We prepare children for all sorts of things in life—a new babysitter, the first day of school, the arrival of a new baby. The preparation is important because children, like adults, find comfort in knowing what to expect. That same sense of security is key to helping a child feel good about seeing a psychotherapist.
For very young children, seeing a therapist can feel like a play date. The therapist is someone who simply has interesting things to play with and who talks about feelings. For school-aged children, however, seeing a therapist for the first time can feel frightening and overwhelming.
The first step is to find a therapist who will be a good match for your child. Consult pedatricians, friends or family members for referrals. Once you find a therapist, ask about his level of professional training and experience in working with children. And trust your gut. As a parent, you know whether this therapist will click with your child.
Next, help your child understand the underlying reasons for the psychotherapy, such as, “Sometimes you get very angry at school and hurt the other children. A therapist can help you understand what makes you so mad and help you learn better ways to show how angry you are without hurting other children.” Just like a medical doctor helps people when they have a problem with their body, explain to kids that a therapist is like a ‘feelings doctor’ who helps kids with all sorts of problems.”
All children need to be reminded that seeing a therapist doesn’t make them “sick,” “bad” or “weak” and that many children see therapists to help them learn how to manage their problems and feel better.
Parents can support their child throughout therapy by discussing it in a positive, reassuring tone. That helps children see therapy as an opportunity to heal rather than a punishment for something they have said or done.
There still is a stigma attached to psychotherapy, which can be further exacerbated by personal, familial and cultural beliefs. For that reason, parents should first examine their own feelings. If you can’t support your child during therapy, then don’t do it. Sometimes, a school guidance counselor or your pediatrician can help in ways that feel more comfortable for you. Finally, praise your child for having the courage to work through his or her issues. It will foster a sense of accomplishment and help the child feel proud of mastering his fears and moving ahead in his development.
Rachel Rashkin is author of I’m Getting Better, a story for children entering psychotherapy, and founder of www.helpingkidsheal.com, an educational Web site for kids and parents.