Are the offspring of therapists really more screwed up than the children of non-shrinks?

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Aug. 25 2010 10:15 AM

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

Are the offspring of therapists really more screwed up than the children of non-shrinks?

Growing Up Jung.

Whenever Micah Toub tells acquaintances that his parents are both psychologists, they say something along the lines of "But you're so well-adjusted." That stock response is familiar to anyone who has a shrink for a parent—myself included. As Toub writes in his snappy new memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, people without therapist parents assume that those of us raised by mental health professionals are total loons. After they ascertain that we are in fact not "insane," the question that follows is almost always: But did she shrink you?

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Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

Toub's parents did. They actively brought their Jungian practice into their parenting technique. There was a lot of dream analysis in the Toub household, of course, and also exercises in the Jungian technique of "active imagination," which Toub explains is "deliberately exploring one's imagination and fantasies by … acting them out verbally or physically to read the message that one's unconscious is trying to communicate." In one memorable scene, Toub's mother encouraged him to "be" an erection in order to help him get over a bout of teenage impotence. To accomplish this, she took young Micah to a local park and had him pretend to be his own boner. "Your name is not Micah, you are not a human being," she told him. "You are an erection. What words come into your head?" He visualized himself as a "victorious penis," running around the park triumphantly. Laugh away, but the treatment worked: Micah is no longer plagued by an uncooperative member.

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So, yes, Toub's parents do perfectly fit the stereotype. They were extremely involved, used their child as an experiment, and did things to him as a teenager that most of us would describe as unorthodox, at best. No getting around that, and even Toub says that we children of shrinks tend to get stuck in our own heads. "When I was trying to get laid in college, instead of just seeing a cute girl and going up and talking to her," Toub says, "I went to delving into my unconscious." But that still leaves the central question unanswered: Are therapist parents really different from civilian moms and dads—and do they warp their children any more than non-shrink parents do?

Not all therapist parents intentionally bring their work home. Dr. Judith Beck, a clinical associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who is the daughter of a psychiatrist and the mother of three, says that she tried to keep her therapeutic stance separate from her parenting. "I've always tried to be a normal person with my kids," she says. My own mother, who is a psychiatrist in private practice, says that when my brother or I misbehaved, she just reacted to it—not like a therapist, who was "thinking it through like a fly on the wall before I said something" —but like any pissed-off mom would have. However, she concedes that around the edges, some therapy-speak crept in. When we misbehaved, my mother says she made sure we understood that we ourselves were not "bad," but our behavior was. These days, however, that kind of sensitive psychobabble is standard among educated parents.

Parents now are endlessly negotiating with their children and offering a kind of nuanced discipline designed not to bruise the ego. ("How do you think Milo feels when you take away his toys?") Childhood misbehavior is much more likely to be described in terms of therapeutic symptoms than character flaws (i.e., sensory integration, processing). The average parent in the park can probably recite from the DSM, or at least act as an amateur child therapist. See The Kids Are All Right for such a deliberate, emotion-centric approach to parenting from non-shrinks: The parents in that movie solicit their teenagers in a measured, semiprofessional way, taking care not to bully or assume too much, giving them room to respond, controlling their alarm, making themselves conspicuously available, much as a shrink would.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

For shrink parents like Toub's who do bring their work home, their particular mode of parenting isn't necessarily destructive. He reasons that his parents' use of Jung's theories is no different from devout Christians using the Bible as a guide. "Jung was sort of a religious figure to a lot of people," Toub says. "I was being taught lessons and a lot of lessons were metaphysical ones."Dr. Alan Kazdin, a Slate contributor and a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale, notes that many parents turn to a set of defined rules when they are raising children in order to help shape an undertaking that is riddled with ambiguity. "What does damage [to children] is abusing them and neglecting them," Kazdin says. "With almost any theory you choose you will avoid those pitfalls."

Is an overly involved therapist parent really any different from any other meddling mother or father, especially in the age of the helicopter mom? Toub says no. "A mother doesn't have to be a therapist to smother a child or be a controlling presence in her son's life," he writes in the last chapter of Growing Up Jung. "My parents being psychologists only changed the language of it." Judith Beck has noticed that with her patients who are therapists, they often feel like they have to protect their kid from ever feeling bad and that they have a very sensitive emotional radar for any small signs of distress. But given that parents have to be kicked out of their kids' college classes now, even that is not so different.

Of course, I am biased. As a child of a shrink, like Toub, I can't accurately gauge how screwed up I am. And besides, as Toub notes, "At some point …  one needs to get past the point of blaming one's parents for fucking one up." But we're not ax murderers—we both seem to be productive members of society. At least, that's what I tell my therapist.

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