How to Support Your Child or Teen Through Therapy
It’s impossible to deny the toll that the pandemic has taken on children and teens. While COVID-19 itself has not been as dangerous for their physical health, mental health issues have risen sharply in response to the pandemic.
Heartbreakingly, at least 40,000 minors in the United States are grieving a parent who died from COVID-19. Many more have lost grandparents, teachers, and other important people in their lives. Like everyone else, children and teens are also grieving the loss of normalcy.
With these facts in mind, perhaps it’s no wonder why the country is seeing more mental health issues in minors than ever before. Emergency rooms are seeing sharp increases in the numbers of children and teens being treated for mental health concerns. Depression and anxiety have become the primary obstacle to student learning. And experts warn that the numbers of suicidal ideation, attempts, and completions in this age group are high.
What’s a Parent To Do?
While it can feel overwhelming to look at the challenges that children and teens face today, it’s the first step toward helping your child through a difficult time. Whether it’s the pandemic, biology, or something else causing your child’s mental health concerns, you’ve already taken the difficult first step by understanding the broader context and looking for help.
If you clicked on this link, you likely already have your child in therapy or you are considering it. This is no easy thing for any parent. Take a moment to give yourself compassion and thanks for doing this for your child. Once you’re at peace with this decision, you can be in the best position to support your child through this journey.
Practice Open Communication with Your Child or Teen
When you talk to your child or teen about starting therapy or what they are learning, be sure you are honest, nonjudgmental, and positive. Tell them as much as you can while being developmentally appropriate.
For younger children, the conversation can be relatively simple. You can explain that they are going to play and chat with someone who can help them with the big feelings. Talk them through what a session might look like. If you don’t know the answer to one of their questions, it’s perfectly fine to say, “I’m not sure. We’ll figure it out together.”
If you’re talking to a teen about starting counseling, the conversation might be a little more difficult. However, vulnerability and openness can go a long way.
When you talk to your teen about starting therapy, be sure to:
- Talk about the symptoms you notice in them
- Establish yourself as a team – you want the same things
- Validate their feelings about it, whatever those feelings are
- Give them space to ask questions
- Answer any questions, and remember that saying, “I don’t know,” is ok
This initial conversation opens the line of communication about therapy, but it should not be the only discussion you have about it. Make sure your child knows that they can talk to you about the process whenever they need to.
Prepare for the First Appointment
The first therapy appointment is often the most difficult, especially for children and teens. It can be hard to know what to expect, and they are meeting someone new. Plus, in-person appointments take place in unfamiliar environments. That’s why it’s so important for your child to feel as comfortable and confident as possible when it’s time for the first appointment.
Consider allowing your child to have as much choice as possible leading up to the appointment. For example, let them choose what they wear that day or the music you listen to in the car. Just giving them a little more autonomy can help them feel self-assured.
If possible, allow your child to bring a comfort item of their choice to the appointment. For younger children, this could be a favorite toy, for example. Right before it’s time for them to see the therapist, remind your child that you love them no matter what and they are free to talk about anything in the appointment. It is their time!
Ongoing Support for Children and Teens in Therapy
Therapy is an ongoing process, and it can be difficult for some families. Healing and learning new coping skills is well worth the effort, but it can be messy. Be sure to offer reassurance, grace, and boundaries for your child during this time.
At times, you may need to remind them of their coping skills and how to use them. After all, this is a new skill and it will take practice. Remember to keep the line of communication open and honest. It may feel uncomfortable to learn how your child is really feeling, but it’s important for you to hear them.
When your child expresses their feelings, make sure to validate them rather than playing it off like no big deal. Remember that behaviors are attempts to communicate a feeling. For example, if your young child starts throwing a tantrum, you can say, “I see that you’re really mad.”
It may seem simple, but that act of validating the emotions they feel can give them the confidence to work through those feelings in therapy and outside of session.
Being an Active Participant in Your Child’s Therapy
While your child’s therapist is the one in session with your child, you play a vital role in your child’s healing for every hour outside of that appointment. That’s why it’s important for parents to be active participants in the healing journey. This will look different for every family. It will depend on the therapist’s guidelines, your child’s needs, your needs, and other factors.
Sometimes, therapists may ask to have sessions in which you sit in with your child. Together, you can come up with coping skills and practice them. Other times, the therapist may talk alone with your child and give you ideas on how to help your child at home after the session.
Be mindful that being active in your child’s therapy doesn’t mean that you can know everything they say in session. If your child chooses to share details with you, welcome that. Otherwise, don’t force your child to share what they talked about in therapy. Doing so may ruin their trust in the therapist, making the process much less effective.
Consider Therapy for Yourself
Taking care of a child going through therapy is no easy task. Most parents may worry that they did something wrong or that they are not enough. Please remember that getting your child the help they need is an act of love and demonstrates dedication to your child.
If you struggle with emotions that come up during this process, you’re not alone. A therapist can help you work through those emotions and develop healthy behavioral patterns. Plus, when you work on your own mental health, you model it for your kids!