Talking to Your Child About Going to Therapy
How do I tell my child that they are going to therapy?
As you prepare for your first session with a therapist/counsellor, you might be wondering what the best way to break this news to your child is. This is a question we get asked often. Parents often have concerns about how their child might react to the news, or whether they will feel like something is wrong with them.
While the prospect of seeing a therapist is usually more daunting for parents than their children, here are some tips that might help you navigate this conversation more smoothly.
- Talk about it calmly. Do not bring up the topic of therapy in the middle of/immediately after an argument or crisis. If your child is upset, he or she will not be receptive to the idea, and you are likely to meet resistance. If the parent seems angry, the child will feel like they are being punished. It is very important that your child does not feel like therapy is a punishment, but rather that it is a safe space for them to discuss their problems.
- Discuss the issue. Briefly speak about the challenges that your child or family has been experiencing. Let your child know that you have noticed that he/she has been struggling recently and empathise with how hard this must be. Briefly touch on any strategies you may have already tried to help the situation, and how this has worked out. Let your child know that you have booked an appointment with someone who can help.
- Explain and normalise therapy. In an age-appropriate way, explain what therapy is and what they can expect at the appointments. Tell your child that they are not the problem and that the whole family will work on figuring it out together with the therapist. A therapist is like a “feelings coach” or “feelings doctor” who can help them talk about all the times that they feel mad, bad, or sad. A therapist will also talk to them about things they are good at and enjoy doing, and all the times that they feel happy or silly. Tell your child that the therapist will have interesting games, and fun toys to play with.
- If your child is older, he or she might be wary of the therapist’s agenda and what information will be reported to parents. Let them know that a therapists job is not to tell them what to do, but to help them figure out what they want and how to achieve that. The therapist will also explain whether and what is talked about is confidential (private to the sessions) and what is not. This is an agreement between them and the therapist.
- It is important to avoid imparting any stigma surrounding therapy onto children. Having open conversations free of any mystery or unease lets children know that seeing a therapist is not shameful. Explore their beliefs about what counselling is and who goes to counselling. Promote therapy as a helpful and educational activity, and as an opportunity for positive change.
- Give your child time to ask questions. Some parents may be tempted to open up the conversation on the way to the therapist’s office. We do not recommend doing this, as it denies kids the opportunity to ask questions, clarify concerns, and share their feelings about going to therapy. For younger children, talk to them about their appointment 1-2 days beforehand, and at least 5-7 days beforehand for teens and adolescents.