What should we tell our children about why they are coming to see a therapist?
The start of therapy is a very important time. It sets the stage for the work, creating a relationship of trust in which the therapist can help the child to talk about private worries. The introduction of therapy can be an invitation for the child and their parent to speak differently about the problems they are having. Therapy should bring hope of change and make things easier. However, both the child and the parents may have uncomfortable feelings about their decision to seek help from a therapist. How should you tell your child that they are going to see a therapist? This is a balancing act. On the one hand, your goal is to give the child information that will help them to feel safe and supported. On the other hand, your child will have to face the fact that there are things that are not going well, behaviors that are too difficult, feelings that are becoming too big. Striking a balanced approach can be tricky. But it’s the first step in confronting difficult problems.
Adults come to therapy on their own and are able to rely on their intellect to help them take this daunting first step. Children are brought to therapy and need reassurance to help them be able to feel secure in the relationship. Children meet this invitation differently and it is up to both therapist and parents to find ways to comfort and support them in this step.
My colleague, Karen Zilberstein, and I set out to ease the beginning of therapy for young children by writing the book, Calming Stormy Feelings: A Child’s Introduction to Psychotherapy. The book has images of therapy offices so that the child can picture where they will be going. Often when I am meeting parents we look at the office together and I remind them of the books, toys, couch, small table and window that their child will likely notice first. The more details the parent can give their child, the less the child will use their imagination which can be fueled by feelings of fear or shame. When children feel fearful or ashamed of having to see a therapist, they tend to picture offices where consequences are handed out rather than feelings listened to and understood.
The book helps to normalize the experience of children having troubles or strong and stormy feelings. Seeing images of children who are unhappy or getting stuck in bad moods can be reassuring for all of us. Many parents can remember the book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The book reminds us that bad and stormy days, out of control feelings happen, and it’s such a relief to see that they happen to someone else!
Calming Stormy Feelings normalizes therapy; we all have feelings that rise up as a storm from time to time, this is life… but when those storms happen too often or are too intense, together we can help you calm the storms.