Happy or Therapy?

Photo source: www.pinterest.com

There are many reasons why I stop working with clients: sometimes they move, they lose access to funding, they improve to the degree they no longer need for my services, or for personal reasons the family needs to take a break from treatment.
 Then there is another category of why people quit therapy, it's like that dark, wooded area in the back of the park that no one likes to talk about.

Sometimes clients halt treatment because they started ABA services expecting Happiness, and instead all they got was Therapy.

Maybe you are a parent who tried ABA therapy for your child, but to your surprise, the child cried a lot. Or their behaviors grew worse. Or tantrums got worse. You probably thought to yourself, "Hey! What's going on here? This is not what I signed up for". Actually, it is.

Now's a good time for a disclaimer:

"Therapy" is a treatment intended to help alleviate symptoms of, or to relieve the more debilitating impact of, a particular issue, challenge, disorder, or disease. Therapy is not synonymous with being treated poorly, being treated unethically, or being convinced you need something that you really don't need. If you had bad, poor, or horrific experiences with therapy, it's likely that was not actually therapy, rather it was some unethical and harmful service being sold to you as a therapy. 

End disclaimer.

Now that we have a solid definition of therapy, what should parents realistically expect when initiating ANY new therapy (Occupational therapy, Speech therapy, ABA therapy, Mental health counseling, etc.)?

*Difficulty - Therapy is difficult because areas of deficit are being targeted. The very things selected to work on are things the client either cannot do, or cannot do well. This means therapy will push us outside of our comfort zone, and be uncomfortable or hard at times.
*New challenges - By its very nature, therapy must challenge the client. If therapy does not push/challenge the client, then that is not real therapy.
*Resistance - All the science geeks: you know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right? Okay, so what happens when a therapist challenges the client in an area that is already weak? It's called resistance
*Commitment Requirement - ABA therapy is not a free sample at the grocery store, or a trial sized bottle of shampoo. You get out what you put in, and commitment is required for progress to stick around. Canceling sessions, starting sessions late, continuing to reinforce problem behavior, or applying different strategies than what the ABA team is doing, will all have an impact on the overall effectiveness of treatment.

Do you see happy in that list? No. 
Does that mean I'm saying therapy is all bad, all the time, and you should expect your child will hate it? Of course not.

But what I am being very intentional in saying is that the GOAL of therapy is not "happy". The therapy team will develop many treatment goals designed to improve quality of life, and quality therapists do strive to be fun, engaging, exciting,  and playful. What we do not strive to do, is keep your child happy all the time. There will be sessions with tears, or tantrums, or anger. This does not shock us as treatment professionals, nor should it shock you as the parent. I have clients who get angry at me because I don't just sit back and allow them to do dangerous things, like jump off kitchen counters. So be angry with me, I'm fine with that.

Treatment is hard. Treatment will take you out of your comfort zone. Treatment will push your boundaries. Treatment will impact the whole household, not just the child receiving therapy. Significant gains must be accomplished through significant amounts of work. The therapist will work hard, you the parent will work hard, and your child will work hard. If this is sounding unreasonable to you, or unacceptable, then it's likely therapy is not a good choice..... And that is okay. 

What's most important is knowing the reality of therapy, what it is and is not, before you jump into it.

Photo source: www.tombruetttherapy.com


  1. Great points!!

    I am sharing it with some parents :)

  2. Awesome article. Thank you. Need this for a client. Sometimes reading can be more effective than hearing the BCBA talk :)

  3. Hi Tameika- I do agree with you that therapy is not fun. I dont believe any parent signs up for therapy because they have this misconception that it is going to be fun. As a parent of a child who has been diagnosed with autism I have experienced great therapists and therapists that do more harm than good because they dont have the experience needed for the job. So to me this article gives a misconception that therapy is crying and that is not normal. There are great aba therapists out there that will be able to get your child to do what they are supposed to with minimal crying and screaming. I dont want parents to read this article and to think that its normal for a child to cry non-stop for entire sessions because it is not. There is something wrong with that therapist that is not able to engage the child and parents should speak up.

    1. Hi there, thanks for commenting!

      The post does not say that therapy is all bad, all the time.

      It explains that the GOAL of therapy is not "happy", its improving upon deficits/areas of challenge.


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