Hillary Sanders, Psychologist
If you’re considering taking your child to see a therapist, it pays to prepare them. Here are 10 useful pointers to consider:
1. Involve them
The important point to raise here is to actually ensure that your child is aware of their session, prior to attending. A common mistake parents make is not telling their child, or telling them at the last minute (such as when driving to the appointment). This is often with the best of intentions, as parents hope to reduce any undue worry or resistance about attending, however it is often counterproductive.
Like all of us, unfamiliar situations can trigger worried thoughts. If your child has no idea what the appointment is about, or what a therapist does, their brains will attempt to make sense of it, which often results in negatively distorted beliefs or assumptions. For example, your child may see a therapist in the same way as an authority figure, like a teacher, and believe that they are getting into trouble because they are "bad". Or they may see a therapist more like a doctor, and worry they will be subjected to medical tests, given medication or a needle.
As you can see, it’s important to ensure that your child knows what the appointment is about and what a therapist does, to avoid any misconceptions. We want to ensure they have a positive experience of help- seeking; if their first experience of help-seeking is one fraught with confusion, anxiety, and negative beliefs, then you may encounter resistance to them attending further sessions.
2. Use simple explanations
To explain the role of the therapist, keep it clear and simple. Introduce the role of a therapist as someone who can help people of all ages with things like big feelings or difficulties at home or at school. Explain that the therapist helps people find ways to cope with these feelings or difficulties, as well as helping them to feel better within themselves and within their relationships (i.e. friends, home, school). For children, point out that they will have fun with the therapist too! They will get a chance to play and be creative.
3. Gently touch on the difficulties
Add what you have noticed they are struggling with. For example, you might have noticed they are avoiding school, or perhaps they are finding it hard to manage anger at home. Gently mention what your concern is, but ensure the conversation is not a disciplinary one, meaning that you do not demonise their behaviour or send the message that "something is wrong with you", which places the weight of the issues on them. Phrase your concerns as "difficulties". For example, "I have noticed you're having difficulty with (state the challenge) at the moment, and a therapist can help us with this".
Every human being experiences emotional, behavioural, and social difficulties throughout their life. Normalise your child's struggle as part of being human! It can help to share your own experience of difficulties with your child, for example, "Hey I was nervous about school too", or "Sometimes I have days I can’t control my anger too". This normalises and humanises their experience, and helps them to see that everyone struggles, even grown-ups. If you have seen a therapist yourself, it can help to share this with them, and tell them a couple things it helped you with.
5. Give them a "mental map" of what to expect
To alleviate nerves about attending a new place and meeting a new person, give your child an idea about what to expect from their session, such as what time their session is, how long it will go for, where you will be (i.e. in the session with them, or in the nearby waiting room), and the name of their therapist. If you have already met with the therapist, you might like to share your impression of them (e.g. "they were easy to talk to", or "they go for the same football team as you!"). Most clinics have photos and a brief description of therapists on their website, which you could share with your child if they are curious.
6. Comfort tools
Some children like to bring toys, games, or sensory tools with them to the session as a way to help them feel more at ease, and self regulate if needed. You may wish to ask your child if they'd like to bring something along as a comfort tool, or even as a bit of "show and tell" to enable their therapist to get to know them better.
7. Working together, not in isolation
It’s important for your child to know they are not doing this alone. I often talk about working together as a "support team", where the child, parents, therapist, and sometimes other people like siblings, are all going to work together to get a better handle on the issues. The issues do not resolve simply through the attendance of therapy sessions; an important part of the work occurs outside of session, based on the implementation of strategies at home, school, etc. So remind your child that you're in this with them!
8. After the session
It's okay to check-in with your child about how they’re feeling, and whether or not they would like to talk about anything from the session, but make sure not to interrogate or push them to disclose (if you require more information about how privacy and confidentiality works for child clients, please speak with their therapist). If your child requires a calming activity to transition from their session into the next task of their day, such as returning to school, it can help to go for a short walk outside, play a game, or enjoy a snack or drink together.
Therapy can be difficult for all ages, as it often involves working on behavioural changes, sitting with discomfort, and processing painful memories, feelings, and insights. It makes sense then, that some people would resist it, especially children who are geared towards pleasure and reward! So naturally, some resistance is to be expected. However, if you notice an ongoing pattern of resistance to attending sessions, ask your child about it. There could be other reasons to explain it. Perhaps they don't think they need help, and feel resentful that they are being "forced" to go. Maybe they are not ready to reveal their thoughts and feelings. Or perhaps they just don't "click" with the therapist. All reasons are valid and worth hearing. So rather than ignoring the resistance, listen to your child, and raise any concerns about their engagement with the therapist.
10. Don't aim for perfect!
As a parent, you are not expected to know exactly how therapy "works", or to give the perfect description of the therapy process to your child! Keep it calm, kind, and simple. Leave all of the finer details to the therapist.
Overall, the pointers I have raised here simply ensure that your child has some awareness of what they'll be walking into, rather than it being a big "unknown". This goes a long way to reducing any unnecessary worry, and promoting positive engagement in the very beginning.
A final note: Therapy is a useful tool, yet your love, care, and non-judgmental "noticing" of your child's distress is the first and most important step in the therapy process.
Hilary Sanders is a psychologist at Hopscotch and Harmony Werribee and Belmont who is passionate about supporting people of all ages, however has a particular interest in working with adolescents and adults. Hilary values diversity, and encourages individuals to celebrate their uniqueness- she believes human difference is what makes life interesting! An LGBTIQA+ advocate, Hilary acknowledges the complex nature of sexuality, and is driven to support individuals experiencing challenges arising from sexual diversity