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How to support your child/teen during therapy

bringing new baby home

When you brought home your newborn infant that was given to you either by birth or adoption... probably did not think your child/teen would be facing the problems he or she is facing right now.

I have not met a parent yet that wanted his or her child to struggle!

However, growing up can be a very difficult process filled with loss or challenges that do not seem fair. As a parent, you hurt for your child/teen.

And, if you were able to, you would take away that hurt.

I am going to encourage you to view the feeling of hurt from a different perspective.

I would encourage you to view hurt as a good place to start the process of healing and moving forward.

Hurt inspires us as human beings to look for something that will help us either escape or heal. It can be a great motivator. It has served as a protective function throughout human existence.

Now I want you to consider another feeling you might be experiencing: GUILT.

Parents often feel guilt when their child/teen is struggling. They begin the thought process something similar to this...

“If I just didn’t….”,

“It is my fault that….”,

“What did I do to cause my child/teen to….”,

“If I had acted sooner then…..”

I am sure you can fill in the list or relate to a few of these beginning statements.

We are given the feeling of ‘guilt’ to help us learn ‘what not to do’ and to help us correct something.

Once guilt is felt, we need to respond to it, and move on. Yes, move on!

Holding on to guilt is not going to help you as a parent to move forward in your parenting or motivate you to assist your child/teen. Actually, quite often, it can impede a parent from reaching out for help. Humans can get stuck within the guilt and become hopeless. The above statements, rightly or wrongly practiced, can hinder your efforts to move forward for help. They can also hinder therapy once started.

Hurt versus guilt. Use the hurt you have for your child/teen to move you forward. Use the hurt to find healing. Accept any guilt, forgive yourself if needed, denounce the guilt if not warranted, and move on. Some things that happen in life just happen.

Below I will discuss a bit about supporting your child/teen before therapy, your role within therapy as it is occurring, and what happens after therapy is over.

Before for you book an appointment with a therapist:

Ask questions, find out the differences between counselling professionals.

You will need to work with a therapist that has experience with the problems your child or teen is facing. Just because someone has a master’s degree or a doctorate does not make them qualified to work with every problem. This is a vulnerable time for you, your child/teen, and your family. Take some time to do some research and find a therapist that would be the best fit for your situation.

Learn about Insurance plans and EAPs (Employee Assistance Providers).

Preparing your child/teen for the first visit

The best way to begin to prepare your child/teen for therapy is to:

  1. Acknowledge that there may be a problem
  2. Begin to talk to your child/teen about the problem or your observations when there is a peaceful time to discuss it
  3. Ask your child/teen about his or her thoughts and feelings
  4. Tell your child/teen that it is perfectly okay to talk to a professional about the problem you and your child/teen is facing
  5. Acknowledge that talking to a professional can be uncomfortable at first but could really help
  6. Suggest that you and your child/teen begin to look for a professional to talk to (try to engage your child or teen in the search process)
  7. Create a list of the pros and cons to seeing a professional about the problem

Include your child/teen at each step of the planning process (e.g. finding someone, appointment times and dates, discussing possible questions for potential therapists)

When you have found that right professional, begin to talk about confidentiality, what therapy might look like, where it is located, what you could do before the appointment and/or after to reduce any anxiety or stress.

It is never a good idea to make an appointment for your child/teen with a therapist and not tell your child or teen until you are ready to leave for the appointment.

Taking this action may leave the child/teen feeling confrontational, hopeless, controlled, anxious, and angry. These feelings can impact the effectiveness of therapy. It is much more difficult to engage a resistant child/teen than one who is ready and been included in the process.

If you are wondering about the truth of this statement, ask yourself how you would feel if someone made an appointment to discuss a very personal problem without telling you until just before the appointment.

What to do in case of emergencies?

There are times when a parent has to act quickly in regards to a potential safety issue. These include self-injury, suicidal thoughts or ideation, or potential risk to others.

As I have stated, it is best when you and your child/teen work together to begin the therapy process. However, there are times when this ideal cannot be reached.

If your child/teen is engaging in self-injury, contemplating thoughts of suicide, or is verbally or physically posing a risk to others, you must act. In these situations your action might be to take your child or teen to the ER or to your family doctor first. They will be able to assess the urgency of the situation and provide you with referrals or direction. First and foremost is make sure your child/teen is safe.

Helping your child/teen with homework assignments

Therapy is hard work and may take time.

The problem you and/or your child/teen may have been struggling with has developed over days, months, or years. As a result, it could very well take time to overcome the problem or problems.

Problems are like onions!I like to visualize problems as onions.

They are smelly, can make you cry, and may be layers deep. Therapy right now may be about just tackling one of these layers and leaving the rest until your child/teen is ready, until a situation becomes less stressful, or until your child/teen matures a bit more. Problems can be complex.

 It has been my experience that as we mature, we develop new perspectives. It is from these new perspectives that we might be able to tackle another piece of the problem or another layer.

I like to use the example of getting over a divorce. Parents may say “Well the divorce happened years ago and my child/teen has adjusted.” You may be correct, he or she may have adjusted at the time, but life changes.

Your child/teen may have matured, have more questions, and feel unsure about addressing them. One thing you can be sure of in life – it is always evolving.

So how can you help your child/teen with homework assignments that your chosen therapist has given you? If it is your child and your therapist has asked you to complete an assignment – do it with all kinds of enthusiasm. A 50 or 60 minute therapy session will often not fix the problem. It if does - great work. However, most often the key to solving problems is take a bit from your therapy and work on the problem as you are going about your normal routine. Your child/teen and possibly even you have created patterns of behaving and those patterns need to be changed as you live your “normal” lives.

I have seen the difference between those who complete their homework assignments and those who don’t. Quite often those who complete their homework assignments are able to solve their problems faster, feel more control over their lives, and believe that therapy has been helpful.

The Importance of "Follow Through" while in Therapy

In the beginning of therapy, talk with your therapist about your health insurance coverage and/or your EAP coverage. If you have financial limitations, it is okay to discuss this issue. The last thing you want is increased financial stress as you work through therapy.

 It is also a good idea to talk with your chosen therapist about the number of sessions you and your child/teen may require. It may be difficult to pinpoint the exact number of sessions but you might be able to make some important decisions on the ‘number’ of layers of the onion you may be able to tackle within the financial options you face.

Keeping an open line of communication with your therapist will help you and he or she to determine the best plan for you, and your child/teen.

The last thing you want to do is to just stop going or being sporadic in your appointments. You child/teen may be left with thoughts like, “I guess I was not doing well in therapy,” “I remember going to therapy but we just stopped. Maybe it just does not work,” “I really miss seeing my therapist. I wish Mom or Dad had let me say good bye,” “Mom or Dad made another appointment. It has been months. I wonder what I did this time.”

Therapy is not like other types of services. Within therapy, a therapeutic relationship is built. The key word in this last sentence is relationship. You and your child/teen begin to develop a relationship with a therapist. Your child/teen begins to trust, to share, to work through issues, and hopefully develop skills. By having honest discussions around your coverage, the number of sessions you can agree to, and by following through on therapy sessions, you can reduce your stress and create the best possible situation for you and your child/teen to solve a problem.

If therapy is just not going well

There are times when therapy may not go well. You have options: 1) you can talk with your therapist about the struggles, 2) you can talk with your child/teen about the struggles you or he or she is having within therapy, 3) you can make the decision to stay with your current therapist or move on to someone else. It has been my experience that all three are important to discuss if therapy is not progressing as you might have imagined or your child/teen has imagined. 

Helping your child/teen when therapy is finished

You and your child/teen have completed therapy. What now? I hope you and your child/teen are feeling a bit stronger, more confident, and more prepared to face other problems.

Two things you need to remember:

1. Therapy does not fix all your problems and

2. It may be hard to say good bye to your therapist.

Life is filled with problems. With the skills you have been given in therapy, you will hopefully be more prepared to face more problems. It is important to try out your new skills. This practice will help you build confidence. If you begin to struggle or see you, your child/teen reverting back to old habits you might need some “booster” sessions. These sessions are designed to get you back on track and refocused.

You and your child/teen may have done well in therapy but suffer from stage fright. Stage fright can look like this: “What are we going to do? We do not have Sarah, our therapist, to help us figure this out.” In times like these you need to take a few deep breaths and go back to the skills Sarah taught you. You need to go on stage.

You and or your child/teen may also be feeling sad after therapy is over. Remember, I told you it is a therapeutic relationship. A relationship is not always easy to walk away from, even a therapeutic one. It is best to acknowledge your feelings and/or your child/teen’s feelings. It is okay to feel a little sad. Talk about these feelings, talk about what you overcame, the skills you learned, and what you can do to make the day better.

You as a parent have such an important role in your child/teen’s therapy. You will help in its beginning, throughout its length, add to its fullness, and be there at its end point.

Continually talk to your child/teen about his or her thoughts and feelings as they proceed through therapy so that he or she knows it is a topic that is important and worth discussing.

I hope you have found this article helpful and I wish you all the best as you make the journey through therapy.