Here’s something I know from experience, and you probably know it as well, growth and healing require discomfort, sometimes even pain. Whether it’s a new tooth, pointing out how someone has hurt you, or going to therapy, the process is uncomfortable at times. I also know that we often avoid discomfort, and children are no different. I want to offer some encouragement and tips for those of you considering bringing your son or daughter to therapy, and for those of you who have already started.
When talking about therapy, start with where you and they want to be: less worried at birthday parties, more confident when taking a test or talking to friends, more peace in the home. Talk about these goals and how you share them, and then connect it to who can help reach those goals if you haven’t been able to do so on your own- people we call therapists or counselors. Let them know that a therapist is a person that helps with emotions and relationships, and they help kids and their parents. As you introduce the idea of therapy, it’s ok to discuss the discomfort that it might cause, since, of course, it’s hard to talk about emotions and struggles with someone new.
Also tell them about how a therapist has lots of practice creating a safe space, and giving them the time they need to get more comfortable and learn how to talk about the hard stuff. Talk about counseling with a perspective of working together and providing help, rather than blaming or shaming them for whatever problem you’re facing. Highlight that going to therapy does not show weakness, but courage: courage to face something that is hard, courage to be honest, courage to ask for help. When they shift their focus to feeling uncomfortable or awkward, remind them of their courage and the opportunity to get closer to that goal that you talked about at the beginning of the conversation.
It also takes courage to sit in our waiting room. Prepare your child for what it might be like waiting with other people and feeling nervous, and that this time can be used to focus on the discomfort or on the courage. Here are some tips for how to use that time in a way that focuses on a flexible positive perspective.
- Connect– share what you’re grateful for about them, make plans for an upcoming outing or family time.
- Distract your mind from those negative thoughts with a book, mind puzzle, or recalling something positive from your day.
- Practice skills you’ve been learning about in therapy, such as mindful breathing, physical relaxation, or challenging negative thoughts.
- Instead of comparing yourself to others’ in the waiting room, affirm their courage to face whatever it is they are going through.
- Praise yourself for having courage.
You may also need to spend time preparing yourself as the parent. You may need to remind yourself that you are being courageous by asking for help, since we often feel the pressure to be seen as confident competent parents. Parents sometimes feel pressure that the first impression and first session have to feel or look a certain way, and so they set unhelpful expectations about how much their child needs to talk, and what he or she needs to talk about. Parents can experience their own discomfort and vulnerability in talking about their children, family history, and their own frustrations and anxieties. Here are some tips for how to be a positive model in these moments:
- Reflect on who your child is to you and bring that narrative into the session. The areas of difficulty have to be discussed as well, but make sure they hear a holistic view of who they are.
- Accept that the session may be uncomfortable for your child, and strive to meet them where they are, not where you want them to be.
- Think about how you want to speak about them in front of someone new. We all feel uncomfortable if someone is sharing about our struggles in front of us, so consider what words and tone you would want to hear if you were in their position.
- Prepare to be open about your own struggles related to parenting, and use it as an opportunity to model openness and vulnerability.
- Give yourself, and your child, credit for taking a courageous step towards greater emotional health.