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.
I generally don’t think that your therapist’s personal experiences can tell you whether or not he or she will be a good therapist or the right therapist for you but there is one exception to this: I think every therapist ought to have had his or her own therapy. Not just to work through our stuff (‘cuz we all have stuff), but to intimately know the vulnerability of pouring your heart out to a stranger who is getting paid to listen to you.
Some of us decide to come see a counselor because we have thoughtfully considered our options with logic and care and we have decided that therapy makes the most sense. That’s some of us. But most of us come because we are desperate and we need things to change; most of us come because we’re in crisis. So we come, shaken and perhaps scared and perhaps defensive and we sit down in front of someone we have never met and who we might be afraid will judge us and find us wanting, and we try to open up.
And sometimes, when we are feeling very fragile we may start to cry and that may feel terrifying or humiliating. We might be afraid that our therapist is disgusted by our tears or is anxious for us to stop.
So I thought I would tell you what it’s like for a therapist (at least this therapist) when clients cry so then you will know. And you can ask your therapist what it’s like for her so you can know that, too.
I used to worry before I had clients that I would cry, too, because I usually cry when other people do but it turns out that the boundaries of our relationship protect me from this. That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes get a lump in my throat or have to quickly blink back tears before I catch myself but when my clients are crying, I’m very aware that I can’t let myself have the luxury of falling in with them. I feel both expansive — like I’m making way so there is room for all of the tears — and small — because I’m humbled by their vulnerability. I know that a big part of my job is being strong enough to stay exactly where I am and to allow my client to have her whole entire feeling without needing to share it with me or protect me from it or even to protect the feeling from me.
- I do not judge her.
- I do not feel annoyed.
- I do not feel uncomfortable and wish she would stop.
- I do not think she looks ugly or silly or weak.
I do trust her and I trust that crying is what she needs right then. I am a great believer in the power of crying to make us feel better. (I listened to this song a lot as a child.)
The counseling office is sacred space and part of what makes it sacred is that it’s a safe place for shedding tears.
The parental voice, it’s like the voice of God. It spoke to us with such power when we were small and so we carry it with us for good or for bad.
“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” And we learn that our sadness is not true sadness.
“How can you be hungry? You just ate dinner!” And we learn that we can’t trust our own appetites.
“Come on now, Santa’s not scary; sit on his lap and tell him what you want for Christmas!” And we learn that we can’t believe our instinctive fear.
“You do not know yourself as well as I know you!” That’s what those things say to children. That’s what was said to many of us and so we don’t know. We don’t believe ourselves. We try not to cry because our problems are not worthy of our sorrow. We eat when the clock — not our bodies — say. We ignore that sinking feeling that something is very wrong and stay with the person who hurts us.
We parents, we sometimes have a hard time remembering that our children are fully their own people. It’s understandable because for such a very long time they do seem to be completely of us. The infants we carry, the babies we know, the toddlers who need tucked in to sleep even though they want to keep running — no wonder we have a hard time believing them when they insist that they’re full or that they are truly afraid of the bathtub drain. We know them best; we knew them before they knew themselves and those first breaks away are painful and hard.
It takes practice to separate on both sides. It takes practice to say, “I end here and there you begin.” We’ll make mistakes and insist on coats when they don’t want them and buy them gifts they don’t like because we’ve read them wrong. Generally, if there’s love and respect and (importantly) a willingness to acknowledge that we may be wrong our children will thrive in spite of those mistakes. But when we insist, when we tell them that our filters have to rule their worlds, we do real harm.
Some of us do that harm because harm was done to us. We grew up believing that we could not know anything because we were so small. We believe that our parents ignored our wants, wishes and needs for our own good. We repeat the damage because confronting our own losses is just too hard. To acknowledge that our children are separate if we were not allowed to be is to confront the loss of the self-awareness we were denied.
This is one reason parenting is so dang hard. We’re not just parenting our children; we are re-parenting ourselves.
When I was teaching parenting classes in Portland nearly two decades ago I had one parent in the class who was there because she’d been mandated by child protective services. I don’t know the whole story but I knew that she didn’t want to be there. She made it clear that she resented having to sit there listening to a youngster many years her junior (me) who didn’t even have any kids yet.
I can’t say that I blamed her.
Fortunately the other parents in the class were there to help her process the information in a loving, respectful way that she could hear.
At one point we were talking about how children have their own experiences in the day beyond what we might witness. I don’t know how she got the message — I think another parent was telling a story about her child in school — but she burst into tears and said, “I had no idea, I had no idea. I never thought that maybe she could have her own bad day or be in her own bad mood.”
It was such a powerful moment.
From that point of the class on she was able to talk about her children’s experiences with compassion and empathy. The class was not easy for her — she was away from her kids and she was confronting a lot of things she wished she’d done differently — but I hope that what she learned there she was able to bring back to her relationships with her children.
It can be difficult to remember what it’s like to be small or even smallish. It’s especially hard to do if we weren’t allowed the full scope of our feelings. If we were treated harshly, we may have stuffed some feelings down so deep that we don’t know how to remember what it’s like to be scared or sad or to feel hopelessly overwhelmed by the big wide world and our small place in it. If we have that extra challenge then we can practice imagining. We can picture what it must be like to worry that we will suffocate if we fall asleep with a stuffy nose. Or to not have the experience to know that one lost book report won’t derail our scholastic dreams.
When we remember or can imagine what it feels like to be a child, it’s easier to know how to react with the firm and loving support that our children need.
Being angry scares most kids. It might not seem that way when you have a whirling dervish of fury on your hands but being angry is scary. Kids who lose control don’t like being out of control. They don’t like screaming and yelling even if it feels good in the moment. They need and want our help to get back to normal and then they need our help to understand that being angry is fine even if hitting, screaming and yelling are not.
Kids need to know that we are big enough to handle their ugliest emotions. They need to know that even if they hurt our feelings, we are big enough to forgive them. They need to know that even when they hate us, we are big enough to love them right back. We’re not going to get along all of the time or like each other every minute and that’s all right because that’s how it is to live with other people. You make concessions, you make demands, you get angry, you make up.
So how do you let children know that anger is normal?
- Model anger. Go ahead and get mad sometimes. Stomp around the kitchen a little bit when you spill the coffee then take a deep breath and calm yourself down. Snap at your spouse and then apologize and hug to make up. Yell at the newscaster for reporting something you don’t like and then say, “That’s it. I need to go for a run/get out my knitting/listen to some music and let this go.”
- This includes getting angry at your kids. It’s impossible to NOT get angry with them, right? So see it as a learning experience for you both. Remember, there are no bad emotions; it’s all in how we handle them. Be sure to make up. (No holding grudges.)
- So let your children get angry, too. When you need to intervene keep the focus on the behavior, not the emotion. Say, “You can be mad at your sister but you may not hit” or “If you need to yell out your anger, go outside and yell” or “Angry is OK. Kicking is not.”
- Find them appropriate ways to express their anger. Let them stomp instead of kick. Let them tear paper instead of hit. Sit with your angry teenager and let them rant without trying to fix the problem for them.
- Help them resolve their anger. Sometimes stomping and tearing paper and ranting rev things up. When you feel they’ve let it out, help them move to resolution. Set the timer so they can’t rant or stomp forever. Set limits on the number of pages they can tear. Help them be angry then help them move on.
- Be with them when they’re angry. Don’t try to jolly them out of their tears or placate their tantrum. If they need to be removed to a room or away from a situation, let them know that you will sit with them or at least stay near by. Say, “When you’re ready to be with us again, I will be waiting with hugs.” Let them trust that forgiveness is a foregone conclusion.
- Look them in the eye, offer them your sympathy. Remember that even if you don’t see the point of getting all worked up about a crushed art project at school that day, you believe them when they tell you that they’re hurt.
The more space you give a child to be angry, the more space you give them to learn how to do anger well.