Does your YA character need a therapist?

I studied psychology in college, and have a strong interest in the subject still. I always joke that if I didn’t become a literary agent, I’d be a therapist. My eclectic list includes a number of dark, psychological memoirs, in several cases written by mothers and daughters (an odd hybrid that really resonates with me). I’m not sure what this says about my psyche, but I am drawn to deep, painful, emotional stories that explore the inner depths of human suffering, and then highlight the amazing strength people possess to overcome adversity.

For all of you YA authors out there thinking of having your young characters visit a therapist, here’s an interesting piece that talks about just that topic in current YA fiction. Given how many kids today are being medicated for various reasons, it’s refreshing to see in fiction so many talking through their problems. As a literary device, it seems more effective to set a scene in a therapist’s office where dramatic dialogue and action can unfold rather than describing the inherently nondramatic act of taking a pill.

For those of you writing in this category, what do you think of teenagers and therapists? Is it a good idea to open up their world in this way, or do you prefer an interior dialogue and thought process for characters to work through their issues? And have you read any books other than the ones Kabi Hartman discusses (it’s a good list) that effectively implement therapy or therapists into their plots of teenage angst? Since I have 4 girls who will be teenagers in the blink of an eye (ok, I know my oldest is only in first grade, but still), I’d like to know personally as well as professionally!

9 Responses to Does your YA character need a therapist?

  1. My mother is a therapist who works with teens. She’s basically come to the opinion that it’s really the parents that need the therapy, not the kids. The parents often have unrealistic expectations, and they bring their kids in to have them ‘fixed’ to meet those expectations.

    She describe puberty as ‘temporary insanity’ and counsels parents that ‘they’ll get over it’

    IMHO, doctors are handing out medications like candy, which is awful.

    From my mom:
    You think your kid has ADHD? Well, perhaps they simply aren’t challenged enough in school, at home, or whatever.

    Your kid is depressed? Welcome to puberty. Love them, tell them they’re great, spend time with them, support their friendships. Basically build a support network, and they’ll probably get over it.

    Your kid is still depressed? Dig around. Are they getting bullied? Ostracized? Giving them drugs won’t fix that.

    Your kid is still depressed? Are they LGBT?

    Your kid shows anxiety and stress symptoms or skipping school? Are you requiring too much of them? Are they getting bullied?

    Biologically caused depression, bipolar, ADHD and so on are very specific things and should be handled as such.

  2. Tegan says:

    In adult books, I usually HATE when characters go to therapists; it seems like a jarring cop-out, the easy way to say instead of showing motivation and feeling. Same goes for journal entries… It’s like a character breaking into song in the middle of a drama, or a lazy soliloquy. [I have to admit, I almost put down Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit to the Goon Squad” over the therapist.]
    However, in YA books like 50 Cent’s “Playground,” therapy scenes can realistically reveal and develop character, especially because sometimes a therapist is the only person in a teen’s life who talks about emotions– and who can get him to talk about emotions back. I also like that teens reading about therapy might feel more willing to reach out for professional help.

  3. EEV says:

    First of all, only should only write about therapy if the person had gone thorough therapy, otherwise it sounds fake, like someone writing law thrillers with knowledge only from law series.
    Second, I’m a psychologist and I’ve worked with teens. So I can second Roxanne’s mother about the problem being on parents sometimes. I had a mother once bringing me the journal she stole from her son, and she didn’t understand why the kid didn’t trust her. Duh.

    Sometimes the therapy scene can be done, but shouldn’t be the main story, at least not in YA. Even more, I believe there’s more achievement in pulling through the madness with the support most teens have – family, friends, etc, than passing the message they’re screwed and need therapy.

    Just my 2c.

  4. MS says:

    Here’s a great site for writers who would like to get their characters some therapy – just what the doctor ordered! 😉


  5. Dawn Simon says:

    I recommend SOMETHING LIKE HOPE by Shawn Goodman. It’s excellent.

  6. Aonghus Fallon says:

    It does make me think of the old rule about showing rather than telling. Revealing the YA’s state of mind through therapy sessions could easily become a lazy form of plot/character exposition. And what about the POV? If the YA is addressing the reader (ie, revealing the troubled stated of his/her mind to the reader) why bother introducing the therapist as a character in the first place? Shift from the YA to the therapist’s POV, and you might end up losing some insights into what’s wrong with this particular kid.
    Just my two cents’ worth.

  7. Sarah Henson says:

    When writing, I think it depends on the character. I have one character with obvious issues but there is no way she would ever go to a therapist. It just isn’t her. On the other hand, in my current WIP I have a character with a medical issue and I think a therapist might help him talk through his cynicism and resentment. I think if done right (and not as a lazy plot device like Aonghus said above), a therapist in YA can be helpful and can decrease the stigma of a “shrink” for real life teens.

  8. Stacey says:

    Hi, folks. Thanks for all of your thoughtful comments on this topic. Clearly it’s a conversation worth having. And I love the link to the character therapist. What a great idea!

  9. D. A. Hosek says:

    Alan Mendelssohn, the Boy from Mars (Daniel Pinkwater) is a great older book with some wonderful psychiatrist scenes. I remember reading this in 5th or 6th grade and thinking that I wanted to see a psychiatrist after reading the book. I also (unsuccessfully) attempted to start a riot in my school following Alan Mendelssohn’s lead. Most people weren’t particularly surprised when I claimed to be from Mars.

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