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How to Talk to Your Child About Starting Therapy

It’s normal for parents to be nervous about telling their child that they are going to see a therapist. You may have concerns like, “What if he thinks something is wrong with him?” or “How can I explain therapy to her in a way that she’ll understand?” 

Sometimes, it may have been your child’s idea to start therapy. This is especially true for older teens, who may have made this decision themselves. Other times, it might be your suggestion, as their parent, for your child to start therapy. Perhaps you’re worried about some symptoms they’re showing, or you know they’ve recently gone through a traumatic experience. 

No matter what your situation is, it’s important to talk to your child about therapy before their first session. This conversation can help them set expectations and ease any fears they may have.

However, we understand that this can be a challenging subject to approach for many parents. That’s why we have put together some guidelines on how to talk to your child about therapy.

Tips for talking to your child about therapy

Before your child starts therapy, it’s important that they understand what therapy is and why they’re going. Of course, the therapist can help with this, too. Child therapists are trained in explaining their role to children in a developmentally-appropriate way.

Sometimes, having this conversation with children can be challenging. Your child might feel embarrassed about seeing a therapist or resist the idea for other reasons. It’s also normal for parents themselves to feel confused or conflicted about the idea of their child seeing a therapist.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the more your child understands what a therapist does and why they are going to see a therapist, the smoother the process will be. 

Follow these tips to help make this conversation as productive and helpful as possible.

Pick the right time

It’s important that you choose the right time to have this conversation. It is not ideal to bring therapy up during a crisis. In their worst moments, your child may not be in the best state of mind to discuss therapy, and they may even perceive therapy as a threat or punishment.

Choose a time when both you and your child are well-rested and calm to bring up the topic of seeing a therapist. Decide beforehand who you want to be part of the conversation (such as if you want to talk to your child alone or if you want another parent or caregiver to be present). 

Ideally, give your child several days’ notice before their first appointment — don’t wait until you’re already on the way to the therapist’s office. 

Ask them what they already know

Mental health awareness has grown immensely with every generation. This means that your child may already know more about therapy than you did when you were their age. 

However, even if you suspect your child already knows what a therapist is, it’s still critical that you have this conversation with them if they are starting therapy. There continues to be misinformation and stigma about mental health issues, so it’s important that you get a sense of whether the information they have is accurate.

Consider opening this conversation by asking your child what they’ve already heard about therapy. This gives you a sense of your starting point, and may also give you a good opportunity to provide correct and helpful information. 

Asking your child what they already know about therapy can also ensure that you aren’t being redundant in the information that you give them. This will help make the conversation as relevant to your child’s specific situation as possible, and make it more likely that they will remain engaged. 

Talk about the reason for therapy

Many parents find it tempting to allow the therapist to explain why their child is in therapy, and this is completely understandable. It may feel scary to approach this conversation with your child and explain to them why, exactly, you want them to go to therapy.

It’s helpful for children to have some sense of why they’re there when they first enter a therapist’s office. This can make the process a little bit less confusing and frightening for them.

Let your child know why you think it would be beneficial for them to talk to a therapist. It’s important to keep this conversation centered around your child’s feelings and your desire to help them. Centering their misbehaviors may make them feel like therapy is a punishment.

For example, instead of saying, “You’ve been out of control lately and a therapist can help you figure out why you’re acting this way,” try saying, “I love you, and I’m concerned because you seem distant and angry lately. I hope you can talk to this therapist so you can have a safe place to express how you’ve been feeling.”

Use developmentally appropriate language

The way you explain therapy to your 6-year-old will be very different from the way you explain it to an older adolescent. It’s important that you use language that your child will be able to understand.

You may not know it, but as a parent, you’re probably already an expert in child-friendly language. You communicate with your child every day, and you know what references they will understand and which will go over their head. 

For example, to a younger child, you might say something like:

“Do you remember when you fell and hit your head, and we took you to see Dr. Lee so he could patch you up? A therapist is someone like Dr. Lee, but they work with your feelings. When you’re feeling very worried or scared, a therapist can help you deal with those feelings. But instead of doing it with stitches and a stethoscope like Dr. Lee, therapists help you by talking and playing.”

With teens, it may be more about learning what they already know about therapy, and having an open-ended conversation about their concerns. Ask open questions about their feelings, and listen to them non-judgmentally. Try not to fight back against resistance, and simply reflect it. If you hear any inaccurate information, correct it without shaming your child.

For example, you could say something like:

“Honey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been very distant lately, and I can’t help but feel like you’re sad or angry. You’ve told me nothing’s wrong, but I love you too much to see you in so much pain. I’ve made an appointment with a therapist named Stella for next week. I hear you; you don’t think you need therapy. But I need you to give this a shot. Stella isn’t going to tell you what to do or judge you. She’s just going to be someone you can talk to. She’s there to help you, not judge you.”

Normalize therapy

It’s possible that your child will feel ashamed of the idea of seeing a therapist. Although mental health awareness has come a long way, there’s no doubt that it’s still highly stigmatized. Your child might be worried about what their friends will think if they find out. They may think that seeing a therapist means that they are “crazy” or that something is wrong with them.

Make sure you normalize therapy and assuage these fears. Let them know that many children see a therapist — 10% of kids in the United States alone. Explain to them that seeing a therapist for emotional or mental health challenges isn’t any more embarrassing than seeing a doctor for a broken bone. Never tell your child that they must keep their therapy sessions a secret.

It’s also important for you to self-reflect on any stigmatizing ideas that you may hold. This isn’t your fault; many of us were brought up with different ideas about mental health issues. By self-reflecting and exploring your own thoughts and feelings, you can make it more likely that you can talk to your child openly about therapy without any underlying shame getting in the way.

Handspring Health: Online Therapy for Children and Teens

If you are considering therapy for your child, our team at Handspring Health can help.

At Handspring Health, we are dedicated to providing evidence-based, high-quality, age-appropriate mental healthcare for children and adolescents. Our online therapy sessions are delivered by a clinical team with expertise in treating children’s mental health issues. We can help your child understand what therapy is and how it can help, and support you in navigating these challenging conversations.

To get started, book a free consult call today.