Therapy isn’t just helpful for adults. It’s important for kids, too. Therapy provides kids with “a ‘safe’ place to process and explore their world without the inhibitions that the world places on them,” said Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, a child and family therapist.
Therapy can help kids with everything from nightmares to social anxiety to difficulty concentrating in school to trauma to mental health issues, she said.
In therapy kids are able to work on these issues without worrying that they’re hurting their parents’ feelings or disappointing them, she said.
Therapy also helps kids feel like they aren’t alone in their problems and concerns. It gives them a place of support and unconditional acceptance, she said.
But parents may have reservations about bringing their kids to therapy. And these reservations may stem from common but inaccurate beliefs they hold about therapy.
For instance, many parents think they won’t be involved in the process, said Mellenthin. However, parents are a vital part of the treatment team, she said. “If therapists aren’t including the parent in the therapy process, this is cause for concern for all involved.”
Another misconception is that “Therapy is for ‘crazy’ people, and my kid isn’t ‘crazy.’” Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding therapy has yet to abate. “[A]nd many parents wait until therapy is an intervention instead of a preventative measure, due to their own misunderstanding about what therapy can and does help.”
Again, therapy is valuable for a variety of concerns, from helping a child work through a traumatic event to learning to become assertive to making and keeping friends.
Parents also worry that they’ll be told they’re “bad” parents, and their children’s problems are their fault, said Mellenthin, also a play therapist and clinical director at Wasatch Family Therapy. Many feel guilt and shame that they somehow caused their child’s distress or that they couldn’t “parent” the symptoms away, she said. But “you are not the reason or cause for your child’s symptoms.”
For kids under 12, Mellenthin suggested seeking out a trained Registered Play Therapist or Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor (RPT/RPT-S). “These therapists have undergone specialized training in working with young children and will be best able to address the issues your child is facing.” (When explaining play therapy, she shares this video clip from the Association for Play Therapy with her clients.)
If you’d like to take your child to therapy or your child is already working with a therapist, here are five suggestions from Mellenthin on how to best support them through the process.
- Be involved from the start. “Ask your therapist what is appropriate participation, and be willing to engage and be a part of the healing process,” Mellenthin said. For instance, appropriate participation might be joining your child in their play session and engaging in family therapy with your spouse and the child’s siblings, she said. Inappropriate participation would be using your child’s therapy sessions as your own therapy hour, she said.
- Communicate your concerns to the therapist. According to Mellenthin, you might communicate everything from behavioral concerns — clinginess, rages, refusal to eat — to significant changes in your child’s mood or behavior to new or worsening symptoms to progress with treatment goals to reduction of distressing symptoms.
- Meet regularly. Mellenthin suggested parents schedule regular meetings outside of the child’s therapy. These meetings give parents the opportunity to talk openly with the therapist without the child present, she said.
- Remember that it’s OK to seek help. Therapy can be an uncomfortable place because it’s also a vulnerable place where you’re asking a stranger for help, Mellenthin said. But “there is no shame in needing therapy.” And therapy can be a fun, enjoyable experience for your child, even when they’re working through significant concerns such as abuse, trauma or mental illness.
- Remember that healing takes time. Mellenthin stressed the importance of taking into consideration that healing is a process. “[B]e patient with your child’s timeline of healing.”
Supporting your child when they’re participating in therapy means participating in the process, as well. It includes communicating regularly with their therapist, and being honest about how your child is doing.
Starting therapy can be overwhelming for both you and your child. Getting educated about therapy for kids also goes a long way.