Talking to Kids About Therapy

By Barrie Sueskind, MA, LMFT

If you are parenting children today, there is a good chance you have thought about taking your kids to therapy. Maybe your little one is acting out, having trouble making friends or just not listening. Or your teen is struggling in school, being victimized by bullying or engaging in risky behavior. Maybe a death, divorce or other family situation has made you wonder how best to help your child cope.

Is My Child a Good Candidate for Therapy?

Parenting - talk about therapy

Focusing on the play aspects of therapy can be a good way to present it to little ones. PHOTO BY PHOTOSTOCK/FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.NET

Therapy is not just for kids with special needs. It is beneficial for children to have a trusted adult, aside from their parents, to help support their exploration of themselves as they navigate the challenges of growing up. Working with a counselor has the potential to be an incredibly positive experience, giving kids an edge as they make their way through the wondrous minefield of childhood. Therapy teaches kids to manage disappointment and distress, and to show empathy for themselves and other people. It provides a safe space for them to reflect on their values, allowing them to buck peer pressure and make choices reflective of what matters to them. Counseling teaches valuable life and relationship skills that can help kids succeed throughout childhood and into adulthood.

How Do I Talk About Therapy With My Kids?

Once you have decided to seek the services of a therapist, discussing the idea with your kids might present a challenge. Here are some tips to help you navigate the conversation:

Explain therapy in age-appropriate language. All kids are familiar with the doctor. Tell your little ones a therapist is like a “feelings doctor.” Kids know what it’s like to experience distress. Tell them a therapist will help them talk about times when they feel sad, mad or bad. Use an example of a time they struggled recently, and tell them a counselor will help them with that type of situation. You can also tell them that a therapist will talk with them about things they like to do, things they’re good at doing and times when they feel happy and silly. It’s helpful for kids to know that therapy can address problems and focus on what is going well in their lives.

For older kids who may have some concept of therapy, start by asking them about their expectations. Many kids, and even adults, mistakenly think a counselor’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 advantageous decisions.

Promise fun and play. Child therapists use play therapy, engaging kids’ creativity and imagination. Tell your little ones a therapist will have fun toys and interesting games to teach them. If your child likes to draw or act, make sure the counselor you choose is comfortable incorporating art and drama into sessions. Art therapy and psychodrama are effective ways to help kids communicate their emotions.

The key to a productive therapeutic experience is for kids to have fun and feel special. I encourage kids to bring their favorite games into our sessions. When they teach me how to play, they get to be the experts, showcasing their proficiency in the skills involved in the game, and I get to be a rapt audience, allowing them to educate me. Placing them in the position of teacher while I take the role of student shows them that I am interested in learning from them. Experiencing me as someone who is curious about them encourages them to open up about their victories, defeats, and worries.

Older kids might want to play or draw, or they might just prefer to talk. What differentiates therapy from other interactions with adults is that the child sets the tone for what we play and discuss. This unique relationship can become a haven for teens, who are accustomed to adults telling them what to do. Having a therapist follow their lead, attune to them and affirm them as valuable, interesting people builds a sense of capability and increases self-esteem.

Parenting - talk about therapy

It might take adolescents and teens a little longer to establish a rapport with a therapist, but encourage them to give it a chance. PHOTO BY STOCKIMAGES/FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.NET

Present therapy as a new adventure. Any activity is more successful if kids are on board and enthusiastic. Tell your kids how excited you are for their new adventure, and how lucky they are that they get to go talk and play with a special person every week. Talk with their counselor about whether it makes sense to join them in the therapy room for the first session or to let them get to know the therapist on their own. Kids love to have secrets, so let them know you are curious to know as much as they want to tell you about their time in therapy, but it’s OK if there are things they want to keep 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. Present counseling as a unique opportunity for learning and fun, and your child will be eager to meet the therapist. If you have found the right fit, after the first session, they will be begging to go back to see their new friend.

Older kids might take a little longer to warm up to a counselor. They may be suspicious about the therapist’s agenda and what information will be reported to you. If they are interested, you might consider including them in your therapist selection process, so they are involved in deciding whom they will see. If therapy is your idea, kids may be wary about the endeavor. Talk with them about your hopes for counseling. Encourage them to give it a chance and to be open with the counselor about their apprehension. An effective therapist will address their concerns and work to create trust. Rapport building is an essential part of the counseling process, and may take time with adolescents. Once a therapeutic alliance is established, teens will begin to implement positive changes, exploring choices, working through challenges and finding more 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.

Check your stigmatizing ideas. If conversations about therapy are shrouded in mystery and concern, kids are likely to perceive therapy as a remedy to address something that is wrong with them or a punishment for bad behavior. Shying away from open conversations about counseling teaches kids that it is shameful and perpetuates a stigma about seeing a therapist. To combat the still-too-common idea that therapy is embarrassing, 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 the acceptance your kids will feel about it. Validate any struggles your child may be experiencing and offer counseling as a helpful and educational activity. If you promote therapy as an opportunity for growth, your kids will see it that way, too.

How Do I Choose the Right Therapist for My Child?

Old-fashioned word of mouth is a great place to start. Chances are, you know other parents who have sent their children to counseling. Their positive experience with a therapist is a strong referral. School guidance counselors often have a variety of therapists to recommend. Talk to yours about your hopes for therapy and you will likely receive a short list of candidates. The Internet is a helpful resource, as you can read counselors’ personal websites and get a sense of their personalities and professional styles. Start by Googling “child therapist” and your town, and you will get a plethora of search results. Click through on your own until you find one that makes an impression, or narrow your results by ZIP code through an online therapist directory like Psychology Today or Good Therapy, where you can read bios of counselors near you. You may also want to check with your health insurance company for a list of providers in your network, and narrow down your choices based on coverage.

Most therapists will do a free phone consultation, which is a good way for you to get a sense of who they are and how they work. parenting - barrie sueskindAsk questions, trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to shop around for someone who feels like the right fit.

Barrie Sueskind, MA, LMFT #89095 is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. She works with preteens, adolescents, adults and couples. She specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, family and relationship issues, trauma, and life transitions. She uses talk therapy and somatic techniques, including EMDR, providing a holistic approach that addresses the relationship between psychology and physiology. Her approach is strength-based, assisting clients in identifying resources and moving toward their goals.

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  1. We were recently recommended that we should look into child counseling for our daughter, and I think that being able to present it as a new fun thing to her would be helpful. I’m glad that you talked about making child counseling a new adventure instead of making it more like a doctors visit. Hopefully we can find a good therapist to help with our daughters child counseling and see what we can do to help her. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for pointing out that school guidance counselors will be able to point you to a good therapist. My husband and I are getting a divorce; we’re being very civil about it, but we’re worried that our daughter will think that it’s her fault or something like that. Your tips should help us find a good child psychologist that we could send her to so that she can have a safe and impartial place to talk to someone about the divorce.

  3. I like that you talked about how therapy can help a child to manage disappointment and distress. It also appealed to me your statement about how therapy can provide a safe space for a child to reflect on their values. My daughter appears to be suffering from depression since my husband died 3 weeks ago because of the signs she’s showing. It’s important for me to find a way that can help my child to manage the emotions that she has right now. It will also be helpful if she can be able to reflect on herself through the help of a therapy. I will make sure to bring her to a child therapist as soon as possible for help.

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