School-aged children (6 to 11 years) often wonder why they are sitting in your office for therapy. Many thoughts and emotions are associated with coming to a mental health provider’s office, including curiosity, anxiety and even fear. In order to help kids deal with whatever may be bringing them to therapy, it’s important that they understand why they may need such a service.
Kids are most receptive to messages that are age-appropriate and stated in ways that they can make sense of and understand. For elementary school-aged children, a mindful analogy is often an excellent tool to employ. Analogies help children make sense of concepts that often aren’t easily explained.
Not only mental health providers can use analogies. Teachers, parents and other caregivers also can use analogies to help children understand and be receptive to difficult concepts. I have created many mindfulness analogies to discuss mental health with children in ways that are not threatening to them and can even make the idea of change fun for them.
As an example, when a child asks why he or she is in my office, I tell them that the best way to answer that question is to come up with a little story together.
I first ask the child to think of a car. I ask him or her to describe it to me: its color, interior, and what makes it special from other cars.
I then ask them to imagine driving the car, me in the passenger seat, a full tank of gas and an engine raring to go. The conversation then goes something like this: “However, along the way we might have to take some detours. Roads aren’t always straight and narrow, and sometimes they have to be fixed. Sometimes we might hit a big bump that really hurts our engine or maybe even cause a tire to fall off. Or maybe, our car might completely run out of gas if we can’t find a gas station in time. What else might happen to our car?”
Encouraging the child to add to the story only enhances his or her commitment to the story and your eventual explanation.
Following the story, replay the scenario but add elements to each part. For example, it is important to explain to the child that the “detours” are part of something we all face in life, and sometimes, if we hit a big bump and our engine breaks (or our tire falls off) we have to see a mechanic to fix it. I describe the bumps as anxiety, aggression, trouble in school or other relevant issues. If a child is being treated for depression, I will use the analogy of running out of gas, and the car losing energy, or acting in “funny” ways.
I finish the story by telling the child to view me as the mechanic for his or her car. The child is my apprentice, helping me to fix the car. This part of the story helps children see that their job is to help fix the car too and that we can work together to get their car back out and raring to go again.
It’s remarkable to see how a mindful analogy created in tandem with a child can help him or her understand questions such as why therapy is important and necessary. Of course, you can use many different analogies; a car is just one example that has been useful in my practice.
Some kids ask lots of questions in therapy and in life. Some questions are easy and require a straightforward answer. With others, it’s important to “think outside the box” and help children understand in a way that will have meaning and increase their motivation to make changes. “Why am I in therapy?” is a sound question and one that requires a thoughtful, age-appropriate response.