If you think your child could benefit from therapy, you'll need to have a conversation about it. But how do you bring it up? What do you say?
Explain What Therapy Is Most kids (and many adults!) don't have a clear idea of what therapy actually is. Since therapy sessions typically happen in private settings, it's not uncommon for people to imagine them playing out as they do in the movies - for better or worse. The truth is, every therapist works differently, and sometimes one session can be very different from another. Before you talk to your kid, consider reaching out to your therapist to learn more about what you and your kid can expect during a typical session. That way, you know how to explain it yourself.
Your kid will likely have questions, even if they aren't able or willing to articulate them. Be prepared for questions like: Are we going to talk? Are we going to do an activity? What is the room like? Will my therapist be nice? What if I don't like them? Can I see a picture of them? Where will I sit? What if I get bored? Will you be waiting for me in the hall? Can I say anything I want? Can I say nothing? How long will it last? Will they tell you everything I say?
There's no need to explain every detail, and many therapists let children direct much of their own session, so it's impossible to predict every minute. But addressing those basic questions can alleviate a lot of worries and set the stage for a successful first session.
Here's an example of how to answer all those questions:
"A therapist is a special person who's there just for you. Their office is a safe place to talk about anything you want. I talked to your therapist already on the phone. He seemed really nice. Here's what he looks like. You'll be in the office for 50 minutes - that's about one long TV show. I'll go in with you for the first half, and if you're comfortable, I'll sit in the hallway for the rest of the time. Your therapist said he has some games and toys if you get bored and he has lots of chairs and beanbags, so it's like a living room. What do you think about that? What do you wonder about it?"
Frame Therapy as a Positive This is easier said than done because it's very easy to get off track and feel the need to justify therapy by talking about problems, weaknesses, and failures. If kids think therapy is something that happens because they are "bad," they will assume it's a punishment. With this frame of mind, kids may feel shame about going to therapy and have trouble making progress. Instead, focus on the goals and improvements you hope to see or that you have experienced yourself. Explain that therapy is a tool that anyone can use to help keep themselves on track and feeling good about their life.
Here's an example of how to frame therapy:
"I love seeing you be successful in the things you want to do, and it's important that everybody can feel strong inside and out. We're going to therapy so you can be the best "you" and feel great about who you are."
Acknowledge Challenges - Not Blame Although we don't want to focus on the problems, it's OK to acknowledge that challenges do exist. A gentle acknowledgment can help validate your kid's experiences and feelings. Instead of assigning blame or presenting a situation as a problem, consider sharing observations like "it seems like you're having a hard time." Rest assured that if your child is contributing to the challenge through their choices, ways of thinking or behavior, the therapist will see this and address it at the appropriate time in therapy. The best thing a parent can do for a struggling child is to support their success and well-being.
Here's a gentle way to acknowledge your kid's struggles:
"It seems like things have been hard for you lately. It's been hard to make friends, and you have a lot of angry feelings. Sometimes things are like that for teenagers. Being 15 can be hard! You and I don't get to have as many good times as I would like, and sometimes we don't get along very well. It matters to me when things are hard for you and hard for us as a team. It's doesn't matter to me whose fault that is, as long as we get on track. I'm setting up therapy, so we don't have to figure this all out alone."
Allow Success to Happen at its Own Pace Parents are often eager for immediate progress. I get it - therapy is a big investment of time, finances, and emotions. It would be hard to see that investment "wasted." Parents may be anxious about what the future holds if things don't improve. In some cases, parents may be considering making significant changes to the family if the goals of therapy aren't met, such as moving to another town, changing guardianship, or withdrawing emotionally from the role of being a parent ("giving up" on a kid).
Those worries are natural, but they are also adult worries - not kid worries. Sharing those concerns with your child places big worries on little shoulders - shoulders that are already weak with the burden of the challenges that brought them to therapy in the first place. Kids are not equipped to respond appropriately to that pressure. They will collapse under its weight.
Try to put your fears in a box, close the lid, and set it aside for a few weeks. That way, you can focus your energy on helping your kid get comfortable with the idea and routine of therapy. Remind them that it's OK to go at their own pace. You can always share your concerns and worries with the child's therapist as part of regular consultation and updates or even seek personal therapy sessions.
Here's an example of how to set the pace:
"I know it's important for you to feel good and feel like you can do the things you want to do, as a kid, as a student, as a member of our family. It's important to me, too. Therapy is the space to work on that stuff and to take the time you need to work towards it. I'm making sure you get that time."
Be Kind to Yourself and Your Kid If the first conversation doesn't go as planned, that's OK. Don't put pressure on you or your kid to reach an agreement right away. Instead, use each conversation to show your kid you care and that you're listening. It may not be easy or comfortable at first, but you'll thank yourself for persevering later. With the right therapist, your kid will increase their emotional intelligence and learn communication skills they'll use for the rest of their life.
Copyright 2019, Peter McClure, LMFT