It’s the moment when you get a call from your child’s school letting you know your child is having concerning behavioral issues in class. Or the moment your child tells you something horrible happened. It’s the 5th night this week that your child has not been able to sleep in their own bed, and you are exhausted from being up with them all night. It’s noticing your child growing quieter and quieter, spending more and more time alone or with technology and less time smiling and with friends or family.
These are the moments in which parents make the difficult decision to seek therapy for their children.
As a parent, there is nothing more painful than seeing your child suffer. In all of the different parenting approaches I have interacted with over the years, there is one constant theme in every family: parents want their children to be happy, healthy, and successful. When your child is suffering with anxiety, struggling with depression, or has experienced something traumatic it is devastating. For many parents, these experiences are accompanied by doubt, guilt, fear, and confusion.
Often parents also face questions like, “What do I tell my child about counseling?” or “What if my child does not want to go to counseling?” You might also wonder what your role is in your child’s counseling. Are you an active participant? How do you respect the space and privacy counseling provides but also support your child?
To offer more support to parents navigating mental health care for their children I am offering four new parents workshops. These are a free quarterly support group for parents of LGBTQIA+ youth, a Parent Support Workshop for parents of teens, a Parent Support Workshop for parents of tweens, and a Parent Support Workshop for parents of children 9 and younger. Learn more and register here!
If you’re a parent beginning therapy for your child, here’s a list of some of the suggestions I give families when they come to see me.
Offer yourself compassion.
I remember the first time a parent told me about a time they mishandled their emotional needs in an interaction with their child and reacted in a way that badly hurt the child’s feelings. The parent was embarrassed and sad, concerned about the harm they may have caused. My response to this parent was to let them know it was going to be ok. “You have a wonderful opportunity to be human with your child.” As much as children need models for the right ways to do things, they also need examples of how to heal and make repairs. Many of the parents I work with feel guilt for their child’s difficulties, wondering what role they may have played in creating the stressors. Compassion towards your own process and learning creates space for both you and your child in counseling.
Let your child know what to expect.
When you speak with a therapist about seeing your child, ask as many questions as you want. I encourage parents to ask about what to expect in the first session, and to then communicate this with their child in an age appropriate way. Parents often ask me what they should tell their child about who I am. They do not want their child to feel stressed or stigmatized, but they do want to help them prepare for therapy. One thing you can say to younger children, “Doctors help us keep our bodies healthy and strong. A therapist helps with our feelings and when things happen to us that made us scared, mad, or afraid.” For older children or teens, you can let them know a therapist is someone they can talk to with privacy.
If your child is nervous about counseling or does not want to go…
Let your child know that it is very important to therapists that people feel very safe when they see them. If your child can verbalize their discomfort, validate that experience and reassure them that this will also be important to the therapist. I often tell families that a first appointment is a great chance for the child to get a sense of who I am, and a better sense for if working with me is the right fit. For children who are very nervous, I offer the option of allowing a parent to stay in the room for the first few sessions. For young children (especially those I am seeing for trauma), I often include parents in sessions to help with feelings of nervousness or fear. If a child is very resistant, I encourage parents to ask the child to agree to try 3-4 sessions, and then re-evaluate. Check out this great article on building emotional intelligence in children for other ideas on helping with nervousness about therapy.
Ask for feedback, suggestions, or coaching from your child’s therapist.
Therapy for children and adolescents is most effective when parents are involved. Families are systems, and if one part of the system tries to change but the others do not, change is unsustainable. Schedule with your child's therapist individually to talk about parenting challenges and ways to support therapeutic work at home. I work with child and adolescent clients to talk about how parents can help with practicing new skills at home or school, and encourage family sessions to discuss these things as we need to.
While there are often things to collaborate on with your child’s therapist, confidentiality is also very important for children and adolescents to feel therapy is a safe space for them. It is important to let your child know that you respect their confidentiality, and will not ask them to share information from sessions they would rather keep confidential. All therapists should be clear with you and with your child that if there are safety issues, these will need to be discussed with you even if that is difficult.
Share examples of your child’s difficulties with the therapist...but ask the therapist if your child should be present for these conversations. Children often present very differently in therapy than they do at school or home. I rarely see the kinds of behaviors parents report they are struggling with in a therapy session. It is helpful to a therapist to have examples of what you see in other settings. How often do issues occur? What are preceding triggers? How long do difficulties last? What does the child do or say in those moments? What does their body language tell you in those moments? I often like to have these conversations with parents individually to avoid a child feeling embarrassed or ashamed. At times, I will ask to have these conversations with the child to help keep the focus of therapy on current issues or to help a parent and child talk about the issues together. Ask your therapist what they prefer and how you should know if they would like to speak individually or as a family.
You can find more great tips on bringing a child to therapy here and here. Remember that bringing a child to therapy requires bravery both for the child and you. Celebrate your accomplishments and courage often! You are modeling ways to ask for support, opening possibilities for learning new skills, and creating invaluable emotional intelligence for your child and your family.
Meg Hamilton, LPC is a therapist practicing in Durham, North Carolina. Meg is an art therapist and specializes in therapy for trauma as well as in supporting LGBTQ+ youth and families. Meg’s work is upheld and informed by a commitment to social justice. Learn more at www.birchcounselingdurham.com.