How to Tell Your Child They are Going to Therapy
There are so many different reasons that a caregiver might take their child to see a therapist. Perhaps it’s to help them process a recent parental separation. Maybe they have experienced a traumatic event. You may be noticing that they’re exhibiting feelings of anxiety, anger, depression, or grief and loss. It could be that teachers have observed they’re struggling with impulse control, attention, and emotional regulation at school. Whatever the reason may be, a common question that we get is, “How do I tell my child that they’re going to therapy?” What a great question! How do we do this without making them feel as if there is something wrong with them? How do we ease any apprehension? How do we give them a realistic representation of what to expect?
There are some typical responses that should be avoided when communicating to your child that they will be going to therapy:
The Shame Game. This is where caregivers communicate in a way that makes the child feel that something is wrong with them: “I’m tired of your behaviour. You’re going to therapy! I’m calling to book tomorrow. You better listen to your therapist.” Communicating it this way could immediately create defensiveness, resentment, and a negative association with therapy.
The Play Break. This is where caregivers minimize the underlying goals and therapy and provide some unrealistic expectations to try to get the child to go to therapy: “You’ll be going to play therapy next week. But guess what? It’ll be so fun. You’ll get to play with your therapist the whole time!”
The Unknown. This is where caregivers are not sure what to expect from therapy themselves and graze over the topic. “You’ve been really worried about mom and dad lately. We’re taking you to therapy next week. I’m sure it’ll be great.” Communicating without providing some clear expectations could create some apprehension and anxiety around coming to their first appointment.
The Tell ’em Everything. This is when caregivers overtly encourage their kids to bring up various situations that they might not be ready to disclose: “You better tell your therapist about what happened at school today. Make sure to tell her what happened at dad’s house too.” This could push your child outside of their window of tolerance and pressure them to express things they aren’t ready to express. This could create a negative association with therapy as well. You can communicate important updates to the therapists during scheduled caregiver check-in times.
Here are some appropriate and effective ways to communicate that your child will be going to therapy:
- Share your concern in a supportive way and without shaming: “I’m noticing that you’ve been having a really tough time dealing with your anger lately. I know that you don’t want to hurt your friends, but it’s hard for you to control your anger. I love you and want to help you.
- Let them know that you are scheduling therapy, the reason for therapy, and what a therapist or counsellor does: “We might need some extra help with your worries so I’ll be calling to book an appointment for therapy. (Alternatively, you can use the words ‘counselling’ or ‘play therapy’). A therapist is a person who helps kids with their big feelings and worries. They see kids for lots of different reasons. I will talk to your therapist first and then you’ll get to meet them.”
- Give them some power in the situation. “After you meet them, it is your choice whether you want to keep going to see your therapist or whether you would like to try a different therapist.”
- Be realistic when explaining what your child will do in therapy. This will be clearer after the first intake with the therapist. Therapists have different styles and use different modalities. When in doubt, make sure to ask the therapist if there is anything else the child should know before coming to therapy. Here’s a sample script: “When you meet with Amanda (therapist’s name), you will get to do lots of different things to help with your feelings (or more specific presenting problem). You might learn new things, talk to her, read special books, and play with toys and games too. Sometimes you might have big feelings in therapy like sadness, worry, or anger. That’s OK! Amanda will be there to help you with any big feelings. I will do a check-in with Amanda sometimes to let her know how you’re doing at home and to learn what you’re doing so we could do some of those things at home too.”
Now that you’ve taken the time to review how to communicate to your child that they will be going to therapy, we want to congratulate you on taking this step to support your child.