cartoon of child in therapy room
Child Therapy, Parent Coaching

How To Talk To Your Child About Starting Therapy

Imagine this scenario: A friend tells you that their child is going to therapy. What are your automatic thoughts?  What do you feel in regard to your friend? Or about your friend’s child?

We need to be honest here! The stigma surrounding mental health, mental illness, and therapy may seem like an “adult” topic. There is a common idea within our society that entering therapy means that something is wrong and more importantly the person who enters therapy is wrong or messed up.  I am here to tell you that stigma permeates and influences even the youngest of children.   

Instead of perpetuating that stigma, I want to use this space to help you learn how to talk to your child about starting therapy. Learning what to say, how to say it, and how to negotiate if they resist will make a difference in the outcomes for your child. You can create a supportive and open space for your child to enter therapy.

What to Say to Your Child When You Want Them to Start Therapy or Counseling

First, test the waters on their beliefs about therapy.

Ask how your child would feel about having an additional support outside of their family and friends to talk to. Get a feel on how your child reacts to that question. That can help you meet them where they are. You can begin to get a sense of the fears or if they have judgements about seeking help.  

Be transparent, direct, and honest.

Asian father and son sitting outside taking

Use the proper terms. When you use terms like “seeing a therapist” rather than “going to a shrink” or “talking to mommy’s adult friend”, you distrupt the urge to hide or cover up seeking help from others. And in doing so, you help to destigmatize the way our society seeing mental health care.

Explain what a therapist is and what a therapist is not.  A therapist’s job is not to trick a child into becoming someone they are not. Nor is it to criticize who they are or what they do. A therapist creates a private space to help a child feel supported in their feelings, no matter what those feelings are. They can maintain what is going well a child. And they can provide support in areas the child feels are not going well or as well as it could be.

Explain confidentiality to a child who has never done therapy before.

Help your child understand that therapists can not and will not tell anybody about their conversations unless it is to protect someone from getting hurt. Even parents! Normalize that it is ok for your child to talk about things with other adults without parents knowing. Encourage that you will support this privacy without pressure, unless and until they feel ready to share (and then you’ll be ready to listen).

Remember that different therapists have different boundaries and limits on the involvement with parents when working with children. It is important to ask a new therapist how they handle this. Find a therapist that matches your child’s needs (not just yours) when it comes to confidentiality.  Each therapist is not a perfect fit for every client. (Here is our particular approach.)

Invite your child to create their own goals.

Let your kiddo share any specific behaviors that they might be struggling with. Help them reframe judgements about their identity and struggles. Present facts about why they may be challenged: a recent transition or loss, changes within the family, biological predisposition to intense emotion, normal developmental struggles, etc. 

Allow your child to demonstrate agency. Don’t force your concerns upon them. Instead, when they are ready to hear your observations, share the specific behaviors you are noticing that could be areas to address with a therapist. Remind your child that as a caregiver you want to help, but you might not always know how. A therapist can help bridge that gap.

How and When to Address the Idea of Starting Therapy With Your Child

It is important to approach these topics when both you and your childr are in an emotionally calm state.  It is okay to acknowledge that this topic can carry many emotions for everyone AND it is okay to have this conversation over multiple iterations and attempts with your child. You must regulate yourself to provide a safe space to talk about concerning patterns rather than make accusations.

Red headed woman wearing glasses talking to a young boy sitting cross legged

Although many people consider starting therapy during a crisis, it is very important to avoid presenting therapy as a reaction to a particular situation or as punishment to a child. Using tactics such as shame, guilt, and punishment to get your child’s buy-in will come at the cost of further detriment to you child’s mental health. 

Normalize that all people have “stuff” that we can work on for self-improvement. Introduce the dialectical thought that people are both doing the best they can AND people can change and get better. This is a strong reminder that therapy is for all people because we all are navigating the ups, downs, and in-betweens of life. 

What to Do If Your Child is Hesitant About Starting Therapy

Include your child in the process of finding a therapist.

Many therapists have websites and bios that you and your child can read together. You can narrow down some options that you have pre-approved and then show them a few and help them explore the pros and cons of each option.

Remember, as a caregiver, it is important that you are a part of the process of finding your child a therapist, both in selection and in the on-going therapy process. AND, this is not your therapy space, it is theirs.

Revisit goals for therapy are THEIRS and not yours.

Remember that just because your goal may be to reduce arguments with your child, it is essential your child is able to create their own goals too. Oftentimes, your goals will align even if it you don’t agree on the path it takes to get there. Remind your child that individual therapy is to identify and support them in their goals, not yours.

Learn to meet your child where they are and hold space. Do the work for yourself to manage fears, stresses, and urgencies when they may arise.

Teaching children consent, assent, and confidentiality prior to starting therapy can help ease nerves. It also begins the important process of learning how to establish and maintain age-appropriate boundaries. Remind your child that confidentiality will be upheld unless there is a safety concern that is deemed important to address immediately or prior to the next session.

If Your Child Completely Resistant to the Idea of Starting Therapy

Remember that therapy is not the only vehicle for change. In my perspective, it is important to meet the child where they are in terms of their motivation to enter therapy versus simply forcing and coercing a child into a space that they will not participate in.  As adults, we need to be mindful of the power dynamic we hold over children and think about how this process must feel. Consider how this could be interpreted in a young person’s mind, even when we are actively trying to dismantle stereotypes and stigma surrounding mental health treatment.  

Another way to walk the middle path with your child is to ask them to try just 3 sessions before making their decision about whether or not to “do therapy”. This does several things. It:

  1. Honors your need for your child to begin therapy.
  2. Allows your child to gain information on what therapy is and how it feels to participate in it.
  3. Gives the therapist an opportunity to begin to build rapport and assess your child’s needs.
  4. Gives your child an out if they truly are uncomfortable with the process.
  5. Encourages moving away from all-or-nothing thinking that can occur with just one trial session.

Consider other types of therapy as alternatives to child therapy.

Be patient. Consider other options if your child remains unwilling to engage in individual therapy. Parent coaching is a great alternative in these moments. Not only can parent coaching help guide you in how to support your child’s mental health needs, it can also help you determine how much to push for therapy and how to do so effectively.

It is very possible that while a child could benefit from individual therapy, starting in a different place such as with parents/caregivers could be just as useful and and lead to the changes you hope to see.

Begin Child Therapy or Parent Coaching in Maryland or DC with Montgomery County Counseling Center Today

  1. Simply check out our awesome team of therapists!
  2. Show your favorite profiles to your kiddo to let them have a say.
  3. And contact us to check on availability and make your first appointment!

About The Author

Lizzy Kosin, LCSW-C

Lizzy Kosin, LCSW-C is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Therapist at Montgomery County Counseling Center in Rockville, MD. She earned her AM degree (equivalent to an MSW) from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Her training includes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Lizzy takes a casual approach to therapy. Because of this, she works very well with kids & teens. She also works with adults who want the benefits of therapy without feeling stuffy or over-medicalized. She values the importance of the mind-body connection and using experiential activities to keep the fun in building insight and motivating towards progress. Lizzy is licensed in both Maryland and Washington DC.

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