What should I tell my child about therapy?

Parents often are not sure what to tell their children about therapy. Should they tell their child why they are sending them to therapy, that is the presenting concerns? Should they tell their child who the therapist is and what his or her job is? Or should they leave that to the therapist? What will the child do in therapy? How should the parents prepare the child for therapy? These are questions many parents ask. While there are not black and white answers to these questions, there are some general principles that parents can incorporate into their responses: 


Be honest with children at a level that is developmentally appropriate. When introducing a child to therapy, tell the child about the appointment ahead of time. Don’t try to hide it or spring it on the child at the last minute. If the child is too young to understand what therapy is, consider telling them that the therapist is a “helper.” If the child is aware of a certain struggle that they have, consider telling them that the therapist wants to assistant with this. If the child is resistant to acknowledging weaknesses, do not try to convince them. Just tell the child the therapist wants to help. 


Given that the therapist wants to help, try to assist your child in building trust with the therapist. Model how to respectfully engage with the therapist. Consider asking the therapist if you can join at least part of the first session for this purpose. Demonstrate that the therapist is a safe person. Verbally tell the child that he or she can share things with the therapist. Try to help make therapy a safe place for the child by not interrogating him or her about session afterward. Honor confidentiality. 


Demonstrate hope in therapy as a process to help the child. Speak positively of therapy. Encourage the child to participate in activities. Honor the healing process. 


Recognize that therapy can include hard work. Expect that therapy may bring up some difficult feelings and encourage your child to work through them. Rather than telling the child to have fun in therapy, consider affirming the child as he or she goes into session with words like, “You are strong.” Or “I know you can do this.” Or “Work hard.” As appropriate, give the child details about the length of sessions. (E.g. “You’ll be there for 50 minutes.) Consider activities to transition the child to and from therapy. Hold therapy sessions as a purposeful place for your child. 

Can a parent answer all of a child’s questions about therapy? Probably not. Can the therapist answer all the child’s questions about therapy? Probably not. Together, parents can create an environment that will help the child, however, an environment that answers enough questions to make the time and space therapeutic, which is, after all, the purpose of services.