It is understandable that your first appointment with a therapist may cause some anxiety. It can be particularly challenging for parents to explain to their children that they want them to see a mental health professional. However, we have found that parents may be more anxious about this process than the child or teen. Nevertheless, seeing a therapist should not be scary or anxiety provoking. Below are some strategies you can use to talk with your child, whether you have already scheduled the appointment, or you are simply thinking about scheduling an appointment for your child.
Normalize going to therapy. You know how we go to the doctor because we want to make sure that we are medically healthy? And we go to the dentist to make sure that we have good oral health? It’s also important to take care of our mental health. Let your child know that this is a very common experience, even if you, the parent, have never been to therapy yourself. Research now shows that youth are experiencing increased rates of anxiety and depression. Sometimes this is due to day-to-day stressors, but it may be part of a larger issue such as a mental health disorder.
Discuss going to therapy with a calm, neutral tone. It may be tempting to tell your child that he/she is going to therapy during a heated argument, but this is never the right time and will only make things more difficult. If your child or teen is angry, telling him/her why therapy is needed will be difficult to understand. If you tell your child while you are angry, your child may see it as a punishment and be resistant to going to therapy and participating.
Be honest, kind, and supportive about your concerns. Most children and teens know when you are not being completely truthful. Be open and honest about your concerns, but also show kindness and empathy. Let your child know that you love them very much and don’t want them to have the current struggles they are having. Let them know that you will do whatever you can, and sometimes that requires taking to someone else who has specific skills and training to help.
Explain therapy in developmentally appropriate way. Let your child know in an age-appropriate way that you have spoken to someone who can help. If you are bringing a younger child to therapy, you might say something like “A lot of kids your age have things they worry about. I talked with someone who knows how to help kids worry less”. If you have an older child or teen, simply point out what you have noticed, and let them know it may be time to talk to someone who can help. For example, “I noticed that you are easily frustrated at home and that you’re sleeping a lot. I think it will be helpful for you to talk with a therapist about managing your emotions and helping you figure out why you’re so tired. Maybe they can also help me learn what I can do to help you too”. While we have found that many children and teens are somewhat relieved to have some hope that things could be better, some may be resistant. If that is the case, you might explain to your child that he/she will attend at least a few sessions and then you will discuss with them how they feel about continuing. If your child is engaging in behaviors that are harmful or dangerous, you can calmly and sincerely let them know that therapy is non-negotiable and you love them too much to see them continue to be in so much pain.
Timing is everything. Parents are often unsure about when they should tell their child they have a therapy appointment. We have found that telling a child 2-3 days from the scheduled appointment is best. For highly anxious children or children who have difficulty with changes in routine, it may be best to tell them about one week before the appointment. You can also help your child prepare for the appointment by letting them know some of the questions they may be asked, such as what do they see as their biggest problems in their life? What are their relationships like with their family and friends? And, what do they like or dislike about school? This may help them feel more confident about the appointment and what to expect.