Going to therapy is hard enough for adults. Stigma stops many of us from picking up the phone and making an appointment. Plus, therapy is hard work. It often requires revealing our vulnerabilities, delving into difficult challenges, changing unhealthy patterns of behavior and learning new skills.
So it’s not surprising that kids might not want to go either. This resistance only escalates when they misunderstand how therapy works. “Many children are afraid or nervous to go to therapy, especially if they have the belief that they are in trouble or because they are ‘bad,’” said Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, a child and family therapist.
Young kids, she said, may “mistakenly believe that they are going to a medical doctor’s office and may get a shot or other uncomfortable procedures done.”
So how can you engage your child in therapy when that’s the last place they want to be? Here’s what doesn’t work and what does.
A common mistake parents make when trying to get their kids to therapy is not telling them they’re going to therapy in the first place. Again, as mentioned above, kids may have many misconceptions about therapy, which only feeds their fears.
“Oftentimes, I will find out that parents have told their child on the way to the therapy appointment so there is no time for the child to express themselves, ask questions, express concerns or even ask for reassurance and a hug,” said Mellenthin, also a play therapist and clinical director at Wasatch Family Therapy.
Another big mistake is “shaming and blaming their child’s symptoms,” she said. She shared this example: “If you don’t cut that out, you’re going back to Miss Clair’s office!”
It’s also not helpful when parents avoid engaging with the therapist. “Many parents will arrange transportation for the child to attend therapy and the parents never set foot in the office,” said Molly Gratton, LCSW, a play therapist and founder of Molly and Me Counseling and Training Center. This hinders progress, and prevents kids from learning to work with their parents — their “primary support person,” she said.
Be honest about why you want your child to attend therapy. Talk to your child about therapy being helpful and why you want them to go, whether they’re young or a teen, Mellenthin said.
She shared this example about what to say (which can be revised according to your child’s age): “We are going to therapy because _______ happened in our family. This is a special place where you can talk about your worries and your feelings in a safe place. It is also really fun and the person who will be helping us is really nice.”
Normalize therapy. Children embrace therapy much faster when parents let therapy “be a normal and not secretive or shameful experience,” Mellenthin said. Approach the problem systemically. According to Gratton, “Do not say things like ‘you need help’ or ‘you need to talk to your therapist.’” Such statements can make a child feel like they’re responsible for problems in the family, she said. “[T]hus they carry the brunt of the pain.” Instead, join your child in therapy and be “playful with the process.”
Be supportive. Let your child know that they can talk to you about how they feel about their therapist and the process, Gratton said. Because your child will be confronting difficult issues in therapy, they’ll need your support.
“Many kids are working on learning new and effective ways to express their feelings, and if their parents are not open to hearing and allowing their child to express themselves this could be detrimental to the healing process.”
Talk to your child’s therapist about their resistance to attending sessions. According to Gratton, “most therapists are more than willing to problem-solve and explore barriers.” Plus, most also are open to providing referrals if they’re not the right fit for your child or family, she said.
However, Gratton noted that it’s important to not “run from the discomfort or dislike.” First, consider working with the therapist to help your child navigate his or her discomfort, which “ultimately is good practice [for] a skill they will need forever.”
Gratton sees many kids and teens not wanting to go to therapy when their parents reveal their problems to the therapist in front of them. “Typically, these reports are not positive. Would you want to go to therapy when your parents report all the bad stuff?”
She suggested communicating with the therapist in private about both struggles and positive changes at least once a month. She often asks parents to email their updates.
Healing and change don’t just happen inside the therapy office. It’s important to implement interventions at home, which is another key part of parents being involved in the process. Gratton suggested considering and applying the therapist’s suggestions. Then provide feedback to the therapist about what worked and what didn’t, she said.
“I believe in following the child’s lead: If they are saying they do not want to go, it is probably not time to go or they are needing a break,” Gratton said. However, this must be assessed carefully, she said, because you don’t want to stop therapy if your child absolutely needs it.
She shared these examples of urgent issues that require therapy: your child is depressed; they’re isolating themselves; their grades are dropping; they aren’t excited about things that brought them joy in the past; they’re talking about feeling helpless or hopeless; or they’re suicidal.
When therapy is necessary, Mellenthin suggested saying statements like: “I love you too much to not do this right now. I love you too much to allow this pain you are feeling to continue without help.”
Understandably, therapy can be difficult for kids. But it helps when parents can explain the process, be supportive, communicate regularly with the therapist and show their child that seeing a therapist is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s an act that requires much strength.