Many parents of young children today have considered taking their kids to see a counselor or therapist for various reasons. Perhaps a child has acted out in school, and a school counselor or teacher has recommended it. Maybe a teenager is struggling with bullies at school, drug abuse, or even trying to cope with the death of a friend. Sometimes, the issues start at home with a death or divorce or some other significant loss, making it challenging for a teen to cope.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Explain Counseling or Therapy to a Child Who’s Entering Counseling
- How to Explain Counseling or Therapy to a Child Who’s Not Entering Counseling
Whatever the reason you consider grief counseling for your child, you'll need to find a way to explain what counseling or therapy entails in a way that makes sense to them. Children who are unaware or afraid of getting help are more reluctant to go to treatment when recommended.
How to Explain Counseling or Therapy to a Child Who’s Entering Counseling
It’s not always easy finding ways to discuss treatment with a child in a way that makes sense to them. Most of the time, they’re not even willing to give mental health treatment a chance because of the stigma associated with getting professional help.
Many children are hesitant to go to counseling or seek therapy even when they’re having trouble processing a significant loss or another type of trauma in life because of what they think treatment is like.
Their experience of counseling or therapy may be limited to only what they hear you or their friends discuss. So it’s essential to set the information straight in a way that makes sense to them.
1. Set aside time to talk about it
For a child who's about to enter counseling, the experience may be a traumatic one for them before they even set foot in the therapist's door. Set aside some one-on-one time with them so that you can talk about what to expect.
You may want to discuss all of the challenges that seem to be an issue currently and why you think that seeking counseling is the best option for them. Let them ask as many questions as they need to feel comfortable with your decision, and allow them to express their thoughts and ideas.
2. Be honest about the need for counseling
Sometimes parents may feel guilty for sending their kids off to counseling or therapy, partly because of their misconceptions and taboos surrounding mental health therapy. Your child may have also picked up on these cues from your past behavior or comments toward those seeking or receiving mental health help.
You may want to explain to your child the reasons why people get professional counseling and that there's nothing wrong with doing so. Be honest about your limitations as a parent in helping them get through their pain and grief. If you're also considering getting help, let them know so that they feel more at ease.
3. Explain the difference between a doctor and a therapist
An excellent way of explaining the need to see a counselor or therapist is to make a comparison between the types of doctors they're already familiar with. For some children, there's a stigma attached to getting sent to see a school counselor, for example. So explaining to your child that seeking therapy isn't a form of punishment and that they didn't do anything wrong will help them feel comfortable about going.
You can start by telling them that while a medical doctor helps them feel better when they are sick or something hurts, a counselor or therapist helps fix the way they feel when they're sad or upset about something that's happened in their lives.
4. Tell them what they should expect
Sometimes the fear of the unknown makes for a worse experience than reality. To ensure that your child is well prepared for their first session with the counselor or therapist, go online with them and research the things they should expect during their first visit. Many online resources will help you and your child become familiar with the process of seeing a counselor for the first time.
A child who's aware of what to expect will typically look forward to their first session. You can explain to them that the counselor will also go over everything during their initial visit. Assure them that they can ask as many questions as they need to until they feel comfortable.
5. Assure them that they are safe
Preparing your child for their first therapy session goes beyond telling them what they should expect when they get there. Spend some additional time going over with them the specific needs that the counselor can help them address.
Assure your child that whatever they discuss with the counselor is between them, and they should feel comfortable talking about whatever they think they need help with to feel better. Here’s a way to explain to your child who the counselor is and what their role is.
We’re going to meet with the counselor, Mr./Ms. ____. I’ve already met with them, and they’re very friendly. Much like your doctor you see when you’re sick, they also help kids feel better whenever (their mom or dad has died) (they are having trouble coping with the death of a pet) (their parents have gotten a divorce). You can talk to them about anything you want to, and they’ll help you feel better. They’ll mostly want to talk with you or play some games together with you. You will be safe with them, but at any time, if you’re not comfortable, please let me know right away.
How to Explain Counseling or Therapy to a Child Who’s Not Entering Counseling
Whether your child is resistant to therapy or it’s simply something you’ve considered together, explaining what therapy is and how it can help can be a challenge. You can prepare your child for therapy years ahead of when they might need it by carefully explaining what therapy is and what it isn’t.
Some children learn to associate counseling or therapy with punishment for having done something wrong. You’ll need to work on changing their mindset into thinking that therapy is a safe place to talk openly about their feelings and find ways to heal from their past pain and trauma. Here are some ideas for talking to your child about therapy.
1. Introduce them to mental health care
Sometimes a child is unaware that mental health treatment is available to them and under what circumstances. Children of all ages may have heard of counseling from the kids at school or on television but have no real idea what it is. You can teach a child early on what it means to get mental health treatment and who might benefit from it.
Most young children won't have the mental capacity or maturity to understand the concept of counseling. Still, you can begin by telling them what a counselor does and what types of situations they're available to help with. The younger you acquaint children with therapy, the more receptive they'll be to receiving mental health care as they need it.
2. It can prepare them for a loved one’s death
Families experiencing the heartache of seeing a loved one suffer through a long-term illness or sudden terminal illness or accident will become familiar with end-of-life counseling offered at or near death. A hospital or hospice chaplaincy staff usually provides this type of counseling free of charge. Its main goal is to help those transitioning to death find peace and hope in their last days.
End-of-life counseling also helps the dying patient’s loved ones struggling with the pain of losing their family member. Children can benefit from this type of counseling when someone close to them is nearing the end of life.
3. Assure them that therapy is private
Often, older children refuse to go to therapy because they don’t trust that what they say to the therapist will remain private. There’s a misconception around older children that their parents have a right to know what they discuss in therapy. Many times, this alone creates an aversion to seeking therapy or professional counseling.
Reassure your child that what they discuss during their counseling sessions is entirely private and confidential, except in cases of physical or sexual abuse (the therapist may be required to report it). Once the child has built trust with how therapy sessions go, they may be more inclined to go.
4. Give them options to traditional therapy
Traditional therapy has long involved making an appointment and waiting to see the therapist or counselor in person in an office setting. These sessions are slowly becoming a thing of the past, with more and more people seeking online counseling and therapy.
Because counseling mainly involves talk therapy, meeting with a counselor over the internet is more convenient and comfortable for a child because they can go online while still at home and in the privacy of their bedroom.
Therapists have also adapted to meeting their patients online and assigning work or activities they can do together over a video chat session. Overall, online sessions provide an excellent alternative for older children whenever they consider entering into therapy.
5. Destigmatize getting help
All in all, one of the most incredible things you can do for your child who may need mental health therapy is to destigmatize getting the help they need. Children need all the love and support they can get at home and in a professional setting where appropriate.
The more therapy is normalized, starting at home, the easier and more comfortable it’ll be for your child to ask for the help they need. Unfortunately, some parents have to face the loss of their children to suicide, drug abuse, or other types of abuse because the child didn’t know that help was available to them or how to ask for it.
Explaining Counseling to Children
There are many challenges and benefits alike when explaining mental health counseling and therapy to children. Having open and honest conversations with children starting when they're young helps normalize seeking and getting help when needed.
Families who have successfully destigmatized mental health treatment seem to get a head start seeking professional help and healing from their traumas.