Book Reviews

A Brief Review of Abigail Shrier’s “Bad Therapy”

I finished Abigail Shrier’s book Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up about two or three weeks ago. I’ve had a lot of time to ruminate on it, and I think it will be one of the most important books of the year. It really is a bit of a barn-burner. Her reporting gathers evidence against some of the sacrosanct totems of our age:

1. Trauma-informed therapy
2. Gentle parenting
3. Hyper-medicalization of children
4. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score
5. Empathy run amok

Shrier begins the book with a giant disclaimer that she’s not writing this book about kids with actual serious, debilitating trauma. She’s not writing as if real trauma doesn’t exist in the world or as if therapeutic interventions can never be helpful for people. She’s writing about an overweening therapeutic mindset that pathologizes the ordinary challenges of a child’s life. Parents who rashly thrust their child into therapy or under the influence of psychotropic drugs may be doing more harm than good. She argues that our presumption should be for our children’s resilience, not for our children’s inability to cope without medical interventions.

My sense is that Shrier has tapped into something that many parents are already beginning sense for themselves. They are starting to recognize that “gentle parenting” and a lack of skepticism about psychiatric interventions have led to a situation in which ordinary problems have been pathologized and medicalized—problems that in previous generations were dealt with through loving discipline.

Just last week, I watched a video online of a weeping mother after her four-year-old son had punched and hit her. Her “gentle parenting” response was to get on her knees and plead with her four-year-old to give consideration to her feelings. That four year old didn’t need that. Nor did he need a diagnosis of “intermittent explosive disorder.” He just needed loving, consistent discipline (and probably of the corporal variety).

Shrier’s book is giving parents permission to rethink the therapeutic paradigms that have dominated child-rearing literature for a long time now. She gives parents permission to see their children as moral agents who need their character formed by loving parents rather than as merely victims of an array of alleged pathologies that require third-party interventions from the medical authorities.

Here’s one interesting thing I didn’t know before reading this book. Bessel van der Kolk, the author of The Body Keeps the Score (which has sold over 3 million copies!), was a major purveyor of the now discredited “repressed memory” therapy of the 1990’s. That was news to me. In fact, Shrier contends that The Body Keeps the Score is just another version of it. She interviews experts who lambaste the idea that memories or trauma are stored outside the central nervous system. She also contends that van der Kolk is not nearly as respected within the peer-reviewed world of psychiatry as he is within the world of popular readers. I’m not an expert in this area, so I will have to let the specialists sort this out. Nevertheless, her interviews with experts in the field are going to require a response from van der Kolk because Shrier’s reporting eviscerates his work.

Is this book perfect? No. It’s certainly not above critique. Christians reading this book are going to realize very quickly some significant worldview differences between that of Schrier (who isn’t a Christian) and their own. Also, Christianity Today ran a review that is highly critical. Nevertheless, none of the criticisms I’ve read undermine the basic thrust of Shrier’s book—that children are not alright, and that sad fact is the consequence of pathologizing ordinary problems.

This book is a must-read.