The rise of anxiety and depression in teens has rattled families across the country, with teen suicide rates and mental health diagnoses climbing to alarming heights. But how did we get here? On her quest to find the answer, Abigail Shrier has ventured outside culturally acceptable scripts to find the answers.

In her new book “Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up,” Shrier, an investigative journalist and former opinion columnist for The Wall Street Journal, challenges modern trust in therapy and argues that, in fact, the answer isn’t more therapy for all kids, but less. It is a controversial theory, to be sure, but no less so than the one she advanced in her first book.

In “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” published in 2020, Shrier argued that the spike in transgender identification among young girls in the 2010s was attributable to social contagion. The book caused an uproar in the media, was temporarily withdrawn from Target and was removed from libraries. The book came out a little too early, Shrier told me, when people weren’t as aware of the social contagion phenomenon and were quick to dismiss her argument and politicize it as a “right-wing preoccupation.”

The release of “Bad Therapy,” however, coincides with widespread reckoning around the teen mental health crisis, she told me. Smartphones and social media are only part of the problem, she believes. It’s also that therapy techniques infuse so much of children’s lives, even in the classroom.

In one passage in the book, Shrier relays an anecdote from a public school in Salt Lake City. When a fifth-grade teacher asked her students, “What is something that is making you really sad right now?,” one student spoke up about his father’s girlfriend, another began crying about her parents’ divorce. Shortly, half the class was in tears. “It was time for the math lesson; no one wanted to do it,” Shrier writes, citing conversations with students’ parents.

Shrier, who studied at Columbia and Oxford and earned a law degree from Yale University, is not anti-therapy, she says. Neither does she argue that a child should never talk to an expert. But she believes that our culture has taken therapy and its approaches too far.

The book, backed up by data and Shrier’s numerous conversations with parents, teachers and mental health experts, promotes a more cautious approach to therapeutic techniques and lays out a case for parents to assert rules and boundaries in their kids’ lives. Although few major publications have reviewed the book — The New York Times has ignored it — “Bad Therapy” has been lingering on the Times’ bestseller list for weeks.

Since the release of “Bad Therapy,” Shrier has appeared on podcasts with Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson and Glenn Beck, among others, and has spoken to various conservative-leaning groups that have embraced her findings. In a recent conversation with the Independent Women’s Network, a civic engagement nonprofit for conservative women, one of the co-hosts praised Shrier’s work, saying, “I swear you are the best thing for parents since the invention of the mechanical swing. I think you have done so much for the parenting movement.”

Deseret News spoke to Shrier, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children, about her new book and its arguments. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Mariya Manzhos: What was the central question that you asked when starting to research and write this book?

Abigail Shrier: There has been a dawning awareness that coincided with this book’s publication, which was that — gosh, this didn’t make sense: Why was the generation that got the most wellness tips, the most help with medication, the most emotional regulation and instruction in the classroom — they should be the picture of happiness and mental health. Instead, they were expressing more distress and more unhappiness than any other. But also, they didn’t want to grow up. They wanted mental health days off of work. They were saying, in higher numbers, that they’re not interested in forming families, they don’t want children. They don’t want to start companies — there are fewer tech founders of this generation than there were in prior generations. These kids are less interested in sex, less interested in learning to drive, less interested in drinking — which we know, of course, is a social activity, although obviously it comes with all kinds of risks.

But all kinds of social activities that we once associated with adulthood or growing up or growing out of childhood, they’re not interested in. They’re effectively taking a national sick day off of adulthood.

I tell the story in my book of my friend, who I call Evelyn, who is a research scientist and runs a prestigious research laboratory, and she takes some of the best pre-med graduates in the country for a year of research before medical school. She says they have very good scientific grounding, but in the last decade she’s noticed that they’re completely afraid to run their own experiments. They’re afraid to try. They’re afraid to be wrong. They don’t trust themselves to go for it. And we’re seeing this in every aspect of their lives. I think we’ve really undercut them by not giving them independence and not teaching them to trust themselves and give things a shot.

Related
Is the end of helicopter parenting finally here?
Why foster kids aren’t getting the mental health care they need

MM: Were you surprised to trace a lot of these problems to therapy and mental health experts?

AS: I knew that therapy had done a lot of mischief in the country, because I wrote a book on social contagion that was largely encouraged by mental health professionals, both school counselors and therapists that the girls had gone to see. And most of the girls who arrived thought that they were transgender, they were already seeing a therapist of some kind, and the therapist encouraged that revelation. So I knew therapists were doing a lot of mischief within the gender identity and the transgender identification space.

I also knew that even though very, very high numbers of this generation had gotten therapy (42% of Gen Z has a mental health diagnosis, according to a survey), still, I thought, that was less than half, so I thought whatever was ailing this generation, it couldn’t be the result of the mental health experts.

As part of my research, I went in to see what the schools were doing to support their mental health. And that’s when I learned that this generation is completely inundated with what I call “bad therapy.”

The problem is not that we’re giving any kid therapy. Some kids really need it. The problem is that we’re giving every child therapy. We’re doing a one-size-fits-all preventive mental health care with every child — kids who need help and kids who don’t, and the problem is — we’re giving the same solution for everyone.

These kids are getting it at school. They’re getting it from their parents, who are therapeutic techniques with children, like gentle parenting. ... They are swimming in therapy. And I call it “bad therapy” because bad therapy is therapy that either introduces new symptoms or exaggerates existing ones. And that’s what this therapy is doing to this generation.

MM: What problems did you find with the current approach to therapy and mental health, particularly in schools?

AS: We’ve had this ongoing love affair with expertise and with therapy — we have this idea that we can’t possibly overcome a problem unless we talk it out with a therapist. And it’s not true; it’s never been true.

Some people don’t need to talk through their problems. They’re better off putting their problems behind them. Some people are helped talking through their problems, and some people are benefited by therapists. Giving the same solution for everyone — which is therapy for all in schools — is not a good solution for anyone.

Now, why is that not helping anyone? Because a child with a serious circumstance or a traumatic event they went through or a hardship is not going to be helped by casually discussing it with their school counselor in a room full of classmates, especially not before he or she has to take a math test. Being prompted to talk about it — that’s not going to help the child in desperate need. And it’s not going to help the child who was feeling OK until the counselor made her talk about a time when she was sad or rejected.

MM: Why does therapy present greater risk for kids than adults?

AS: We see that there are people in desperate need of mental health intervention, both therapy and psychiatric medication, but they are very difficult to treat. So unfortunately, a whole industry has cropped up based on the “worried well.” And that’s fine for adults if they want to see a therapist — by all means they should, it might be useful for them.

But for children, it poses a much greater risk. Because children don’t have the ability to push back on a therapist and say, “Listen, I’m not sure I would call my mom emotionally abusive. I know she shouldn’t have said that, but I don’t think that was emotional abuse.” An adult can say that. And an adult can also say, “To be honest, I’ve been with you for three years, and I’m just as depressed as I was when I started. I don’t think this is working.” But a child can’t say that because they don’t have enough life experience.

Then, the final reason a child is at a disadvantage is that a child didn’t choose to go to the therapist in the first place. A child or teenager was inevitably sent there, almost necessarily, by an adult. A therapist almost has to pander to a child, which means affirming whatever bad feelings a child brings, encouraging rumination and constant focus on feelings and focus on emotional pain.

MM: Why are so many of today’s parents hesitant to assert authority with their kids?

AS: There are many reasons for this. First of all, there has been a spiritual decline in the country and a loss of religious affiliation. There has been a huge loss of confidence in the ways that things were done in the past. Never in American history, until this generation, have parents ever thought it was their job to be their kid’s friend. They knew it was their job to raise sturdy adults, good citizens, people who could build a family, who were strong enough to get married, to hold down jobs and do hard things.

And only in this generation, we poured all our attention into these kids. We had fewer kids, but we also devoted so much time to them that we wanted something back. And what we wanted back was friendship. And unfortunately, it’s counterproductive, because we’ve also seen in this generation more alienation from parents. They don’t want us as their best friends. They wanted someone in charge. And Americans knew this for generations. We’ve raised good people to adulthood (in the past), and all of a sudden we thought we couldn’t do it and we needed a psychological expert to teach us how to parent our children.

MM: You’ve found that kids of immigrant parents tend to do better when it comes to mental health. Why is that?

AS: Children from Latin American countries — for instance, from low socioeconomic backgrounds — tend to have better mental health than native born American kids. And the more those immigrants acculturate, the worse their mental health gets. Why? Because it’s not organic — it’s in the culture. They are giving their children naturally — based on their culture — healthier lives, more connection to extended family, more relational stability over time.

They are spending time in person with big, large family celebrations. The parents assert authority with kids, which doesn’t mean being cold or unloving, it just means, I’m in charge, I know what’s best, I’m your parent. They expect their kids to help out — the kids have a sense of purpose, they’re helping out for the common good. They’re doing all the things that psychological research shows is good for your mental health.

MM: How should parents navigate the balance between acknowledging their kids’ feelings yet not encouraging rumination?

AS: I think back to what my parents did or what earlier generations did. If I don’t think a kid has a reason to be upset or to be expressing that emotion, I will let them know. For instance, if you look at gentle parenting, it’s always encouraging recognizing the child’s feeling and affirming that feeling, whatever that feeling is. So if the child is filled with rage because his mother served him macaroni and cheese instead of chicken nuggets, that’s affirmed.

But our job isn’t just to affirm our kids’ feelings, it’s to educate them a little bit about their emotions and say, “Listen, I know this wasn’t the meal you want. It’s not appropriate to be that angry. That’s not something to get angry about. You can be disappointed. We can talk about it, but we save rage for really terrible events.” And that’s why you have these five-year-olds flinging their plates across the room when they got macaroni and cheese and didn’t want it. Because they don’t know better.

And then they show up in school and can’t regulate themselves because no one has ever told them that that’s totally inappropriate behavior. No one has ever told them that they’re hurting other people around them, that they need to be considerate of other people, that it doesn’t matter how angry you are, you don’t hit your sister, because it’s wrong.

MM: Did anything surprise you about the reaction to this book?

AS: I’m surprised by the agreement with the message of the book from the psychiatric field, and the number of psychiatrists who have reached out to thank me. And also parents across the board, who were really hungry for this message.

I’ve been really excited, and here’s why I’m really optimistic about this. We face so many challenges in America right now, but this is the easiest one to fix: how our children are growing up. It doesn’t cost any money. We can turn this around. There is no reason to raise a generation of emotional hypochondriacs who are so hyperfocused on their emotional states (that) they’re exaggerating their own emotional pain.

We know how to do this. We’ve been doing this for generations—raising good kids. We need parental authority. We need high expectations. We need boundaries and rules for our kids. We need community for them. We need extended family around them. And they need independence, genuine opportunity for independence, without our help.

If you give a kid those things, they’re going to turn out great.