Helping Kids Heal: When Your Child Needs Psychotherapy

Therapy for Kids

Helping a Child who is Entering Psychotherapy

We prepare children for all sorts of things in life—a new babysitter, the first day of school, the arrival of a new sibling. Preparation is important because children, like adults, find comfort in knowing what to expect. The same sense of security is critical to helping a child who is entering psychotherapy.

Making the decision to seek therapy for your child

The decision to seek therapy as a treatment option for your child is generally not an easy one for most parents. Many parents feel they somehow failed and that if only they would have done X, their child wouldn’t need “someone else’s” help. While these feelings are normal and need to be processed, it’s also important not to let them interfere with getting your child the help he or she needs. Whatever your reason for considering therapy, it’s likely because whatever your child’s struggles, they significantly interfered with his or her day to day functioning.

Finding the right therapist

Finding a therapist who will be a good match for your child is the first step and often no easy task. Consulting with your child’s pediatrician, or trusted friends or family members for referrals can be a good start. Once you find a therapist, don’t be shy about asking his or her level of professional training and experience in working with children, how he or she approaches the therapeutic process and what you can expect in terms of your involvement in the process. Keep in mind that for young children, seeing a therapist can feel like a play date; the therapist is someone who simply has interesting things to play with and who talks about feelings. Don’t be alarmed with the words “play therapy” since for young children, in particular, play is their natural form of communication. A skilled therapist is learning a wealth of information about your child through play. For your school-aged child, however, the thought of seeing a therapist can feel frightening, overwhelming and trigger all sorts of feelings. Adolescence presents its own set of challenges, with many teens worrying a therapist will simply be one more person in their lives telling them what to do. Most importantly, while you’re searching for a therapist, trust your gut. As a parent, you’ll have a good sense of whether a particular therapist will click with your child.

Explain to your child why he or she needs to see a therapist

Whether six or sixteen, it’s always important to help your child understand the underlying reasons he or she will be seeing a therapist. Examples of helpful statements might include, “Sometimes you get very angry at school and hurt the other children. A therapist can help you understand what makes you so mad and help you learn better ways to show how angry you are without being hurtful.” Just like a medical doctor helps people when they have a problem with their body, it is extremely useful to explain to your child that a therapist is like a ‘feelings doctor’ who helps kids with all sorts of problems with behaviors.  Some kids will take to this analogy instantly, while other kids will be more skeptical. Either way, the idea is to present the psychotherapist as someone kind and helpful. Older children and adolescents may need to be reassured that unless they are in danger to themselves or others, what they talk about in therapy is private. For older kids, negotiations around what and how much to include parents in the therapeutic process will be something navigated along the way. But in the beginning, an adolescent may simply need to hear that confidentiality will be respected (a concept the therapist will reinforce).

Stigma attached to therapy

Although it’s improving, there unfortunately exists a stigma attached to psychotherapy. This can be further exacerbated by personal, familial and cultural beliefs. For that reason, parents should first examine their own feelings before attempting to prepare their children for the healing process of therapy. Children may need to be reminded repeatedly that seeing a therapist doesn’t make them “sick,” “bad” or “weak” and as a parent, you need to genuinely believe that. Remind yourself that many, many children (and adults) see therapists at various points in their lives to work through issues that will hopefully result in a more meaningful, rich and satisfying life.  Supporting children throughout therapy by discussing it in a positive, reassuring tone will help them perceive psychotherapy as an opportunity to heal rather than a punishment.

If you find you truly can’t support your child during the therapeutic process, don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself time to think things over and in the meantime, a school guidance counselor, mentor or pediatrician may be the best solution until you feel more comfortable with the idea of psychotherapy. Finally, children are resilient; they won’t be in psychotherapy forever. Praise your child for having the courage to work through his or her emotions and behaviors. This will foster a sense of accomplishment and help your child feel proud of mastering his problems and forging ahead in his development.  In turn, you as a parent will feel competent, and rewarded for your effort to keep your child’s wellbeing on track.

Dr. Rachel Rashkin-Shoot is a Clinical Psychologist and author of “Feeling Better”, a story for children entering psychotherapy, “An Umbrella for Alex”, a story for children living with a mentally ill parent, and “In My Corner on The Moon, a story for children who experienced trauma. Rachel lives in Israel with her husband and two young children, where she maintains a private practice. *(Portions of this article were also featured in The Chicago Parent Magazine, January, 2005).


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