Life & Culture

Are the kids all right? Abigail Shrier says you should stop asking them

Therapy culture is actively harming Western children, says this American author


Giving counselling a kicking: Abigail Shrier

When I last spoke to Abigail Shrier, in 2021, we were meeting face to face in Los Angeles, in a Hispanic-run diner in the somewhat flyblown Jewish neighbourhood of Pico-Robertson in the aftermath of the publication of her wildly controversial book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. The book was briefly banned by Target, suppressed on Amazon, subject to calls for book burning and had generally put a rocket up the backside of a country convulsed with debate about soaring rates of teenage transgenderism.

We had ropey goat’s cheese salads and the sheer force of Shrier’s character — her clear-headedness, frankness, and the heft of her research — almost blew my hair backwards, like in a cartoon.

Shrier, 45, is an unusual woman: an Orthodox mother of three, a total knockout, a Yale Law School graduate turned intrepid reporter, and the host of renowned Shabbat dinners with the great and the good of LA’s free-thinking scene, including media star Bari Weiss and Buck Angel, the most famous trans man in America.

Shrier’s concern about the harms that aspects of progressive modernity are doing to kids hasn’t flagged in the years since we’ve met, and she’s been hard at work on a new book. Now we meet on Zoom in the run-up to its publication, her perfectly groomed person framed by a spacious, wood-floored, book-filled and very neat living room.

Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up is about the plague of misery that has overtaken American children and teenagers even as the numbers of professionals there to make them feel better has rocketed. In punchy-as-heck chapters like “Social-Emotional Meddling”, “Full of Empathy and Mean as Hell”, “Trauma Kings”, “Spare the Rod, Drug the Child” and “The Road Paved by Gentle Parents”, the data-rich book chronicles the immense harm done to a generation of children, and their parents, by the suffusion of therapeutic intervention into all childhood milieus, from schools to A&E.

America is in denial, says Shrier, but all the data suggests that therapy culture carries strong “iatrogenic effects” — when the healer makes things worse. “In 2016,” Shrier says, “one in six of children aged two to eight had a mental health or behavioural diagnosis. Those kids weren’t on smartphones… those were very young kids, they don’t generally have a smartphone now in America, but back then they certainly didn’t. What they had was a tremendous amount of diagnosis. Which meant a tremendous amount of mental health professional oversight. And we have seen this for more than a generation. These kids have been flooded with mental health interventions. They should be the picture of mental health, right? If preventive mental health care worked, these would be the healthiest kids we’d ever seen. But preventive mental health care doesn’t work. Now that of course doesn’t apply to people who actually are in desperate need of treatment, which is not preventive care, [they’re] people who are being treated because they have mental illness and that’s necessary. But right now, mental health professionals are holding themselves up, especially in America, as the solution to the suffering of this generation, just when we have every reason to believe they have only been making things worse for a generation. To me, that’s a very big problem. It’s the idea of the firemen have actually been starting the fire.”

I ask to what extent this “fire” is a distinctively American problem, given the vast business (and cultural) model supporting pathologisation and diagnosis over there. Shrier acknowledges America’s “love of experts” but notes that “problems tend not to stay in the US, right. We are very big exporters of both good and bad culture. And you saw that with the transgender identification. There’s no question that our culture fed transgender identification in teenage girls across the world. We really threw gasoline onto that phenomenon. And with [bad therapy] I don’t think it’s just us. The same social, emotional interventions that are going on in schools across America and have been for the last 15 years… I know that they’re doing them in Australia and England, because there’s good research coming out just this year that they’re bad...counterproductive.”

She also points to a “profound” loss of confidence among American parents in their own abilities — and although she has studied this mainly in the American context, it obviously resonates with the anxieties of middle class parenting in Britain too. “Parents have been portrayed as buffoons for more than a generation – complete buffoons,” says Shrier. “When it came to my generation, and I’m at the tail end of Gen X, we finally thought, okay, parents don’t really know what they’re doing. We can’t rely on the old methods of our parents, because they didn’t know what they were doing. That’s what we’ve been told again, and again, by every television show and movie. So we really should get the experts in to make sure we’re doing the most psychologically appropriate thing. Never considering that the loss of our own authority with our children, the loss of the sense that we knew what was best for them, we cared about them the most and we were in charge might come with side effects. And it did.”

What about Jews? We are so closely associated with neuroticism, anxiety and, of course, therapy culture itself, not least because of Freud’s importance in the field. But we also have tight-knit families, so maybe the problem applies less to us?

Au contraire, says Shrier. “I expect the Jewish community to be the most resistant to this book… because Jews are so flooded with therapeutic [interventions]. I mean, nobody is partaking of more therapy since Freud than the Jewish. I don’t want to exaggerate. But there’s no question Jews are getting a lot of therapy for their kids. And it’s for a population that actually has done a pretty good job of raising its kids. But for some reason we have no confidence in our ability to do it. We’re convinced we can’t possibly trust our parents and grandparents to know what’s best for our children, we must bring in some expert whose methods were developed yesterday. And for an ancient people we are absolutely besotted with the new, whatever the novel thing is, we want it.”

We discuss the importance of October 7 for Jewish parents. “I think every parent should ask themselves this question before they do almost anything with a kid, but certainly before they consider any mental health intervention — but especially Jewish parents — will this make my child stronger? We need to make them strong. If anyone doubted that pre-October 7, that is our mandate now. We have to raise stronger children. And if we make kids stronger, they have a much better chance of being happy.”

Israeli society, says Shrier, offers an instructive model. Its children grow up with better mental health than Americans, because Israeli children are given “genuine independence, where they’re not being surveilled by their parents, where they’re being trusted to walk to school by themselves [from the age of eight] and take a certain amount of responsibility. That’s good for kids.”

I note that they’re also plugged into a cause bigger than themselves, whether they like it or not: the existential status of Israel.  “The young generation in Israel, they marched off to war. They absolutely did. Their country is so proud of them, and if you think the Jewish people are in any shape to do that outside of Israel, then I don’t think you’re being very honest. That you’re connected to something bigger than yourself is one of the most important things for mental health. 

“We not only don’t have that in other parts of the West, we tell them the opposite. We tell them they are so unique and bespoke and all that matters is their particular preference and feelings. We rip them from a social fabric and tell them to focus on themselves in isolation and they’re miserable.”

Has writing this book has changed her own approach to parenting? “I had to make myself much more comfortable with letting my kids sit with their distress,” she says. “I did not any longer think that my job was to cure it at every moment. I [saw] that my frantic running around trying to cure it was exacerbating their distress.”

Since she stopped trying to cure, or make everything ok, for her kids, they’ve thrived. One example is her daughter’s vanished fear of heights: after Shrier began ignoring her protestations each time she found herself at the top of a flight of stairs, she got over it and is now “always up at the top of trees”.

As for what the rest of us can do? Maybe stop asking your kids how they feel every two seconds. “You’re not actually meant to be asked by an adult as a child or really anybody, how are you feeling about this or that all day long. If you are asked that, it will make you less happy. It will make you less satisfied. It gets in the way of the ability to get on with the tasks of life. And that’s what we’re seeing in this rising generation. We’re seeing a stultified group of young people who believe they can’t improve their lives, can’t do very much in the world, and who believes that they need mental health days off from work because they’re in terrible pain.” The vital paradox is this: allow some distress, some tears, some feelings of powerlessness and some discomfort in the short term and there will be far less of them in future.

Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren't Growing Up is published this week by Swift Press

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