How to Get Your Child to Go to Therapy
If you've decided your child could benefit from therapy, you should approach the subject carefully, and differently depending on your child's age.
It's official: You've decided your child should go to therapy. Whether it's for behavioral reasons, emotional issues or trauma, it's clear they would benefit from speaking to a professional. You've done your research and found someone who you think would be a good fit for your child. But how do you tell them that they're going to therapy? And how do you get a reluctant child to go?
First, and most importantly, keep calm and present everything from a loving perspective. Don't make therapy a punishment. Instead, talk about how you've made this decision because it will make things better for everyone. But exactly what you say varies depending on your child's age. Here's what the experts suggest.
Keep it simple. All they really need to know is that they're going to the therapist's office to play.
"If I'm consulting with parents on these issues, I also like to work with the child to best understand their skills and developmental level," says psychologist Emily W. King. "I might have a parent say, 'Mommy and Daddy talked to Dr. Emily to get more ideas about how to help with bedtime/sharing/sleeping by yourself. She also wants to know what these things are like for you, so you get to meet her soon. We will play together and you will get to know her.'"
Plus, depending on your child's language and independence, it's very likely that you'll both be in the session, so you'll be on hand to make them feel at ease.
Ages 5 to 10
Because your child is typically aware of your concern at this age, it's a good way to start the conversation. During your chat, talk about working together to solve emotional or behavioral problems, and let your child know that you've already met with the therapist and you think they'll like them too.
For example, a parent could say: You know how hard it is to feel calm during a test/you don't like school/there's a lot of fighting in our family/you've been very sad since Grandpa died? Dad and I need more ideas on how to help you, so we met someone who helps children and families, and we think you'll really like them too. Plus, these visits are special because you can talk about anything, even us, and it stays private.
"By presenting it this way, the child isn't the identified patient or doesn't feel stigmatized or responsible for any of the dysfunction in the family," explains Dr. Laurie Zellinger, a New York psychologist. "And you create a system approach—the whole family system needs to be worked on."
Tweens and Teens
Teens and tweens typically know what therapy is, but they need to decide that there's a problem they want help solving. Without this piece, they'll likely feel forced into going to therapy and appointments might not be effective or useful.
"At this age, they are usually more okay about coming to therapy, and sometimes they even initiate it themselves," says Dr. Fred Zellinger, a New York psychologist. "But don't force it. I won't treat children who are being forced into therapy because it's counterproductive to the nature of the therapeutic relationship."
Be careful as to how you identify the problem. According to Dr. King, certain behaviors, such as drinking, disordered eating, drug use or sexual behavior shouldn't be the reason why you talk to a tween or teen about going to therapy. Instead, focus on their emotions. Are they lonely, failing academically, or missing someone? When that's the reason for therapy, they're more likely to say they'd like to feel better.
"I recommend that parents say, 'We're noticing that you don't seem happy/are worried a lot/are having trouble sleeping," she says. "Remember when you talked to the school counselor that time and you found it helpful? Dad and I think it would be helpful to talk to someone outside of school that is your person to confide in.'"
If Your Child Refuses to Go
"If your child refuses at first, keep talking," Dr. Fred Zellinger recommends. "When the reason comes up at home, say, 'maybe this is one of the things the therapist can help you with.' Kids often think they're going to therapy because they're bad. It's important they know it isn't about being bad or good. It's about working together."
Suggesting a trial approach may also work, but if that doesn't do the trick, you can go to see a therapist without your child. "Research shows that helping the parents, even if the child refuses to enter the room, is as effective as treating the child," explains Katie Hurley, LCSW, author of No More Mean Girls. "If your child refuses to attend, try going in without your child a few times to uncover the root of the identified behavior and learn new tools to connect with your child in a positive way."
They may come around once they see everything you're learning and how you're helping them.
What to Expect From Therapy
There are many different types of therapy, but with children and teens, most therapists do a combination of playing and talking.
"Parents often want a child to talk," says Dr. Laurie Zellinger. "But usually, the way to make change is to get a child to play. Believe it or not, kids do better when they have a chance to play—it's amazing what comes out. Questions make people feel defensive, so I let them know that I understand what's going on. I'm supportive and help the child come to their own conclusions."
It may take some time, but as they become more comfortable, they'll open up and begin to work on solutions. After each session, hold up your end of the promise that therapy is confidential. Your child may filter what they say to the therapist if they know you're going to ask questions.
"Give your child space to process on the way home," Hurley recommends. "Avoid peppering your child with questions or engaging in a play by play. Therapy is hard work, and most kids need a quiet ride home to think about it on their own terms. Save the recap for later, and only when your child approaches you."