Abigail Shrier: ‘Parents need to reclaim authority over their children’

Abigail Shrier
Abigail Shrier: 'A therapist has to pander to the child. They have to get their buy-in' - Dan Tuffs

Last summer, Abigail Shrier’s 12-year-old son came home from camp with a stomach ache. When it showed no signs of clearing up, the US journalist and author of the controversial bestseller Irreversible Damage, took him to a paediatric urgent-care clinic near their LA home, where a doctor ruled out anything serious and handed the boy over to a nurse, who asked Shrier to “give us some privacy so I can do our mental health screening”.

Confused as to why this was happening, the 45-year-old asked to see the questionnaire, which had been issued by the National Institute of Mental Health. “In the past few weeks, have you wished you were dead?” read the first question, followed up by: “In the past few weeks, have you felt that you or your family would be better off if you were dead?”

“In the past week, have you been having thoughts about killing yourself?” “Have you ever tried to kill yourself? If yes, how? When?” And finally, in the words of the worst troll, the kind who goads vulnerable children on: “Are you having thoughts of killing yourself right now? If yes, please describe.”

Shrier is still haunted by that incident. There was no reason to suspect that her son was suffering from any kind of mental illness, yet in a country and a climate where children of the same age are routinely handed out similar surveys at school, there didn’t have to be.

“Who were the adults who looked at these lists of questions and thought they were OK?” Shrier asks, gentle-voiced but fiery-eyed. They were the spiritual gurus of our era, of course, our moral arbiters, our North Stars.

These were the mental health experts an increasing number of parents are relying upon to heal their children from an ever-proliferating series of dysfunctions – and in her new book, Bad Therapy: Why The Kids Aren’t Growing Up, Shrier is taking them on.

A petite, fine-featured brunette in a bouclé cropped jacket and skirt and cappuccino-coloured leather knee-high boots, Shrier doesn’t look like a “danger to society”, as one online hater put it.

Shrier's new book looks to push back against the prevailing therapeutic narrative
Shrier's new book looks to push back against the prevailing therapeutic narrative - Dan Tuffs

As she welcomes me into her neat grey and white painted home in a quiet, plush-lawned area of West LA peppered with American flags and offers up a list of herbal teas, it’s hard to square this mother of three with the supposed rabble-rouser who became the American Left’s Public Enemy Number One back in 2020 when she published Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.

Preceded by a 2019 Wall Street Journal article on the same theme, the book was an early alarm call about the harm the promotion of trans ideology was doing to young people. Four years later, the conversation has opened up, but back then the book was so controversial that the US retail chain Target briefly stopped selling it “before putting it back on the shelves for a week… and then deleting it entirely”.

An English professor at Berkeley called for the book to be burned, and even Amazon, where Shrier believes she had “some kind of fairy godmother who protected it to some extent”, refused either to promote it or allow other authors to. “People tried to send things to our home,” she says with a grimace, “and the kids got a little scared.”

But the worst thing, Shrier tells me, her voice now barely louder than a whisper, “was a piece in The New York Times claiming I was a danger to children and a sexual pervert. Well, I have three children, and I said to my husband, ‘if they ever try to take our children away, we have to leave the state immediately’.”

So yes, the therapeutic world may not exactly welcome Bad Therapy, but given her previous experience, I’m guessing she’ll be able to deal with any fallout.

“I think what made people so angry with the first book,” the Maryland-born author says now, “the gender enthusiasts or the gender activists, was that it finally broke the monopoly on information and transferred some of the power to the parents.”

As a graduate of Columbia, Yale Law School and Oxford, where she did her thesis on vagueness in the law, Shrier packs her books full of statistics, research and interviews. “Armed with that information, parents could go in and say: ‘no’.”

She hopes Bad Therapy will do the same, as do I. Whatever your beliefs, no parent should ever be made to feel powerless. And we may joke about “therapy mad” America and reassure ourselves that suicide questionnaires would never be handed out in the UK, but we’re not far behind. Child therapy is on a particularly steep incline. And the truth is, they would.

New data analysed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists earlier this month has shown a 53 per cent rise in referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) crisis teams over three years, while recent figures revealed that 420,000 children and young people in England are currently being treated for mental health problems every month.

Then there are the unreferred helping to “heal” our children, unasked: the teachers increasingly using what Shrier calls “therapeutic methods of pedagogy”.

These therapists and would-be-therapists are encouraging children from primary school upwards to “process” their “big feelings”, writes Shrier in the book. They’ll often promote gender ideology, liberally hand out diagnoses, and insist every small slight is a “trauma”. Your child’s not just distracted but suffering from probable “conduct disorder” or ADHD. They’re not just picky eaters but “food avoidant”. And perhaps they should consult a professional about those issues?

Whether in the US or the UK, “the rising generation has had more therapy than any other”, says Shrier. “Yet in virtually every way that can be measured, our children’s health is worse than that of previous generations.”

This is undeniable. In the US as in the UK, youth suicide rates are climbing alongside mental health diagnoses and prescriptions for antidepressants, with Gen Zers notably struggling as they reach adulthood.

Just this week, the think tank Resolution Foundation published a report revealing that at least 5 per cent of Gen Zers – “generation therapy” – are now economically inactive, with 34 per cent reporting symptoms of mental disorders that require sick leave.

Given that Gen Z fetishised mental health more than any other, how can this be? “Because,” says Shrier, “this is the generation that went with ‘microaggressions’ – finer and finer pixels of injury or offence. Now, everything is about embracing every worry, fear, anxiety and sadness.

Not just embracing it but sitting with it, curating it. And the problem with that, of course, is that you’ll never be a load-bearing wall. You cannot be someone other people rely on if you’re obsessing over your own pain.” In Bad Therapy, Shrier argues that the mental-health experts aren’t the cure, but a big part of the problem.

Shrier is a mother of twin boys aged 13 and a daughter aged 11
Shrier is a mother of twin boys aged 13 and a daughter aged 11 - Dan Tuffs

It started out as a book on parenting, but the deeper Shrier dug, the more she understood that this was about a loss of parental confidence, she says: a handing over of the power to the “people who know best”. And unlike many people pushing opposing views, her interest wasn’t purely academic, but that of a mother – of twin boys of 13 and a daughter of 11 – who was sick of being undermined by so-called experts.

Shrier strikes me as a highly principled woman who has no trouble laying down the law with her own kids. “They don’t have phones,” she tells me, “and we have no plans to start with them, but if they do get one in the future it’ll be some sort of flip phone.

Just as her attorney parents gave her both “guardrails” and autonomy (she was a “latchkey kid” who, aged 12, “was trusted to be at home alone for a few hours and expected to watch my younger brother”), Shrier is trying to give them increasing amounts of independence. “Because here’s the thing: you can trust your kids to be independent when you’ve been clear about your values.” But what she really doesn’t need is either the state or school to be telling her how to parent.

“Do you know how much ‘advice’ I get from the mental health staff at my kids’ school?” she asks. “‘You might not know how to talk to your kids about this,’ they’ll tell me, if there was a recent shooting [in LA]. No one has ever asked me how I want them to speak to my children about these things. No, they’re telling me how I can speak to my children – and nobody blinks twice anymore.”

Nobody except Shrier, who marched into her kids’ school and told the mental-health staff there: “To be clear, none of you has my permission to meet independently with my child.” And they looked “shocked”, she exclaims – “stunned!” “It was so clear that no parent had said this.” Yet the kind of “social emotional learning” that is rote in US schools and becoming more widespread in the UK is “deeply harmful”, she maintains.

“That doesn’t mean total repression, or that if you went through something hard, you can’t talk about it. But it’s obvious to me that encouraging rumination in children and the pathological habit of repeatedly rehashing the same sadness or bad memory not only exacerbates anxiety and depression but induces it.”

Shrier makes it clear in our interview and the book that proper mental-health care can be lifesaving, both for children and adults in genuine need. She herself had therapy for years – until a therapist told her not to move to LA to be with her financial adviser boyfriend, a man she has now been happily married to for 17 years. “And then I discovered SoulCycle [indoor cycling classes],” she says. I laugh, but she’s not joking. “Honestly, I found it way more effective.”

If an adult wants to “work on themselves” for whatever reason, Shrier’s all for it. But if a child who hasn’t suffered a genuine trauma and isn’t disordered is coerced into therapy, “that therapist has to pander to the child, in some sense. They have to get their buy-in, they have to keep the family happy, and unfortunately the incentives of therapy are to keep the least sick patients for the longest period of time.”

Although parents often crave a formal diagnosis, slapping one on a child for the sake of it can be incredibly damaging, she stresses. “It’s a profound thing that can really change their self-image, because your parents are effectively saying: ‘there’s something wrong with you and I can’t fix it’.”

How did we get to a point where we don’t trust ourselves to do the best things for our kids? Is any of this passivity and outsourcing down to laziness? “No,” she says emphatically. “I don’t think it’s fair to call parents lazy. Parents are devoting more time to their children than any prior generation by great numbers. With men, it has doubled since the last generation. People care so much about their kids that they’re scared to have too many of them, because they want to do such a good job with everyone.”

So that’s it: they’re scared? “They’re scared. Parents have been made to feel terribly insecure.” This wasn’t the case when her generation was growing up. Shrier remembers being “yelled at and punished” by her parents when she talked back or acted out. “But that now seemed off-limits with our own.”

Certainly parents can no longer lean upon the likes of grandma and grandpa, she rightly points out, “because you can’t ‘quality control’ what they’re going to say. They might tell an inappropriate joke. They might give the kids food with gluten in it. But this hired person, she’s an expert!”

Some of the confidence-eroding is subliminal. “We make fun of parents relentlessly; even in children’s programming the parents are always the buffoons.” But a lot of it is glaring. “I think our entire society is actively working to undermine our confidence. And I think we’re constantly being given really bad advice.”

One of the most shocking examples of this – although it’s actually fearmongering masquerading as advice – is a statement quoted in both Irreversible Damage and Bad Therapy: one that has become a stock therapeutic phrase rolled out to the parents of children suffering from gender dysphoria on both sides of the Atlantic: “Would you rather have a live daughter or a dead son?” Or vice versa. Because immediately, those are your only choices.

“Think about that for a minute,” says Shrier, shaking her head in disbelief. “They’re effectively saying to parents: ‘I’m more concerned about your child than you. I know what’s best.’

Well, I don’t believe that’s true. I trust parents – the people with skin in the game, the people who are doing everything they can to make sure their children are thriving and secure – far more than an expert who just showed up and is making money from your distress.”

She tells me about a father who came to her after the publication of Irreversible Damage, desperately worried about his 16-year-old daughter. They were Catholic, but she had wanted to attend a performing arts school rather than a Catholic one, and once there started to identify as transgender. The school was “embracing it”, “reifying it”, “so I suggested he take her out of that school and put her in a Catholic one”, explains Shrier, “not because those are my values – but they were his!”

The man wouldn’t do it, asking her to recommend an expert instead. “But why should an expert fight for your values with your child if you won’t?” she asks, her voice rising with despair. “And by the way, other cultures will defend their values to the end.”

The message of her book isn’t just to push back against the prevailing therapeutic narrative, “but reclaim the power. Parents need to reclaim the power over their own children.” Shrier won’t pretend there’s any easy way to do this. In the end, there’s only that appallingly outdated word: discipline. “Therapists don’t like this result, but again and again researchers have found that authoritative – but not authoritarian – parents raised both the most successful and the happiest kids.”

Shrier insists: “All kinds of decisions with kids are much easier than people make them out to be,” particularly “those involving technology”, which seems to have terrorised parents. “We’re so afraid of inflicting trauma that we’re not doing what’s best for our kids. And you know what? She won’t be traumatised if she takes a car ride without her phone.

“Yes, the phone thing is complicated and unfortunately schools have really been working at cross-purposes with parents, because they often require them for homework and things like that. But the big picture is simple: parents need to have authority. They need to insist on what behaviour they deem appropriate in their own house, and that includes phone use.”

Shrier has to go off and film a podcast – one of the many she will appear on in the US and abroad over the next few weeks. But before she escorts me out, I’m curious to know whether after the cancellations, the trolling and the vitriol she still gets now from the last book, she didn’t hesitate to stick her head over the parapet again?

“I don’t think I have a choice.” She shrugs. “You cannot let them sense there is blood in the water. You have to fight on.” And suddenly we’re talking about obituaries, and how often they make us both think: “My God, what this person went through.”

She adds: “That’s the saddest thing for me about all this. Because human history is an amazing story of resilience. And that’s not to minimise the losses of loved ones or anything else people struggle to get past, but by God they have – and they built good lives! They showed up for work on time, they were dependable to their loved ones.

“They raised children, they formed families and they were good neighbours, and why does the rising generation think it can’t be all of those things?” A beat. “It can.”

Bad Therapy is out now in hardback (Swift Press, £20); available to buy from Telegraph Books