Research shows that parent involvement makes child therapy more effective. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll be present during all sessions.
It can be a confusing process when your child first starts going to therapy.
Whatever the reason for it, you’ve already made the best decision for your child, which is to get them the mental health support they need. But what’s next?
Many parents find themselves wondering if they’ll be involved in their child’s therapy or if they’ll be left in the dark.
You may not know if you should talk to your child’s therapist about what you’ve observed or let the therapist hear things from your child directly. What is your role here? What’s expected of you?
In general, children’s therapy works best when the therapist and parents work together. But there may be some limitations to the specific information that you’re privy to.
Parents should be involved in their child’s therapy process.
Parent involvement is a key component of child therapy and makes the process more successful. This is especially true if you have a young child, but it goes for adolescents as well.
Many experts agree that therapists working with children need to at least consult with any adults responsible for caring for the child for treatment to be successful.
The extent to which parents are involved in the therapy process, however, might differ depending on the situation and the age of your child.
Younger children in therapy might need their parents to sit in with them during every session. In fact, the relationship between the parent and the child, as well as parenting style, might be the key focus of therapy for younger kids.
For example, parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) is a therapy model that improves children’s behaviors by teaching parents how to interact with their kids. In these cases, you might not just be peripherally involved in your child’s therapy — you could be a central focus of it.
For other kids, it might not be necessary for their parents to sit in with them during every session.
Especially as children get older and become teenagers, it’s important for them to build their own identities. This means that having their own space to explore their thoughts and feelings during therapy, without their parents’ presence, is important.
Although minors may not always have a legal right to confidentiality, therapists of older kids and teens may ask you to sign a confidentiality agreement. This is to protect that private space and allow teens to feel safe.
But, in general, your involvement as a parent is critical to the success of your child’s treatment. Even if certain subjects remain confidential, your child still needs your support and presence for therapy to be as beneficial as possible.
A review of studies from 2015 showed that child therapy is generally more effective when the parents are involved. It also found that parent involvement improved treatment adherence and attendance.
Parent involvement is so important in therapy because of a few different factors.
You help your child continue treatment outside of the therapist’s office
You’re the person who lives with your child and observes them on a day-to-day basis. Your child’s therapist only spends about an hour every week with your child.
Although they’ll use that hour well, only so much change can happen if the treatment doesn’t continue at home.
Your child’s therapist can teach you the skills that they’re teaching your child in session. You can then play an important role by making sure these skills translate when you leave the therapist’s office.
Your observations of how your child is doing outside of sessions are also valuable for the therapist.
Your child will feel more supported
Your involvement in your child’s therapy can make them feel more supported. It helps them understand that there’s an entire team that’s rallying behind them, not just their therapist.
You can address potential parent-child relationship issues
Being involved in your child’s therapy can address any issues within the relationship that might be contributing to your child’s difficulties. It can be hard to hear, but it doesn’t mean that you’re a “bad” parent.
There are so many things that could contribute to this, from a lack of education about parenting skills to postpartum depression and stress.
Being involved in your child’s therapy can make sure that all of those issues get addressed, and you’re doing your part to make sure your child’s treatment is effective.
The extent of your involvement could also depend on what specific type of treatment your child is receiving. Certain therapy methods make parental involvement a central part of the treatment process.
These are just a few common types of mental health treatment for kids, and what your involvement as a parent may be in each.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been used with both kids and adults for a wide variety of issues. Your child’s therapist might use CBT if your child lives with anxiety or depression.
As the parent, you might be asked to learn CBT skills yourself to be able to guide your child in using them at home.
Play therapy is a way to use toys, drawings, dolls, and other child-oriented tools as a therapeutic intervention. It can help children identify and express feelings and process experiences.
It’s usually used with younger kids when the use of talk therapy is limited. Parents usually don’t sit in with every play therapy session, but the therapist should work with you to set goals and provide consultation.
Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT)
PCIT is best for children who are experiencing behavioral issues. If your child is receiving PCIT, then you’ll be involved in every session.
You’ll be asked to interact and play with your child while you receive real-time coaching from the therapist.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
If your child is an older adolescent and experiences suicidal thoughts or self-harm, then the therapist might choose to do dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
DBT helps people with suicidal ideation cope with strong emotions and learn skills to strengthen their relationships.
The therapist may ask you to sign a confidentiality agreement. However, therapists are obligated to break confidentiality if they think that your child is a danger to themselves.
Therapists will usually consult with you to see how your teen is doing at home and school.
Depending on what has led your child to go to therapy, the therapist might recommend family therapy on top of, or even instead of, individual therapy.
For example, if your child has had difficulties dealing with the birth of a sibling, then family therapy might be a good route.
If your child is receiving family therapy, then you, as well as all other family members (including any other parent and siblings), should attend every session.
Again, the extent of your involvement in your child’s therapy will depend on factors like their age and what they’re in therapy for. But every parent should be involved to some degree.
Parents get involved in their child’s therapy during many different moments, like:
For the most part, minors can’t consent to their own mental health treatment. That means that parents will legally need to be involved in their child’s therapy at least in the very beginning in order to provide consent.
You’ll need to sign a medical consent form allowing the therapist to treat your child.
Most parents will also be required to attend their child’s initial intake appointment. Therapists aren’t fortune-tellers, and they can only learn so much by observing and talking with your child during the first appointment.
The gaps — like what the concerns are, how they behave at school and at home, family dynamics, and what their strengths are — need to be filled in by you.
You and the therapist can also spend the first sessions setting treatment goals for your child. It’s important to share with the therapist what your hopes are for treatment. When will you know that this isn’t a problem for your child anymore?
You may or may not be asked to attend weekly sessions with your child. For certain therapy types, like PCIT or family therapy, you’ll be required to attend. Other therapists might choose to check in with you before or after sessions or by phone.
Don’t be afraid to directly ask the therapist what the expectations are.
Separate parent sessions (collateral sessions)
Some therapists may ask you to come see them without your child. They may refer to this as “collateral sessions.” Therapists might do this for a lot of reasons.
Some may want to check in with you about how you think treatment is going. They may also use the time to provide you with useful information and skills, from education about your child’s disorder to parenting or stress management skills.
You’re here because you love your child, and you want them to be happy. Sometimes, that means finding a therapist for them. No matter what your child is going through, the right therapist can help them overcome it.
It’s good to keep in mind that parent involvement goes both ways. You don’t need to wait for the therapist to reach out.
If you’ve decided to be involved, it’s OK to take the initiative to talk with the therapist about what that involvement could look like and start forming the parent-therapist alliance early.
When you’re involved in their therapy, it lets your child know that there’s an entire team of adults who are supporting them during this hard time.
Talking with your kid about mental health
If your child has questions about mental health or therapy, Psych Central has articles designed to help parents broach these topics:
- Big Help for Big Feelings (an article written for kids about what therapy is like)
- How to Speak with Your Kid About Mental Health (an article for parents with a short read-aloud section for kids)
- How to Speak with Your Kid About Anxiety (an article for parents with a short read-aloud section for kids)