QUESTION

My son wants to start therapy but insists that he wants to see a well-trained professional who has undergone his/her own therapy. Aren’t all therapists required to do this?

ANSWER

No, most therapists are not required to undergo their own therapy. Only a few clinical programs have this requirement. Personal therapy is also required for those studying to be psychoanalysts. (Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy initiated by Dr. Sigmund Freud that emphasizes the influence of the unconscious mind.) It sounds to me that your son not only wants to have a therapist who has been through his/her own therapy (a plus), but also one who is knowledgeable, empathetic, caring and can be genuinely engaged in the therapeutic relationship. Such a relationship develops when a therapist actively listens and understands you and the issues you’re dealing with. With this understanding, the therapist can provide valuable insights, pertinent feedback, useful skills, support and encouragement. In choosing a therapist, it helps to focus both on the personality of the therapist and the model of therapy that appeals to your son. A few of the most effective psychotherapeutic models are…

  • Cognitive therapy (also called cognitive behavioral therapy), which focuses on altering irrational beliefs and erroneous or distorted thinking.
  • Behavior modification therapy, which centers on changing maladaptive behaviors.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy, which is a type of skills training therapy that focuses on high-risk, tough-to-treat patients.
  • Gestalt therapy, which focuses on acknowledging and accepting all parts of oneself in order to live life as a creative and integrated “whole” person.
  • Psychodynamic therapy, which highlights the influence of relationships, emotions, childhood experiences and inner conflict.
  • Systems therapy, which centers on the influence of the system in which you live and work. People generally thrive in the right environment and pale in the wrong one.
Your son will probably find it best if his therapist is well versed in a range of models. That way, strategies from diverse types of therapies can be used to create an individualized, tailored treatment experience. This is important. Why? Because what presents as his problem—let’s say it’s chronic anxiety—may not be the essence of his problem. What’s going on beneath the surface that’s inducing the anxiety is the major issue. Perhaps it’s perfectionism that he must always be the best. But where does the perfectionism come from? Is it innate? Does he have a striving nature? Or does it stem from sibling rivalry, parental pressure, cultural clout or a host of other reasons? Hence, your son will want a therapist who understands him and the influences in his life—not just his symptoms. Choosing a really good therapist is even more confusing because therapists are trained and licensed within different disciplines and states may have different licensing requirements. The best trained are generally psychologists and clinical social workers, though therapy may also be practiced by licensed mental health counselors and nurse practitioners. Psychiatrists are physicians who mainly prescribe psychotropic medications, such as antidepressants, antianxiety medication and mood stabilizers, though some are also trained to do therapy. So, what type of therapist should your son choose? He should look for a professional who is licensed. In addition, the therapist should…
  • Have years of clinical experience in your son’s issues.
  • Understand and respect your son’s experience.
  • Have good judgment, acumen and smarts.
  • Offer invaluable interpretations, insights and ingenuity.
I believe that a therapist who has also had his/her own therapy experience can be particularly helpful as well. Research has shown that the relationship between therapist and client is a more powerful therapeutic indicator than any particular treatment modality. It may take several sessions for your son to know if he has chosen a therapist who is right for him. But if he has, amazing things can happen!