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What to Expect When Bringing a Child to Therapy

Anchor Light Therapy Collective

Mar 29, 2022

Many parents are concerned about the social ramifications of bringing their child or teen to therapy. Perhaps it is the fear of being judged by friends or other family members, or perhaps it is the fear of feeling insufficient as a parent. However, nearly half of mental health concerns begin in childhood or adolescence. Just like adults, youth struggle with challenges that can be difficult to cope with alone. When mental health goes untreated, there may be severe and lasting impacts on development and everyday functioning. Seeking support for your kids is an important step in reducing emotional distress related to untreated mental health disorders. Knowing what to look for in your child’s mood and behavior can help you determine whether they would benefit from therapy.

How do you know when a child need’s therapy?

As a parent, it can be difficult to know for sure when your child needs therapy, since children express feelings and respond to stressors in a much different way than adults do. A child’s age, developmental level, and social setting are just some of the things that families should take into consideration. The following are signs and symptoms that show your child might benefit from child therapy:

  1. Defiance
  2. Sudden change in interests
  3. Excessive worrying/sadness
  4. Any regression to earlier behaviors (bathroom accidents, tantrums, etc.)
  5. Social isolation
  6. Self-deprecating language
  7. Experience of an adverse life event
  8. Change in energy levels (either more fatigued or more energized)
  9. Increase in risk-seeking behaviors
  10. Discussions of self-harm or suicide

You might want to ask yourself:

  • How often do I seeing or hearing these things in my child?
  • What feels typical for a child of this age group?
  • Does this happen in more than one context (i.e. home, school, extracurriculars)?

4 Popular types of therapy for children

Similarly for adults, there are a variety of mental health services available for children. Some of the more general types include play therapy, art therapy, family therapy, and a variety of behavioral therapies.

Play Therapy

This type of therapy is child-centered, and meets kids where they are at. Play therapy involves the use of toys, books, games, dolls, and more to help facilitate an environment that assists in the identification of emotions and behaviors in children.

Art Therapies

Art therapy, including music and other modalities, is an alternate avenue for children to identify emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Art therapies use a creative outlet to help kids explore their own feelings in a healing manner.

Family Therapy

This involves the family unit. Therapists who specialize in family therapy will help identify problems within the family dynamic and work to improve communication techniques, boundaries, and more.

Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy are three of the most commonly used behavior therapies. Generally, these therapies focus on identifying behaviors and thought patterns and finding ways to replace those behaviors and thoughts with ones that will help your child.

Each therapy has its own benefits, but you can also talk with your child’s therapist to learn more about the approach they use and why they use it.

How to introduce your child to therapy

Telling children or adolescents that they will be going to therapy is an important step. Parents often worry about how to broach the topic without provoking anxiety or stress. Luckily, there are strategies to approach these conversations with greater poise.

  1. Find out how you can involve your child’s therapist. Your child’s therapist already knows how to have these conversations with families. Don’t be afraid to ask the provider how they would broach such a conversation. Therapists can also give specific advice on how this conversation might differ depending on a kid’s age, developmental level, and temperament.
  2. Make sure you get down to their level. It is helpful to present the idea in a gentle manner. Try to communicate the need for therapy when things are calm.
  3. Use language that is age-appropriate and easy to understand. The thought of having to explain talk therapy to a child can be overwhelming. Breaking it down into simpler ideas will help them understand that therapy can be helpful – and fun! Remind your child or teen that therapy is more than just talking – your child will likely spend time playing with toys, games, and engaging with art. Ultimately, you are hoping for your child to have a space to talk and receive support, a space to discuss feelings, play, and feel safe.
  4. Check out the therapist’s biography together. If you find a therapist for your child or teenager, find time to sit down with them and peruse their biography. This will increase comfortability and help kids anticipate the upcoming appointment. Encourage your child to write down or brainstorm questions they might have about treatment.
  5. Respect the privacy of your child’s treatment. Remind your child that treatment is private. Avoid pressuring children or adolescents into discussing the content of their therapy. If there are any safety concerns that come up in your child’s therapy, the therapist will make a plan to discuss this information with you. Privacy fuels self-expression!

What to expect at your child’s first session

Similarly to a doctor’s appointment, visiting a therapist’s office involves some paperwork. Sometimes this paperwork is done online, but often times it is done in the waiting room. A parent may anticipate filling out questions on their child’s medical, behavioral, school, and social experiences. The therapist will often peruse this paperwork either right before or during your first session.

When you and your child first show up for the first meeting, your therapist will take both you and your child back to their office at the time of your session.

Parents and guardians are often more involved in the first few sessions. Many therapists will ask the child questions about their life, hobbies, and interests, though guardians are often best at providing details about the child’s world.

The therapist’s goal during this meeting is not only to gather information, but also to develop rapport with the client. There might be a point in which the therapist asks to connect with the child alone, but this is dependent on the comfortability of the child. It is imperative that therapists and guardians meet the child where they are at, rather than forcing the child into a situation that may feel uncertain or safe.

What questions do therapists normally ask?

From the beginning of the appointment, the therapist will want to know about any specific goals that you have for your child’s therapy. For example, some parents want to see an increase in their child’s self-esteem, while other parents may want to see an increase in motivation. Knowing what you want to see less of or more of is a good start to goal-setting with your child’s therapist.

The initial session is a good opportunity to talk about specific worries you have about your child. Perhaps you have concerns about Additionally, you may be asked to list your child’s strengths; what skills are your children bringing with them to therapy? This may include positive coping skills or things that your child does exceptionally well.

Communicate any changes in your child’s life

Transparency in therapy is essential. It may be intimidating to discuss challenges or setbacks, but these discussions are necessary in order to best track progress. Plan to update your child’s therapist on what you notice outside of sessions. This also includes informing your child’s therapist of any stuck points, or areas in which there has been no improvement. Some parents may feel bad or ashamed if they do not see any progress in their child’s symptoms. It is important to remember that progress is not linear!

How long does it take to work?

The length of therapy depends on several factors; your therapist will be able to give you a rough estimate at your first session, but often times it is difficult to nail down a specific length of time. Kids experience growth at such different rates. Your goals for therapy, frequency of visits, major life changes, and child’s progress will all impact the length of treatment.

You may wonder, “What if my child is not making any progress in treatment?” or “What happens if I disagree with my child’s provider?” Both of these are tough talking points, but pivotal shall they ever occur to you. Having these discussions will allow the clinician to tweak their approach or refer you to someone you might be of better support.

Therapy will improve your child’s behavior

While therapy does not always reveal immediate improvements, working with a therapist can be extremely beneficial. A child therapist can not only help your child modify their problem behaviors, but can also assist in goal-building, communication, parent coaching, bonding, and self-expression. Parents who get their kids in therapy are more likely to respond to their children’s needs with support and compassion. Children and teenagers that have been to therapy are more likely to be in touch with their feelings, and are more likely to utilize positive coping skills in the face of distress. Ultimately, seeking support for your child can benefit the entire family inside and out.

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