How do I talk to my child about therapy?
Updated: Jun 14, 2019
By Dr. Sarah Haas *
Some parents worry about telling their child about therapy too far in the future will cause the child to worry unnecessarily. Other parents wonder how to talk about therapy with their child. Every child is different, and as the parent, you know your child best. Below are some guidelines about how to talk about therapy with your child. Also, I cannot speak for all therapists, I also added some things you can plan ahead for with your child to help prepare them for their first therapy session:
1. Ask them what they think therapy is.
Is therapy something scary? Does it sound like something fun? Either way, it is important to understand what your child thinks therapy is like and if it feels scary, or exciting, or neither to them! You can talk to them a bit about what therapy looks like, from your perspective, either from personal experience or based on what you've gleaned from internet searches. To get a sense of what my first few therapy sessions look like to provide you some clues as to what therapy may look like for your child, read more here. Answer all questions your child has, and let them know you don't have an answer to a specific question they have. However, you can inform them you will find out the answer to their question and let them know when you make your first call to a therapist.
2. Ask them how they would feel about going to therapy.
Anything new can be perceived as scary. It is important to validate these feelings to your child. For example, if your child expresses some trepidation about going to therapy, you can say something like, "Doing something new, like going to therapy, can be scary. Can you think of a time you tried something new that was scary, but after you tried it, it was less scary, and maybe even fun?" In this way, you are linking your child's previous experiences with their past successes, demonstrating to them that yes, this is a normal feeling, and yes, they can do this, even if it feels scary.
3. Plan ahead for what they would like to have or do in therapy to help them feel more comfortable.
Does your child have a favorite game they may like to teach their therapist? Do they have any questions they want to ask their therapist? Do they want you to stay in the room for the entire session? Do they want to set up a silly code word with you that signifies they are feeling uncomfortable and need a break? I completely endorse using these things that may help your child feel more comfortable in session! If you are interested in using these techniques with a different therapist, you may just want to ask them first if it is OK with them to have your child bring a comfort item or teach the therapist a particular game, for example.
4. Be mindful of the car ride to therapy.
Some children are already concerned about meeting someone new, going into a new setting, and/or talking about things that are bothering them to someone they do not know, they likely do not want to talk about these things with the adult in the car, too. Instead, why not talk about something fun, and let your child drive the conversation? For example, ask your child if they want to sing a song, color a picture, or play 20 questions (or something similar) during the car ride to and from therapy. This may help lessen the tension your child may be feeling about going to therapy, and can help put your child in a good mood and look forward to going therapy. In addition, this may help you continue to build a positive relationship with your child.
5. Having conversation with your child after a therapy session.
In Pennsylvania, confidentiality lies with the child if the child is age 14 or older. Although this means that confidentiality lies with the parents for any child in therapy for children ages 13 and younger, some parents express that they want their child to have confidentiality between their child and the therapist so that their child feels comfortable talking to their therapist about anything that is bothering them. In this way, the therapist can agree to sharing important information with parents, after discussing with the child about what and how they will share information with their parent. With this set up, parents often times do not feel a need to ask their child about what they said after each therapy session. Because asking a child what they discussed with their therapist can put them on the spot and make them feel uncomfortable, it may be more helpful to ask your child how they felt about the session and what they feel like you can do to best support them. Especially after the first few sessions, you may want to ask your child if they like their therapist. After all, having a good relationship with your therapist is one of the most important factors in making progress in therapy (Lambert & Barley, 2001).
Lambert, M.J. & Barley, D.E. (2001). Research Summary on the Therapeutic Relationship and
Psychotherapy Outcomes. Psychotherapy, 38(4), 357-361.
Disclaimer: The Information provided through this website, including the various pages, blog posts, and emails, are designed for informational purposes only and does not constitute a client/therapist relationship. The information is not intended to replace medical advice or mental health treatment. Every individual person's situation is unique. Please seek out individual care if needed.