Helping Kids Feel Comfortable with Therapy

By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue

Helping Kids Feel Comfortable with TherapyI have been working as a therapist for 28 years and have found that many of my patients—both kids and adults—are perfectly comfortable seeing a therapist while others are embarrassed and don’t want anyone to know. Some refuse to come in, fearing the worst if forced to talk with a counselor. What if I find out I have a more serious problem? What if talking about it makes it worse? How do I know I can trust the counselor? Some parents may be hesitant to seek mental healthcare for their children out of fear that they will somehow be blamed for a child’s problems. This is unfortunate, since we know that seeking help early on can help avoid more serious problems later.

While the stigma of getting psychological help has come a long way in the last 30 years, we can do more. Here are some ways parents can help kids feel more comfortable about seeing a therapist.

Talk Openly About Mental Health
More and more, I find that kids and teens talk to each other about going to therapy. They even refer their friends to me, which is a positive sign that they think I have been helpful to them and could help their friends as well. Some kids, however, are less comfortable with it. One girl I worked with was mortified that I was asking her teacher for information about her performance in class. She didn’t want anyone to know there was “something wrong with her.” Fortunately, this teacher was able to share that she had similar problems (ADHD in this case), which was a relief to this girl. My patient felt much better about herself after that. When we talk about mental health issues as normal challenges that many of us face, we reduce the stigma of getting help.

Keep Learning
Parents, too, have their reservations about seeking treatment. It’s hard to open up to a stranger and admit that your way of parenting your child isn’t working. Kids don’t come with instruction manuals, and there are many challenges in raising today’s kids. Sometimes, learning different parenting strategies helps a great deal with a child’s behavior. Other times, parents are doing all the right things, but the child’s mental health issues prevent him from benefiting. It helps to know that some kids may require specialized parenting techniques to help them overcome more serious problems.

Join In
Kids are more likely to feel comfortable in therapy when other family members participate. In my experience, parents can sometimes be reluctant to participate in therapy. Many don’t believe in seeking professional help for psychological problems. Others are afraid that they will be blamed, at least in part, for their kids’ problems. Kids who sense a parent’s hesitation about therapy may feel less comfortable participating themselves.

Even coming in for short visits can help. For example, I worked with a teenage girl whose father would wait in the car. One day, I asked my patient if it would be okay to walk out with her and introduce myself to her father. I went out, and we had a short conversation. He eventually felt more comfortable coming in, which helped him as well as his daughter.

By making therapy a family affair, it’s a lot less threatening to kids. Family therapy is a part of almost all my work with kids for this reason. Therapy is more likely to be successful when parents are actively involved.

Explain What Therapy Is
If you are bringing your child to a therapist for the first time, ask the therapist how to explain therapy to your child or teenager. Often, kids will insist that they will not talk to a stranger. That is fine—no need to argue. Most kids, once they meet the therapist, will be willing to talk if the therapist is respectful of the child’s hesitance.

One way to explain seeing a therapist is to tell kids that you are taking them to a doctor who helps solve problems with their behavior and feelings. Explain that it’s not just for the child—parents also have to learn better ways of handling things.

Share Self-Help Books
Self-help books for kids and teens can be helpful in reducing the stigma of seeking help. Since kids don’t always share their problems with others, they may think that they are the only ones who struggle with problems such as anxiety, depression, anger, or autism. Reading about the experiences of other kids and what they do to help themselves helps kids feel less alone. It can also give them hope that things can get better.

Author Jamie CristDr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.

Free Spirit books by James include:

The Survival Guide for Making and Being FriendsWhat to Do When You’re Cranky & BlueWhat to Do When You're Scared & WorriedMad


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