What do I tell my child about therapy?
As a parent, once you’ve decided that you want your child to participate in therapy, the next questions that tend to come to mind are:
What do I tell my kids?
- What do I say about what will happen?
- What do I say about why we are going?
- Will the therapist tell me everything my child says?
- Do I tell them beforehand at all?
First, let’s talk about what therapy looks like for a child.
This will help you know what will happen. When children and their families go to see a therapist, they will usually choose a play therapist who knows the ways children use play to communicate. This is a little different than the talk therapy adults are used to. It involves toys, games, art, music, puppets, sand, and more! To understand how play works as communication, imagine that you are trying to communicate a feeling or taste to people who speak a different language. You could try pantomime or drawing. You might need to act it out with puppets. Now what if you had an emotion and didn’t even know what it was? How could you communicate that? Children haven’t developed the vocabulary and thought process to explain in words what’s happening for them.
Sometimes they might have the vocabulary, but not know which words really belong to the mix of feelings they are having. Play allows a child to work things out and when engaging in play with a play therapist, the therapist can aid the child in putting words to feelings and finding constructive ways of expressing themselves which relieves frustration.
Now, how to explain to a child why they are going.
Therapy should not be viewed as a punishment, but as a way to help the family and child figure things out. Ideally, the whole family, or at least the parents, will be involved so everyone is learning the same skills. When you talk to your child about therapy, talk about the ways it will help and not the problems that made it happen to avoid the blame or punishment mentality.
If your child wants to know if what happens remains private, you can tell them yes, except for situations where someone is in danger. As a parent you need to realize that children (especially as they get older) sometimes need a safe space in order to really express themselves, things they might be uncomfortable telling you. For that reason, a therapist will not disclose specifics of a session with you. Rest assured though, you will be told about any risks of harm to self or others and you will be part of the solution as you are updated on progress and things to try at home.
Finally, yes, do tell your child about the appointment beforehand.
This will lessen their anxiety about going to a new place and meeting a new person. They may have more questions. You may not have the answers, but you can make a list with them and bring it with you to the appointment.
Below are some books that your child may like to check out of the library beforehand.
- Someone To Talk To: Getting Good at Feeling Better (2017) by Paola Ponte, Cheryl Sterling, Larissa Labay, and Claire Keay (illustrator), ages 6 – 11
- Some Bunny To Talk To: A Story About Going to Therapy (2014) by Cheryl Sterling, Paola Ponte, Larissa Labay, and Tiphanie Beeke (illustrator), ages 5 – 8
- A Child’s First Book About Play Therapy (1990) by Marc A. Nemiroff, Jane Annunziata, and Margaret Scott (illustrator), ages 4 – 8
- Feeling Better: A Kid’s Book About Therapy (2005) by Rachel Rashkin and Bonnie Adamson (illustrator), ages 8 – 11