Abigail Shrier’s Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up makes a devastating case against the infantilizing way we are raising American children today. 

Shrier, an investigative journalist and mother of three, draws on empirical studies to show that authoritative parents have the happiest, strongest, and most resilient kids. Her own study of nearly one thousand families tells the same tale: Kids who can rely on their parents for love, discipline, and boundaries typically grow up to become society’s “load-bearing walls,” capable of taking responsibility for themselves and others.

But today, Shrier argues, far too many American parents—along with our schools and broader culture—foster weakness rather than strength in children by relying on so-called “parenting experts” who pathologize and therapize healthy kids for a living. Cowed by nonfactual fear-mongering about kids’ mental health, we have submitted en masse to these experts. They insert themselves between us and our offspring and usurp child-rearing authority from the family. 

Bad Therapy

Shrier explains that the new normal in child-rearing involves “gentle parenting” that elevates feelings over behaviors, decreased childhood independence that undermines kids’ confidence in their ability to become adults, and a form of “social-emotional learning” that encourages exactly the anxious rumination that leads to depression. These trends comprise what Shrier calls a therapeutic orientation to childhood. They simultaneously reduce parental authority and increase parental control. 

Nowhere is this therapeutic orientation to childhood more acute or more damaging than in the prevalence of actual therapists in far too many kids’ lives. 

For Shrier, the childhood therapeutic establishment is a self-serving industry that inculcates weakness in our children by pathologizing normal emotions. Worry becomes anxiety, sadness becomes depression, and shyness becomes social anxiety. As more parents practice gentle parenting and more schools employ so-called “restorative justice,” misbehavior becomes “oppositional defiance disorder.” And, as Shrier documented in her first book, pubescent discomfort with changing bodies becomes “transgenderism.” 

As a result, shocking numbers of kids today have diagnoses and medications. And therapists. 

Shrier introduces the concept of iatrogenesis, defined as a medical treatment that creates a new problem for the patient. A great majority of our kids, Shrier contends, would be far better served by a return to the “knock it off, shake it off” school of parenting predicated on the belief that children are mature enough to behave appropriately and strong enough to manage minor dangers, injuries, and setbacks on their own. The pathologization and medicalization of routine ups and downs, by contrast, encourages a “state orientation” that obsesses over feelings rather than an “action orientation” that assumes competence to perform tasks. 

Shrier is not “against psychotherapy” any more than she’s “against chemotherapy.” In fact, she’s been to therapy herself—as an adult who could tell the difference between the good therapy that fosters resilience by teaching coping skills and the bad therapy that fosters fragility by undermining them. As an adult, Shrier was also free to push back on what she felt were her therapist’s mistakes or misunderstandings. Children, Shrier contends, do not have this kind of discernment or agency; typically, they do not make the choice to be in therapy themselves. Moreover, they are too young to understand that the adult asking them about their father’s “emotional abuse” or their own “relationship to gender” is either a well-meaning true believer or a dishonest charlatan (it doesn’t matter which) with one agenda: Retain a compliant patient indefinitely, by convincing her that she cannot cope without treatment. 

So, Shrier argues, just like we would not recommend chemotherapy for children who do not have cancer—for what other reason would anyone prescribe its brutal side effects?—we should not be recommending psychotherapy for children who do not have either the kinds of serious conditions that warrant management or the kinds of actual trauma that warrant attention. 

Schools and households, meanwhile, should not be turned into therapeutic environments. Counterintuitively, a heavy focus on empathy can actually provoke great cruelty among students. As one mother explained to Shrier, the school’s focus on kids’ feelings teaches that “only what you believe and what you feel matters.” As a result, the kids turn into “a bunch of tiny little narcissists” who “attack each other” for failing to be sufficiently deferential to one another’s feelings. By actively militating against the distinction between “my feelings” and “standards for my behavior,” we frustrate the authentic moral and emotional growth that is necessary for true empathy. The iatrogenic side effects of both therapy and a therapeutic child-rearing culture may prove permanently devastating—for our kids and for the society that we must one day hand over to them.

Make Parenting Authoritative Again?

Instead of endless prescriptions for kids, Shrier has one prescription for parents: Replace the new norm of childhood therapy with the old norm of parental authority.

In me, Shrier is preaching to the choir. I worry, though, that said choir’s membership is thinning as Shrier’s Gen X cohort ages out of early parenting and my millennial one becomes dominant. As Shrier points out, this therapeutic nonsense is now everywhere. Shrier recommends that today’s parents say “good riddance” to the experts pathologizing our children and reestablish parental authority, flanked by the wisdom of extended family and community. Parents, Shrier says, have been raising children without therapists forever. Grandparents and other kin can be appealed to for traditional child-rearing wisdom that toughens kids, instead of habituating them to pathology. I share Shrier’s desire to put the parenting experts out of business, but I think it’s about ten years too late for that.

Today’s parents simply will not reclaim parental authority en masse as Shrier prescribes. After all, how can people reclaim something they didn’t know they had?

By the 1990s, when I was growing up, the suburbanization and atomization that began in the 1960s (when, Shrier notes, children’s mental health began to decline) had already reached a point of no return. People began to have children later and give them fewer siblings; grandparents and extended family were less likely to be around, and kids’ structured activities began to take the place of independent play. 

As a result, parents my age may not have developed in adolescence the deft authority with children that comes from regular, intimate familiarity with them. Nor did they develop the kind of independence and self-reliance that Shrier’s latchkey 1980s childhood inculcated in her. Today’s grandparents, too, are a mixed bag. Many younger Boomer parents were wary of parental authority and moral absolutes themselves. Besides, a growing number of Boomer grandparents aren’t interested in being involved in their grandkids’ lives anyway. 

Parents who are wary of a teacher’s diagnosis, but not sure enough of themselves to shrug it off, need to know where to find a duly licensed expert who will state the simple truth: Your kid requires no intervention beyond what authoritative parenting provides. 

Furthermore, as birth rates drop, we have fewer friends raising fewer children with less discipline—and taking those they do have more therapists. Spoiled children are draining to be around, which sows unease about parenthood among those thirty-somethings who do not yet have kids. And as religious affiliation recedes, the societal assumption that we have a duty to something larger than our own feelings—that raising children is worthwhile even if it’s not easy or pleasant all the time—dissipates. 

Finally, we have these “social-emotional” and “wellness” experts in our faces constantly, not just in the unregulated hellscape of social media but in erstwhile respectable settings like schools and universities. They have convinced us that an ostensible need for intervention is the norm. 

For some of us, Bad Therapy is a clarion call to keep doing what we’re doing: Trust ourselves and the select others who actually want our kids to become strong-minded adults. But for our cohort as a whole, Shrier’s book isn’t enough.

Most parents of young children today view a screening for something nonsensical, like “oppositional defiance disorder,” on a level with something clinical, like a food allergy. They will not trust Shrier over the recommendations of some alleged expert.

So, let’s meet them where they are. Let’s get better experts. 

We Need Better Parenting Experts

Shrier describes how, when her daughter was seven, a teacher mentioned that she “seemed anxious” because she was looking at the clock a lot near the end of the school day. The teacher was implying that her daughter should be tested for anxiety. Shrier knew better, of course: her daughter did not want to miss the bus. She did not submit her to tests for anxiety. 

But what if that teacher had been persistent? What if she had insisted, not just implied, that Shrier’s daughter needed anxiety testing? Shrier might have dismissed it, but it actually is not easy, as a parent, to shrug off advice from your child’s teacher, who might then hold your disdain for her alleged expertise against your child. 

Presently, only two options exist for parents in this sort of situation: (1) Blow the teacher off and invite substandard treatment of the child; (2) Take the child to the recommended doctor, therapist, or counselor (each of whom is likely to be ensconced in the therapeutic mindset) and thereby invite the iatrogenic effects of therapeutic and/or medical intervention in a problem that does not exist. 

There needs to be a third option. Parents who are wary of a teacher’s diagnosis, but not sure enough of themselves to shrug it off, need to know where to find a duly licensed expert who will state the simple truth: Your kid requires no intervention beyond what authoritative parenting provides. 

When my oldest of four sons was two, he went to daycare two days a week. His daycare teacher told me that I should get him evaluated by a developmental pediatrician because he might need early intervention. He didn’t always come when he was called, and he often ignored what other kids were doing, looking through books by himself while humming absent-mindedly. The teacher hypothesized that he might be hard of hearing. But, more likely, he might be autistic or have ADHD. Her own son, she said, had been like this at age two; he now got services for various learning differences through his public school.

I knew that this was nonsense. But to appease the teacher, I scheduled an appointment with my favorite pediatrician in the practice we used then: a warm Jewish man in his 70’s, with many grandchildren. As we walked in, my son, hand outstretched to the doctor, chirped “Peace be with you!” (as he used to do to as many people as possible at mass each Sunday). Then, he sat quietly in the chair provided, smiling at the doctor while patting his baby brother on the head—albeit not so gently—and whispering “Nice touches.”

The doctor looked at me. “What are we here for?” he asked, bemused. “Who said he needed …developmental evaluation?” I explained to him what the teacher had told me. He smiled. “Do you always come when you’re called?” he asked. He observed my son for a silent minute, and then continued: “I’d say he’s very smart, very self-directed—and, yeah, probably also a little spacey. You should make him come when you call him at home. Soon, he’ll do it at daycare.”

But you can’t blame the daycare, he added. Some of these teachers today are looking for a diagnosis to explain every difference. They took a child psychology course. So, they feel they have “a hammer.” And “when you have a hammer, everything becomes a nail.”

I thanked him, got his signature on a “no intervention necessary” paper for my son, and went on my way. 

I also took his parenting advice, and promptly taught my then two-year-old to come when called using a combination of rewards and punishments. Six years later, my son has indeed proven to be very smart, very self-directed—and, yes, spacey enough to lose himself in books. Sometimes while humming. My family was lucky that this doctor hadn’t yet retired. I sought him out because I knew that he was what remained of common sense in pediatric medicine. But he’s literally a dying breed. So he and his contemporaries cannot be a large-scale solution to the problem of a culture eager to diagnose normal preschoolers with learning differences.

We need a vibrant and growing group of experts who believe in rearing and forming our children—not pathologizing, coddling, and overmedicating them. This new cadre of parenting experts has to be formed as a counter-cultural force within a medical establishment that has become hopelessly deferential to both the amorality of leftist ideology and the medicalization of healthy human variance. 

In the largely leftist field of education, heterodox individuals and institutions can find one another because they are clearly labeled. Ditto for media and law. It is long past time to recognize that this must become true in medicine as well, if we want to retain any hope of finding non-ideological healthcare providers like the ones prior generations took for granted. 

What if there were, within pediatric medicine, a society of professionals equivalent to law’s Federalist Society? Healthcare providers committed to relying on facts, not fears or feelings, could advocate against the intrusion of so-called “mental healthcare” into the lives of American children and families while endorsing the ageless wisdom of authoritative parenting.

Best of all, these medical professionals could self-style as truly expert alternatives to the pseudo-experts Shrier decries. 

The data would be entirely on their side. Overfocusing on kids’ feelings is harmful to their overall well-being—up to and including the risk of suicide. Per Shrier, this is a fact that childhood therapists and the medical providers that abet them either claim not to know or reject in defiance of all facts. But a countercultural group of pediatric healthcare providers could reestablish a reality principle for loving parents harassed and manipulated by the therapeutic establishment.

Over time, such a group could gain prestige, adherents in other areas of medicine, and a foothold in medical schools eager to refute charges of overwhelming leftist bias. It could become mainstream, even if not dominant. And it could save thousands of American children from “help” they don’t need. 

But what to call such a society? I nominate the Hippocratic Society, after the doctors’ oath that starts: “First, do no harm”—a pledge that is presently being violated by the mainstream pediatric medical establishment in myriad ways. How easy it would be for a Hippocratic Society to do a lot of good, just by telling parents the truth: In 99 percent of cases, the kids are fine so long as we don’t tell them they’re not.