By: Elizabeth (Liz) Ener, PhD, LPC-S, RPT-S
“Should I tell them about their therapy appointment?” “What do I say?” “What if they ask questions I don’t know how to answer?” “What if they think something is wrong with them?” These are questions we frequently hear from parents and are really normal concerns. While we believe it is important to speak with your child about therapy before their first appointment, we also understand parents uncertainty around approaching such a conversation. Therefore, we’d like to offer you some brief suggestions and tips on how to navigate this topic with your child.
How do I start the conversation?
We’d recommend addressing the conversation frankly and matter-of-factly; it is imperative that such an explanation will also need to be developmentally appropriate—this means that it is important you use language your child will understand.
For a young child, you might say something like, “Riley, we see how hard you a working at managing your big feelings and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do with them, we’ve decided it would be helpful for you to meet with someone who can help you with that.”
For pre-teens and adolescents, you might say: “Riley, I’ve noticed you’ve been struggling recently to stay on top of school work and generally don’t seem happy—we’re worried and want to make sure you have all the support you need. We scheduled an appointment with a counselor, her name is Dr. Liz, who we think you will get a lot out of meeting with.” It might be helpful to discuss what they know or have heard about counseling. You want to make sure you explain that a counselor’s job is to find out about them and help them figure out what they want and how to accomplish it.
What am I going to do with my counselor?
This is a common question from kids and also a question that parents are unsure how to answer. Children asking this question may have concerns and are curious about how their time will look with their counselor; offer them comfort by giving them some details on what to expect on their first appointment. How kids will spend their time in therapy largely depends on not only their chronological age, but also where they are developmentally. The most developmentally appropriate therapeutic approach for young children is play therapy, which provides children with the opportunity to ‘play out’ their feelings and problems just as adults ‘talk out’ their difficulties. Children will typically meet alone with their play therapist in a room that is specifically designed for children their age. You can tell your child that they will be coming to play with a counselor in a room filled with lots of toys; you might even show them what the playroom looks like.
For older children, they will typically participate in activity therapy. This means they will meet with their counselor alone for their appointment, with parents waiting in the waiting room close by. The counselor may ask them questions or invite them to participate in an activity that the counselor planned. It is important they know the counselor will not force them to talk or complete the activity.
When should I tell them?
Timing is important; you want to make sure you do not bring up the subject at a time of crisis or frustration—doing so may send the message to your child that therapy is a punishment or they may associate it with something negative. Rather, choose a time that you and your child are both calm, well-rested, and content. Ideally, tell your child several days before their appointment, so that they have time to adjust and anticipate what is to come.
What if they think something is wrong with them?
This is a really common concern we hear; the takeaway your child will have walking away from the conversation will largely depend on how you normalize the counseling process. While views on mental health are rapidly changing, there is still a stigma surrounding therapy; the last thing you want your child, who is already experiencing challenging emotions/behaviors, to feel is that they are “bad” or different in a negative way. Normalizing therapy can be very helpful with these concerns; let them know that many children and grown-ups see counselors to help them manage their emotions and behaviors. Emotional health is just as important as mental health; you might explain that if a person broke their leg, they would go to a doctor for help, or if a person has a toothache, they would go see a dentist. Along the same lines, if a person is feeling sad, really mad, anxious, or just needs someone to talk to, they go to a counselor.
What if they don’t want to go?
Going to therapy is hard and feels vulnerable—so it is no surprise your child might feel hesitant about going. Your child may ask why he/she has to go, which is a natural question and indicates some uncertainty or curiosity. Answer the questions as best you can and clear up any misconceptions they might have about counseling. Be mindful not to make counseling sound like a punishment for ‘bad’ behavior—this goes back to timing the discussion well and also sending the message that you’re in this together. For young children, remind them that you will be waiting for them close by and that they are safe; for older kids, let them know it is important to give this a shot. The most important thing here is getting them to the office for their initial appointment; your counselor can take the lead from there. If resistance is an on-going issue, talk to your counselor about their resistance to attending counseling sessions. Your counselor can help you problem-solve and explore barriers to counseling.
The Talking Place: Counseling Services for Children and Families
If you are considering therapy for your child, our team at The Talking Place can help. We are dedicated to providing evidence-based, high-quality, age-appropriate counseling for children and adolescents. Our services are delivered by a clinical team with expertise in treating children’s mental health issues and have the necessary training to do so. To get started, reach out for a free initial phone consultation at 469-640-0846 or through our Contact Us form.