How to choose when you are not sure.

It’s the thing which spooks the financial markets. It’s something difficult when prolonged and intolerable on a permanent basis. It’s a general state of being – still! Any idea what I am talking about? Yes, you’ve guessed it – or maybe you haven’t – it’s uncertainty! 

Since children are always growing, they exist in a constant state of uncertainty. As parents, they will often come to you with it. Sometimes, you too may feel that there is something up with your child but you are not sure what. Given that it can be experienced as diversely as corrosive, intriguing or expressive, it begs the question; what do you do with someone’s uncertainty?

Well, in mental health terms, it depends on who you ask. A psychiatrist will often unleash a diagnosis on you, accompanied by medication in an attempt to define and address it. Uncertainty becomes more certain. Similarly, a clinical psychologist will seek to clarify the difficulty through understanding and helping educate you about it. This learning process develops a range of possible treatments, based on the idea of removing (and often replacing) the uncertainty. Counsellors may advise in different ways in order to guide you towards a more certain position, or along a clearer path. Psychotherapists, like me, tend to think about it a bit longer, gradually exploring uncertainty with you until you feel resilient enough to manage it yourself. 

Perhaps your own reaction to these options may help you find a suitable support for your child, should they need one. It might also help clarify your role. Uncertainty underlies all of mental health, since you can’t see it, touch it or even believe in it at times. To address it, we must address ourselves too. Are you like a psychiatrist? Some of us like to vaporise uncertainty, using our minds and bodies like lasers to seek out and destroy it. Others like to be educated and draw strength from definitions, terms or titles – it may be easier to know what to do if you know what it is, as a psychologist might say. Many, particularly children, like to feel that others know best and as long as you can trust them enough, their guidance can be supportive. 

Not so many, if I am honest, are comfortable doing what many psychotherapists refer to as ‘sitting with it’. This openness to difficulty is a brave and somewhat blind step – do you take many of those? Would you have someone work with your child from the presumption that their role is to let the child, in their own way and at their own pace, tell them? This is called listening, which may sound a bit wet in the face of a good paragraph from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) V, but is perhaps the basis of all forms of support. The difference across professionals is in the way they listen. 

Psychotherapists may seem to listen to everything. It is a liberating experience to be offered someone’s complete attention and one which we all had, or hoped for, when very young. Such interest helps to notice what may have become part of someone, or what may hold them back. The relationship itself is therapy and can foster resilience through experience. But it needs to be contained in something solid, otherwise it loses meaning. You pour your drink into a glass, not into the air. Therefore, the structure of psychotherapy sessions – a fixed time, setting and approach, with agreed equipment – is formalised and almost rigid in comparison with our dispensable world. This is so that within it, space becomes very open. 

This is not a plea for psychotherapy but a clarification of the work. Your approach to uncertainty may define your approach to problems in general. Grasping it may help you when choosing support for your children. If they are having a difficulty, perhaps consider what they seem to respond to. Then maybe think about you; what do you value? Between these positions, support may clarify itself. In doing so, you also unlock your own potential to support your child, as well as your current limits. It is from here that support can stand alongside you, where it is best-placed to help. 

PS. As you are still reading this, thank you for sitting with the difficulty. 

Written By:
Robert Leveson
Psychotherapist & Counsellor
Children and Families (Reg; TSP, BPC & APACS)
SACAC Counselling

American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition; American Psychiatric Association Publishing

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