Toddlers are prime candidates for the couch, therapists say

May 06, 1993|By Houston Chronicle

An interesting tidbit revealed in the custody battle between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow was that the analysis-crazed couple sent their 3-year-old to a therapist.

People like columnist Andy Rooney thought the idea was nuts. Some experts in child therapy feel that way about Rooney's reaction.

"It's a shame some people are so frightened," says Dr. Carol Brady, who has a private practice specializing in child therapy. " Of course children can benefit from therapy."

One reason people may be put off by the idea is that they are unaware of what goes on in the therapist's office. Three-year-olds don't lie down on a couch for an hour of soul-searching and griping.

Children are often unable to express what is troubling them. One common technique used to root out the source of their problems is play therapy. By watching children at play, therapists can find clues to their emotions.

"People look at children playing and think there's nothing going on," says Dr. William Patrick Moore, a child psychiatrist. "Children don't have words to express frustration and anger."

Through play they express these intense feelings and can begin to work their way through them.

"You can intervene in their play to help some get some mastery over whatever conflict they're working on," says Cynthia Zarling, a clinical psychologist who treats children and families.

Even infants can respond to therapy, says Dr. Zarling. For a baby who's been neglected or abused, therapy may involve simply holding the child.

Sometimes a mother may have trouble bonding with her child and is afraid there's an underlying problem.

Dr. Zarling talks about a mother who thought her baby was rejecting her because the baby turned away when she talked. It turns out the mother had a loud voice, and that's why the baby was turning away. When the mother lowered her voice, the child was more receptive.

"As small as that kind of problem sounds," says Dr. Zarling, "it sets the stage."

Why would a child need therapy?

There's a wide range of reasons, says Luis A. Valdes, deputy assistant director of Children's and Adolescent Services at the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

Children in MHMR are the most critical cases, many of them the victims of neglect or abuse. But children with more stable backgrounds are also vulnerable to emotional troubles that would benefit from treatment, therapists agree.

These may be caused by traumas, such as an automobile accident or living through a hurricane, the loss of a loved one (even a pet) or the breakup of a family.

"The majority of children I see are those whose parents are divorcing or who are divorced," says Dr. Moore.

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