It is not uncommon for adults to consider seeking therapy long before they schedule their first therapy session due to a variety of anxieties and concerns. Common concerns include embarrassment and shame in regards to needing help, anxieties about being judged, fear of not finding a good match in a therapist, and uncertainty as to how any resulting changes will impact their life. Children and youth have many of the same concerns when their parents encourage them to participate in therapy.
If you believe that your child would benefit from therapy, you will need to consider how best to approach the subject to increase the likelihood that your child will not only agree to attend the therapy session, but to also participate once they arrive. The following are some key strategies to consider.
Set the Stage
Start by explaining how therapy works. For younger children, you may want to explain that therapy is a place where people can talk about anything they want, including worries and other feelings, without getting in trouble. Emphasize that sessions are fun, with opportunities to play games, and that the person they are meeting with is nice. This description will distinguish therapy from medical appointments. For teens, you will want to emphasize that therapy is a resource, allowing for private conversations with an adult other than yourself.
Watch Your Language
Be mindful not to use language that is judgmental or blaming, and do not imply that you view your child as needing to be “fixed”. Younger children can interpret appointments with professionals as implying that they are in trouble or have been “bad”, and teens interpretations can be self-critical. Instead of focusing on difficulties or deficits in your conversation, focus on the opportunities and potential for growth.
Understand and Validate Your Child’s Concerns
If your child has objections to therapy, clarify what the objections are and then validate the related emotions. If your child feels you understand them they will be more likely to comply with your wishes.
Give It Time
Don’t get discouraged if your child objects to attending therapy initially. For children, simply giving them a few days warning of an appointment may be sufficient to allow them time to express any questions or concerns. Teens may require more time. Continue to revisit the topic when it feels natural, particularly when they are specifically asking for suggestions as to how to improve their circumstances.
If you believe your child’s objections to therapy are primarily due to anxiety and misperceptions, suggest that they at least try therapy by attending a few sessions. You may need to reinforce your child’s bravery to try therapy at first through praise and/or any other reinforcement you would commonly use in your home (e.g. getting a treat after the session). Any therapist who works with children and youth will have had experience addressing common anxieties about treatment and will have strategies to improve engagement once your child arrives at the first session.
Once your child has agreed to attend therapy, be mindful of your communications with your child’s therapist. If you wish to express your concerns about your child, it may be helpful to communicate this information when your child is not in the room, either at the beginning of a session or prior to a session by email or phone.
If you have attempted each of the suggestions above, and your child refuses to attend therapy, you do have some alternatives. In many cases, parent therapy can be equally as effective as child therapy. Such sessions typically include coaching on how to respond to your child’s behaviors in a manner that supports growth and development. A therapist can also work with you to identify ideal times and ways in which to revisit the topic of therapy and ways to refine the strategies listed above for your child.