How to Introduce the Idea of Counseling to Kids

How Does a Parent or Caregiver Introduce the idea of Therapy to a Child?

1) Never lie to a child about where you are taking them. Let them know that you are both on your way to meet with a counselor. Can you imagine your spouse trapping you like this? How can the therapy process be trusted again if it gets off to a deceptive start?

2) No sneak attacks. Walking into a counseling session and springing it on them at the last minute is a horrible way to start. 

3) Be truthful, i..e, "You know how we have been talking about your nervous feelings lately? Mommy called a professional to fix that problem. Someone who talks to lots of kids about this very same problem. She has some clever ideas that we can talk about together. I will be with you the whole time. Maybe we can do some art work while we're there." 

Or, for an older child, when the counseling may be perceived as more punitive, offer something like this, "We will be meeting with a counselor after school today. Her name is ______. I have made this appointment because we have a problem and I don't have all the answers. It's my job to seek out new ideas to help you and our family. We love you and believe that having someone to talk to besides us will be helpful. I need to learn too."

4) Be age appropriate and beyond. No need to dumb-down yourself for your child's sake. They are brighter and more aware than you think. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

5) Bring a snack along. It's hard to think on an empty stomach, especially after a long day of school. Bring homework along or a child's favorite toy. Sometimes this can be an ice-breaker for a new therapist and child.

6) Bring both parents. Even if divorce, with 50/50 joint/legal custody, in the state of California, both parents MUST consent to therapy for a minor child. There are a few exceptions to this that can be further clarified with a knowledgeable therapist.

7) Never encourage a child to lie in session, "Don't tell her about__________." This creates tension and a sense of nervous confusion for the child.

Remember that children must be treated alongside their parents. In other words, you cannot drop them at an appointment and assume that the counselor will "get to work." The whole family partners up - a collaboration of solutions.

What to Expect on the First Appointment:

Most children will benefit from Mom or Dad staying in the room for the whole first session. Of course, the rules change a bit when adolescent issues are involved and the teen perceives therapy as a punitive consequence to bad behavior (poor grades, drug use, rule violations), in which case, privacy and solo time in a therapist's office may be desired by the teen. Still, teens are kids and may be more frightened by the experience than they might admit.

For most kids and especially the younger child, comfort and security is imperative. Once the child feels safe in a stranger's office, parent or caregiver may venture out to the lobby for short breaks, ("to make a phone call" or "run to the restroom"). In cases of anxiety, this process is slow-going and should be patiently respected.

Kids below age 12 will most likely be introduced to some type of art work. It is a great way to build rapport with a therapist while also allowing insight into a child's thought and feeling world. Other tools, such as card playing or a game of chess also build rapport and begin the process of trust and safety. While to the outsider it may look like fun and games (it is!) this is also a terrific way to insert questions along the way, "How was your weekend?" or "How are you feeling about the new school"?

Most therapists have colorful feelings charts (I do!) - when a child is stuck identifying an emotion, charts are a wonderful way to introduce the language of feelings. As a child is better able to give words to emotions, the more easily his/her needs are met.

With young kids, I enjoy offering rewards for small gains made in session, like stickers or a small toy of some sort. This is called Behavioral Modification.

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