Article Review: Evidence of Potentially Harmful Psychological Treatments for Children and Adolescents

I reviewed the article, Evidence of Potentially Harmful Psychological Treatments for Children and Adolescents (Mercer, 2016). This article describes the connection between the concept of harmful psychotherapies and harmful treatments for children and adolescents. Mercer hypothesized that harmful treatments for children and adolescents could be detected through various methods in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study and theory of abuse, neglect, and suffering. 

Mercer evaluated five reported harmful treatments: (1) attachment therapy/holding therapy, (2) AT/HT adjuvant methods, (3) Aversive conditioning/operant punishment methods using severe or noncontingent eclectic shock, (4) conversion therapy, (5) Festhaltetherapie (German form of holding therapy used on children diagnosed with ASD) (see Chart A).  These treatments were identified not through peer-reviewed journals, but instead through websites, Facebook groups, law suites, journalist, and self-published materials. All of these sources are based on bias and personal opinion on treatment. 

There is no clear conclusion or reliable evidence that these treatments are effective and unharmful. Mercer examines the treatments in-depth and connects the findings to ACEs’ abusive or neglectful events that occurred in a setting outside of therapeutic encounters. The data gathered that the majority of examined treatment styles had a lack of empirical backing and were not congruent with evidenced-based research on child development. Mercer’s connection to ACE offers a comprehensive list of harmful indicators to consider when analyzing other treatment approaches. 

           When considering children in treatment, parents are a crucial part of decision making. Several of these treatments are supported by parents who are either unaware of beneficial/unbeneficial therapeutic approaches or also believe that this harm will help their child/adolescent. Treatment like conversion therapy can harm a child/adolescent through anxiety, depression, suicidality, substance abuse, or emotional burden. Attachment therapy/ holding therapy have harmful effects such as death, emotional burdens, educational losses, weight loss, and suicidality (see Chart A for sources).

Mercer’s article proves a valid point when describing how these harmful treatments are being represented as credible through sources that are not empirically sound. Harmful treatments become a part of many fields because there are several different beliefs on how the treatment should be represented. Mercer recommends utilizing evidence from ACE’s research or other peer-reviewed resources that focus on harm to people. The field of psychology relies on our ability to identify when treatments are causing harm. Research is essential and new approaches must be examined thoroughly to ensure the safety of all people. 

With Intention.


Mercer, J. (2017). Evidence of potentially harmful psychological treatments for children and adolescents. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 34(2), 107-125.  doi:10.1007/s10560-016-0480-2