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  • Easton Gaines, MSEd, PsyD

Talking to your child about therapy

The curiosity inherent in childhood is astounding. At times, it can even feel overwhelming. Once you decide to offer your child external supports through therapy, questions will likely arise: What is therapy? Why are we going? What is going to happen?

It is important to be clear and open with your child so that they can feel confident in the next step.


Explain therapy in age-appropriate language.


Preschool

Keep it simple. All they really need to know is that they're going to the therapist's office to play. Depending on your child's language and independence, it's likely that you'll both be in the session, so you'll be by their side to help them feel at ease.


'Today you’re going to play with a new friend, Dr. Easton. I met her last week and she has a whole room full of games and toys! I will wait outside in the waiting room the whole time.'


Child therapists often use play therapy, which engages kids’ imagination and problem-solving skills. Tell your little ones a therapist will have toys and interesting games. If your child likes to draw or act, make sure the counselor you choose is comfortable incorporating art and drama into sessions.


Ages 5 to 10

Because your child is typically aware of your emotions at this age, it's a good way to start the conversation. During your chat, talk about working together to solve emotional or behavioral challenges, and let your child know that you've already met with the therapist and you think they'll like them too. For example, a parent could say:


'You know how hard it is to feel calm during a test/you don't like school/there have been fights at home/you've been very sad since Grandpa died? Dad and I need more ideas on how to support each other, so we met someone who helps children and families, and we think you'll really like them too. These visits are special because you can talk about anything, even us, and it stays private.'


Here, the child isn't the identified patient or doesn't feel stigmatized or responsible for any of the dysfunction in the family. You create a system approach—the whole family system needs extra support. Additionally, It’s helpful for kids to know that therapy can address problems and focus on what is going well in their lives.


Present therapy as a new adventure. Activities are more successful when kids are enthusiastic about what is to come. Let them know how excited you are for their new adventure and how they get to go speak and play with a special person each week. Present therapy as a unique opportunity to learn and have fun. Let them know you are curious about the games and conversations in therapy, but it’s okay if they want to keep things about the therapeutic relationship to themselves. If anything important or concerning comes up, your therapist will either bring it up directly with you or help your child talk about it with you. If you have found the right fit, after the first session, they will be excited about spending time with their new friend.


Tweens/teens

With teens and tweens, buy-in is key! While they might have some idea of what therapy is, they will need to decide that they are interested in additional support for sessions to feel useful.


Start by asking them about their expectations. Many kids think a psychologist’s job is to tell you what to do. Explain to your older kids that a therapist’s job is to find out about you and help you figure out what you want and how to accomplish it. Teaching kids the value of consulting with an expert will pay off tremendously as they grow, expanding their perspective and helping them to make more rewarding decisions.


Be careful as to how you identify the problem. Certain behaviors, such as drinking, disordered eating, drug use, or sexual behavior shouldn't be the reason why you talk to a tween or teen about going to therapy. Instead, focus on their emotions. Are they lonely, withdrawn, irritable, or missing someone? When that's the reason for therapy, they're more likely to say they'd like to feel better.


I recommend that parents say, 'We're noticing that you don't seem happy/are worried a lot/are having trouble sleeping. Remember when you talked to the school counselor that time and you found it helpful? We think it would be helpful to talk to someone outside of school that is your person to confide in.'


Older kids might take a little longer to warm up to a psychologist. They may be suspicious about the therapist’s agenda and what information will be reported to their caregivers. If they are interested, including them in the therapist selection process can ease the trust. Speak openly with your child about your hopes for therapy and ask if they have any of their own. Encourage them to give it a chance and talk about their apprehension with their therapist. An effective therapist will address their concerns and work to create trust. Once a therapeutic alliance is established, teens will begin to implement positive changes, explore choices, work through challenges, and find constructive ways of relating to the people in their lives. Chances are if you think your kids could benefit from therapy, they probably will, once they feel comfortable sharing.


No matter the age, check in with your own view on therapy.

If conversations about therapy are shrouded in mystery or concern, kids are likely to perceive therapy as a remedy to something that is wrong with them or a punishment for bad behavior. Shying away from open conversations about therapy teaches kids that it is shameful and can perpetuate stigma. It is important to normalize talking with someone about difficulties. Referring to your own positive experiences with therapy, or how helpful it has been to someone you know, will have a significant impact on their acceptance. Validate any challenges your child may be experiencing and offer support as an opportunity for growth.


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