How Talk Therapy Helps

This post validates why therapy is so important and necessary to deal with mental health issues.  In my post “The Weariness of ODD & Detrimental Co-Parenting”, I felt extremely hopeless and had a really difficult time getting myself out of the valley of despair.  So I called my son’s school district psychologist, who is also his Child Study Team Case Manager.  She talked me through my four-day ordeal with logic, support, praise, empathy and equally important through the lens of my son’s own experience.  She helped to put some order and respite into what has been a very tumultuous and painful experience for me and my son.

Among the many complicated issues, my son is also going through an identity/racial conflict.  He is biracial – Asian & African American.  Within the last year, he was absolutely unaccepting of his African American identity.  Then over the last several months, he has taken the complete opposite position of vehemently defending it.  In fact, because I am not African American, he sees me as part of the opposition.  Imagine that dynamic on top of an already challenging one with ODD alone.

Add to this an extremely complicated relationship that he has with his father, who for the most part of his childhood has been inconsistent, absent and arguably more defiant and hostile.

I have to pause and take a breath because this is so heavy.

So the psychologist broke it down for me this way:

  • his father has modeled negative behaviors (ex: being consistently absent and always falling short) that then created negative experiences
  • my son has associated this negativity with his father, who is African-American
  • by extension, my son has associated this same negativity with being African American
  • this relationship/reality is a very unpleasant and uncomfortable thought for him
  • rather than face this hugely uncomfortable fact, in order to protect himself, he has to display the opposite reaction, by fiercely defending his father and the African American race

It’s called reaction formation, a basic and common psychological defense mechanism that occurs unconsciously.  She assured me that I did not cause it and that this happens often with everyone, not just people with mental health disorders.  By her breaking it down this way, I began to understand and empathize with my son’s struggle and pain.  She provided some very helpful strategies to deal with his difficult behaviors such as de-personalizing our negative interactions and focusing on and reinforcing positive experiences between us.

When we got off the phone, I literally felt a physical change in my body for the better – my muscles weren’t so tense, I felt reinvigorated and optimistic, etc.  This is because when we talk about what’s bothering us, we commit the act of releasing all the negative thoughts and energies and our bodies follow suit.  Reaching out to her for help not only provided physical relief, it provided instruction and comfort that allowed me to refocus my thoughts on a plan to reconnect with my son.

I could have gone home that night upset holding a grudge against him but talk therapy enabled me to buy him pizza for dinner, which became the olive branch that then became a bonding moment between us.

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