Talking to Kids about Starting Therapy

There are lots of reasons why parents decide to take their child or teen to therapy. Perhaps your kiddo has been through a traumatic event, or they’re struggling with anxiety, or their behavior has gotten so out of control that you’re not sure what to do anymore. Whatever the reason, it’s often helpful for kids of all ages to have an outside professional they can turn to for support. But even if you’re already eager to take your child or teen to see a counselor, even if your mind is totally made up, you still might be feeling nervous about how your kiddo will respond to the idea.

How can you word things in a way that’s honest, but non-shaming? What can you do if they resist?

Here are some ideas for navigating the conversation with different age groups (and what to do if you’re met with resistance):

Littles (3-5ish)

Really young children will likely be satisfied with a simple, vague statement. “You’re going to play with someone named Amanda in a special playroom. There will be lots of toys in there to use!”

Many parents are worried that if their child doesn’t fully understand why they’re at the office, the work won’t be productive. Fortunately, that’s not true! Little ones doing play therapy don’t need to KNOW this situation is called therapy (or even get what its purpose is) in order for it to be effective.

Another suggestion is for parents to take pictures of the playroom at the intake session (which is typically adults only), if possible. This way, you can show the photos to your child to help get them excited for their first session – or at least feeling more comfortable with the idea. In the post-COVID world, I personally conduct most of my intakes via telehealth, but I’m still up for emailing pics to parents if they think it’ll be beneficial!

Older kids (5-10ish)

Kids in this age group (and particularly inquisitive little ones) will want a bit more information about who they’re going to meet with and why. It’s best to be honest here, but come from a place of compassion and understanding, and not from a place of wanting to punish or shame frustrating behavior.

Instead of: “You have to go see someone because you keep acting out in school.”

Try: “You’ve been having a hard time lately, and going to see a counselor can help you feel better.”

Preteens & Teens (13+)

Teens who aren’t on board with the idea of therapy may be the toughest group to convince, but not always! Gen Z-ers have grown up hearing about therapy and having it normalized on social media. It’s increasingly common for them to request therapy for themselves, and if not, to respond somewhat positively to the idea from their parents. However, if you can sense your teen is hesitant or uncertain, try to establish a common ground and offer choices where possible.

Example: “I know things have been difficult for you lately, and it might help to talk it through with someone. I totally get why that might not feel comfortable with me – when I was a teen, I didn’t want to talk about stuff with my parents, either! You can be the one to decide which therapist we meet with from this list I’ve gathered.”

What should I do if my child or teen is resistant?

If a child or teen of any age is resistant, validate their feelings but try to find out why. Most of the time, it’s one of two main reasons (or both):

1) They have wild misconceptions of what therapy will be like.
Despite the negative stigma decreasing, therapy/counseling is still sometimes depicted in ridiculously inaccurate ways on television and social media. Your kiddo might be fearing that the therapist will be just another adult in their lives who lectures them on behavior or disapproves of their choices – and who would want that! If that’s the case, let them know:

  • They get to decide what to talk about in the office/playroom. If they want to discuss their challenges, great! If they want to keep the focus on hobbies and friends for awhile, that’s absolutely okay too.
  • The therapist is on their side, and is not going to judge or criticize them.
  • The therapist is not going to tell the parents everything the child says. (This is true with clients of all ages, but especially true with teens – they’re entitled to privacy.)
  • The parent can be present with them in the first session if that makes them more comfortable.

2) They worry that going to therapy means something’s wrong with them – or that others may think this of them.
If that’s your kiddo’s concern, respond by NORMALIZING therapy! If the car had trouble starting, your family would take it to a mechanic. If you get a sore throat, you go to the doctor. It’s really no different going to see a therapist if your thoughts and feelings are all over the place. Reassure them that there’s nothing bad or wrong about them, and emphasize that no one outside the immediate family even needs to know about it if they want to keep it private.

What do I do if my child or teen outright refuses to go? Should I make them?

Possibly. Think about it this way – if your child broke their arm and was refusing to go the hospital, you likely wouldn’t accept that. Similarly, if you have serious concerns for their mental and emotional well-being, it’s likely worth pushing. Very frequently I find that if parents can convince reluctant kids to try ONE single session with me, they end up feeling comfortable enough to continue!

On the other hand, if the issue seems relatively mild and you’re comfortable giving it some time, it’s okay to put a pin in the subject, but don’t let it go completely if the problem seems to persist.

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