This is a frequent question that we get from parents who are seeking therapy services for their child. Here are some tips to consider.
Don’t have time to read? Print out this how-to checklist to get the ball rolling! Introducing Your Child to Therapy Checklist
With children and teens, especially those who can be more anxious or resistant to parent direction, it can be tempting to wait until right before the scheduled appointment to inform them of the plan. However, both children and teens will be more likely to engage in therapy if they are given advanced notice about the plan. Very young children might benefit from a conversation 1-2 days in advance, whereas older children and teens might appreciate a heads-up of up to a week.
How to Tell Your Child or Teen
- Orient them: With young children, consider showing them any relevant photos such as of the clinician, of the building, or of the waiting room. If the child is familiar with the area, give them a point of reference to something they identify as positive (e.g., it’s just across the street from the frozen yogurt place, it’s a five-minute drive down the road from our library). Older children and teens might also appreciate seeing photos or having some private time to peruse the practice website. You might even look for some YouTube videos about what to expect when seeing a child or adolescent psychologist.
- Provide both clear expectations and a sense of choice or control: Set an expectation that they will attend a few meetings with someone and then you will actively discuss together whether they want to continue.
- Explaining Why: Be ready with a clear explanation about why you want this experience for them. Be sure that this is not framed as a punishment or consequence of their actions or choices; rather, it is a way to add someone to their team of support. To do this, you will first need to ask yourself what you are hoping therapy might provide for your child or teen and find out whether that expectation is realistic. This may require some advanced research on your part, either by talking with the therapist first or by reading about your concerns with resources recommended by a professional. When you feel ready to explain to your child why he or she has an upcoming appointment to meet a therapist, be sure to validate that you know this was not their idea.
Schedule meetings at a time that doesn’t doom the relationship to fail. For example, don’t take away your child’s one free hour with friends or for preferred activities in the context of a busy evening to see a therapist. Consider whether your child would be okay to miss one school period at the beginning or end of the day (or during an elective) for the first appointment, even if this will not be the preference for any ongoing sessions.
Describe clear expectations for each of you. For example, “we expect you to attend three meetings with this provider but then you can expect us to allow you to decide whether you want to continue with this provider, consider a different provider, or discontinue completely.” This agreement will vary for each family.
Once sessions are scheduled, set a clear date and time for that follow-up discussion with your child, during which you will decide upon future steps. If children or teens want to discontinue earlier than parents prefer or than is recommended by the therapist, consider a treatment contract like:
“XYZ is our goal for this treatment experience, we will revisit every 6-8 weeks together and decide if we should schedule another 6-8 sessions, reduce frequency, or stop altogether.”
You might consider participating in therapy yourself. Letting the child or teen know that you are open to attending therapy with them or separately while they receive treatment, might be helpful and make them more comfortable. This, of course, requires you to be open to seeking therapy yourself.
Keep the bigger picture in mind. Perhaps the WORST thing you could do is frame therapy as a punishment. That not only turns off your child or teen from participating now but could also close the door for self-initiated engagement in therapy in the future.
Ready to get to work? Print out our how-to checklist: Introducing Your Child to Therapy Checklist
This piece was written by Abigail Mintz Romirowsky, PhD.