Seeking professional help for managing a child’s behavior is one of the bravest steps a parent can take. It feels incredibly vulnerable to admit that a behavior has gotten out of hand, or that you’re not sure what to do anymore. To say that children don’t come with a manual is an understatement! They have their own complicated set of thoughts, feelings, and needs, and it’s not always clear-cut how to help them. Their behaviors can be frustrating, scary, and exhausting. Play therapists and child therapists are here to help. We want to get EVERYONE in the family feeling better – including the parents! For us, supporting parents means carefully balancing validation and esteem-building with guidance towards more effective approaches.
Here are some things child therapists want all parents (not just the ones on our caseload!) to know:
It isn’t weak/weird/etc to ask for help from a professional
I’m so sorry that our society has stigmatized people seeking mental healthcare for themselves or their children. I think the stigma is lessening; I hope it is. No one would think it strange if you took your car to a mechanic because the brakes were failing, or went to the hospital because your arm was broken. And no one should think it’s strange for you to take your child to a therapist because you’re worried about them, or get parent coaching because you’re tired of every day being a struggle.
We may be the mental health expert, but we know YOU are the expert of your own kid
Child therapists bring a lot of education and experience. We know what behaviors are normal and not normal in a particular age group. We know how to spot the difference between regular childhood challenges and diagnosable disorders. We know how trauma changes the brain and impacts how children respond to people and situations around them. We know the vital importance of kids feeling connected with their parents, and accepted by them. All of this knowledge helps us inform and guide you.
But we also know that you have been with your child from day one! You know their likes and dislikes. You know where they struggle and where they shine. You know better than anyone how they’ll react to a fall off a bike, or a bad grade in school, or brussel sprouts being served for dinner. We respect that you’re bringing a VAULT of information about this child. This knowledge helps us tailor our goals and plans to your unique situation.
You play a major role in your child’s mental health treatment
A play therapist typically works with a child for 45-50 minutes once a week. Depending on the situation, that number can be higher or lower, but either way – your child is with you much, much more more than they’re with us. The way you respond to their anger or anxiety or defiance honestly has a drastic effect on how well your child is going to do in therapy. I promise I’m not saying this to overwhelm you, or make you think you have to be the perfect parent. I say it because seeking professional help can feel disempowering, and I want you to remember that no adult matters more to your child than you do. No relationship matters more. We understand that making changes to your parenting approach can be really hard. But we also live in awe of how these changes can dramatically improve families’ lives.
We’re not judging your parenting skills. You’re human, too!
Yes, now and then I admit that I’ll hear of a parent doing or saying something to a child that makes me inwardly cringe. I’m a child advocate first and foremost, and some things are hard to hear. HOWEVER, I firmly believe that the vast majority of parents are doing the best they can in their particular circumstances. We tend to parent in the ways we were parented – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I don’t believe anyone wakes up wondering how they can hurt their child’s feelings that day. Your job is the hardest job there is, and there are no true vacations from it.
So no, child therapists aren’t judging you for yelling at your kid after you asked them 100 times to put away their shoes. We’re not judging you for handing over the iPad when you desperately needed a moment to yourself. We understand. We simply want to help you become more aware of the choices you make, and give you tools to make life feel a bit more peaceful at home.
Your own emotions and needs influence your parenting decisions
A big part of my work with parents is helping them identify how they’re feeling in particular situations with their child. Naming that you feel embarrassed when your toddler has a meltdown in public, or that you feel frustrated when your 8-year-old worries about everything, is important. Why? Because not noticing your feelings makes you more likely to react blindly from them. Your emotions are in control of you, instead of the other way around. Learning to separate your child’s behavior from your own needs and feelings is the necessary first step toward being able to think clearly and respond calmly.
Minor parenting mistakes are inevitable, and aren’t going to scar your kid for life
The most important thing you can do is own up to your mistake, apologize, and attempt to re-connect with your child.
We aren’t calm and patient 100% of the time. I promise.
We know you’ve watched us respond to your child’s challenging behavior with ease, and wondered why it’s so comfortable for us and not for you. My friend, we’ve had a lot of practice with this. We’re human too, and sometimes kids’ words or actions can bring up feelings of irritation and impatience just like they do with you. Years of experience have enabled us to notice our irritation, breathe through it, and respond with the same skills we’ve used a million times. It’ll get easier for you, too.
We may advocate for your child, but we know they’re not easy!
It’s my job to protect kids, and it’s my passion in life to help adults better understand the complexities of Kid Brain. I believe that raising children to be compassionate people who give back to their world is THE most valuable job there is. Therefore, teaching parents how to respond to tough situations with empathy and calmness is important to me.
But we child therapists know your child isn’t perfect. We KNOW they can give you a hard time. When your child defies our playroom rules just like they defy yours, we get it. When they beg us to do something we know they’re capable of doing themselves, we see your frustration.