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How Parents Can Help Their Children Without Psychiatric Meds

An interview with Michael Cornwall

eric maisel
Source: eric maisel

Welcome to Childhood Made Crazy, an interview series that takes a critical look at the current “mental disorders of childhood” model. This series is comprised of interviews with practitioners, parents, and other children’s advocates as well as pieces that investigate fundamental questions in the mental health field. Visit the following page to learn more about the series, to see which interviews are coming, and to learn about the topics under discussion:

Michael Cornwall, PhD, went through madness fifty years ago and has been available to others in all forms of emotional suffering for 40 years. He's an Esalen Institute workshop leader and writer on, and sees people in person and via Skype who are suffering. He can be reached at

Michael shared the following with me:

I've been serving as a therapist with children and teens and their parents or foster parents since 1980. At times that's been on psychiatric units, at residential treatment programs, but mostly at urban public mental health clinics and in my private practice. In all that time I've never referred a child or teen to a psychiatrist for medications or viewed them through the lens of the DSM diagnostic categories.

It's been possible to help them without medications or diagnosis and to help them get off medications if they already take them. I'd like to share here some advice for parents, advice that's based on my firsthand experience.

First, I want to acknowledge how challenging it can be to raise children and teens. I know this from being a parent myself as well as from my work as a therapist.

Our society itself exerts tremendous pressure and stresses on families through the economic necessities that now require parents to work so hard that they often get exhausted and burnt out. For some families, neighborhoods are not safe places.

Because it takes such a great deal of energy to provide food, clothing and shelter for our children, parents often don't have the energy to help them with school work or effectively set limits if children or teens get out of control.

That's the area where I have been able to help parents, help them be able to deal with the difficult behaviors of their children that might be causing the need for a mental health intervention even though the parent has low energy.

Because the good news is that even for stressed-out parents, there are ways to help them avoid their children and teens being put on medications or hospitalized, or put in juvenile hall.

I always meet with a parent or parents and their children in a full family meeting first, before I might start seeing a child or teen in individual therapy.

Usually parents have a ready list of problems to report that their child or teen is having: they may be failing in school, getting suspended or even facing expulsion, or their child as young as two years old is hitting or biting others, throwing temper tantrums or staying up at night. Teens and children may be defiant, destructive of property, violent, be stealing, setting fires, or doing drugs or alcohol.

To the surprise of parents and their child or teen, in our first meeting, after hearing out the parent's concerns, I always ask the young person to share what they would like their parents to do differently. The answers are sometimes surprising!

Because parenting is so difficult, none of us can do it perfectly. So a first step in discovering why a young person is acting out their emotions is to find out from them what they feel angry, scared, sad and hurt about.

That's the key in therapy for adults or kids: what emotions are there that cause our ideas, thoughts, behaviors, that prompt dreams and even altered states of consciousness.

I feel like I'm a detective as therapist, always looking for clues to help the person identify, own, safely express and understand what emotions animate their moment-to-moment lives.

When a family starts to hear, honor and understand the emotional truths of all its members, then using basic fairness as a touchstone, parents can start to really set effective limits.

I've very rarely seen it fail to help a child or teen stop acting out their emotions negatively, once parents are willing to set limits in a caring, non-punitive and matter-of-fact way.

That's where I come in. I coach the parents to use the huge leverage they have to influence their child or teen’s negative behavior. That's the power of saying no, combined with the parents control over money/allowances, play time, video games, cell phones, etc.

It often takes a couple of weeks of those new limit setting consequences being tested before the parent sees the child or teen accept that for them to get the things and privileges they want they need to stop acting out.

But that's just the beginning and through the whole process I meet with the young one individually and provide play therapy, art therapy and sand tray therapy to help the emotional expression flow and shift over time.

This approach that I'm suggesting that combines family and individual therapy with a strong emphasis on knowing, expressing and honoring every family member’s emotional truth is what I've seen work best.

If you're a parent and haven't tried it yet, it's worth checking out.


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