
From 1960 until 2002, high school and college students have steadily reported lower and lower levels of internal locus of control (the belief that they can control their own destiny) and higher levels of external locus of control (the belief that their destiny is determined by external forces). This change has been associated with an increased vulnerability to anxiety and depression. In fact, adolescents and young adults today are five to eight times more likely to experience the symptoms of an anxiety disorder than young people were at earlier times, including during the Great Depression, World War II, and the cold war. Are things really harder now than they were during the Depression? Or are we doing something that is dampening their natural coping mechanisms? (2018, p. 2)
Stixrud and his co-author Ned Johnson go on to talk about a lack of control as being the “dampening” process that has led to more anxiety and depression in our youth. In my work with teens, I witness parents and helpers–lovingly, yet unwittingly– trying to fix things for anxious and depressed teens, which often leaves everyone feeling helpless and unsuccessful. In parenting, this has become known as being a “lawnmower parent”. This label describes behaviors by parents and other adults who interact with and help children grow up by mowing down every obstacle the child faces so the child does not experience any discomfort. The adults fix the problem, yet the problem with doing this is that the child will struggle to develop a sense of self, a sense of self-agency, and a sense of resiliency. The more other people take on to solve a problem, the less the child has to do. Therefore, the teen or child is left without skills in how to solve their own problems for the future.
So what do you do? You listen— this might be the most important thing you could do. It is ok to not try to “fix” things for other people as long as you are there for that person in an emotionally supportive and non-anxious manner. Listening is not a passive activity; listening may actually be the most active thing you can do, especially, if you are not trying to fix the problem. Listening is a skill and can sometimes be hard work. It’s why people need therapists because they may not have other people in their lives who do actually listen to them. I argue that being with and healing means not trying to fix but listening and helping the other person create and develop their own answers, which will enable autonomy and self-healing.