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Bad Therapy

Truth in Love 465

A review of Abigail Shrier's book, Bad Therapy.

May 13, 2024

Dale Johnson: This week on a podcast, I have with me Dr. Sam Stephens. He’s an Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his full-time job is with ACBC; he serves as Director of Membership and Certification. So grateful for this brother, and we are back again talking about Mental Health Awareness Month. And one of the key things that has hit the world recently in mental health is a new book by Abigail Shrier called Bad Therapy.

Dr. Stephens, I’m looking forward to our time discussing this book today. I think this book is going to be widely read, as popular as it may be. But I want us to talk about some of the things that she describes and basically give somewhat of a review. I want to talk a little bit about the introduction, where she goes, what her purpose is, and then flesh out some of the more critical issues that touch our world in biblical counseling. So as we talk about the introduction, it’s really interesting to me what led her to this. You remember her last book Irreversible Damage. And it’s really interesting to hear her talk about that story, what led her to researching that book Irreversible Damage, talking about the transgender issue. And therapy became a primary focus of it, and her seeing the suggestion of therapy and some of the negative effects really led her into this world of writing this book. Talk a little bit about your initial perception as you see her book and how she lays out the ideas that she’s going to promote in this book Bad Therapy.

Sam Stephens: Well, I think one of the first things that I would want to point out is actually that, in some ways, this book is not unique. I mean, there are more and more books that are coming out from people that are either directly related to the field of the psychologies, mental health, or are investigative journalists more in the vein of where Abigail Shrier would be. And I think they’re seeing these patterns that just can’t be ignored anymore; they’re more self-evident. Her particular focus actually is pretty well connected to her former book in terms of looking at children, looking at youth, and the state of our culture, especially in the States or in the West largely, in that things are not improving. Mental health is not improving, and yet we live in one of the most therapeutic ages that we’ve ever lived in. It’s accessible to many people. It’s in several different avenues in our society, whether it be professional clinics or in the local school system with school counselors and the like. And so I think she’s just picking up on several different narratives that make up a larger, very troubling pattern that we’re seeing with depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality. These things are just growing; the statistics are alarming. And you’re seeing this too, not just from someone like her, but even mass media which, you know, aren’t necessarily always promoting the same concerns that we would be concerned with it regarding the effectiveness of mental health or these types of things. But she’s pulling this out and I think weaving a very fascinating story here in this book.

Dale Johnson: Now, as we move along today, I want to get into some of those specifics that she gets to later in the book. But as we set this up, a couple of things that really were kind of shocking to me at the beginning where she’s describing a previous generation of parenting and now she’s looking at this modern generation of parenting. She’s describing sort of the perspective that modern parents have, and she describes it in terms of being enthralled with the therapeutics really at every level and that we’ve really now fixed our gaze upon the psychologist and a psychiatrist as the primary people who are the experts in all these areas of education and therapy and wellness and help. I want to pick up on the introduction. I think that’s a good place, obviously, for us to start. And she sets the stage, I think, very well in a way that can be helpful to us in how she’s writing a book and what her aim really is.

A couple of quotes I’m going to give you, and I want us to talk about those. She talks about this in response as a parent, maybe an overreaction to a previous generation of parenting which said that psychologists were the last people you should consult on how to raise normal kids. She sets that up then to say now we’ve overreacted to this in saying, “No, psychologists are the primary place where we go.” She goes on to say, “We vowed that our child-rearing would reflect greater psychological awareness.” She goes on to say, “Successful parenting became a function with a single coefficient: our kids’ happiness at any given instant. An ideal childhood meant no pain, no discomfort, no fights, no failure, and absolutely no hint of trauma.” She goes on one last thing. She says, “With unprecedented help from mental health experts, we have raised the loneliest, most anxious, depressed, pessimistic, helpless, and fearful generation on record. Why? How did the first generation to raise kids without spanking produce the first generation to declare they never want kids of their own? How did kids who received far more psychotherapy than any previous generation plunge into a bottomless well of despair?” Those are some powerful thoughts, at least appraisals, of our current cultural moment. What are some thoughts?

Sam Stephens: I think these quotes that you pulled out really summarized very well the spirit of the psychotherapeutic. One, and you noted to pull out: happiness is the essential goal here of all efforts, avoidance of suffering or any difficulties. And so that becomes not just the motivation, but the actual end goal in a lot of these pursuits. But secondly, and I think it’s tied to this, is a fundamental misunderstanding of who we are as people, that essentially the belief has to be that we are good or neutral at least by default. And this is again, I think, consistent with the waves of the psychologies that have, you know, kind of rolled over us over the late 19th throughout the 20th century into the 21st and this modern psychological belief that people are essentially good. So, it is an abject rejection of a biblical worldview. And, of course, Abigail’s not coming as an author or a researcher from a biblical standpoint. She’s not a professing Christian here. We would note her as a co-belligerent, and we can talk about that in a second. But essentially, those are the things that you pull out, and you see the error that comes. So she doesn’t tie all those things together, but she sees there’s something that doesn’t match up. There’s a hypothesis she’s bringing to the table when she’s interviewing all these experts, all these children that have been on the other side of the table from therapists, and if we have all these wonderful tools at our disposal, if we’re so enlightened when it comes to mankind, why aren’t the results, why aren’t the outcomes better?

Dale Johnson: Yeah. That’s exactly right. I do want to get back to that co-belligerent discussion because I would say Abigail Shrier certainly is a co-belligerent in this particular case. Now, what does that mean? A part of what that means is— I’ll give you another quote. She says (talking about the therapist), “They talk of wellness while presiding over the downward spiral of the most unwell generation in history.” When we talk about co-belligerency— And by the way, I think she’s right when she’s assessing the culture in this way, you have to have your head in the sand in American culture right now to say that our teens are not in shambles in many, many ways. But when we talk about co-belligerency, part of what we’re describing is not somebody who comes from the same paradigm as we do. Obviously, she’s not a professing Christian. She’s made so much clear in social media. So, she’s not coming at this from a Christian paradigm. So, we recognize those distinctions. We recognize that the solutions that she’ll offer are going to be different than what we would say. We recognize that the way she assesses and puts things together, even from a pragmatic perspective, are going to be quite different. But her system of thinking, her pattern of thinking, is noticing and seeing some things. I would describe it like this. She’s seeing some of the similar things that we’ve been saying for quite some time. But what she’s doing is she’s looking through a different side of the prism and that’s a part of what, when we describe co-belligerent, that’s a part of what we mean. And what she’s saying are things that we’ve been reading for quite some time: this idea of massive progress that’s been happening, we’ve been discovering all kinds of things in the mental health world, they have it figured out, we’re just around the corner from having these wonderful discoveries. And we’ve been experimenting in our culture for quite some time on this promissory narrative. The problem, however, is what we see is the result. I would argue the experiment is over and what we’re seeing as the results are things that any researcher should abandon unbelievably, even if we’re just talking about it from a pragmatic perspective which is part of Abigail’s point.

So we would describe her certainly as a co-belligerent in some of the things that she notices, that she’s recognizing about our culture in her analysis here. Even as we described her as a “co-belligerent,” we have to distinguish. That doesn’t mean she’s in our camp. This is not a biblical counseling book. This is not a book that promotes biblical counseling at all. In fact, you’ll see some quite distinctive ways that we would differ. So, talk about some of those disagreements. I think that it’s important that we acknowledge that even as we talk about some of the things that she is seeing well.

Sam Stephens: Sure. There’s at least two that come to mind. One being that she does give assent to the mental illness paradigm. She may and she does argue this, I think even from the very beginning of the book, that a vast majority of what would be identified as mental illness, she would say, is actually just normal problems of life. Ironically, the difficulty with that is because of the ambiguity of the concept, which we’ve talked about at length and in different podcasts before, that even the professional psychologist can’t really pin down. It lends itself to saying, well, who says what is normal and not normal? So that’s almost a self-defeating point. And she would say, well, there are there are severe mental illnesses, more profound is the term that she uses, and therapy would be appropriate there. She doesn’t really get into that in the book. That’s not really her point. But that’s something obviously we would take issue with. So I think it’s important that you know, just because we’re discussing a book here that is from a secularist, it is a co-belligerent, we are not affirming all of what she says at all.

Then the second point is that she’s a pretty big fan, it seems, of certain psychotherapeutic approaches, in particular cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, mostly because, at least from the social scientific research, those two therapies seem to be the most efficacious. They seem to be, you know, shorter-term, and they produce some sort of outcomes and results. So, she, at times, will promote those as legitimate avenues and even medication broadly. But again, she doesn’t go deep into that. We would take issue with those and say, yeah, we don’t have complete agreement there, coming from a different perspective.

Dale Johnson: Yeah. It’s good to note that. We have to read this with discernment, and we would certainly offer biblical critique on some things that you mentioned there, Sam.

Sam Stephens: But I think it’s important to note, just real quick, that when we have these discussions largely about co-belligerents, it’s an error to say that just because we are utilizing or seeing someone that may agree with us or at least there’s an overlap of critique it’s wrong to say, oh, we’re fully affirming or embracing that person’s full perspective. That’s not an accurate understanding of a co-belligerent.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that would be definitely a misunderstanding. So, with caveats, we would describe this book as being something that is going to be a helpful cultural analysis. Now, why is it so helpful? And this is where I want us to get into some of the specifics of the book. I think it’s so helpful because she’s putting her finger on the ethos of what’s happening right now. I might describe it as she’s helping us to see in many ways, the language of the Bible would be, “the spirit of the age.” She’s helping us to see in some ways what’s happening. And it’s interesting because she’s giving us some of the ideologies that exist behind the surface and that they’re being fleshed out in a lot of different areas in our culture. And the ideas of therapy being sort of a primary means for health and wellness, assuming that there’s no bad pursuit of going to therapy.

The example that she describes I think is very helpful. People have a misnomer of psychotherapy. They have a misunderstanding, a fundamental misunderstanding, of psychotherapy. We understand this in the medical world. Yeah, there’s a risk and benefit that go along with medication that you take. Right? I take a certain medication, I think it’s going to alleviate some of the problems that I have, and it’s worth the risk of whatever the side effects might be.

Sam Stephens: Or even surgery. There are risks in every medical intervention.

Dale Johnson: So we understand that in the medical world. We’ve not thought much about that in the psychotherapeutic world. In fact, most people would approach psychotherapy and say, you know, I love sort of the biblical counseling thing, but I’m going to pursue psychotherapy. Like, it can’t hurt, right? I think it could benefit, and if it does benefit, man, that’s great, but it can’t hurt me. And we sort of approached, even with our children, we’ve approached this idea of psychotherapy in this way. And her primary point of the book, which I think is very critical to read it in that particular way, that she’s writing about the iatrogenic effects of psychotherapy demonstrated in our culture. And the way she flushes out the ethos I think is really impressive because she talks specifically about its effects, this therapeutic effect, in education in terms of social emotional learning and how its fleshing out among school systems and teachers now become the primary sort of line of defense for the therapeutic.

Sam Stephens: They’re basically amateur therapists in the classroom.

Dale Johnson: And they’re trained that way, and now the teaching has been shifted in that way. One quick point because we’re not going to talk a lot about social emotional learning, although there’s a lot to say. But it’s the same ideas being fleshed out that we’re going to describe in some of the other areas. If you understand the history of psychology, this is really Rogerian-type thinking. John Dewey from 105 years ago to Rogerian non-authoritarian education that he developed in the 60s and 70s. It was adopted by many, many Catholic schools and then it fleshed out into larger population. This is a byproduct of that historically, so we could go into detail on some of those things.

Our focus I want to talk about some of the primary points of the book and where they overlap with us in the biblical counseling world. But the iatrogenesis, let’s describe. You’re like, what in the world does that word mean? This is how she defines it, and I think it’s a pretty good definition of how she describes it. It refers to the phenomenon of “a healer harming a patient in the course of treatment. Most often, it’s not malpractice, though it can be. Much of iatrogenesis occurs not because a doctor is malicious or incompetent but because treatment exposes a patient to exogenous risk.” And that’s what she’s describing is the risks that are associated with psychotherapy, especially with young people who follow suggestions very easy.

Now, I want us to talk about some of those side effects that we would say and parents, being well-meaning, often want their kids to have the best, but they don’t see what’s around the corner because what’s happening is psychiatry and psychology in a psychotherapeutic means, are giving a perspective of life and they’re describing in very ethical terms what they think is healthy and not. With that, then, the byproduct becomes a child starts to take on that viewpoint of these primary ethics: these things are true, these things are not true, and they’re receiving that from this psychotherapeutic perspective. Talk a little bit about the iatrogenic effects that she describes in the early part of the book.

Sam Stephens: I think it’s going to be helpful for our listeners to recognize that iatrogenesis is not unfamiliar with traditional medical practice. This is actually a well-understood concept. You kind of laid it out for us very helpfully. I think the reason why it’s not been applied to therapy sooner is because of the subjective nature of therapy. Like with medical practice, I mean, you’ve got traditional medical practice, very clear impacts in the body, things that go wrong. She laid out very clear examples in the book that are not uncommon to people’s experiences, but therapy is extremely subjective. She uses a term in the book called emotional hypochondriacs. The idea is that we have conditioned our children, we’ve conditioned our society to be so super-focused on their perceived well-being that it becomes kind of an obsessive, all-encompassing motivation for life, and that’s when people begin to feel like things have gone awry. Therapy comes alongside and has not resolved any of those conflicts. They’ve only fed into that misperception, that ill-focus, that disordered way of thinking about life. I mean, the Scriptures laid out very clearly for us. We’re not to focus on ourselves; we’re to behold our Lord and think that way. So that’s one of the things I think is important to point out, is that therapy has kind of gotten away with it because there is no clear line of effectiveness or outcome. And yet our government, nonprofit organizations, and these institutes are pumping millions of dollars into furthering a system that has really not produced outcomes that people would expect. I think this sets the whole stage for the book, that we should be questioning them.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I want to get to that. It’s not set up outcomes that we would expect. I want to sort of put a bow on this part with iatrogenesis. She describes the quote, “Parents often assume that therapy with a well-meaning professional can only help a child or adolescent’s emotional development. Big mistake. Like any interventions with the potential to help, therapy can harm,” she says. Another quote she’s quoting here from the American Psychological Association gives you perspective on how they think about psychotherapy. “And psychotherapy psychologists help people of all ages live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. There is alas no proof that they accomplish any of that in the aggregate.” And she says, I think this is a key quote, “Wanting to help is not the same as helping.” And I think that’s really important because as we think about what has been the byproduct if we were to assess 40, 50, 60 years of psychotherapy now. The mental health world tells a narrative that you would assume there should be wonderful progress. There should be an alleviation of all sorts of mental disorders because if this is something that is a legitimate medical or social science practice, this should be something that is alleviating all kinds of problems. But that’s not what the numbers tell us. The numbers tell us a very different story. This is how she sets this up, she says, “We’ve all been swimming in the therapeutic concept so long we no longer note the presence of the water. The mental health establishment has successfully sold a generation on the idea that vast numbers of them are sick.”

How do we describe this narrative that we would assume the mental health system is growing, they’re trying to define and describe more, they expand their reach in terms of patients and patient care, and yet there’s not progress that’s happening. If there’s some wonderful medicine that’s been discovered, what do we see? Alleviation of those types of problems.

Sam Stephens: There’s no accountability, though.

Dale Johnson: We don’t see that narrative of progress. How do we take that if we’re assessing this cultural narrative? You and I were introduced to this by a man named Robert Whitaker when he’s describing back in 2010, Mad in America, and then his subsequent book Anatomy of an Epidemic. He argues the same thesis where he says we should see this narrative of wonderful progress, but in fact, the numbers and the research actually show we’ve not seen progress. We’ve actually seen an increase in “mental disorders”.

Sam Stephens: I think it should lead the church to the same place that, frankly, many very astute and credentialed psychiatrists and psychologists, those committed to the field, have already landed. They’re saying we need to rethink our entire field. This is not helping people, we’re actually (in fact, some of them have been saying for decades) we’re actually harming people. It’s just now gotten to more of the broad, public consumption that actually we may have gotten there. And so what amazes me more than anything else, Dale, is that many in the church are still actively promoting this as a good system. We’re like 20 years or 30 years behind what the secularists have already been saying. And so Abigail again is not, we’re not lifting her up that this book is kind of the golden cow that we are saying, “Oh, yeah. This is this is it. This is a proof positive.” I think that she’s saying what has already been said from those that are in the center of all these discussions. I mean, she’s just looking at it from the outside.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, agreed. And I think my concern is that the church promoting this, we’re the ones left holding the bag, right, is when we’re promoting these “secular scientific approaches” that the secular world is abandoning, and here we are left holding the bag. And that’s been a part of the story of the history of psychology and the history of psychiatry for quite some time. We include things like lobotomies and humoral theory and chemical imbalance and all these different things where, you know, Christians promoting it as a form of like, yeah, we need to integrate this, this gives reason, rationale, scientific proof, that we need to integrate. And yet here we are left holding the bag, and I think she’s pointing those things out. And as you mentioned, so many secular scientists are saying the same thing.

She gives a summary quote that I think is very helpful and it’s worth your consideration. “Seventy-five years,” she says, “of rapid expansion and mental health treatment and services has landed us here marveling at the unprecedented psychological frailty of American youth.” And I think that’s very telling when, I said, the experiment is over. When we just look around and see, our hearts should break for what’s happening in parenting, what’s happening in our youth, and how we see them living life or attempting to live life. The subtitle of her book is “why kids aren’t growing up.” Why are we seeing this extended period of adolescents which is ever-expanding? This is a sad plight, and this is a place where the church needs to get involved with the truth of Scripture in how we should disciple and care for our children and grow them up to be committed citizens and people who fear the Lord and who honor the Lord because those types of children actually make the best citizens, the ones who contribute to society and it’s good the most.

I want us to get into some of the specifics that she talks about and these are ways, if we’re revisiting my discussion about ethos earlier, I think it’s important that we talk about how these ideas have been fleshed out, the therapeutic as primary has been fleshed out, in our culture. Some of the ways that we’ve seen this is all these things are a byproduct of our movement of self-esteem, the building of the actualized self, self-love. Carl Trueman, in his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, really stuck his finger on the pulse with a very healthy cultural analysis of the way psychology and the psychotherapeutic has really built this frame of man that’s become so unhealthy. I think what Abigail’s doing is picking the fruit that Carl Trueman laid down and cultural analysis, and she’s now applying it to certain areas. And she pinpoints a couple of places where these ideas are being fleshed out in ways that I would say are quite harmful. We’ve been saying this for quite some time.

She talks in her book about trauma, and we’ve talked a lot with our statements on abuse, the documents that we’ve produced, trying to be helpful. That certainly overlaps. And we’ve talked about Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score. We’ve done several podcasts related to his ideas. She goes in chapter 6, this title she calls “Trauma Kings,” and she does an analysis on how saturated our culture is with trauma and this idea of trauma and the body keeping the score.

Now, let me give a caveat. There are three primary thoughts relative to trauma, theories if you will. One is resilience. Obviously, she has the perspective of resilience. George Bonanno in The End of Trauma. She carries that perspective. That’s okay. We would have, you know, differences of opinion on some of those ideas.

Sam Stephens: That essentially people can bear up under quite a bit.

Dale Johnson: That’s correct. And then the second is more of a genetic perspective. That we have, certain people have a genetic makeup, predisposition if you will, that makes them more susceptible to trauma. So when trauma happens, their genetic makeup sort of induces a response. That’s sort of one area. And then the third area which is really the most popular that she focuses on mostly is Bessel van der Kolk’s view, The Body Keeps the Score. This came from Elizabeth Herman in the 80s and 90s. This was really a revisitation of Freudian theory. I call it Freud 2.0 because it takes a lot of Freud’s thought in childhood and development and really moves it over not to the psychotherapeutic, the underlying unconscious, but it moves it into the biological. And so that’s what we see happening, and she really takes it to task in this chapter. I want you to talk a little bit about your reflections on her thoughts.

Sam Stephens: Well, it’s key to keep in mind that when we talk about trauma (and I think Abigail Shrier would say this, I think we would say this) traumatic events are real, right. These are life-impacting. They can cause you know, whether be car accidents or war or abuse. I mean these things are real. They impact the body, and the soul is impacted by proxy. No one’s denying that. When we talk about trauma-informed care, however, and the Bessel van der Kolk version of trauma (which is fully embraced by the culture, frankly it’s embraced by some biblical counselors, and this is troubling) is it’s the memory of trauma. So it’s not saying, that’s what needs to be very, very clear. It’s repressed memories. This is the whole idea. This is what you bring about. This is the Freudian element. But there’s a very dubious past and this is what she brings up in the book that I find to be very, very helpful, even for the casual reader who’s not used to reading some maybe more of the technical works on this. She brings up the story of the 1990s when this actually was a precursor for where we are today with trauma-informed care. Therapists were meeting with individuals. They were working from a maybe either an openly Freudian framework or something that was influenced by Bessel van der Kolk and basically that they needed an explanation as to why people were struggling with life. This is not new. The world cannot deny that things are not going well. So what did they do? Well, of course, they reject the Scriptures. They reject God, so they have to come up with some other explanation. This is where the psychologies come into play. And so for these therapists in particular, the explanation is there must have been some sort of traumatic experience in childhood that was forgotten but the memory itself has become almost absorbed in the physical body somehow, and it comes out in a lot of different ways. It could come out in cancer, it can come out in panic attacks, everything in between. And so they literally explain almost virtually all difficulties by saying, “There must have been—.” It’s almost assumed.

And in the 1990s in particular (and we can get to this if you want), there was just a rash of false accusations that came out. And come to find out a lot of this was traced back to therapists had very clear, you know, presuppositions that were grounded in this faulty view and it led to strong influence on very vulnerable individuals. Their beliefs were challenged. There were strong suggestions that there was childhood trauma, and they began to blame other people for that. And now just take those small instances, which were devastating in particular individual’s lives, and now zoom out to an entire culture. This is what Abigail says: Bessel’s ideas are dangerous. They’re not scientifically validated. They’re extremely dubious. They’ve been challenged by a lot of individuals in the fields of memory, specifically, that know what they’re talking about. And I think you’ve even got some quotes in the book where, again, legitimate, well-known psychologists are saying no serious social scientist is going to embrace Bessel van der Kolk’s idea. And yet, it’s the top-selling book on Amazon for 100+ weeks.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I’ll give you a couple of those. She quotes Richard McNally, who’s a Harvard University psychology professor. She says that he’s called “repressed memory therapy arguably the most serious catastrophe to strike the mental health field since the lobotomy era.” That is an unbelievable statement. If you understand the history of psychology and the use of lobotomy as a very barbaric practice. John Hopkins psychiatrist Paul McHugh quotes him as saying the theory has practically vanished among scientists writing in the peer-reviewed literature, talking about van der Kolk’s view. Yeah. This book has sold over 3 million. It’s been on the New York Times Bestseller list for I don’t even know how many years, and it remains up there. She, I think, gives us a helpful appraisal. “We want to believe that things happen for a reason, and we would like to be able to pin that reason down.”

Now to your point. What you were describing as the influence in the 90s is these repressed memories were being used as expert evidence in cases in our legal system. And it was it was totally extrapolated from that where these types of repressed memories cannot be used anymore because they were not proven to be demonstrable. One of the leading psychologists on this, Elizabeth Loftus, talks about this. Abigail interviews her, and I think the discussion back and forth was very, very helpful. Elizabeth Loftus described it this way, “Our memory is not like a video recording of the events we’ve lived through. It’s a constructive process, susceptible to alteration and suggestion even years after the fact.” I think that’s absolutely critical, and actually that language corresponds with a biblical anthropology of perception. How we perceive a certain event, our bodies respond to. Again, we’re not saying that we’re not embodied souls. We’re not saying the body is not involved in this. But the body is certainly downstream to some degree in our perception. Why? Because the heart is always active, and I think that’s a key bit of information.

I think the danger here is for us moving in a direction that’s been different than the biblical counseling movement has ever been (which I would argue not just because the biblical counseling movement has always said this, I think this is a biblical perspective) which is that the body cannot make us sin. If we say that, at some point we’re saying that we cease to be moral agents and the commands of God don’t apply to us. I think what she’s pinpointing is that this trauma narrative is moving us in that direction where we’re saying that the body gives us permission to respond in sin some way because we can’t help it.

Sam Stephens: Not just moving that direction, that’s where it’s planted. And if I make a direct appeal to our listeners, those of you that are practicing biblical counselors that are committed to the sufficiency of Scripture, if nothing else you need to have major red flags when you hear things. These are all euphemisms, you know, a “trauma-informed” biblical counselor, “holistic biblical counselor. These are euphemisms for embracing these types of ideas, and they are not without major cost.

Dale Johnson: Yep. That’s right. That’s a very helpful warning. And when we say that, we’re not saying people who have gone through trauma don’t have emotional problems. Nobody’s saying that. We’re not saying that, certainly. What we’re saying is that theory in approaching people is an unbiblical, paradigmatic decision that moves in a very different direction in terms of help and how we see a person and how they’re struggling. So that’s really critical.

The other way that I want to describe (and I know we’re going a little bit longer today, but I think this is worthy discussion especially during mental health awareness month) is she talks about how these ideologies have impacted our understanding of parenting. And this impacts us as we think about, you know, trying to do marriage and family counseling, as we think about doing counseling with children, and we’re seeing this kind of stuff everywhere. And it’s amazing to me that she pinpoints one of the things that I think is really, really critical, and that is the end of all of this in terms of parenting, where psychiatrists or psychologists are the experts in giving parenting advice and what’s most healthy. The end of it is that parents really don’t know what they should be doing. They’re not the ones who should be engaged. And in fact what you see is not a coming together of parent and child; you see actually a separation of parent and child. That’s in the spirit of the evil one. And when we see that kind of stuff— I mean [Malachi] ends the Old Testament, the language of longing for, looking forward to the one who would come. He’s talking about John the Baptist, and then ultimately Jesus, who would come in the spirit of Elijah, who would turn the hearts of the father’s back to the children, hearts of children back to the father.

In Luke 1 when John the Baptist is announced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, this same phrase is quoted that that one would come in the spirit of Elijah talking about John the Baptist who would be the forerunner for Jesus. And the ultimate work of Jesus would be obviously the gospel, but part of that gospel work is a bringing back together the hearts of the father’s back to the children, hearts of children back to the father, which is consistent with the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 6, Ephesians 6, the beauty of parents being the primary educators, teachers, trainers of their children to teach them their values. That’s the way God designed this whole thing to work. And when you see therapy that’s moving in a direction that one of their primary aims is to separate parental authority. I think she picks up on that really well, and she talks about it through this lens of Social Emotional Learning in the school system but then also in this now what we call “gentle parenting.” Sam, help us understand a little bit of what’s going on with this idea of gentle parenting.

Sam Stephens: So I’m smiling right now because I have small children. So I take this very personally. The gentle parenting paradigm, like many of these thoughts, they try to present a zero-sum game. So the inference is, if you do anything as opposed to what the gentle parenting paradigm suggests, you’re not gentle. Right? And I’m just so sick of that. You know, if you use the rod on your child, if you believe that your child, even though you love your child, you would give your life for your child, is actually a sinner, was born into sin, and that they need the gospel and that discipline is important and that rules are important and respect is important, then you’re not being gentle. And that’s just not true. That’s not biblical at all.

And so gentle parenting, while it’s a current fad, it’s not really new in integrated literature; there have been individuals that have been pushing this for years. The penultimate goal for children in the home is that they feel loved and that they are happy. But that totally sidesteps what biblical love looks like, first off, and the purposes behind discipline and instruction and parenting and shepherding your children to the gospel. And so this whole idea that, one, that is our ultimate goal, and two, that even the methodologies that we would use to try to address behavior can’t at all come up against the will of the child. In fact, many of these books would say you can’t even say the word “no” because that could be psychologically damaging. Well, then you can call my kids psychologically damaged because they hear “no” a lot. It’s just folly. And then the Bible speaks about this, warning foolishness is bound up in the heart of our children. If we spare the rod—And the rod is not a euphemism. The rod is the rod. Spank your children, you know, as needed, always in the spirit of godliness. But it has a purpose. That sting reminds them very much so of the gospel and where sinfulness and folly leads; it leads to death. And so those types of things are given to us by God as parents to point our children to their ultimate hope which is Jesus.

And so gentle parenting I think is just is a parasitic theory that comes in and tries to, just what you said, it splinters the home. It does not bring children and parents together. I’ll tell you one thing: when we follow the principles of Scripture for disciplining our children, all of the efforts of gentle parenting in terms of wanting a close relationship with their children are actually accomplished. My children are drawn to me as their father when I discipline them. And the Bible speaks about this too. Our relationship with the Father, God the Father disciplines those whom He loves. There’s an expectation that we observe His commandments. It’s all over the Scriptures. 1 John, I’m reading that right now in my personal time in the Word. It encompasses the whole book, that we love the Lord God and we observe His commandments. Gentle parenting doesn’t have any room for expectations, rule-keeping, or even authority. Authority is seen as de facto bad. And so now you’re destroying any differences between parent and child, and I think the result is chaos. The result is a self-absorbed, self-centered child who is drifting further and further away from their hope in Christ, not closer.

Dale Johnson: Well, Sam, we don’t have to guess what the result is. We’re seeing that happen in our society. And here’s what’s at base. Not to say that that children aren’t emotional and that we shouldn’t take that into consideration at their young age in how we teach and train. The Scripture is very clear to nurture and admonish. How do we do that? The Scripture gives a very clear ideology for how we do that. What we’re saying is that the primary paradigm that builds gentle parenting is reactionary to maybe a sinful authoritarian-type parenting in the past, but it’s also assuming that any type of thing that opposes what the child really wants now becomes something that’s traumatic and will lead to an unhealthy disposition in the future. That’s faulty because that ideology is set right up against what you described in terms of a child being depraved and foolish and that they’re born in that way. This is primarily what Freud wanted was an attack upon Augustine’s view of original sin. And now we call it, instead of depraved and foolish, we call it the “sensitive child.” And now we’re moving in a direction with gentle parenting and those ideas trying to treat the sensitive child. And the whole goal is wellness, the whole goal is productive citizen, but what we’re seeing as a byproduct is certainly not that.

The Scripture really is right in the way it describes who we are as children. We’re born into foolishness, we’re born depraved. God in His kindness has provided close proximity with parents to be able to engage that on a daily level, to nurture and admonish their children so that they can grow them up to mature them. That’s what true development really looks like, to grow them up in the Lord because that’s what how they were made.

Sam Stephens: Well, you used a word a second ago: reaction. But I also want to bring this other word up too, and it also goes to what you said. It’s a rejection. If we do not follow God’s commands, the principles of Scripture regarding children and parenting in our roles, and these are heavy roles and responsibilities. Children are a stewardship. If we do not do that and we follow the wisdom of the world, we’re not just reacting. We are rejecting. We are rejecting God. That is implied, and I think that needs to lay heavy on us. This gentle parenting is not some sort of silly fad. It’s actually a deceptive philosophy that we need to, I think, wholly reject.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, key takeaways as we close this down today. We’re seeing an ideology that’s underneath the surface in how we think about people. We believe psychologists in our culture have really given us the keys to understanding human nature. And now that’s being applied in education, Social and Emotional Learning, in trauma theory, in psychotherapy in terms of trauma theory, in parenting as well. And we’re seeing all these ideologies disseminated and the byproduct that we’re seeing is not an advent of progress where we’re eliminating the byproducts of mental disorder. We’re actually seeing an increase. And my key takeaway is this that therapy does have iatrogenic effects and that these ideologies are not in favor of or in promotion of the truth that Scripture lays down. Paradigmatically, we’re walking in two very different directions. And for us to say that doesn’t mean that we don’t think people have emotions, we don’t think people are embodied, we don’t think— None of that is true. What we’re saying is that these ideologies are decidedly against, at their foundation, and their byproduct is something that’s misleading people and running people away from the Scriptures. Final word on a key takeaway for you, Sam.

Sam Stephens: I would just say that the efforts of therapy are selfish ambition and vain conceit, and those things only lead to every evil thing. So we avoid those things and we move towards the gospel in a very clear, specific way.

Dale Johnson: It’s very interesting to me to see how every word of God continues to prove true. And this is a demonstration that the Word of God is true because the byproduct that we see happening is not wellness, is not hope, is not help, is not encouragement for those, you know, under this type of philosophy and therapy. Actually, it breeds chaos, division, problems, turmoil, soulish vexation, and so on. And that’s antithetical, and it demonstrates it what God warns about when we have wisdom that’s against him. It doesn’t lead to wholeness. It doesn’t lead to restoration. It doesn’t lead to help and hope. And there is an opportunity cost, we have to be cautious about that, to pursue the Word, to see even what’s happening and unfolding in our culture.

Sam Stephens: And as a positive word to end this because this is all heavy stuff. But our brothers and sisters that have come before us have weathered similar storms. Different eras and different deceptive philosophies, but our faith, our hope and trust in Jesus, the consistency and evergreen fruitfulness of His Word will see us through. We just need to tether ourselves to that.

Dale Johnson: Thanks for taking the time today, Sam.

Sam Stephens: Thanks a lot.


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