So you’ve decided your child needs counseling. How do you explain to them what counseling is and why they’re going?
1. Tell them that a counselor is a person who helps people who are feeling stuck.
Many children (and adults) who are in therapy believe that they — their inherent selves — are problematic. Lots of children (and adults) have already been through the wringer by the time they come see me and their self-esteem is suffering for it. They may be feeling like they are root of all of their family’s problems. They may think that the people who love them really hate them. They may believe that they are in someway defective and that’s why they’ve got to come and see me. What I emphasize is that counselors help people who are feeling stuck. If your child is anxious you can say, “A counselor helps kids who are feeling stuck in their worrying.” If your teen is depressed you can say, “We’re seeing a counselor who helps people who are feeling stuck in their depression.” If your middle grade child is raging you can say, “The counselor will be able to help us figure out how to help you get better at managing your anger.” After all, your child is NOT her worrying or her depression or her challenging behavior. Your child is a whole, complicated person who is struggling. Counselors help with the struggle; they help people get unstuck from the struggle.
2. Let them know that the counselor will help everyone in the family do a better job with each other.
If I’m working with a child then I’m also working with her parents. As I said, sometimes the children who see me think they are at the root of all of their family’s problems. Kids are naturally self-centered (it’s a developmentally appropriate part of growing up) and so the divorce, the fighting, the tension — they think it all comes back to them. And if it is their behavior driving the decision to get counseling then they’re partially right. But kids don’t exist in a vacuum and if a child is struggling then the parents surely are, too. Counseling is meant to help everybody, which means helping the child be her best self and helping the parent be his best parenting self, too.
3. Explain that they will get to set the pace.
Kids who come to see me don’t always want to talk to me. That’s fine. Being guarded with a new person — particularly a new person who’s been enlisted to help the child over a sensitive topic — is appropriate. We can play Uno, we can play with the kinetic sand, I can watch the child build block towers or create art or otherwise orient herself to our relationship. I do not make children talk to me and even most reluctant teens will come around if we have time and space to learn how to work together. (Note: Once we’ve established rapport I will push when pushing makes sense but at the beginning we take it slow.)
4. Don’t insinuate that therapy is a punishment.
If children get the idea that seeing a counselor is one step away from being sent to juvenile detention it makes it awfully hard to build rapport. It goes back to #1 up there; if people believe that only screwed up people go to counseling then the threat of counseling might get seen as a weapon. “If you don’t get it together I’m taking you to a therapist to get your head on straight!” Or to other people, “He’s gotten so bad that we’ve had to start seeing a counselor!” Ugh. Not a great message. Even if you’re feeling discouraged and even if you feel like counseling is your last ditch effort, please remember that coming to therapy is a really smart and positive move.
5. It’s OK to acknowledge the problems that got you there.
No, you don’t want to make your child feel like the problem. No, you don’t want to put the whole burden of change on her either. But you can be frank about why you’re going. Sometimes parents will say, “Is it all right to talk about his tantrums here? In front of him?” Yes, it is. After all, he’s the one having them and he knows they’re an issue, trust me. There are some topics that aren’t for tender ears (or at least aren’t until we’ve made them age appropriate) but getting the problem out into the open without judgment and in the spirit of moving forward is a good thing.
If you’re still not quite sure how to talk to your child about it, bring it up with the therapist you’ve chosen to work with your child.