Reflections from a therapist: Taking Your Child or Teen to Therapy

What you should do before the 1st session

1. DO NOT surprise them. Telling your child what to expect will decrease the anxiety they have about starting therapy. During the first session, you can tell your child to expect to be asked questions, so the therapist gets to know you. There are no wrong or right answers to these questions, therapy is not a test. It’s recommended to tell children about 1-2 days before the first session, and teens about 5-7 days before.

a. What you can expect from therapy: talking (try saying something like “ -therapist’s name– may ask you questions, but if you feel uncomfortable you can tell them that you would like to skip, you can also ask –therapists name—questions”), activities such as play, drawing, and mindful breathing exercises, practicing new skills, and problem-solving or goal setting.

b. Younger children are typically able to warm up or start the beginning of the session with their caregivers or parents with them because they often are worried about being separated from their parents. Once trust is developed children will talk with their therapist in private. Encourage your child to share their feelings, thoughts, and ask questions. Reassure them that this is safe. Do not encourage your child to “be good” or “listen and do whatever -therapist’s name- tell them to.”

c. If you’re considering therapy for your preteen or teen, allow them to have privacy when talking to the therapist. Privacy is an essential component to the therapeutic process.

i. Acknowledge the situation if your teen resists. Ask them if they would be willing to try 3 sessions. Often times teens and adults don’t know what to expect from therapy and giving them some time to warm up to the idea of it is helpful.

2. Normalize therapy. Therapy is not a punishment, but instead a way in which we take care of ourselves. Just like you and your child goes to the doctor when they have a cold, broken bone, or need a check-up, therapy can be an important part of their health (plus there are no shots at this office).

Instead of saying “You have to go to therapy because of your temper tantrums” try to say instead, “I know when you get upset it really feels awful, and you feel bad about yourself afterward. Maybe we and -therapist’s name- can help you work with those big feelings so that we know how to take care of ourselves in those moments.” Or for a teenager instead of saying “You have to go to therapy because you are disrespectful and have a bad attitude,” instead try expressing your concern in a loving and open way. Let them know that you want them to be healthier and happier and therapy is one tool that you will use to achieve that.

Consider if seeking your own therapy would be beneficial not only for yourself but your child and family.

3. Therapy is not only for your child. Children and teen often feel like they are the problem if their parents want them to go to therapy. Clarify that therapy is not only for them, but for you too. Depending on the age of your child, challenges your family is going through, you can be involve and learn from the therapist on different ways to respond to situations of concern.

Additional considerations:

– After therapy it is normal for parents to want to ask “did you have fun” or “did you have a good time?” Therapy is often hard work, sometimes it isn’t fun. Listen to your child on how they feel and empathize with them. Share with the therapist any concerns.

– After therapy do something together that you both enjoy such as going for a walk, reading, or watch a tv show together.

Click here for more information on art therapy.

About The Author
Faith Ulsh Joana Couto, LAC Hello! I’m a therapist at Olive Branch Therapy Group. I am a Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC). I received my undergraduate degree from Rutgers University majoring in psychology and minoring in Women and Gender Studies. My graduate degree is from The College of New Jersey, where I completed the Clinical Mental Health Track as well as the educational requirements for the Addiction and Marriage, Couple, and Family Therapy Track. I’ve been in practice since 2018.