Often times, parents view sending their child to therapy as a last resort. Nothing else has worked and you don’t know what else to do. You have made the decision that therapy is what your child needs to help whatever they are currently undergoing. However, every time you’ve ever mentioned the word “therapy,” it causes an extreme reaction from your child that results in an argument. Parents, know this: you are not alone.
Research suggests that young children may not have a full understanding of what mental health means, but early on in their lives they may acquire negative attitudes towards mental health issues, and see it as less desirable than other kinds of health conditions. From inaccurate portrayals of therapy and mental illness that surround them through their interactions with the media every day, they might not have a real understanding of what going to therapy actually means. To them, and even to you as a parent, “therapy” might be a dark, scary monster that you don’t want to face until you absolutely have to. Therefore, approaching your child or teenager about your decision to send them to therapy can be a really daunting and scary task! The truth is, therapy is really not so scary at all. There are many things that parents can do to ease their child’s anxiety surrounding this new venture.
• When you first discuss the prospect of therapy with your child, it is really important to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with him or her. Children do not want to feel that they are different from everyone else, and they certainly don’t want to feel defected in any way. It would be really helpful to put their issues out there in a way that they can understand. For example, if your child is having some problems adjusting to a new living situation, it would be effective to say something like “There have been a lot of new changes going on. You are living in a new way than you used to, and I have been noticing that it seems to have been bothering you lately.” Rather than placing blame on them or their behaviors, it can be really helpful to frame a situation or give examples of reasons that you’re concerned in an easy way for them to understand, without making them feel badly.
• Ask your child about what their perception of therapy is, and diffuse those myths. Many children are scared about therapy because they don’t have an understanding of what it really is. Many children think that therapy means being sent away from their families, or that the therapist will tell their parents everything they say. They might think that going to therapy means that they’re “crazy.” Reiterate to your child that going to a therapist is just like going to the doctor, except they talk about thoughts and feelings. Tell them that pretty much whatever they tell the therapist is kept private, unless the therapist thinks that they or someone else might get hurt. Tell them that many people go to therapy for many different reasons, and it doesn’t mean that they are “crazy.”
• Normalize therapy. Tell your children if you’ve ever had any experiences with therapy, or if you know anyone who has benefited from it. If you know of any celebrities or people they identify with who have had therapy, tell them. If children and adolescents can connect with someone who has had a similar experience, it might make them feel better about the process as a whole. Also, tell them how often therapy is, and the amount of time they will spend in the office so they know what to expect.
• Tell them what therapy does. Tell them that a therapist is someone who is trained to help people improve their lives. Tell them that they can tell their therapist anything they want, and the therapist will not make them feel badly about it. It is like having their own personal talking space, and it can even be fun! Some therapists even like to play games with children.
Explaining some of these things could definitely help to dispel some of the scary myths that children might think about when they hear that they are going to therapy. It is important for parents to have an open dialogue with their children about therapy before it happens. Ask your child what their concerns and fears are, because if you don’t ask, they might not tell you. Validate their feelings by telling them you can see why it would be scary or unfamiliar. Reiterate that they will never know if it is good or bad unless they try. When the time comes to start therapy, don’t be afraid to have a discussion with your child’s therapist about what your expectations for therapy are, and what your concerns are. Open and honest communication is key to successful mental health treatment.
For more information on the decision to have your child or adolescent attend therapy, click here!
Written By: Jessica Garcia, Diagnostic Extern