Going to therapy for the first time can lead to a variety of feelings in parents and their child. Worried, mad, surprised, confused, hopeful, hopeless, relieved, and other emotions may be the reaction your child feels when they are told about meeting with a therapist. Many parents have asked me how to talk to their kids about going to therapy, or they ask if they should even tell them at all. Here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare your child for their first appointment with a therapist.
Surprises are not preferred in this situation. Not informing them about the appointment and its purpose often leads them to be defensive and withdrawn from the therapist, someone you want them to trust and rely upon. Following the surprise, the therapist appears to already have an alliance with the parent and not the child, and this “two against one” situation can be detrimental to a patient’s engagement, and to treatment effectiveness overall.
Be honest and open about your concerns, and how you want something better for your child. Share about how you recognize that they are struggling and that you both need help addressing the problem. Maybe you want them to be less worried about school or social events, or to have better tools for starting conversations and relating to other kids. If you haven’t heard your child state that they are struggling, it does not mean that they are completely unaware of the problem. Sometimes they need a parent to open to door to discussion and finding help, as they are unsure how to seek it themselves. Share about areas that you need help with as well, such as finding a better way to communicate when angry or other solutions for the conflicts that keep happening. This can lessen feelings that they are the problem that must be fixed, but that instead they are experiencing something that is making life difficult in some way, and that there are people that can help kids and parents with these issues.
Talk about what therapy is like. Explain what a counselor, social worker, or psychologist does, what kinds of problems they address, and what ways they can help. If you’re unsure how to explain these things, feel free to ask us and we can offer some guidance. Kids may have various misconceptions about what the therapy experience will be like, and helping them have a more accurate understanding can help increase their willingness and engagement in the first session.
Accept that they will likely feel nervous, sad, embarrassed, or other similar feelings. Strive to validate your child’s emotional experience, while also giving them hope that through counseling the problems that they see and feel can improve.
Consider the timing of your conversation. Avoid telling them in the midst of conflict or emotional distress, but instead choose moments of connection where you can be open about concerns and they are more likely to perceive you as a teammate, rather than an opponent.
Offer a sense of control and choice. Let them know that you will want their feedback about how comfortable they feel with their therapist and that finding a good fit is a priority.